Sunday, 6 September 2009

Il Faut Cultiver Notre Jardin

Il Faut Cultiver Notre Jardin is the moral of Voltaire's Candide - the "subdued vein of wisdom" as Italo Calvino puts it in his essay, "Candide, An Essay In Velocity". The idea expressed by "It is necessary to cultivate our garden" is essentially Aristotelian: don't rely too much on theory, don't rely too much on experience - but try to find a happy medium between the two. Calvino also discusses how Voltaire's work travels the world at great speed, calling it 'around the world in eighty pages'. I would go further than this and claim that the brief, elliptical form of Candide fits its subject very well. It is, in essence, a moral fable for the rational mind. It works because it is built on solid philosophical foundations.

That, in short, is what makes Candide great. Attention needs to be paid to such things, then, if you're going to try and re-work that book. Michael Chabon has a crack at it with 'Gentlemen of the Road'. Evidence for this can be found in the form of the work, (short and elliptical), the narrative (a journey taken) and the themes (religion, war and politics). Perhaps the biggest clue in every sense, however, is the elephant named for 'Cunegonde' - the unfortunate character in Candide who gets fatter and fatter.

What Chabon completely misses, however, is both of the things that made Candide so good. In the first place, the geo-temporal range is limited to the 10th century land of the Khazars. More damaging, however, is the complete lack of philosophical underpinning. What we get instead is a broad range of Hollywood cliche: The pretend fight, the hero going after his hat, the condemned man saved in the nick of time and so on... which is supposed to be entertaining in and of itself. Voltaire certainly worked with the adventure story trope, but he also satarised it, and he did so with a point in mind. Chabon seems to believe that the adventure story is enough in itself, even in a short and elliptical form. But it isn't. The experience is as hollow and empty as, say, 'Tap Dancing with Jean Claude Van Damme', and no amount of Khazar names, castles and religious limning can make up for the loss.

I didn't like the movie version of 'Wonder Boys' either. So I guess that's it for me and Chabon.

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