The Reading Room
Candide: Published in Exile, Denounced, Banned, and a Classic
In 1759, when Voltaire published Candide, at first anonymously, he was sixty-five years of age. He had been imprisoned in the Bastille, exiled to England in lieu of further incarceration, banished from Paris by King Louis XV (in January 1754), and was living now in exile outside of Geneva. Although he later said he had been surprised by the scandal that Candide caused, he surely meant instead that he had been “astonished” at the vehemence of the outcry.
Scandal itself was neither new nor surprising to a man by then an established writer and an intellectual inspiration of the French Enlightenment (1715–1815). In particular, Voltaire’s ideas and writings ignited among the philosophes a fierce sense of antagonism toward the Roman Catholic Church and its clergy and an opposition (necessarily disguised and indirect) to the French monarchy and aristocracy.
He had written that “every sensible man, every honorable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.” And Denis Diderot, editor of the Age of Enlightenment’s defining project, the seventeen-volume Encyclopédie, who was himself characterized by the historian Peter Gay as the shepherd of the “little flock” of European Enlightenment philosophers, spoke for most of the flock when he said Voltaire was their “sublime, honorable, and dear Anti-Christ.” Anti-Christ. . . . Voltaire was all of that at least from a philosophical, literary, social, and political perspective, although he tenderly praised religious hospitals, nurses, and other effects of Catholic philanthropy.
Reaction to Candide, which became a bestseller and went on to become an enduring classic of French literature, was unsurprising because its treatment of religion, especially Christianity but also Islam, is bitterly satirical, blasphemous, sexually obscene for its era, and devastating to the attempts of the religious establishment to answer the dominant philosophical challenge to the existence and benevolence of God: the argument from the existence of evil in the world.
Nor was the reaction, even if not its fury, unexpected. After all, Voltaire wrote most of the novella while in exile from Paris, living at his estate near Geneva. Its publication simultaneously in five countries is described as among the most secretive in publishing history, and, for a long time, Voltaire did not put his name on it.
The genre of Candide is “picaresque,” wherein a character and usually a faithful servant (e.g., Don Quixote and Sancho Panza) in their long travels encounter a series of dramatic, unexpected adventures, which, because they are the experiences of the same characters, are loosely woven into a novel. The readers along for the journey experience the adventures as united in another way: by what they teach. The contemporary novel probably most directly inspiring to Voltaire was Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Anglo-Irish writer and clergyman Jonathan Swift—another travelogue that uses extravagant adventures and satires to make points about the mores of the author’s own time and place.
Candide relates the experiences of a young man of that name born into idyllic luxury in a castle in Westphalia (later Germany), the bastard son of the baron who kicks him out when he is caught kissing the baron’s daughter. Candide has been prepared for life—or decidedly not prepared—by his mentor, Professor Pangloss, who teaches the doctrine of the famous German philosopher Wilhelm Leibniz. Briefly put, that doctrine, a theme of Leibniz’s 1714 Monadology, is that ours is the best of all possible worlds (the full English translation of the title of Candide is “Candide, or Optimism”).
This doctrine ranked as significant theodicy (religious philosophy) in Voltaire’s time. If, as Christian theology maintains, God is all wise, all powerful, and all good—and has created the world for man—then how can there be true evil in that world? There is not, Leibniz argued in his enormously sophisticated rationalist philosophy. All things considered, our is the best of all possible worlds, given that God has bestowed on us the power to make decisions (that is, the capacity for good and evil)—mankind’s glory, destiny, and participation in the spiritual world.
As his adventures roll on, Candide, described at the outset as “a young man of the most unaffected simplicity,” is heard to moan: If this is the best of all possible worlds, what is a worse world? He encounters massacres, shipwrecks, murder or rape of defeated populations in war, slavery including sex slavery, the burning and hanging of heretics, and, above all, both the pan-European Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), which left mass death, starvation, and the raped and maimed in its wake, and the unprecedented devastation of the famous Lisbon earthquake (1755) on All Saints Day, which caused Voltaire and others to become bitterly cynical about Leibniz’s “metaphysical optimism.”
Much of this horror, Candide suffers in person; he is almost continuously robbed, swindled, beaten, whipped, and enslaved. Always, luck arrives in the nick of time, incredibly good fortune—miraculous rescues, love and sex, huge fortunes, seemingly loyal friends, royal favor—and always things collapse back into disaster. The adventures are comically exaggerated and described in a glowing style of golden optimism until the reader gives a bark of laughter in contempt for the very idea of the best of all possible worlds.
Candide was banned immediately in Roman Catholic Paris, Calvinist Geneva, and other jurisdictions including eventually America. Each of its many editions and translations were listed on the Vatican roster of books that Catholics (most Frenchmen, including all those in schools and universities) were forbidden to read. These prohibitions, as frequently happens, increased readership of the novel, which is not only hilarious and deliciously scandalous (at least, from the perspective of those who understood its contemporary references) but also philosophically powerful and devastating to theodicy. For its time, it was unabashedly erotic, with scenes or intimations of lively sexual coupling, gang rape, sadomasochism, sex slavery, harem life, bondage, sodomy, and much more.
Candide might well have been banned just for pornography, although Enlightenment ideals of happiness in this life on earth, enjoyment of the world, and positive sensuous and sensual pleasure gave rise to the new genre of pornography such as the famous 1748 London novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (popularly, Fanny Hill) by John Cleland. So, eroticism was fair game, at least among the French philosophes and British philosophers of the Enlightenment. In Candide, however, much erotic action involves or refers to the clergy, with a “daughter” of a pope, a homosexual priest, and lascivious clerics of several religions—not to mention an otherwise peaceful South American tribe whose dinner specialty is Jesuits: “Let us eat the Jesuit, let us eat him up!”
Again, none of it permanently stymied Candide, which went through edition after edition, including a later one with graphic illustrations, and today is one of the most widely taught French classics and frequently found on lists of history’s most enduring influential works of literature. Even toward the end of Voltaire’s life, 1778, the rage of the novel’s targets, the system of censorship in Paris, and the personal shock of King Louis XVI meant that Voltaire remained in exile from Paris, then viewed as the one truly “civilized” place in France and the intellectual capital of Europe.
But Voltaire, in exile, re-created Paris, suggests Peter Gay in his two-volume contemporary history of the Enlightenment: “Voltaire presided over a literary-government-in-exile [at his estate in Les Délices near Geneva]. . . . [W]here he was, there was Paris.” Scores and hundreds of European travelers, including, of course, from France, visited him, as well as such notables as Benjamin Franklin. Only when his death became imminent was Voltaire finally permitted to return to Paris, where he met (a carefully orchestrated) rousing public reception.
He nevertheless was refused Christian burial in Paris and instead was secretly buried at the Abbey of Sellieres in Champagne, where his niece’s brother was abbot.
The story does not end there. The French Revolution viewed Voltaire as one of its philosophical pillars. Or so the National Assembly thought and brought Voltaire’s remains to Paris to the Pantheon. A parade of some million Parisians wended through the streets to the interment ceremony. There Voltaire lies with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, another of France’s most famous eighteenth-century enlighteners.