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Garvey: Buy my book, but read ‘Candide’ first

By Georgia Garvey - | Sep 26, 2023

A collection of my columns, titled “Everything Is Going To Be OK (Until It’s Not),” has recently been released in book form, but I’m re-reading “Candide.”

And while I hope everyone buys my book, I recommend first reading Voltaire’s, which is also pretty good.

I mean, first of all, it’ll impress the heck out of anyone sitting next to you on a plane. (“Candide,” I mean, not my book, which will only impress your seatmate if she’s my mother-in-law, in which case, tell her I said hi and that I’ll bring her bowl back at the next family dinner.)

But when you read Voltaire, that’s what the kids call a “flex.”

“What are you reading?” the guy stuck in the middle seat on the plane will ask as you remove your legs from the aisle just in time to avoid getting bumped by the drink cart.

“Oh, this old thing?” you’ll reply, stroking the book cover with its impressionist drawings of the French countryside. “It’s just a picaresque satirical novella with elements of bildungsroman intended as a critique of the great German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz.”

I admit, I don’t know what any of that means, but it’s important to note the word “novella,” which is Italian for “blessedly brief.”

When I say “novella,” I’m not kidding. It’s like 100 pages long, less if the type is small! And there’s plenty of action. In the first few pages, Candide has already fallen in love with his cousin, gotten caught trying to have sex with her and been kicked out of the castle where he lives.

It’s a wild ride after that, but a quick wild ride, and if you’re the kind of person who just flips to the last page of a book anyway — or if you’d rather save your money for another book (ahem) — I’ll summarize.

Because after a long series of bizarre adventures, Candide decides to reject modern philosophy and devote himself to rural life, delivering one of French literature’s most famous last lines: “Il faut cultiver notre jardin,” which basically translates to “we must cultivate our garden.”

How you read that line is up to you. Maybe there’s an official interpretation but Voltaire isn’t around for us to ask, so I’ve chosen to view it this way: He wants us to “cultivate our garden” both literally and figuratively.

We should act to help ourselves, while understanding and accepting life’s natural limitations.

Life is often unfair. Sometimes we’re mistreated. Sometimes we suffer bad luck.

Voltaire got that message loud and clear in the wake of a Portuguese earthquake in 1755, which killed as much as a fifth of the population of Lisbon, and resulted in a tsunami and fires that not only increased the death toll but destroyed much of the city’s cultural and artistic heritage.

He mentions the earthquake a lot in “Candide,” which was banned at the time of its release for the way that it mocked and challenged the status quo. The earthquake obviously molded Voltaire, in the same way that many of us were molded by Sept. 11, 2001, or the COVID pandemic.

The last line in “Candide” transcends the temporal nature of a tragedy. We understand, even if we’d never heard about that earthquake, wanting to know how we can find peace in the wake of a great horror. And Candide’s answer guides me.

Because here’s another part of cultivating my garden: Philosophizing will only get me so far. Ultimately, I have to get my hands dirty.

And keep it simple:

Go outside. Try your best. Don’t overthink it.

Everything else is just a fancy word, a word like “bildungsroman” or “picaresque,” one that does little more than impress the dude sitting next to you on the plane.

Which is fine, as far as that goes.

But in the end, it’s no garden, and no food will grow there.

To learn more about Georgia Garvey, visit GeorgiaGarvey.com.


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