[xmca] Gardeners and Tram Drivers

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Mon Apr 02 2007 - 01:41:51 PDT

I was being conciliatory by changing the subject, Mike. Frankly, I think the Gopnik piece is a study in projection and consequently anachronism. I don't think that Voltaire's love of gardening makes him a conservative bourgeois in his social outlook. In those days, being bourgeois was not particularly conservative, and had little to do with gardening.
  I think that gardening had more to do with being an artist. Monet had a fabulous garden at Giverny along the same lines as Ferney (a groaning board well surrounded by garrulous convives) and so did that other pessimist-meliorist Thomas Hardy. Even Van Gogh gardened in his miserable last days in hospital.
  "Candide" is not simply an attack on Leibniz; "il faut cultiver notre jardin" was probably a jab at Rousseau. Rousseau had written to Voltaire that the great Lisbon earthquake was a human disaster, not a natural one, and "Candide" was Voltaire's rather unkind riposte. You may remember that the actual originator of the line is not Candide-Rousseau himself but an ignorant Turkish peasant. So I think "We must work our fields" is a fair translation, contrary to what Gopnik says.
  Rousseau believed that falsehood, not ignorance, was the real source of human error. Voltaire believed that mankind was irredeemably stupid, though some parts of it (e.g. the English) were noticeably more intelligent than others. In this respect, Rousseau represents the young, genuinely rationalist (and genuinely bourgeois) enlightenment intellectual.
  Voltaire in his dotage was a defeated and rather cynical skeptic (as well as a blithering anti-semite), casting doubt on the ability of knowledge to ameliorate and prevent disasters without being able to cast much light on the future. It's fairly easy to see why Voltaire would capture people's imagination in our own epoch and why Rousseau would attract mostly ridicule.
  Interestingly, while Voltaire was writing Candide, on the other side of the world the Chinese recluse Cao Xueqin was writing the world's first social realist novel "Hongloumeng" (translated, rather badly, as "Dream of the Red Chamber"). The central chronotope of the novel is a garden, first built by the noble Jia family in honor of their daughter, who after having been made an imperial concubine some years before, is allowed a single day of home leave.
  The building of the garden bankrupts the family, but it gives the children a kind of wonderland free of adults to discover sex and live out their childhoods consuming crabmeat and writing poetry about it ("Blame not the crab for walking askance; it is the ways of the world that are crooked"). Early in the novel the hero Jia Baoyu rmarks on how curious it is that a wealthy family like his own should invest its entire fortune destroying nature, then building a wall around the rubble, then trying desperately to reconstruct within that wall a simulacrum of what they had destroyed. Mightn't they have simply left things as they were? Rousseau would have understood his bewilderment. Voltaire would have been bewildered by it.
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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Received on Mon Apr 2 02:44 PDT 2007

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