Chapter Twelve: Insolence
After Ronald Surry, with my help, had successfully separated the fighting boars and immediately after—because sows are scavengers and omnivores—used the farm’s small tractor to drag the carcass of the dead Welsh from the field to a temporary resting place beneath a tarpaulin behind the farrowing sheds, we sat down in the farmhouse kitchen and ate breakfast.
I have to assume this is what we did because I couldn’t locate the event of breakfast and what we ate for breakfast in the memory vault. What I do recall is a snippet of conversation between Ronald and I, either during that breakfast or later in the day. I was, in my youthful ardour, eager to confront the physicality of the death that had occurred in front of me, if not quite yet its deeper existential ramifications.
Ronald’s response to my attempt to fathom what death is was to repeat something I’d heard him say, usually half under his breath, whenever something went wrong—or, come to think of it, notably right: “All’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”
The third or fourth time I heard him say this—some weeks before—I’d asked the near-insolent question, knowing that he was probably quoting someone, of who it was that believed a thing that stupid. Then, recognizing the insolence, I altered the question before he could answer: would anyone seriously say so ridiculous a thing?
“It’s from Voltaire,” he’d answered. “You should know about Voltaire by now if you’re going to be anything more than a churlish dolt.” He paused, probably deciding that I was a churlish dolt. But then, as he so often did, he elaborated.
“To be exact, it’s not Voltaire who says this, because he knew better. It’s from his novel Candide, and it’s Candide’s tutor Doctor Pangloss who says it. And Pangloss himself is parroting an eighteenth century German philosopher named Leibnitz, of whose philosophy of optimism Voltaire wished to make merry. Leibnitz believed that since we’re God’s favourite creatures living in his perfect creation, this must be the best world possible.”
This was in mid-November, before I’d gotten used to being open about the ocean of things I didn’t know. Sure, I’d heard about “Voltaire”. A teacher had said something about him in high school, but I’d taken in only that Voltaire was old, French, and of little relevance to anyone from a logging town. Ronald himself had mentioned Voltaire once or twice, but I’d dismissed it on the grounds that Voltaire must be like LaRochefoucauld: stuffy. File for later.
The name “Candide”, now that he’d named an actual book, suggested something forthright and positive. That wasn’t much of a commendation, and Wikipedia didn’t yet exist, so all I had to work with was a vague mental picture of some purse-lipped Frenchmen wearing wigs, hose, and buckled shoes—and spouting aphorisms. File for later.
I might have gone on thinking that way for the rest of my life, but I was saved by the already-established routine at Great Crouchs whenever I revealed my bottomless reservoir of obtuseness. “Well”, Ronald said, “you’re not really entitled to an opinion about Voltaire until you’ve read him, are you?” That afternoon, a worn copy of Candide appeared on my bed. The antidote to ignorance and obtuseness was the same: reading.
At first, Candide was hard slogging. It appeared to be the model for those Horatio Alger stories and Chamber of Commerce homilies I’d spent my adolescence sneering at: hard work, honesty and determination can conquer all obstacles. I was a full-on reader of Dostoyevsky, where nothing comes or goes easily, and public virtue is more often shaped by cunning or madness than standup stuff like honesty or courage. In Dostoyevsky’s version of the human condition, the rewards of truth-seeking were subtle insights, not material success and the sort of acclaim you get when a businessman claps you on the back and tells you that you’ll go far in life—if you just follow his example, hrrumph, hrrumph.
Then I began to get the hang of Candide. It wasn’t work-hard-get-rewarded gibberish at all. It didn’t appear to matter what Candide or anyone else did; they were cheated, deceived, double-crossed, beaten up, run into jail. Whatever form authority took, it was essentially arbitrary and cruel. It wasn’t that evil ruled absolutely or was rewarded willy-nilly. It was that nothing ruled for longer than an instant, except maybe opportunism and violence, and even then, the rewards and the penalties were arbitrary. And then there was Voltaire himself, who wasn’t asking me to suspend disbelief. He was openly and completely in charge, his hand transparently selecting the material, twisting events, many of them from the real world, moving the different pieces and characters from here to there. Something told me I’d stumbled into the most insolent writer I’d ever read. And I liked insolence.
I talked to Joan first, too unsure of what I was beginning to see to face the exam I’d have to pass with Ronald. “You have to look at what was around Voltaire while he was writing Candide,” she said. “It was published in 1759, in the middle of the Seven Years’ War, which was really a world war, with every government and royal family in Europe acting as venally as they did during the First World War, only less efficiently and with less firepower at their disposal. Several years before that, there’d been a terrible earthquake in Lisbon that, together with the tsunami that followed, killed tens of thousands of people. It had so devastating an effect on Portugal that it was permanently ruined as a world power. This was also a book written during the Enlightenment, remember, where scientific curiosity was on the rise and people were questioning both the nature of God and his role in human affairs. Voltaire was in the middle of that.”
She paused to peer carefully at me to see how much of this I was taking in.
“So Candide” she went on, “is about real things and people and events, and about the illusions people live with, right down to the ridiculous visit to Eldorado, which most educated people then believed was real, but I think Voltaire sensed was a metaphor for all the illusions circulating about the riches of the New World.”
Without me having to ask, she elaborated on Voltaire’s background. Most importantly, he was a commoner with ambitions, incorrigibly insolent and fearlessly contentious, a man who people loved or hated—or feared, not because he was violent but because he was painfully truthful and mercilessly witty. He got into trouble, too. He was exiled to England for two years for his insolence, then he spent a year in the Bastille, and generally lived his life under threats from one authority or another.
He loathed systems of thinking that resolved contradiction with faith, preferring empirical observation and experimentation, which were then new, but which Voltaire regarded as the more organized younger siblings of common sense. If he wasn’t an atheist, he was at least skeptical that god was infinitely wise, and he made enough enemies among the believers that thirty-six years after his death they dug up and defiled his remains. It wasn’t just God he doubted, either. It was his curia, too: the priests, the police, the bureaucrats, the pompous nobility, all of them.
I sat up late at night reading and rereading Voltaire. I read him chapter by chapter and paragraph by paragraph, then sentence by sentence until I began to understand what he was trying to tell me. Once I’d done the work, he seemed like someone I wanted as a friend. Strip away the wig and the silly socks, subtract two hundred years and a few decades, bump up my brain power and daring by a half, and I could go far with him. This was before the MBA schools invented mentors, but if I could have chosen a mentor in 1962, Voltaire would have gotten the job. He was like Albert Camus with a sense of fun. And wouldn’t he and Camus—along with my best friends and me—make a fabulous gang of readers and writers?
I read and reread Candide until I was able to make some tentative conclusions. First, I decided that Dr. Pangloss and his pal Leibnitz weren’t really optimistic at all. They didn’t think that human beings have free will, and they believed further that human beings are too stupid to understand God’s wisdom. They glossed over the violence and unfairness of His actions and those of His designated authorities, and they were so fearful of bodily life that they buried every phenomena under a mountain of principles and clichés.
Second, Voltaire wasn’t just making fun of the idea of God, which you could see he didn’t believe, he was kneecapping the logic of the privileged: that someone, whether it’s God or the King, or the President, or the Supreme Soviet, or their equivalents, will provide.
So it wasn’t that I didn’t know what to think about Voltaire. It was that so much of what I found in Voltaire made sense that there was too much sense, too much to put in order. He seemed so contemporary in his thinking that it raised the question of what people had been doing for over two hundred years since.
A lot of people, I’ve since noted, confuse Dr. Pangloss with Voltaire, or simply forgive him. He means well, doesn’t he? Didn’t he teach Candide to be curious? Doesn’t he suffer the same blows that rain down on Candide, and without complaining? On it goes: it’s Christian piety one moment; bowing to the allegedly inscrutable mystery of God’s intentions the next; then its crawling into Descartes’s lap and insisting that God’s existence can be proven by the instruments of science when the evidential tracks lead more easily to the random and the arbitrary. But then what about the ironic pun hiding in the name “Pangloss”? Isn’t he curiously without empathy? The only reason I could see for admiring Pangloss was that he was hard to kill: he survived syphilis, several executions and innumerable beatings and humiliations. That seemed—and still does—like a skill worth having.
I wasn’t, meanwhile, the sort to be concerned about whether God existed or not. He/She/ It didn’t. Even there Voltaire shifted my focus: it was systems of faith and the blindness they inflicted that needed to be rejected. Kierkegaard notwithstanding, by the eighteenth century, God was already stone cold dead.
Eventually I was ready to talk about Voltaire with Ronald. I waited until he was half way through a bottle of Merrydown, and sat down across from him, the big open fireplace between us. “I’ve read Candide several times,” I said. “I have some questions.”
“Proceed,” Ronald said.
“Why did Voltaire despise and reject systems of belief instead of disliking and rejecting God?”
A glimmer of surprise crossed Ronald’s face. He shifted in his chair, reached for the bottle of Merrydown that stood on the side table, and topped up his glass with exaggerated care.
“I think,” he said, “that he was looking for a way around the unproductive issue of God’s, ah, ‘appearance’, in order to get at what the effects of believing in a divine authority were having.”
He rose from his chair, frowning, and walked toward the entrance to the kitchen, where he stood and tapped the door-frame above his head with his index finger, as if sorting or counting something.
“Look at the issue of God’s ‘behavior’ in our century. What sort of capricious monster would let well over sixty million people be murdered if he could prevent it? Wasn’t that your question a few nights ago? The theologians have tried to explain this, as they have every disaster and atrocity for hundreds of years: God is testing our faith, they say, and his methods are mysterious to mere mortals. Then they natter on about the immortal souls we possess, which they assert are what matters to God and should therefore be what matters to us. But you were right when you asked what kind of monster would set up so cruel an experiment.
“Voltaire is saying, ‘never mind the monster’. He directs our gaze to what—it can be armies or the forces of nature—is carrying out God’s so-called will, and counsels us to stop accepting the legitimacy of it. Do away with faith, which is a giving up of political will and free will and the reasoning brain, not to mention that it has been an invitation to homicidal maniacs like Adolf Hitler to act out their worst urges. The lesson we were supposed to take from the Second World War was that blind faith is the enemy, and that it’s what we have to get rid of if human beings are going to evolve enough to survive.”
I hadn’t seen Ronald speak with this sort of passion before, and I wasn’t ever to see it again. And he wasn’t finished. He drained his glass of Merrydown, refilled it, took several deep breaths, and continued without sitting down.
“Voltaire thought that human beings should try to navigate the world with common sense and kindness rather than systems of faith that rely on priests and commissars to tell us what to think and do. If you’re not in trouble with the King or the Church or the Commissars, in other words, you’re probably on the wrong side. You may find yourself occasionally agreeing with the Kings or the Commissars, as Voltaire sometimes did. But you still have to be insolent toward that King and toward whatever other totality is trying to subjugate your intellect as occasion demands. Free will isn’t having the right to do whatever you want. It’s about being able and willing to exercise your mind without restrictions or censorship. Adam and Eve were kicked out of paradise for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, not for having sex.”
With that he emptied the wine glass and slammed it down on the side table hard enough that I was surprised it didn’t shatter. Then he made his way upstairs, not quite staggering, done for the night. I watched him go, thinking to myself, well, what about hunger, sex, and fear? Hadn’t he said they were what motivated all human behavior?
“He says that,” Joan said when I questioned her the next morning. “But I really don’t think he believes that’s all of it. Once you learn to see the world as it is—or at least have tried to—you have to be able to imagine something better, don’t you? You should be sensible about how poor the odds are of actually succeeding in changing anything for the better, but you have to hope for improvements to the general conditions people live under or you lose your right to call yourself a civilized person. So Ronald believes in education and improvability, and so do I.”
“But that contradicts what he’s been telling me,” I said.
“Yes,” she admitted. “It does. You’d better get used to things contradicting one another. And people doing the same.”
So today, I too believe in the power of education to improve the human condition. But I understand that education is one power contending with other kinds of power, and that it isn’t absolute or even reliable, and certainly not to be taken for granted. It has to compete with the power of opportunism, of brute force, and now it has to compete with its natural enemies; received wisdom and blind faith; all of which have gained ground over the last few decades. Those are all ugly powers, easier for people to get behind because all they require is impulsiveness and a willingness to act without thinking, particularly not about consequences. It almost makes me grateful that Voltaire and Ronald and Joan are gone, because I don’t think I could explain to them why blind faith has re-emerged so powerfully as a world reality. In 1962 I thought it would be long gone before my life was half over, and I know damned well Ronald and Joan thought they’d outlive it. But here it is, flattening everything in its path as it pushes us down this steepening slope back to theocracies.
So here’s my true question: Why, all these years after Voltaire provided convincing proof that blind faith in the provenance of God and the totalizing ideologies that imitate God are a pernicious kind of stupidity, equivalent to willfully blinding oneself to everything immediate and particular, including beauty, love and the sublime, which all get their juice from particularity, is the entire god-damned world sliding back into blind faiths of one sort or another?
This is not a rhetorical question.
Dooney’s is serializing, on a weekly basis, Brian Fawcett’s manuscript The Sussex Variations, and a companion piece, The Martian Invasion. Edited by Karl Siegler, this is one of the last books Fawcett completed before his death, from pulmonary fibrosis, on February 27, 2022. Fawcett is a founding co-editor of dooneyscafe.com since its inception in 2001.
You can find the full list of posted chapters here.