The Follies of Optimism, Voltaire Style

There is a legend about how Voltaire wrote his magnum opus, Candide, which was said to have been written in three days. Now, even with no form of advanced technology during that time, it’s quite something to have written a novella in such a short time. There looks to be indication that he wrote it for a longer time, though. Nonetheless, whether he wrote it in one sitting or several, it’s clear that Candide is one of the most remarkable pieces of literature. The wit and humour he managed to inject into it only serves to emphasize the seriousness of how he has viewed the world – a view that still holds true today.

Candide is a young philosopher and bastard son of the sister of Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh (a name that makes my tongue go upsy-daisy just pronouncing it) of Westphalia, Germany. He has a tutor named Pangloss, whose philosophy is that of utmost optimism. Candide is also in love with his cousin, Cunégonde. After being caught by the Baron kissing and fondling Cunégonde, Candide is then kicked out of the castle (literally). And so his journey of discovery, hardship, misery, and just utter mayhem begins.

I had to keep reminding myself that this was a satire, that there was a deliberate manipulation of tropes, images and metaphors to say a political or philosophical point, but I could not help but be drawn more into the story. Candide looks like this lost lamb, trying to survive through the many trip ups he’s faced since he got kicked out of the castle. However, he has managed to retain some level of his “innocence” despite the less-than-fairy-tale ending. It was both with a dry chuckle and almost a painful wince while I was reading how Candide meets all these people and takes all these experiences in.

But that’s Voltaire’s intention, I guess. Isn’t any story worth its salt supposed to get you reeled into the character’s shenanigans (and what shenanigans there are here!), yet slap you with something profound at the same time? I went from laughing at the beginning of the story to sighing in the realization that I can relate to him in the end. Painfully so.

This is one of world literature’s best works, and if you haven’t read this, you’ll definitely are missing something good to read. If you’re into something ironic, then this one’s for you. 

Generational Voices

When I was first introduced to James Joyce, it was during one of my classes that focused on fiction masterpieces in the MFA Creative Writing program. That book was the monumental Ulysses, and one of the course’s agenda in analysing these novels was to read one per week before the Saturday class came about for the corresponding class discussion and critique paper from it. So imagine me with a nearly five-inch book and trying to read it. I only got until three chapters before I got dizzy. That was around two years ago. When I saw the short story collection of Dubliners, I was a little hesitant to go through it. The sting of Ulysses has gone far with me, and I thought that this particular work will have the same effect. I’m glad I made a mistake. The Dubliners is quite different both in scope and language, and that’s good because even those of today’s generation can understand this.

This short story collection contains 15 tales. Ranging from those just breaking into their adolescence to those in maturity, the protagonists of these stories look into epiphanies of their lives. These epiphanies are not so directly stated, though. Unlike the blissful migraine that is Ulysses, these stories have a simpler tone and language. Also, the stories are presented from the protagonists’ standpoint, albeit avoiding the first person point of view. This then presents the protagonists very much in line with their surroundings, though the surroundings themselves look to fade as we are faced with how the characters view their environment, their situation, and thus, their relationship with such. One more thing that looked to be in common with these stories is that the endings are not so clear cut. There are no definite mentions on what really happens in the end, where the reader is presented with either the protagonists’ final thoughts or impressions on what was done, seen or heard. With such techniques, the reader is left to her or his own in drawing conclusions on what could be the most possible ending.

Reading through these stories did not make me lose my mind, if that’s a good thing. It has been said that Joyce wrote these stories at the height of Irish nationalism. You can definitely feel that as Joyce is particular in mentioning each place in Ireland. The simplicity of the language contributed to a certain “silence” that the protagonists are going through, even as they go through their own confusions, questions, and ruminations. This gives me the impression that the stories can be relatable for any reader of any age. What everyday scene after all wouldn’t lead to a more “contained” manner of response? Except for truly excitable, squeal-or-shriek worthy moments, we face life with a more subdued view, unwilling to let our thoughts really come out and be seen by others. And with that, I am thankful that reading these stories did not make me go all woozy.

If you’re not familiar with James Joyce, then this collection would be a good primer. At least it will give you a sense of how his writing style, which changes a lot when he worked on Ulysses. Trust me, you’d be glad if you started with this one.

Definitions, Limitations…Contemplations

It was the late 1800s in Germany. Automobiles that had internal combustion engines powered by gasoline started to take off. The Reinsurance Treaty between Germany and Russia was signed in the shadows. A particular manuscript was published at the personal expense of a renowned (and infamous during his time) philosopher. The year after it was published, this philosopher suffered a mental breakdown and the nation had just chosen a leader who will begin a reign of terror that will last decades.

Such was the environment for Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.

Published in 1886, Nietzsche presents a critique towards the philosophers before him. He charges them with merely following the “status quo” regarding morality. He charges them with basing their philosophical musings from religious dogma, a more traditional perspective of morality where good is the total opposite of evil. His premise in the book then is to create a morality that goes beyond such dogmatic limitations through a more “individualistic” perspective. It’s quite a lengthy document, spanning nine sections that further explore this premise. It is in these sections that he breaks down how the history of philosophy, for one, has been flawed into looking into what defines “good” and “bad” into what constitutes “good” and “evil,” a profound concept that is entirely different from just being “bad.” This continues into his exhortations of how science, European cultures and even religion have succumbed to what he believes is a “mistaken” view of how life is ordered. Though it is written in a scholarly fashion (meaning there are a lot of highfalutin phrases like “tyrannically ruthless and inexorable enforcement of power-demands” and “from every point of view the erroneousness of the world”), Nietzsche goes straight for the heart and rips off the aorta. He makes no qualms of his opinions and is clear on what needs to be changed. Most striking is this particular statement: “The time for petty politics is past: the very next century will bring with it the struggle for mastery over the whole earth.”

And this, I believe, is where he hits it. Many of the ideologies right now are mostly political in nature – a push-pull of influences and power-plays that, sadly, still exist today. For a lot of countries that are held under religious influences, the perspective of what is good and what is evil mostly remain the same. “Free spirits,” as Nietzsche calls them, are still few and far in between. Nevertheless, it’s slowly getting there.

If you would like to look at how Nietzsche thinks, this is a good starter. Too bad that a year after this was published, he began his mental breakdown until he finally needed assistance and eventually died from his mental condition. The world needs another Nietzsche. 

Manifesting the Communist Manifesto Today

In an article in About.com, it’s said that there are only five countries left that practice communism in their central governments now: China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam.  And though there may still be other countries where communist political parties exist, the ideology itself looks to be more of a textbook concept rather than a social reality. This is especially true with the highly capitalist and democratic free trade global policies happening right now, along with the virtual reality of the online global community, where information is key and king. There is then that concern if the Communist Manifesto can still be called relevant in today’s times.

True to its name, the Communist Manifesto is the go-to document to practice an ideology where the production of goods are distributed equally to the population, and thus, removing the idea of class. The manifesto is divided into five main parts: the introduction, the differentiation between the bourgeois and proletarians, the similarities between the proletarians and the communists in their goals for the working class, the presentation of major socialist literature, and the comparison of the practice among selected countries during the time of the manifesto’s first publication. From here, we see the foundations of what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the manifesto’s authors, would like to see in an effective communist society.

What is remarkable here is the passionate language used in presenting the communist ideals. Marx and Engels have placed the socio-political ills straight into the bourgeois’ lap, the financial and political elite of the society. In their eyes, it is the bourgeois that controls the capitalist movement that has made the working class suffer with their greed and manipulation. In turn, the whole society suffers as well as the working class constitute the majority of the population. They use the manifesto as a call to action; the working class are to take up arms and overthrow the ruling class with violence. The manifesto then mostly presents its arguments of equality and a class-less society over an emotional base. It is seemingly logical, with the presentation of historical facts in Part II, but it is seen to incite feelings of resentment and anger, which would be needed if you would need to have a violent revolution.

This same manner of argument is also seen in how Marx and Engels compare communists to proletarians and the different countries that have gone through similar ideologies. It’s curious to see how they laud Germany as the only country to have practiced the “true Socialism,” which is ironic today as Germany has one of the biggest capitalist markets in Europe.

Perhaps the danger here is that since the manifesto is a “foundational” document, it can be seen as a “dated” one. True, there is still the divide between classes, but the manifesto has failed to take into account technological advances that have begun to make the world even smaller in terms of political, social and cultural aspects. Moreover, the advent of the internet and social networking sites has given the illusion of equality: events in Egypt are seen all over the world, a good deed seen in a backwater county in Thailand is shared in thousands of social networking accounts. The call of action for change now looks to be no longer through violence (though it is still pretty much part of today’s climate), but through the Matrix and the combined voices of the public. All may not be lost for the manifesto, though.

Most of the world today have more or less shed the cloak of communism (particularly in Europe, where it all began, oddly enough), but the ideology may still be held true in smaller, more intimate societies like communes. Rather than undergo the “violent overthrow of the bourgeois,” though, there is a complete or near-complete shunning of the current society and the formation of isolated communities that will practice a more equalized sharing of labour and production. To bring it up to a national (or even international) level, though, will face quite a more daunting challenge. Unless there is an individual who has the balls and enough military chutzpah to do it, communism will continue to be seen as a historical curiosity or a niggling, disturbing thought at the back of the majorly capitalist world.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would have their hair torn out if they realize just how “far” their ideology has reached.