Nonbelieving Literati: Zadig - Voltaire  

Monday, June 16, 2008

I complained to one of my co-workers that I just didn't get Zadig, even though I understood the premise. I didn't understand what was different or revolutionary about the writing. He pointed out that the story was written for a different audience at a different time.

Zadig is about finding happiness by accepting fate - fate that is divinely controlled by the gods. To me it's a tired theme I heard growing up again and again. We are only vessels for God to shape as he wishes. God works in mysterious ways, etc, etc.

But instead of going over ground I've covered here on my blog many times, I instead want to talk about a few specific passages that struck me while I was reading.

Opposite Zadig's house lived Arimaze, a person whose mean soul was depicted on his coarse face. He was corroded with gall and swollen with conceit, and to cap these qualities he had a tedious wit.
This passage refers to the belief that evil reveals itself on the outward appearance of a person. And that good people are pleasant to look upon. Even today, particularly in the fantasy genre, characters that are evil are portrayed as deformed or go through a transformation that deforms them (for example, Star Wars) and why the traditional image of a witch is portrayed as a hag - green skinned and hideous, with warts thrown in.

We think of it as a ridiculous belief now, of course, but it was accepted by the Greeks, the Romans, and even Christians until relatively recently.
Sétoc grasped the profound meaning of this apologue. His slave's wisdom entered his soul. He no longer burned his incense in honor of things, but worshipped the Eternal Being who had created them.
This passage as after Zadig convinced his master, Sétoc, that he was wrong to worship the elements in the representation of the sun and the moon after Zadig made a great show of bowing down to a lantern. But instead of picking up on the idea of worshipping nothing he instead worshipped Zadig's god. Not so wise there, in my opinion. Would it not have been better for Sétoc to then show Zadig that he was just as ridiculous? But then the entire point of the story would have been thrown off its rails (much to the better, I think).
"I am not fond of the supernatural," said Zadig. "Claimants to magical powers, whether they be men or books, have always displeased me. If Your Majesty will permit me to make the test I propose, you will be quite convinced that my secret is the simplest and easiest thing in the world."
But while the point of the book is divine guidance, it still makes use of reason, which I very much enjoyed. In this part of the story Zadig finds an honest treasurer by having the applicants pass through a room with treasures before being ushered into the king's presence, where they would be required to dance. All but one of the men danced with "heads bowed" and "backs bent" as they tried to hold on to the treasures they had stolen, but one man danced with grace.

But even with Zadig's ability to reason he still falls for the most outrageous claims.
They spoke of pleasure, and the hermit proved it to him to be a gift of the gods, "for," said he, "man can give himself neither ideas nor sensations; he receives everything: pleasure and pain come to him as does his being."

Zadig marveled how a man who had done such mad things could reason so well.
I can accept that we are influenced by ideas and actions outside of our own minds, but that we cannot any ideas or sensations that are our own? That's garbage.

And here's the part of the story that I was waiting for, but hoping wouldn't turn in this direction. The part where all of Zadig's troubles are explained. After the wise hermit drowns the son of a widow who had put them up, Zadig flies into a rage only to be greeted by the hermit transformed into an angel. When he asks why the angel why bad things happen to good people and why evil had to exist at all, the angel responds:
"In that case," replied Jesrad, "this earth would be another earth, the concatenation of events would belong to another order of wisdom; and that order, which would be perfect, can exist only in the eternal abode of the supreme Being, whom evil cannot approach. He has created millions of worlds, no one of which can resemble another. This vast variety is a symbol of the vastness of his power. On the earth there are no two leaves of a tree like to each other, and in the limitless plains of the heavens no two orbs. All you see on the little atom where you have been born had to be, in its appointed place and time, in accordance with the immutable laws of him who embodies everything. Men think that the child who has just perished fell into the water by chance, that by the same chance this house was burned: but there is no such thing as chance; everything is test, or punishment, or reward, or prevision. Remember the fisherman who thought himself the most unfortunate of men. Ormuzd sent you to change his destiny. Frail mortal! cease contending with that which is to be worshipped."
And there Zadig shows that he is simply worshipping the elements in another form.

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2 comments: to “ Nonbelieving Literati: Zadig - Voltaire

  • The Exterminator
    Monday, June 16, 2008 at 11:49:00 AM CDT  

    I think another big theme of Zadig is: Don't accept conventional wisdom just because it's conventional; most people don't know what the fuck they're talking about.

    One incident near the beginning of the novel sets the tone for this theme. Zadig's eye is wounded and a famous doctor, Hermes, is called in. The doctor's prediction is dire: Zadig will lose his eye. Two days later the abscess bursts naturally and Zadig is fine.

    Hermes wrote a book in which he proved that Zadig should not have been cured. Zadig did not read the book.

  • The Ridger, FCD
    Monday, June 16, 2008 at 8:09:00 PM CDT  

    Zadig uses reason but it doesn't get him anywhere in the end: he doesn't know all the premises. Unfortunately, that's the message of Zadig: man doesn't know enough, and (worse) can't know enough.

    Fortunately it's a premise Voltaire grew beyond.


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