All is well, all goes well, all goes as well as it possibly could

“What is optimism?” said Cacombo – “Alas!” said Candide, “it’s the mania of maintaining that all is well when one is wretched.” – Voltaire, Candide (19)

DSCI0011I am a big believer in the power of optimism to knock you on your ass. My brain is highly susceptible to positive thinking. I have a tendency to feel inexplicable reoccurring episodes of positivity. Over and over again with relentless purity. Still, each time the legs of the chair called optimism are cut out from under me – it hurts. Where, oh nascent psychology student, is the conditioned response?

“It’s a great pity,” said Candide, “that the wise Pangloss should have been hanged contrary to custom in an auto-da-fé; he would tell us wonderful things about the physical evil and the moral will that cover the land and sea, and I would feel enough strength in me to dare, respectfully, to make some objections.” (103)

I have some objections. Not least of all the “inspirational” “power of thinking” that leaves one feeling worse for having failed to positively think themselves out of a housing dilemma, low paying job, or sick family member.

“You are very harsh, ” said Candide.
“That’s because I have lived.” said Martin. (237)

Voltaire uses grotesque exaggeration to make his amusing point, but I think he would probably throw-up if he knew how much more ridiculous the cult of optimism has become. As much of a romp as it is to read Candide, I can’t help a creeping disgust at how depressing it is that things have changed so little. Whywhywhy?

“My fair lady,” replied Candide, “when you are in love, jealous, and whipped by the Inquisition you are beside yourself.” (69)

True, true. I will collect myself, Candide suffered far worse. I don’t think he would have chosen me as worthy of his pity. But he would have to forgive me for my Pangloss moment:

“I flatter myself,” said Pangloss, “that I might briefly discuss cause and effect with you, the best of possible worlds, the origin of evil, the nature of the soul, and pre-established harmony.”  At these words the dervish shut the door in their faces.

But wait! I really do. I, perhaps by sheer necessity, pursue Voltaire’s prescription to “tend to ones garden,” in other words: look to work to “keep away from us three great evils: boredom, vice and need.” (295) It is a good strategy. But why have the ability to think if that is the cause of the harm? I wonder about a philosophy, or strategy, however simple and “effective,” that at its root is avoidance of introspection; avoidance of contemplating the world as it is. Is a “work” ethic really so different in essence from prayer meditation positive thinking visualization incantation? Don’t they all just refocus the mind elsewhere? Of all methods, (could just be my absorbed Protestant mentality) I’d certainly go with work for the added benefits, but who among us doesn’t pause in their steps at moments and say – why? What’s so great about work? Nothing. It’s purpose and meaning that satisfy, if work provides that, then it fits the philosophy, if not- you didn’t work hard enough. Or at least work so hard that you didn’t have time to notice that boredom, vice and need are also forms of creative impetuous, and…interest.

If we don’t find a pleasant place, we will at least find new things.”(141)

Why can’t people make a cult of kindness? Be kind. That’s all. Of course, given the many men and women, far wiser than me, whom have espoused an ethic of kindness- some of whom have many a shrine built in their name – I am not optimistic.

I wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but I still love life. This ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our most baleful inclinations; for is there anything more foolish than to want to bear continually a burden that one steadily wants to throw to the ground? To hold one’s being in horror, and to cling to one’s being? In a word, to caress the snake that devours us until it has eaten our heart? (99)

*Voltaire’s Candide A Bilingual Edition translated and edited by Peter Gay
** Title from page 225

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14 responses to “All is well, all goes well, all goes as well as it possibly could

  1. I’ve never regarded myself as a “positive thinker”. I have been accused, on rare occasions, of being a pessimist but I am not that just as I am a not an optimist. I am certainly a realist, it even comes through strongly in my visual art. I hope and actively strive for what I perceive to be the best but I pragmatically remain quite aware that I don’t have to power to always ensure that everything the I need or want for myself or others comes to fruition.

  2. I sometimes think one of the most ridiculous things about us humans is the ability to cling to more than one contradictory idea at the same time. You want to live and die, you hate and love someone at the same time. I’m sure fish have better things to do. with their time. Probably why cats like sitting in cardboard boxes.

  3. The combined gifts of sensitivity and intelligence are a mixed blessing. Those who possess this informed hyper-awareness must learn to protect themselves from despair in whatever ways they can. Tears, laughter and joy of being understood provide a measure of relief from a sometimes bitter reality. Life is good whether it always feels that way or not. 🙂
    Interesting post for early morning contemplation.

  4. …”the cult of optimism”…

    Sweet words, to mine ears, those are. So pervasive all that hubris is. Even among those self-professed logicians and, lo, them proudly self-identified scientists. This has been my experience in recent years. In fact…. I’ve come to see it as interwoven into and representing a broader problem. Relates to the still-ordained supremacy of mental faculty; as if touched by a god. The patriarchal fingers which animate brains but not bodies. By thinking it, it shall be real, by way of this god. So it seems to me.

    Does nothing for introspect nor meanings, this particular strain of mysticism, me thinks. Or… Perhaps that is the case mostly because the cult has been institutionalized. The attitude being cultural fixture. A worldview that infects our collective decision-making…

    Easily provoked, am I, with this subject. *lol*

    Thanks for your thoughtful posts, Jessica. Not my first visit, but. Now that I’ve the functionality of the ‘like’ buttons, I feel less like a lurker, so. Thought I’d say ‘hi’ well I was at it 😉

  5. ‘while’ I was at it…

  6. Hello, and please, do not feel the need to correct typos- I am always happy to feel less alone in my finger’s haste and willful disregard of my laughable attempts of spelling/grammatical correctness.
    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. “The patriarchal fingers which animate brains but not bodies” is an underlying current in my thinking that you have beautifully articulated.

  7. In my case there’s this additional folly… I’m not sure that I understand, really, but. Maybe, as a lover of material books, you’ll relate. I cannot seem to ‘read’ a text without it’s ‘final’ placement on a ‘page’…. As if the reading is hindered somehow by the overall aesthetic. And these wee confines (comment entry boxes, text editors, for eg) somehow impede the reading, even while facilitating the writing, so. Almost writing blind then, I am.

    ‘Tis an unfortunate, apparently self-imposed, handicap of mine….
    Or. Maybe I prefer it that way…. All compulsive like. Right up until a finickier part of m’self re-reads. 🙂

  8. Thanks for your post! I really appreciate the way you sift through the concepts of a book and show how it is relevant to your life. This helps make the story and themes relevant to me.
    I always saw Candide as a kind of road-map to the horrors of the world for a blindly optimistic privileged class. It lays out the rampant bad behavior and suffering of humanity on a global scale, and then asks his readers if they can be continue to be so myopic with their newfound knowledge.
    What I could never find in it was an answer, except to mind your own business. Your cult of kindness is a great answer to draw from his relatively hopeless story, though I never felt that it was one that Candide ever espoused – he and his friends become gruff, opinionated, reclusive; unpleasant, and not particularly kind.
    The challenge, then, is can a person be kind when they have lost everything? I may come across as a blind optimist when I say this, but it has been my experience that kindness is a labor that in the short or long term begets kindness.

    • I agree that Candide, and one step further, Voltaire did not espouse a cult of kindness- In the edition I read there were copious notes commenting on Voltaire’s attempts to ridicule and insult particular people or institutions in barely veiled name changes, puns, and allusions. After a while, it felt unseemly and made me uncomfortable with the idea that a man such as Voltaire, brilliant as he was, felt the need to either insecurely aggrandize himself or lower himself to the people that he indicates should be below contempt.
      I know that the “tend to your garden” meme has reached the level of high philosophy, but I too find it wanting. It almost seems to me the last resort of religions and philosophies, which is to say- run away, mind your own business, find serenity on a mountain top. I am more keen to recognize what we as humans truly aspire to, and that is a shared humanity. We are social animals after all. It is a lot more difficult to find serenity and peace in the chaos and pain of the real world, but that is where most of us live, so I think the answer should impact that reality- or at least acknowledge it. Kindness does begat kindness.
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, it perfectly extends my own thinking on the book and its message.

  9. Pingback: WITHDRAWN | so very very

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