The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Paul Kee­gan


Can­dide (‘or Op­ti­mism’, as it is blandly subti­tled) is a tale which bris­tles with hor­rors, de­scribed with head­long gai­ety. There are mu­ti­la­tions and mas­sacres, tor­ture and can­ni­bal­ism, bat­tles on land and sea, larce­nies and ab­duc­tions, not to men­tion the spread of syphilis or the Lis­bon earth­quake that trau­ma­tised Europe and raised awk­ward ques­tions as to the where­abouts of a benev­o­lent God. Wel­come to the En­light­en­ment: vil­lages wiped out in the Seven Years’ War; auto-da-fés ar­ranged by the In­qui­si­tion, Je­suits in Paraguay who re­place colo­nial rule with an al­ter­na­tive hell; piracy in the Mediter­ranean, in­ternecine wars in Morocco, ex­ploita­tion of black slaves in Guyana. Can­dide is the snap­shot of a planet and its com­pet­ing be­liefs about it­self, whether Muslim, Jewish, or (es­pe­cially) Chris­tian.

Life starts hap­pily enough for Can­dide in the cas­tle of the Baron of Thun­der-ten­tron­ckh, in the prin­ci­pal­ity of West­phalia, taught by his philo­soph­i­cal tu­tor Pan­gloss that this is the best of cas­tles in the best of coun­tries in the best of all worlds. What could pos­si­bly go wrong (un­less ev­ery­thing)? En­cour­aged to pur­sue knowl­edge, Can­dide is caught ex­per­i­ment­ing with the daugh­ter of the house – the lovely and pli­able Cuné­gonde – and is thrown out into the wide world. This is in fact the first of his great es­capes, for Par­adise is promptly in­vaded by Bul­gars (Prus­sian troops), who rape Cuné­gonde, butcher her par­ents, leave Pan­gloss for dead and burn the cas­tle to the ground.

The hon­est but re­source­ful Can­dide is there­after in con­stant flight or pur­suit across Europe and South Amer­ica, wit­ness­ing, if not suf­fer­ing, ev­ery­thing in his search to be re­united with Cuné­gonde, who has like­wise been dis­patched on a sep­a­rate wild goose chase by Prov­i­dence, a giddy se­quence of mostly sex­ual mis­ad­ven­tures. Can­dide seeks con­fir­ma­tion for his be­liefs at ev­ery turn, but dis­cov­ers that the hu­man essence is the same wher­ever he goes. None of the story’s cast es­capes lightly, though all sur­vive, and, hav­ing en­coun­tered ev­ery species of ig­nominy, they end up torn and tat­tered on a small­hold­ing near Con­stantino­ple, where Can­dide fi­nally tells it straight to Pan­gloss: there is no har­mony, no or­dained bal­ance of good and evil, and the only so­lace or cer­tainty to be gained in this world is to cul­ti­vate one’s gar­den.

Neville Ja­son recorded Can­dide for Naxos prior to his epic ex­er­tions with the whole of Proust. The de­mands upon an au­dio­book reader could hardly be more dif­fer­ent. Can­dide is a ‘philo­soph­i­cal tale’, a genre in which (as Proust him­self re­marked) ‘ideas are sub­sti­tutes for griefs’. Light­ness is all, and Ja­son trims his ex­pres­sive sail, as he must, adopt­ing a level tone of in­gen­u­ous won­der, let­ting the ironies take care of them­selves, so that the weight­less­ness in­ten­si­fies rather than mit­i­gates the hor­rors. He ac­knowl­edges too that Can­dide or Cuné­gonde have no in­te­rior life – Voltaire’s char­ac­ters are vec­tors. Most of all, Ja­son keeps up the nar­ra­tive pace, the Voltairean light mu­sic, brief chap­ters whirring past like dif­fer­ent land­scapes of hell seen by flashes of light­ning.

Ja­son’s ren­der­ing of the in­cor­ri­gi­ble Pan­gloss is es­pe­cially droll, sound­ing as if he has a philo­soph­i­cal mar­ble in his mouth, no mat­ter how stacked the odds. This mar­ble is Op­ti­mism: the no­tion of pre-es­tab­lished har­mony, which is tested and found want­ing at ev­ery level of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence. ‘Op­ti­mism’ is a parochial iso­la­tion­ism, vul­ner­a­ble to events, which pro­tects no one from an army of Bul­gars. And the heart­less­ness of be­liev­ing that evil is ‘nec­es­sary’ and that all is ul­ti­mately for the best is ex­posed as a form of com­plic­ity.

But a mir­ror-world of com­pas­sion is im­plied by Voltaire, in his many glanc­ing asides, and Ja­son per­haps misses a lit­tle of the story’s melan­choly heart­beat. To ‘cul­ti­vate your gar­den’ is hence­forth to make do with not­know­ing, rather than claim­ing to know – with prac­tis­ing to be happy as the only vi­able ver­sion of hap­pi­ness. There is no in­tel­li­gi­ble frame for ex­pe­ri­ence, un­less be­yond this mor­tal span, and to sug­gest oth­er­wise is a be­trayal. Voltaire was for­tu­nate in the be­lief that his­tory was on his side in the bat­tle against force and stu­pid­ity. If the old bo­gies he at­tacked – a world of au­thor­ity drained of in­tel­li­gence – are rid­ing high again,

Can­dide is as up-to-date a guide as Or­well’s Nine­teen eighty-four (cur­rently sell­ing in his­tor­i­cally un­prece­dented num­bers) – and is a lot more en­ter­tain­ing.

‘Brief chap­ters whirr past like dif­fer­ent land­scapes of hell seen by flashes of light­ing’

‘up­wards of one hun­dred mil­lions of sep­a­rate facts’.

Those facts were not nec­es­sar­ily re­li­able. Many peo­ple had no idea how old they were. The 1841 cen­sus es­ti­mated the birth date of Vic­to­ria R (oc­cu­pa­tion: ‘The Sovereign’) as ‘abt 1821’ and that of 1861 as 1820; she was ac­tu­ally born in 1819. Nor were the ques­tions uni­ver­sally un­der­stood. Asked to list his ‘live­stock’ in 1851, Matthew Reed of Sin­ning­ton, Yorks, re­sponded: ‘tu poll parets, tu cats, on Canare, and how mane meas [mice] I don’t know’.

Re­li­gion was first in­cluded in 1851, when five mil­lion de­clined to an­swer. Then it was dropped for a while (Hutchin­son does not spec­ify how long), be­fore its rein­tro­duc­tion in 2001, when 390,127 re­spon­dents, in­clud­ing 2.6 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion of Brighton, and eight mem­bers of the Strath­clyde po­lice force, iden­ti­fied them­selves as Jedi Knights, which made it of­fi­cially the fourth-largest de­nom­i­na­tion in the coun­try.

The cen­suses of 1871 and 1881 listed a few hun­dred pros­ti­tutes, and many more seam­stresses. ‘Not ev­ery seam­stress recorded in late-vic­to­rian Bri­tain was a pros­ti­tute,’ writes Hutchin­son. ‘But many were, and many oth­ers were both.’

In 1911, a num­ber of women recorded them­selves as ‘slave’. They were suf­fragettes, ‘en­gag­ing in the first con­certed at­tempt to use the cen­sus as a means of protest’. Other women fol­lowed Em­me­line Pankhurst and wrote ‘No vote no cen­sus’ on their forms, while thou­sands evaded the enu­mer­a­tors by leav­ing home for the night, rent­ing un­oc­cu­pied houses or gypsy car­a­vans.

In 1991, there was a sim­i­lar protest against the poll tax, and a mil­lion peo­ple – two per cent of the pop­u­la­tion – re­fused to co-op­er­ate, which didn’t spare them the tax but did leave them off the elec­toral reg­is­ter. There has also been spo­radic re­sis­tance by in­di­vid­u­als. In 1871, the Peo­ple’s Jour­nal re­ported that Wil­liam Col­lett of Ham­mer­smith had ‘been fined £2 for can­ing a cen­sus enu­mer­a­tor’.

Hutchin­son wres­tles a vast quan­tity of in­for­ma­tion into some­thing ap­proach­ing a co­her­ent nar­ra­tive, en­livened by anec­dote and telling de­tail. He gives ju­di­cious con­sid­er­a­tion to such top­ics as the Em­pire (a full cen­sus was clearly im­pos­si­ble, but in 1871 its pop­u­la­tion was stated to be 234,762,593) and war (in 1921 there were 1,621,758 wid­ows in Eng­land and Wales). He con­cludes that the years be­tween 1801 and 2011 saw greater change than the pre­vi­ous seven cen­turies, and pre­dicts that the de­cen­nial cen­sus is here to stay. To order for £16.37 from Wordery incl p&p, go to http://www.the­oldie.

‘I’ve got noth­ing against men; it’s testos­terone I hate’

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