Invitation to World Literature
Candide Candide – Expert’s View
Experts' View: A Missing Buttock
An excerpt from Candide, by Voltaire
The Old Woman describes her plight
“Imagine my situation, the daughter of a pope, only fifteen years old, who in the space of three months had been exposed to poverty and slavery, been raped almost daily, had seen her mother torn to pieces, had endured war and famine, and who is now dying of the plague in Algiers. As it happens, I didn’t die.”
“Throughout this novel, there is a very deadpan, gallows humor, so that you are amazed that these things are just being said. The way in which women were treated is just out there.” [Yet here]
“Cunegonde and the Old Woman in the story are raped repeatedly. They suffer plague. They suffer syphilis. They go through all kinds of horrific events. Here’s the Old Woman describing and summarizing some of her experiences: ‘Imagine my situation, the daughter of a pope, only fifteen years old, who in the space of three months had been exposed to poverty and slavery, been raped almost daily, had seen her mother torn to pieces, had endured war and famine, and who is now dying of the plague in Algiers. As it happens, I didn’t die.'”
“Candide has seen the worst things that could ever happen. And he’s suffered in his life, it’s so difficult, and Cunegonde has suffered and her life is so difficult. And then, this Old Woman was like ‘Look, somebody ate one of my buttocks.’ You cannot top that. Every time I read about her, they keep referring to that fact. ‘I’ve got to get on this horse and I’ve only got one buttock to ride on. But I’m going to do it, you know?’ She’s got this great kind of get-up-and-go.”
“The Old Woman says, ‘A hundred times I have wanted to kill myself, but I was still in love with life.’ Now this is a mature optimism. This is not the Panglossian, clearly irrational formula repeated over and over again. She says, ‘Yes, I should end this life, it’s so horrible. No, I love to be alive.’ To live in this absurdity, to adopt the philosophy of the double bind, this is a much more robust philosophy than what is being criticized in Pangloss, and I think we should notice that it’s in the mouth of this decrepit Old Woman.”
David Damrosch Sums It Up
In thinking about the Old Woman’s missing buttock—as Voltaire repeatedly invites us to do—it’s worth recalling the Old Woman’s description of her early, charmed life as the daughter of a pope and a princess, when her body was as beautiful as “the Venus of Medici.” A classical statue such as the similar Venus de Milo in the Louvre will often be missing its arms or some other breakable part such as the nose on a face, and the loss can become a poetic testimony to the ravages of time, often remarked on in eighteenth-century aesthetic discussions of classical statues.
Here, in pointed contrast, the woman’s advanced age and decrepitude are shown on a purely human scale, the span of a single life, and her once delectable body—which her servants had loved to admire “back and front”—now bears the ravages of debased human interference. Far from being presented as the worst sort of depravity, though, this cannibalistic act is approved on all sides, actually proposed by a Moslem imam as morally better than outright slaughter, and even accepted without question by the French surgeon who treats the mutilated women after their rescue. He says “that this sort of thing happened in lots of sieges, and that it was one of the laws of warfare.” The Old Woman’s matter-of-fact resilience is the positive side of most characters’ willing acceptance of the most horrific acts—what Hannah Arendt would later call “the banality of evil”—here presented with such unsparing absurdity that we have to laugh even as we recognize our usual complicity in the ways of the world.
Unit 1 The Epic of Gilgamesh
The first known human story is that of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Images of artifacts from ancient Iraq mix with beautiful illustrations, dance, and costume to tell of the relations between gods and mortals, the search for friendship, love, and immortality. Featured cast members include Assyriologist Ben Foster, comic book illustrator Jim Starlin, and poet and playwright Yusef Komunyakaa.
Unit 2 My Name Is Red
Both an historical novel and a graphic murder mystery set among the miniaturists of the Ottoman court. With its focus on Istambul, a major crossroads of the world, it tells of the artistic/cultural contest between Europe and the East. Cast members include the book's Nobel-prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk, and its English translator, Erdağ Göknar.
Unit 3 The Odyssey
Odysseus must travel the known and unknown world before he can return home to his beloved island kingdom of Ithaca. What does this ancient story say to readers today? In this program, Odysseus's story is given ancient and modern historical and philosophical context, and illustrated with centuries of art. Featured are theater director Mary Zimmerman, actor-director Tim Blake-Nelson, and psychologist/author Jonathan Shay.
Unit 4 The Bacchae
The city of Thebes is torn apart by the conflicting demands of reason and religion, as the disguised god Dionysus returns to his home town demanding to be worshipped. Opposing him is the young king Pentheus, who is doomed to suffer the ultimate punishment for his disbelief. Featured speakers include world-renowned playwright/author Wole Soyinka, actor Alan Cumming, and Daniel Mendelsohn of Bard College.
Unit 5 The Bhagavad Gita
This epic tale of the warrior-prince Arjuna confronting a life-or-death dilemma during civil war presents a unique and powerful philosophy of duty, discipline, and serving a higher purpose. Beautiful illustrations connect the story with its rich history and culture. Featured speakers include Sheldon Pollock, Professor of Sanskrit Studies and acclaimed composer Philip Glass.
Unit 6 The Tale of Genji
This portrait of court life in medieval Japan follows the life and exploits of the great Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Japanese court, it provides an insider's view of Japanese court life, the official and behind the screen. Art, clothing, music from the time of the novel illustrate the obserations of authors Jane Smiley and Chiori Miyagawa, among others.
Unit 7 Journey to the West
The powerful and mischievous Stone Monkey King brings chaos to heaven and earth. Freed from a mountain prison in order to guard a Chinese monk on his journey to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures from India, Monkey seeks his own spiritual transformation. Modern performance, contemporary art, and Buddhist philosophers provide a rich context to the ancient tale. Featured cast members include playwright David Henry Huang, storyteller Diane Wolkstein, and translator Professor Anthony Yu.
Unit 8 Popol Vuh
The Mayan book of creation, the dawn of life, and the glories of gods and kings. This magnificent epic was saved from destruction at the hands of the Spanish by Quiché chroniclers. Once repressed, the story is now interwoven with the history of today's Mayan people. Featured speakers include archaeologist Richard Hanson, humorist Mo Rocca, and Guatemalan artist Shuni Giron.
Unit 9 Candide
A satirical novel following the travails of Candide, a hopeless optimist whose faith in his tutor's mantra that his is "the best of all possible worlds" is tested beyond all limits. Voltaire's challenge to the aristocracy of his day proves refreshingly amusing and biting today. Original illustrations, songs, and comic book figures plumb the depths of this satire. Featured speakers include director Harold Ramis, actress Kristin Chenoweth, and cartoonist Chris Ware.
Unit 10 Things Fall Apart
In this foundational modern African novel, Chinua Achebe's story follows the lives of people trying to understand which belief systems deserve their loyalty. The protagonist, Okonkwo is a tribal leader who battles neighboring villages, the English, and his own demons in early colonial Nigeria. The perspectives of readers from around the world reveal the novel's universal themes. Cast members include playwright and professor Tess Onwueme and theater director Chuck Mike.
Unit 11 One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez's multigenerational saga of the Buendía family in the isolated town of Macondo inaugurated the boom in Latin American literature in the 1970s and marked the beginning of magical realism. Writer Sandra Cisneros and scholar of Latin American literature, Ilan Stavans lend their thoughts and voices to the discussion of this epic novel.
Unit 12 The God of Small Things
Fraternal twins Rahel and Estha struggle to reclaim their lives after their childhood is destroyed by tragic circumstances. As past and present merge in this narrative of Indian society and politics, the many layers of the caste system are mirrored in the poetic and inventive language of the author. Featured speakers include Simon Gikandi of Princeton University, author Evelyn Ch'ien.
Unit 13 The Thousand and One Nights
Shahrazad must hold the interest of her despotic husband the sultan with nightly tales, lest she lose her life in the morning. This wellspring of storytelling, circulating from medieval Persia to Egypt to Iraq, like its wily raconteur lives on in many modern adaptations. Art, performance, and film images are employed to show the collection's broad span of influence. Featured speakers include Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Aly Jetha and Shabnam Rezai, co-producers of the 1001 Nights animated series.