Obama: A View from Voltaire’s Garden

Obama : A View from Voltaire’s Garden
by Lisa Massaciùccoli

“Art can make you understand through emotion what you are absolutely incapable of understanding through intellect.” — Roberto Rossellini (1962)

“He coined his most famous phrase, écrasez l’infâme—“Crush the horror”—and began to use it, in jauntily (and evasively) abbreviated form. Historians have fussed for centuries about exactly what Voltaire meant by it—the Catholic Church? the Court?—but it’s clear. The horror was the alliance of religious fanaticism with the instruments of the state, and the two combined for torture and official murder.” — Adam Gopnik (2005)

Voltaire’s Candide takes the reader across continents, through numerous adventures (the French word aventure appears repeatedly in the story), and contains several tales within tales. Yet, for all the trappings of a tale, Candide is primarily a vehicle for ideas.

The work’s main theme, that this is clearly not the best of all possible worlds, is not so much developed as merely reiterated. . In accordance with this thematic simplicity, the story has a simple structure. Cast from an earthly (country residence) paradise, the young Candide is subjected to a deliberately ridiculous concatenation of horrors in the corrupt world.

He endures war, or rather sheer carnage (of the kind going on in present day Afghanistan at times), the Lisbon earthquake and the Inquisition. At the center of the story is the peaceful, instructive interlude in Eldorado, a kind of paradise regained, although one that cannot be permanent.

Thrown back into the world, though this time by choice, Candide does not suffer any further hardships of the kind that pepper the first half of the book. Rather, he experiences the appalling tedium of life.

The final “paradise” of the small farm in Turkey, based in part on Voltaire’s own estate at Ferney, is a place where, though things are by no means ideal, illusions about the nature of human existence have been recognized for what they are, and a pragmatic and reasoned attempt is made to create a tolerable life through cooperative labor.

Voltaire’s final world is limited in its aspirations and expectations. It is, however, free from the kind of fanaticism, religious or secular, that prevails throughout the rest of the world that Candide creates.

I just returned from Voltaire’s château, located between the Jura Mountains and the Swiss border. Perhaps the proximity to Geneva inspired what follows below.

Obama, though “not worse” than McCain (and clearly more eloquent), is guilty of secular fanaticism. For one cannot even speak about increasing U.S. military presence (regardless of political rationale) let alone take action on such words… without being guilty of secular fanaticism. To think otherwise is to simply not know what our military is doing in Afghanistan and elsewhere. I only cite Afghanistan because Obama has unequivocally addressed his intentions of ratcheting up our efforts there, increasing the (unnecessary) horror.

This statement, this thought about Obama’s secular fanaticism must be embraced, even if only silently (for starters). For nothing less will do to pave the way for change.

I have more fingers on my two hands than I have friends who understand this, agree with this point of view. In fact, I can’t really be friends with anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that we are guilty of secular fanaticism.

But that’s okay. That’s a start.

I will cry écrasez l’infâme alone, if I must.

Lisa Massaciùccoli can be reached at massaciu@yahoo.com.

P.S. To anyone who objects to the use of secular fanaticism, I ask what the hell do you call the blatant disregard of international borders vis-a-vis recent raids into Syria and Pakistan? Our long standing disregard for international law. Is it the same thing, the same label that you apply to our unlawful, disgusting actions in Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam abomination? Our interference with elections abroad, past and present (and so much more)… same term? Or is there no thought? No awareness? No care? No imagination? No hope whatsoever? What on earth are you growing in your garden? Things rank and coarse in nature possess it merely.