Sunday, August 16, 2009

Innocence...and a garden..

Candide and Other Writings by Voltaire

I like to read....and I'll read almost anything I can get my hands on. Sometimes when I say I'm reading a "classic" I get the feeling that people think I'm pretentious. But when I do read a classic, such as Candide, I realize that there is little difference between the writers of centuries past and the modern author. Both have something to say, and many books that are now considered classics are just as readable as any current bestseller.

And Voltaire surprised me with how simple his stories are. I'm sure I miss a lot of the irony, since I have only a passing acquaintance with the politics and history of his time. But going beyond the satire the stories and short novels that I've read so far have been delightful, witty and applicable to the life that I've been striving to live for the last ten years.

I'm only a quarter of the way through the book, which is a Modern Library collection edited by Haskell M. Black. The first section is Voltaire's fiction, which I have a feeling I'm going to enjoy the most. The first story, Zadig, or Destiny, tells about the trials and tribulations of a truly wise man in Babylon. Part of my interest in this tale is Voltaire's use of deductive reasoning by his character, who gets in terrible trouble as a result. The charm of this story is that it reminds me of a book I was given as a child, called Watermelons, Walnuts and the Wisdom of Allah. This was also about a wise man who could sometimes be very foolish.

Candide is probably the most famous of Voltaire's stories. The main character is named Candide because he is a complete innocent, and considered simple-minded by his peers. Honest and gentle, he is the victim of an injustice that sends him out into the world. Throughout a long series of adventures and misadventures, Candide tries to cling to his love of a beautiful girl and to the philosophy of his old master, who said that everything that happens is for the best. In the end, after many trials and sufferings, Candide concludes the story with the words "But we must cultivate our garden."

He arrives at this as a philosophy that I think more and more people are understanding. Candide's garden was cultivated in order to accomplish the goals that Voltaire sets out in his book, which are keeping at bay the evils of vice, boredom and need. A garden will certain help prevent hunger, and hard work certainly will help prevent boredom and temptation. But for me the garden, and the way of life I try to follow, keeps me focused and connected. Connected with the past, with the earth, with the women that came before me and the women that will come after me.

I value the fact that in watching my mother and grandmother garden I learned skills that seem to come to me naturally now. While I learn something new every day from my garden, I also know I'm building on the traditions passed down to me, just by my observation of their work. I know what those half-runner beans should look like, when to replant the lettuce and how to tell when the tomatoes need staking or watering. And I know how to weed.....

I'm not sure it's necessary to have a physical garden. As life gets more and more complicated and technological, however, I think more people are coming to a place where they need to feel connected. To something. Maybe that's why Internet social sites like Twitter and Facebook are so popular (and you can farm on Facebook, among other things!). There seems to be a social function in almost everything on the Internet these days.

So. What's Voltaire saying? Plant a flower and you'll feels peaceful? As I said, I'm sure I missed a lot of the sharp satire in this story, but at the same time, why wouldn't this be as good an interpretation as any? It's not that simple, of course, because life doesn't work that way. But a few hours in the garden, a few stitches on a crochet hook or knitting needle, a few pages of a book....none of these will solve all your problems and magically give you happiness. Maybe....

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