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Voltaire v Johnson

15 May


Candide – Rasselas

Voltaire’s “Candide” is a wild, improbable, picaresque that takes an innocent protagonist of the same name around the world, exposing him to a multitude of dangers and extraordinary experiences. The novel is a satirical pilgrim’s progress, containing a catalogue of happen-stance meetings, unlikely friendships and coincidences. Although a work of fiction it contains allusions to much of the period in which it was written and would’ve been viewed as topical reading in its day. The deadly earthquakes that occurred in Lisbon in 1755 killing thousands of people would have been the equivalent of a 20th century tsunami disaster, having the same repercussions on a modern internet browsing audience as they did on Voltaire’s 18th Century readership. Voltaire didn’t just write a novel, he wrote about his world; its quotidian minutia as well as its major events.

               The satire lavished throughout the novel is cutting in context and although one might suppose that present day society differs greatly from Voltaire’s, it would seem that modern inhabitants differ little from those of two hundred thirty years ago. The satirical characters Voltaire introduces us to and the heinous crimes they commit are still to be found in what we laughingly call the civilized world. The excesses of the vice-ridden priests in Lisbon and their penchant for whores can be equated to the excesses of the “modern” Catholic Church and their sexually deviant priests. Alternatively the historical abuse of international resources by gunpowder savvy nations is equivocal to the Western imperialism perpetrated on third world nations today. In fact, it would be fair to say that if it involves sex, money or power, humanity hasn’t progressed at all and Voltaire, if resurrected, would very easily adjust to the antique vice of our modern society. “Candide” is a contemporary novel which, with only the names changed to protect the innocent and its author from libel, could be published succesfully today. Nothing has altered and as “Pangloss” reminds us, “There are no effects without cause,” and no matter what, “this is the best possible of all worlds.”

               Voltaire’s novel is juxtaposition from Samuel Johnsons “Rasselas,” an apologue that leads from one insipid adventure to another without ever discovering perfect happiness; a clichéd “grass is always greener on the other side” tale and nothing more. It contains none of the spurious adventures or miraculous resurrections of “Candide” and is only comparable in vintage and a tenuous nod to satire. The tale is weak, predictable, and without depth; the characters created by Johnson, two dimensional.

               Rasselas, a young Prince dissatisfied with what he considers imprisonment is forced to live in the “Happy Valley” where all is in abundance, no wars or conflicts occur and all nature is in concord. Despite being heir to the throne of Abyssinia he believes that there’s more to life, and with his sister and his faithful poet “Imlac” – a man of the world who considers that he’s already found happiness in the valley, and who pities Rasselas for his ignorance – decide to dig a hole to escape the valley after observing rabbits burrow through the same earth. When comparing this to Candide who’s abducted and forced to endure the horrors of war by marauding armies, sails to foreign countries narrowly avoiding death, and eventually travels half way around the world to discover Utopia, there really isn’t any comparison.

               Given that Johnson wrote “Rasselas” in a week to garnish funds for his mother’s funeral, there’s little wonder that comparisons are few and far between. Voltaire develops a thesis of discovering “Pangloss’s” better world, whilst Johnson, through “Rasselas,” pursues the possibility of human happiness. Both novels describe the adventures of young men accompanied by companions in search of a better life and there, unfortunately, the comparison ends. “Candide” endures because of its insight into the human condition, the wit of Voltaire and its merits as a satire. “Rasselas” survives onlybecause Johnson was more noted for his other works as a novelist, essayist, lexicographer and biographer. Unfortunately it isn’t an example of his finest work and represents the lesser end of a broad satirical, literary spectrum.