Sunday, June 15, 2008

Pardon My French, Voltaire

So. Zadig, eh?

Ummm.

Well, here’s the odd thing. I’m one of those people who never lack an opinion. If I’m in a conversation and I genuinely have no viewpoint, I just make one up. Then I defend it passionately until I believe it.

Similarly, I’ve read very few books from start to finish that haven’t “hit” me in one way or another. Yes, I’ve begun my share of novels that I tossed aside after 50 pages because I was bored. But when I go through an entire volume from cover to cover, I expect to have something to say about it when I’m done. And — surprise! — I always do. Not that my literary pronouncements are necessarily of value to anyone, but they do keep me off the streets. In any case, I can't remember ever resorting to just a shrug (French: un shrug).

Until now.

Zadig is a pleasant enough story, set in some screwball Orient of the author’s imagination, although really it’s just a series of parodistically exotic episodes loosely strung together in a style that’s not exactly a fairy tale, not exactly an Arabian Nights tale, and not exactly a folk tale. But it has a definite tale-ish-ness, only without the charm. Maybe you’ve gotta be French. Or perhaps you need to have a hunk of crispy bread and some decent Bordeaux handy. Unfortunately, I hadn’t planned ahead, so the closest things I had in the house were a stale hot dog roll (pain éventé de hot dog) and half a glass of unbubbly Lite beer (moitié par en verre unbubbly de bière de Lite.)

Anyway, the whole book has a spontaneously knocked-off quality, as if it were made up by someone who had never actually told a coherent story before. I can imagine Voltaire, sitting down at his desk, setting his pocket watch (watch de poche) for an hour (soixante minutes), and saying to himself: “Today, I’m going to write exactly 1,000 words.” (Aujourd'hui, je vais écrire exactement 1.000 mots, give au take dix mots.) And that’s apparently what he did. Some of those words were shaped into blasphemous or satiric sentences, which no doubt made him chuckle. Me, too, in a bland sort of way. An example of his irreligious wit: Is there anything more worthy of respect than an abuse dating from ancient times? Cute. I won’t cite any more here, because I’m going to leave the best quotes for the other Nonbelieving Literati to steal; there aren’t really enough to go around. Still, I do identify with someone using that kind of automatic-writing authorship style, and can easily picture Voltaire slapping himself in the knee: “I think this stuff is very funny.” (Je pense que cette substance est très drôle. Ouch. Mon knee.)

Now, to be fair, I’m sure that Zadig was a hoot in its time. The people who read it when it was hot off the presses (chaud outre des presses) were probably able to catch every topical allusion, understand all the in-jokes, recognize each of the sardonic portraits. Me, I’m not that up on French 18th-century history. I know there was some kind of revolution near the end of that period, and before that, a couple of kings and cardinals and musketeers. Truthfully, though, I’m pretty much indifferent to almost everything from France except for its cheese, its wine, and the Brigitte Bardot of 50 years ago. So all the passages for which I would have needed a reference flew way over my head (flew au-dessus de ma tête avec la plume de ma tante).

I neither liked Zadig, nor hated it. I wouldn’t recommend it, but I also wouldn’t warn anyone to steer clear of it. Voltaire was a cool dude (dude frais), and he certainly deserves to be remembered. I think his reputation is neither enhanced nor damaged (fucked vers le haut) by this book. However, if you want to see the kind of irreverence that helped give the Enlightenment its name — an irreverence that we could use a lot more of here in Bush’n’Bible-Land (terre de la brousse et l'Evangile) — you might find Zadig mildly entertaining (divertissant de ho-hum).

In short, it’s worth un shrug. Maybe deux shrugs.

Our Next Book:
Well, we had a wonderful nonbelieving and literate member who was going to pick our next selection, but, unfortunately, she’s still deciding. This may not be such a bad thing, since we’ve had a very female-heavy selection process for the last few installments. There are only a few of us guys, though, so I took the liberty of appointing myself to choose the next book. My original thought was that we’d read something a little more male-oriented for a change, and, naturally, I immediately zeroed in on my copy of Two-Fisted, Gun-Totin’, Ballsy Adventure Stories: The Car Chase Edition. But the thing seemed a little sissyish to me.

Seriously, I decided not to burden anyone with having to fill in with a decision at the last minute, and, fortunately, without wracking my brain, I happened to think of an unusual book that might be of interest to atheists, particularly (but not limited to) science-lovers: Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino. I’ll warn everyone that although this appears to be a short book of simple science-fiction stories, looks can be deceiving. You may not want to put it off until the very last minute before the target date of August 1.

By the way, thanks to all you Nonbelieving Literati — both old and new members — for continuing to support the group.

19 comments:

C. L. Hanson said...

Re: Now, to be fair, I’m sure that Zadig was a hoot in its time. The people who read it when it was hot off the presses (chaud outre des presses) were probably able to catch every topical allusion, understand all the in-jokes, recognize each of the sardonic portraits. Me, I’m not that up on French 18th-century history.

True, and that's why (in my review) I recommended those two fantastic books by Darnton about the period. Reading about how the illegal "philosophical" books were produced and distributed, letters from booksellers to publishers asking for more Voltaire, and readers of the time writing about how "everyone's a deist these days" is more interesting than the text of Zadig by itself.

The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France also gives some literary context by providing extended excerpts of some other best-sellers of the time. Some of them are quite amusing like Thérèse Philosophe (which I discussed here), as well as a tabloid-style story of the life of Louis XV's mistress La Comptesse du Berry, and a Rip-Van-Winkle predecessor called L'an 2440.

yinyang said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who didn't know what to make of Zadig.

And, hey, isn't the fact that so many girls like books make all books a little girly? Seriously, how can you make book-reading macho? Well, I guess if you were driving a monster car at the same time...

Sarge said...

Was it Voltaire who spoke of the prisoner who was given a year to teach the horse to talk?

Spanish Inquisitor said...

dude frais said:

Is there anything more worthy of respect than an abuse dating from ancient times? Cute. I won’t cite any more here, because I’m going to leave the best quotes for the other Nonbelieving Literati to steal;

Hey! You stole my quote! Although I suspect we weren't reading the same book.

Yinyang said:

And, hey, isn't the fact that so many girls like books make all books a little girly?

Girly, schmirly. Girls with books turn me on.

The Ridger, FCD said...

It's hard to make sense of a book without knowing the culture it came out of. Something revolutionary and dangerous becomes either ordinary or laughable in a couple of centuries.

I like Zadig as a sign of how Voltaire's philosophy was changing - growing up, let's say. Comparing it to Candide, which was written a decade later, one can see how far he came. But even Candide isn't dangerous any longer.

The Exterminator said...

C.L.:
I've looked at The Great Cat Massacre in the bookstore a few times, but, although it struck me as mildly interesting, I was never sufficiently motivated to buy it. Maybe now, I'll give it a second peek.

I like to approach a work of art -- like Zadig -- as a stand-alone thing. Sure, over the years I've read hundreds of books about literature, art, music, and film. But I find that if the original work under discussion doesn't already appeal to me on some visceral level, no amount of knowledge about it changes my basic attitude. So I can't picture myself ever rereading Zadig, even in the light of more information.

yinny:
Well, I never said I didn't know what to make of Zadig. It turned out to be a great rainhat.

Also, while you talked about girly books, you failed to mention girly magazines. Everybody knows we he-men buy tons of those things for the quality of their articles.

Sarge:
Was it Voltaire who spoke of the prisoner who was given a year to teach the horse to talk?
I think you have Voltaire mixed up with the Horse Whisperer.

SI:
I didn't even recognize that the quote we used was the same. Verily, thy version of Zadig was pretty olde-fashioned, methinks. I'm guessing that it must have been something hanging around from your childhood.

Ridger:
Something revolutionary and dangerous becomes either ordinary or laughable in a couple of centuries.
I'm not sure I agree. Thomas Paine's writings still seem pretty cutting-edge, and Gulliver's Travels has remained as hilariously nasty as it always was.

I got the impression that Zadig was Voltaire's attempt to titillate the bourgeois while maybe making a few bucks, rather than a work born out of genuine anger or revolutionary sentiment. It seems pretty tame, kind of like the 18th-century equivalent of a month's worth of Jay Leno monologues.

the chaplain said...

I apologize for not participating in this month's discussion. I plan to catch up with the next book. Having read the various reactions to Zadig, I may still read it sometime down the road, just to form my own opinion. Not that I don't trust the opinions of the literati, mind you - I'm just the sort that needs to see and try things for myself.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I probably should have said "may often" - genuine works of revolutionary genius remain valuable and fresh, I agree. But they are few at any time.

John Evo said...

Ex, if this book inspired nothing more than this admission, it was worth you posting on it!

If I’m in a conversation and I genuinely have no viewpoint, I just make one up. Then I defend it passionately until I believe it.

Bone new e.

The Exterminator said...

chappy:
I plan to catch up with the next book.
Is it running away from you already?

Ridger:
I do agree that many books lose their edge over time -- not necessarily because of the contents, but because of changes in the culture.

Evo:
If that admission was a revelation to you, then you haven't been paying attention.

John Evo said...

I almost added that it isn't an revelation. I just wanted the admission so I can toss it in your face whenever I think you are arguing for the sheer enjoyment.

Sarge said...

Apparently there was a person who had drawn the attention and ire of Louis XIV and wound up in the slammer.

He talked his way out of it by telling Louie that he knew how to teach a horse to talk, and Louie, being intrigued, released him with the proviso that he had a year to teach a horse to talk.

Voltaire, or whoever, told the guy that he was insane to make such a bargain but was told,

"A year is a long time: in a year the king may die, I might die, and who knows? I might actually teach the horse to talk! In the meantime, I'm free!"

C. L. Hanson said...

Re: But I find that if the original work under discussion doesn't already appeal to me on some visceral level, no amount of knowledge about it changes my basic attitude. So I can't picture myself ever rereading Zadig, even in the light of more information.

I don't know, sometimes I think a little bit of study can help with the enjoyment of a work that's from a different time or place. As a trivial example, I can connect on a visceral level with some operas, but had to learn a little Italian to do so. And I know I appreciated Alice in Wonderland better with the cultural notes. (Of course that one also has plenty to recommend it in the text itself.) OTOH, like you, I don't plan to read Zadig again...

yunshui said...

Although it's often heard in reference to Louis XIV, the "talking horse" story was actually told originally by the Mulla Nasrudin. Just in case anyone cares.

Kelly said...

If I’m in a conversation and I genuinely have no viewpoint, I just make one up

I thought I was the only one.

And I'll pick up that book. That's for the recommendation. I'm been immersing myself in "Your Pregnancy and You" type-shit books. Ain't life fun!?

I seriously do hope to be around more, though.

The Exterminator said...

Evo:
I just wanted the admission so I can toss it in your face whenever I think you are arguing for the sheer enjoyment.
I hope when you toss it, it's coconut custard.

Sarge:
Now I know how Mr. Ed got his start.

C.L.:
I don't know, sometimes I think a little bit of study can help with the enjoyment of a work that's from a different time or place.
But what motivates you to bother studying at all if you don't find the work interesting on some level? As far as opera goes -- if you need to know Italian to connect with it, you're not really connecting with it. Libretti are notoriously bad. Basically, in Italian opera, the characters say just three things:
(1) I'm going to kill that bastard for dishonoring my daughter.
(2) You may think I'm really your mother (brother, friend, lover, clown), but I'm not.
(3) She's young and attractive and can bring the house down with her lungs, and yet -- *sigh* -- she's dying of tuberculosis.

yunshui:
Just in case anyone cares.
Thanks for the info; you've won two Exterminator "In Case Anyone Cares" points. You can keep your winnings or risk them and go for three.

Kelly:
I'm been immersing myself in "Your Pregnancy and You" type-shit books.
I hope you're actually pregnant.

By the way, feel free to come around any time. If we atheists around here can do anything to help lighten your load -- both figuratively and literally -- let us know.

Sarge said...

Thanks, Yunshi,

My son told me that one.

When he was in the navy (he was a Seabee) he knew a man who had "pecked on his stepper" rather badly, and he talked his way out of immediate punishment by making a deal with the commanding officer that he would cause something to be done within a set ammount of time, several months. If it wasn't done there was to be a very serious penalty.

My son and some others told him that he had only made it worse for himself by making that deal, which he was as likely to do as wave his hand and turn screen doors into steaks. He related that tale, and said in his case he might get transferred, the CO might leave, or he might actually do the job he promised to do.

Two months later they saw this person come out of the CO's office and he looked very confused, shocked, and basicly like someone had kneed him in the groin and then rabbit punched him.

They asked if he was OK and he said yes, and they asked him what happened.

He told them he didn't know how it happened, but that damn horse was talking and he got the credit for it.

Sometimes we luck out.

yunshui said...

Sometimes it pays to promise the impossible.

On a related note, Ex, I'll try for the hat-trick - Cosmicomics doesn't have a current edition in the UK, so any nonbelieving Briterati will have to import the US edition. Just in case anyone cares.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I just read this in a Michael Chabon essay:

"I had found some writers, such as J. G. Ballard, Italo Calvino, J. L. Borges, and Donald Barthelme, who wrote at the critical point of language, where vapor turns to starry plasma"

Okay. That's some pretty heady company. I'm stoked.