Tuesday, November 4, 2008

May You Live in Interesting Times

We have certainly arrived in that moment. Although today is a day of hope for new beginnings, it is also surely not the end of a run of really bad news and there is a mountain of uncertainty ahead. Humanity has just about succeeded in ruining the planetary weather systems, kills off an increasing number of other species every year, and it seems that every other week natural disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes claim more human lives. In addition, new plagues (whether AIDS, avian flu, or foodborne toxic E. coli) continue to pose a threat, civil wars in many parts of the globe seem to trend toward genocide in their cruelty and viciousness, food scarcity is increasing, and government regulation has proved ineffective against adulteration of imported foods and drugs. In this country as well as others, civil liberty and freedom of thought have been damaged with the apparent complicity of a good half of the population. On top of all that, the world economic system has been destabilized. What to do? Voltaire had the answer. "Il faut cultiver notre jardin." Or, as usually translated, "We must cultivate our garden."

Voltaire's garden has virtually become a kōan for Western writers. Everyone has an interpretation of what Voltaire meant by this innocent-sounding conclusion to Candide. Surely one of the most leaden ones is that of a recent translator, Burton Raffel. In a rejoinder to a review of his translation, he asserts that "Candide is a novel, not a philosophical tract" and vigorously defends his translation of the phrase as "we need to work our fields", arguing that the verb cultiver meant in Voltaire's time "to bestow labor upon land in order to raise crops".

But as Adam Gopnik argues in a beautiful review of the book Voltaire in Exile, "By 'garden' Voltaire meant a garden, not a field—not the land and task to which we are chained by nature but the better place we build by love. The force of that last great injunction,'We must cultivate our garden', is that our responsibility is local, and concentrated on immediate action." Gopnik also notes that though the conclusion of Candide "seems to retreat from a confrontation with human cruelty to an enclosed garden, its publication marked Voltaire’s... moral development ... toward a faith in liberal meliorism."

Voltaire lived through "interesting times" too. He was born François-Marie Arouet in 1694 in a France where the excesses of the aristocracy and monarchy were already laying the foundation for the French revolution that began nearly a century later (1789). He made his way into the outer circles of high society as a poet and playwright (and assumed the name of Voltaire), was exiled to England for a time because of his impertinence, made money by what appears to be a bit of a scam involving a public lottery, wrote a number of very serious treatises, some of which were iconoclastic, was eventually exiled from France and settled near Geneva. He was appalled by the suffering caused by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, by the cruelty of the Spanish inquisition, by the destruction caused by the Seven Years' War, by the pitiful condition of the peasants. His disgust at the torture and capital punishment used in France and elsewhere (in which living bodies were rended asunder), especially on religious grounds, led to his campaign against l'infâme.

So what did he do? He made a garden. In exile near Geneva, he developed estates, first at the leased villa Les Délices, then at one he purchased at Ferney. He really did garden, writing the friend who owned Les Délices, "Many thanks for the lavender; I promise to have it planted in all the borders of your kitchen garden...at this moment I am sowing your Egyptian onions...Please send me everything you can in the way of flowers and vegetables."

But Voltaire's garden wasn't just about producing food or having pretty views, though it certainly did that. He created a productive enterprise to benefit his little corner of the world. When he first took possession at Ferney, he wrote to a friend that the landed estate was depopulated and miserable, without industry or resources. "My land is excellent, and yet I have found (50 hectares) belonging to my inhabitants which remain uncultivated...it is seven years since the curé celebrated any marriages, and no children have been born...poor people who have scarcely even any black bread to eat, are arrested every day, stripped, and imprisoned, for having put on this bread a bit of salt which they have bought (without paying taxes)...One's heart is torn when one witnesses so much misery. I only bought the Ferney estate in order to do a bit of good." He immediately put workers to cleaning and widening ditches, plowing fields, and planting vines. He visited his cowsheds: "I love my bulls...I stroke them and they make eyes at me". He bought and bragged about new farm implements. Over time he brought in more people and became the patriarch of a little community. He even initiated an industry to support his people, a watch factory which, with his astuteness in merchandising, became a successful business. (Quotes and information from Voltaire In Exile, by Ian Davidson.)

So, the point - the meaning of Voltaire's garden is not a retreat but an engagement. In times like these, we must make our little corner of the world into a generative force. This includes the support for local farming operations, community gardens, the ability to keep chickens, local commercial enterprises, growing and preparing our own food and in general the betterment of our small community to enhance our sufficiency. This is where reality truly lies and where goodness begins. Now I must go cultivate my garden.

1 comment:

Anon said...

This is such an exquisite post. I have re-read it many times. Thank you for posting it.