Monday, December 01, 2008


It was on this date in 1956 that the opera (operetta?) by Leonard Bernstein premiered in New York. It was not particularly successful at the time but, largely due to the felicitous melodies of Bernstein, it has remained in the repertory and after several revisions is with us still today. I have been fortunate to see a production of Candide and I have long been fond of its most popular number, the overture, which includes a medley of tunes from the opera itself.
Before there was the opera there was the original, Candide: or, Optimism by Voltaire (nee Francois-Marie Arouet). The important thing to note about the title is the subtitle, optimism, for in all of literature there is hardly another work that argues more strongly for an optimistic approach to life. While Voltaire takes a cynical view of humanity that even denizens of the twenty-first century can appreciate, his cynicism does not lead him, or rather does not lead his character Doctor Pangloss, to reject an optimism that is best know by the phrase; this is "the best of all possible worlds". Yet, it is late in the book that we realize that Voltaire takes a view that man's life is made worth living by the exercise of hope, good nature, and industry. Indeed, the book ends with Candide saying to Doctor Pangloss, "we must cultivate our garden". And our garden, even for the skeptic Voltaire, is the one we inherited from Adam after his unceremonious exit from Eden. Voltaire's Candide is a delight for the reader almost two hundred fifty years after its first appearance from the fiery pen of one of the greatest thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment.

Candide: or, Optimism by Voltaire. Trans. by Peter Constantine. Modern Library, New York. 2005 (1759)

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