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.)