Grimm and the “Correspondance littéraire” 1759
Source: Correspondance littéraire, philosphique et critique, edited by Maurice Tourneux Vol. 2.Paris, Garnier Frères, 1879;
Source: La Révolution Espagnole, 1st year, no. 4, September 4, 1936
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor.
Paris, March 1, 1759
Gaiety is one is the rarest of qualities among men of wit. It’s been some time since we've read any cheerful literary works. M. de Voltaire has just cheered us up with a short novel entitled “Candide, or Optimism,” translated from the German of Dr. Ralph. This work shouldn’t be judged it severity: it wouldn’t stand up under serious criticism. We don’t find in “Candide” any of the order, plan, wisdom, or color that we find in English novels of this genre. Instead, you will find many things in poor taste, others that are boorish, along with naughtiness and filth without the veil of gauze that renders this bearable. Nevertheless, the gaiety, the facility that never abandon M. de Voltaire, which banish from both his most frivolous and his most serious works that air of pretention that spoils everything, make the reading of “Candide” quite amusing.
In general you'll be happier with the second half than the first. The first chapters are not the best. That on Abbé Périgourdin isn’t worth much, either. You'll very much like the Dutch Anabaptist, and even more the Manichean Martin, who I think is the best character of the novel. Pangloss has his merits as well. And though his end at the hands of the Holy Inquisition of Portugal is quite touching, and his resurrection by means of the crucial incision quite consoling, it seems to me that the author never should have let the character depart. He should have left him with Candide so as to strengthen his optimism against the doubts that the events of this world gave birth to in the heart of the young follower of Leibnizian philosophy. What a lovely game Pangloss would have played in Eldorado! What a triumph for optimism! It is truly then that his only regret would have been to not be a professor in some German university. It seems to me the novel would have been gayer for this, for from the loss of M. Pangloss until the encounter with M. Martin it languishes a bit, though the elderly governess and the faithful Cacambo are not characters without merit. The supper of the six kings driven to Venice is of a great foolishness; I doubt that this supper will be much appreciated in Versailles. In their present circumstances the Paraguayan story and Father Colonel’s accidents will not please the Jesuits. The noble Venetian Pococurante is another good character. M. de Voltaire uses him to judge the greatest geniuses of antiquity and modern times. People were scandalized at what Pococurante says about Homer and Milton. It should be noted that the judge is a man who is bored with everything, whose judgment includes in the same condemnation Raphael and Virgil, and in general all the arts and all that brings joy to honest men. This chapter is thus not a critique of authors; it’s a censure of the blasé. This malady is quite common among us, where idleness and opulence slacken all taste and plunge the young into a lethargy which nothing can pull them from. Nevertheless, it must be said that the judgments of Pococurante appear a bit suspect under the pen of M. de Voltaire and we can by rights reproach him, a man who is not bored like his noble Venetian, with having often given vent to passionate judgments that do not flatter a man of his merits. Deep down M. de Voltaire is perhaps not far from subscribing to Pococurante’s judgment of Milton and Homer; things he has said elsewhere justify this suspicion. So, if in good faith he considers Homer and Milton as mediocre geniuses who usurped honors not due them, one can only feel sorry for him that his taste is so poor and petty as not to feel the sublime beauties that shine in their writings. Or else if he is petty enough to believe that he has something to gain by lowering those who are in the first ranks, then he is worthy of reprimand. A great man elevates himself with a noble confidence that he is at the same high level of what is most illustrious in his art; he would think that he too loses when anything is refused the greatest geniuses of his stripe. Upon seeing a sublime painting Correggio isn’t tempted to lower its worth by unjust censure; he grabs his brush and cries out with enthusiasm: “Es anch’ io son pittore.” It is true that many people value Homer and other great man just on other peoples’ word. But this blind man deposes in favor of these geniuses and proves what we in any case know full well: that the gift of feeling is no more common than that of creating.
In any case, if the order and chronology of M. de Voltaire’s works were to be lost posterity would look on “Candide” as a work of his youth. A judicious critic two thousand years from now would say: “Clearly, the author was only twenty-five when he wrote ‘Candide.’ It was a first attempt at writing in this genre. His taste was yet young, and so he is lacking in decorum and his gayety often degenerates into silliness. Look at how his taste later took on form and was well thought out. Step by step he became wiser in his later works, “Scarmentado,” “Zabouc,” “Zadig,” and “Memnon.” You see here the nuances through which the author approached perfection.” And so the critic, through his sagacity and subtlety, would have reversed the order of his works. Are you not persuaded that the critics of the current race often fall into the same errors concerning the ancients?