At least this meme topic is pretty straightforward. I’ve already written about my extreme distaste for Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, so this time I will spread the hate around. In fact, this post is a bit nostalgic for me. The irony is that the book I have chosen, the first I remember hating with a passion, was required reading for one of my favorite and most beneficial classes in high school.
The book is Candide by Voltaire.
English and history professors say that Candide is an important book, a great picaresque bildungsroman and a clever satire of nearly everything. Perhaps that is part of the problem. The bildungsroman is a fine and noble genre, but I have always been suspicious of satires; they have their uses, I suppose, but they seem horribly limited and derive most of their thematic content from the tearing down of the opposing viewpoint rather than from the encouraging construction of a better one. Picaresque novels hold out the promise of entertaining adventure, but too often satire sneaks in even there to ruin all the fun by mocking someone else. Thus in the case of a picaresque satirical bildungsroman like Candide, the book is focused purely on its vulgar deconstructions of opposing viewpoints and uses its story and characters only for this purpose.
Therefore, one’s enjoyment of Candide is largely based on how much you dislike the viewpoints it attacks, whether you derive enjoyment from one-sided philosophical attacks, and whether you think vicious rapes and mutilations (of men and women) in utterly absurd situations make for uproarious comedy. For instance, the major target of Voltaire’s vitriol is the philosophy of Leibniz, which Voltaire takes to be simplistic optimism expressed as “this is the best of all possible worlds” because God is good and cannot make something imperfect. Thus the plot of Candide is about our eponymous hero trying to maintain that philosophy while all the worst conceivable events (to ridiculous and illogical levels) befall him and his friends. Now the problem is not that Leibniz is right (he isn’t), but that Voltaire attacks him by way of a Straw Man in order to suggest that because this world is obviously rotten, therefore God, if He exists, is either not good or just not involved. As anyone with simple education in Christianity can see, both of these views ignore one of the fundamental points of Christian cosmology – the Fall of Man (and with him, of all Creation). This world was once the best of all possible worlds, but sin has brought it down, and it is sin that must be dealt with. Voltaire does not see this.
So there are philosophical reasons I don’t like Candide – I think the book very poor and unconvincing on that account. Aesthetically it is ugly, depressing, and generally revels in its own ludicrous filth. It tries to be acceptable by seeking refuge in the excessively vulgar, but personally I think that very idea is an oxymoron. It thinks itself clever and may be a little, but it also thinks itself funny when it certainly is not. Now, I often do find outrageous things to be funny, as in the case of some of Monty Python’s humor or in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but never when it is combined with filth.
In short, I hate this book. I really think the world would be slightly better if it had never been written.
Honorable Mention: The Metamorphoses of Apuleius (also called The Golden Ass, and not to be confused with Ovid’s Metamorphoses), despite it containing one of the most beautiful ancient myths, of Cupid and Psyche.