From Voltaire’s Candide: A Boiling Sea

One of the great tsunami disasters in recorded history took place on November 1, 1755 in Lisbon, Portugal. An earthquake hit the heart of the city, followed by a sweeping wave, five days of fires and looting, and a long aftermath of disease, chaos and fear.

This incident was a defining moment for the French philosopher and author Voltaire. Just as the shocking destruction of the city of Guernica inspired Picasso’s most famous painting, the Lisbon tragedy enraged the middle-aged social critic, and formed the basis of his most important novel, Candide.

Candide is the satirical journey of a young man through a series of horrible disasters — including an earthquake in Lisbon, followed by a tsunami:

Scarcely had they set foot in the city, still weeping over the death of their benefactor, than they felt the earth quake beneath their feet. In the port a boiling sea rose up and smashed the ships lying at anchor.

The book moves quickly on to other adventures — it’s a short, breezy, even funny read. The purpose of Voltaire’s satire is to frame the dull reactions of the various characters to the disasters that befall them, one after another. In Voltaire’s world people are complacent, resigned, and, and worst of all, satisfied by the neat answers given them by the Church (which is Voltaire’s real target in this book, as much of his career was spent fighting the repressive religious doctrines of his age).

European Christianity is no longer seen as the most controversial ideology in the world. Still, the sense of outrage Voltaire seeps into this book resonates today. Other sections of the short satire describe scenes of military carnage in helpless villages, scenes that call to mind My Lai and Rwanda and the Sudan.

The French author also wrote a well-known poem about the Lisbon tragedy, which includes some memorable lines:

Lisbon is destroyed, and they dance in Paris!

or, the parting words:

I can only suffer, and in silence

(Thanks to Penn Jacobs for alerting us to the Candide reference.)

11 Responses

  1. A little further
    A little further background

    Voltaire is also reacting to a particular idealistic (in both the technical and popular sense of the term) philosophy, best represented by Liebniz, in addition to viciously attacking the Church itself.

  2. So what should our response
    So what should our response be?

    If, as Voltaire suggests, blithe optimism is neither preferable nor moral in the face of senseless death, what should our attitude be?

  3. Yes, I’d heard that as well.
    Yes, I’d heard that as well. I’d always known that “Candide” was a satire about prevailing attitudes towards religion and ideology. What I like about this connection — the disaster in Lisbon inspiring the book — is that it humanizes the abstract argument here. I guess Voltaire must have found his peers incredibly gullible and complacent, blindly believing in both religious and academic nonsense (I think it’s safe to say that Leibniz represents both academic and religious complacency — he was never a favorite philosopher of mine). When I think of the emotions I feel today, looking at the horrors in Sri Lanka and Indonesia and elsewhere, it really helps me understand what “Candide” must have meant to its author and to its readers in its own time.

  4. I think the right attitude,
    I think the right attitude, both then and now, is to always question, always challenge, always ask “why?”.

    Why wasn’t there a tsumani warning system in the Indian ocean? There’s no guilty party here, nobody who should be blamed. But there are probably a lot of scientists, bureaucrats or experts around the world who are now facing the truth that they could have made the situation better if they had performed differently in the past. If Voltaire is simply howling against complacency, this seems to me the beginnings of the right response. What can we do to make things better? Let’s figure it out, and let’s get busy doing it.

  5. A Kurt Vonnegut quote”There
    A Kurt Vonnegut quote

    “There is no order in the world around us, we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead. It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done.”
    Breakfast of Champions
    Kurt Vonnegut

  6. That’s a really good quote.
    That’s a really good quote. Since Vonnegut was a WW II prisoner of war and witnessed the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, I respect his peace-loving stance. I do think it is opposite Voltaire’s, though, isn’t it? I think both attitudes make sense — we must accept “the way of things”, but we should not accept it too easily or without fighting back as best we can.

  7. Leviathan.The serpent of the

    The serpent of the sea
    sloughs its skin, a wall
    of water reeking of sulphur;
    on the southern shore of an
    island, a blind german scholar, who publishes by the name
    of Rumphius, caresses a shell
    which his wife had brought to him. He sits in the grass
    at the side of the road; his wife and daughter are both inside,
    sharing a cup of tea; the earth
    shakes, and they are gone.

    He is still holding the shell
    in his left hand; his right hand
    has been thrown into the ground.

    (The building collapsed upon them.)

    The serpent of the sea,
    the serpent of the sea–


    An island arc will gradually
    compact together like flakes
    of snow into a mountain across
    millions and billions of years.
    Manhattan island once looked
    and acted a great deal like
    Indonesia– or rather, I should
    say the decayed mountain, the
    stub of which comprises Manhattan
    together with a long winding stretch
    of the coast of North America,
    was once millions of years ago
    a collection of volcanic islands,
    scattered through a tropical climate.

    Inevitably, Indonesia will smack
    into Asia like insects colliding
    with a windshield going seventy
    miles an hour. At about that time
    Japan will have stolen a march
    across the Pacific, and will have
    bum-rushed Alaska. Tokyo of course
    will most likely have been destroyed
    in our own small lifetime, in a
    massive earthquake pulling down
    the sky upon the heads of millions
    and millions of unfortunate
    citizens. Also, America will
    eventually be smothered/burnt alive
    when Yellowstone explodes (the
    entire Park having been the crater
    of a supervolcano.) Iceland will
    behave in a similar fashion, towards Europe.

    As for Manhattan: the rising ocean
    will work its way, up Canal Street,
    softly carressing the concrete and steel until at last the Empire
    State Building rusts and rots away
    and comes down with a maginificent

    The ghost of Frank O’Hara will cry,
    and I’ll hand him a hankerchief
    and say, there there. Joe Heller
    will nod approvingly.


    Meanwhile, Rumphius howls in the
    dark, cursing God and His creation,
    cradling the strangled body of his
    wife in his arms.

    (He dropped the shell.)

    ((The grass grows over it.))

  8. this is beautiful.darkly
    this is beautiful.

    darkly geological.

    drifting plately tectonic.

    where have the continents come from.
    where are they going.
    the crust is in motion.
    the hand on the geologic pocketwatch
    moves slow.

    and o how frank would weep.

    doomsday’s just another day.

  9. Wow. I like the way this was
    Wow. I like the way this was written; the images, the structure. It also fills me with fearful foreboding, yet, like Corso in Bomb, I embrace the doom.

  10. This is a hell of a poem. I
    This is a hell of a poem. I hope you’ll post more of your work here.

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