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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Noble Savages?

Candide and Other Stories by Voltaire

Candide and Other Stories by Voltaire

Voltaire, The Ingenu (Candide and Other Stories) (1767)

The Ingenu, at least in the edition I read, is not a book on its own, but rather one of several novellas (or contes philosophiques, if you prefer) in Candide and Other Stories. This perhaps says something about Canada right off: Candide is one of the most famous books in the world, the kind of thing you can refer to at a party with a wave of your hand (“As Voltaire says in Candide….” Oh, you don’t go to those kinds of parties?) and have heads nodding all around, while The Ingenu is much less well known. Is it fitting, perhaps, that Canada plays a significant role in one of Voltaire’s lesser-known works? If we were mentioned in Candide, think how many more people would have come across the name of our humble nation. As it is, it’s hard to imagine that The Ingenu has done much for us.

But to move things along. The story of The Ingenu revolves around a “Huron” (the “Ingenu” of the title) who in fact turns out to be a Frenchman who was captured as a baby and raised by the Huron in Canada, and who comes to France; the satire grows out of the encounters of this “natural man” with the sophisticates he meets in Europe. There are numerous references to Canada in the first few chapters, not all of them deserving of great attention; we’ll focus on a couple of the more suggestive ones.

The Ingenu had an excellent memory. The soundness of Lower Breton organs, further fortified by the Canadian climate, had given him a head so strong that when it got banged, he hardly felt it, and when something registered within it, not a trace would fade. (213)

The “Canadian climate” referred to here is clearly intended to be understood as extremely harsh, and therefore partly responsible for the Ingenu’s strong head. Note, however, that it’s only partly responsible: “Lower Breton organs,” a European phenomenon, have been “fortified” by Canada, but this appears to depend on the original strength of the European material. So Canada is not the source of the strength, it has merely helped to further develop what Europe originally provided. Canada doesn’t create strong characters, it merely helps bring out the best in strong European natures.

The magistrate found all this far too poetical, not knowing how common allegory is in Canada.  (219)

I find this funny, though I can’t really say why. Is the joke that allegory is a product of sophisticated European society, and would be unknown to Canada? Or is it that the mind of man in its “natural state” tends towards allegory in the sense of imagining that gods must be controlling the forces of nature and so on? I tend to think the former, but I’m not sure I could absolutely defend my view.

From a conversation, in prison, between the Ingenu and a Jansenist:

“God must have great things in store for you,” said the Jansenist to the Huron, “to have brought you from Lake Ontario to England and France, to have had you baptized in Lower Brittany, and to have placed you here that you might be saved.”

“To tell you the truth,” replied the Ingenu, “I think the devil alone has had a hand in my destiny. My fellow Americans would never have treated me in the barbarous way I’ve been treated here. They simply wouldn’t know how. People call them “savages.” They are rough men of principle, whereas the people here are smooth villains.” (235)

“Fellow Americans”? No doubt he means North Americans, or is speaking generally of Canada as part of North America, but that strikes the modern Canadian ear as a bit odd. This passage lays out the classic idea of the “noble savage” i.e. the natural people of North America are far more honest and direct than the cunning, sophisticated men of Europe, who are the real savages, though finely clothed and well-spoken.

“I traveled five or six hundred leagues across Canada, and I never once saw a single monument. No one there has the faintest idea what their great-grandfather did. Is not man in his natural state like that? The human species of this continent seems to me superior to that of the other. It has added to the sum total of its being through the arts and through the pursuit of knowledge.” (239)

Here the opinion has switched from the previous quote (“this continent” means Europe), and we see the satire aimed at Rousseau’s idea of the “Noble Savage”: man’s natural state, as the Ingenu suggests, is nothing that grand; the European addition of art and culture actually represents a higher and finer state of mankind than the untutored natural state to be found in Canada. (One feels a desire to point out that our nation has changed a little in the intervening years: we do have a few monuments now, and a bit of what at least passes for culture among ourselves.)

What’s the reason for this reversal? In the intervening pages the Ingenu has been locked up with a Jansenist, who has been instructing him in metaphysics, mathematics and history. Just before the passage quoted he proclaims that he has “been changed from a brute into a man” (239), and the education he has received is apparently responsible for his now believing that the culture of Europe is superior to the natural state of Canada. So we had our moment there, when we were preferable to Europe; then education intervened, and it was gone.

We can but sigh.


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  1. Pingback: Gateless Gates and Canadian Intertextuality (Paul Muldoon Part III) | Wow - Canada!

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