What Voltaire Meant When He Said That “We Must Cultivate Our Garden”: An Animated Introduction

“Voltaire’s goal in writing [his 1759 satire Candide] was to destroy the optimism of his times,” says Alain de Botton in the School of Life video above, “an optimism that centered around science, love, technical progress, and a faith in reason.” These beliefs were folly, Voltaire thought: the transfer of faith from a providential God to a perfect, clockwork universe. Candide satirizes this happy rationalism in Doctor Pangloss, whose belief that ours is the best of possible worlds comes directly from the philosophical optimism of Gottfried Leibniz.

The preponderance of the evidence, Voltaire made abundantly clear in the novel’s series of increasingly horrific episodes, points toward a blind, indifferent universe full of needless cruelty and chaos. “Hope was, he felt, a disease,” de Botton says, and “it was Voltaire’s generous goal to try and cure us of it.” But as everyone who has read Candide (or read a summary or brief notes on Candide) knows, the novel does not end with despair, but on a “Stoic note.”

After enduring immense suffering on their many travels, Candide and his companions settle in Turkey, where they meet an old man sitting quietly under a tree. He tells them about his philosophy, how he abstains from politics and simply cultivates the fruits of his garden for market as his sole concern. Invited to feast with the man and his family, they remark upon the luxurious ease in which they live and learn that they do so on a fairly small plot of land.

Voltaire loved to goose his largely Christian readers and delighted in putting the novel’s parting wisdom, “arguably the most important adage in modern philosophy,” in the mouth of an Islamic character: Il faut cultiver notre jardin, “we must cultivate our garden.” What does this mean? De Botton interprets the line in the literal spirit with which the character known only as “the Turk” delivers it: we should keep a “safe distance between ourselves and the world.”

We should not, that is, become overly engaged in politics, and should devote ourselves to tending our own livelihood and welfare, not taking more than we need. We should leave our neighbors alone and not bother about what they do in their gardens. To be at peace in the world, Voltaire argued, we must accept the world as it is, not as we want it to be, and give up utopian ideas of societies perfected by science and reason. In short, to “tie our personal moods” to human affairs writ large is to invite endless misery.

The philosophy of Candide is not pessimistic or nihilistic. A happy, fulfilled human life is entirely possible, Voltaire suggests, if not human happiness in general. Candide has much in common with the ancient Roman outlook. But it might also express what could be seen as an early attempt at a secular Buddhist point of view. Voltaire was familiar with Buddhism, though it did not go by that name. Buddhists were lumped in, Donald S. Lopez, professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan, writes at the Public Domain Review, with the mass of “idolaters” who were not Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.

Yet the many Jesuit accounts of Eastern religion reaching Europe at the time circulated widely among intellectuals, including Voltaire, who wrote approvingly, though critically, of Buddhist tenets in his 1764 Dictionnaire philosophique. As the secular mindfulness movement has done in the 21st century, Lopez argues, Voltaire sought in the age of Enlightenment to separate miraculous legend from practical teaching. But like the Buddha, whose supposed biography Voltaire knew well, Candide begins his life in a castle. And the story ends with a man sitting quietly under a tree, more or less advising Candide to do what Voltaire had heard of in the “religion of the Siamese…. Meditate in private, and reflect often on the fragility of human affairs.”

Related Content:

An Animated Introduction to Voltaire: Enlightenment Philosopher of Pluralism & Tolerance

Voltaire: “Those Who Can Make You Believe Absurdities, Can Make You Commit Atrocities”

Philosophers Drinking Coffee: The Excessive Habits of Kant, Voltaire & Kierkegaard

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Sylvia Beach Tells the Story of Founding Shakespeare and Company, Publishing Joyce’s Ulysses, Selling Copies of Hemingway’s First Book & More (1962)

Revisiting Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast a couple of decades after I read it last, I notice a few things right away: I am still moved by the prose and think it’s as impressive as ever; I am less moved by the machismo and alcoholism and more interested in characters like Sylvia Beach, founder of Shakespeare and Company, the bookstore that served as a base of operations for the famed Lost Generation of writers in Paris.

“Sylvia had a lively, sharply sculptured face, brown eyes that were as alive as a small animal’s and as gay as a young girl’s,” Hemingway wrote of her in his memoir. “She was kind, cheerful and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.” Indeed, Hemingway also “recounts being given access to the whole of Sylvia Beach’s library at Shakespeare and Company for free after his first visit,” notes writer RJ Smith.

Beach founded the shop in 1919, encouraged (and funded) by her partner Adrienne Monnier, who owned a French-language bookstore. Beach's mostly English-language Shakespeare and Company would become a lending-library, post office, bank, and even hotel for authors who congregated there. She supported the great expatriate modernists and hosted French writers like André Gide and Paul Valéry. She also published James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922 when no one else would, after earlier published excerpts were deemed “obscene.”

Joyce was shaped by Paris, and owed a huge debt of gratitude to Beach, just as readers of Ulysses do almost 100 years later. Forty years after the novel’s publication, Beach traveled to Ireland to celebrate and sat down for the long interview above in which she remembers those heady times. She also tells the story of how a Presbyterian minister’s daughter—who went to church in Princeton, NJ with Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson—became a pioneering out lesbian modernist bookseller in Paris.

Beach remembers meeting “all the French writers” at Monnier’s shop after her time studying at the Sorbonne and how American writers all came to Paris to escape prohibition at home. “For Hemingway and his most of his friends,” says Harvard historian Patrice Higonnet, “Paris was one long binge, all the more enjoyable because it wasn’t very expensive.” For Beach, Paris became home, and Shakespeare and Company a home away from home for waves of expats until the Nazis shut it down in 1941. (Ten years later, a different Shakespeare and Company was opened by bookseller George Whitman.)

“They were disgusted in America because they couldn’t get a drink,” Beach says, “and they couldn’t get Ulysses. I used to think those were the two great causes of their discontent.” Her interviews, letters, and her own memoir, Shakespeare and Company, tell the story of the Lost Generation from her point of view, one animated by an absolute devotion to literature, and in particular, to Joyce, who did not reciprocate. When Ulysses sold to Random House in 1932, he offered her no share of his very large advance.

Beach was forgiving. “I understood from the first,” she said, “that working with or for Mr. Joyce, the pleasure was mine—an infinite pleasure: the profits were for him.” She was doing something other than running a business. She was “cross-fertilizing,” as French writer Andre Chamson put it. “She did more to link England, the United States, Ireland, and France than four great ambassadors combined.” She did so by giving writers what they needed to make the work she knew they could, at a very rare time and place in which such a thing was briefly possible.

Related Content:

Beginnings Profiles Shakespeare and Company’s Sylvia Beach Whitman

The Shakespeare and Company Project Digitizes the Records of the Famous Bookstore, Showing the Reading Habits of the Lost Generation

F. Scott Fitzgerald Has a Strange Dinner with James Joyce & Draws a Cute Sketch of It (1928)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Nina Simone Writes an Admiring Letter to Langston Hughes: “Brother, You’ve Got a Fan Now!” (1966)

Nina Simone’s creative and political community meant everything to her, and the many losses she suffered in the 60s sent her deeper into the depression of the last decades of her life. “Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Lorraine Hansberry [were] prominent,” writes Malik Gaines at LitHub, “among… socially engaged writers and dramatists” whom she considered not only her “political tutors” but also her heroes and closest friends. She never stopped grieving the loss of Hansberry and Hughes and frequently memorialized them in tributes like “Backlash Blues."

Written by Hughes, and one of Simone's fiercest and most timely civil rights songs, “Backlash Blues” represents the significant influence the poet had on her and her art. In a live 1967 recording, she sings, “When Langston Hughes died—He told me many months before—Nina keep working until they open up that door.” The two first met when Simone was still Eunice Waymon from Tryon, North Carolina: an aspiring classical pianist, “president of the 11th-grade class and an officer with the school’s NAACP chapter,” explains Andrew J. Fletcher, a board member of the Nina Simone Project in Asheville.

This was 1949, and Hughes had come to Asheville to address Allen High School, the private school for African American girls Simone attended through a scholarship that her music teacher and early champion collected from her hometown. The poet “could not have known,” Maria Popova writes at Brain Pickings, “that [Simone] would soon revolutionize the music canon under her stage name." But nearly ten years later, he recognized her talent immediately.

On the release of Simone's first album, Little Girl Blue, Hughes was “so stunned that he lauded it with lyrical ardor” in his column for the Chicago Defender.

She is different. So was Billie Holiday, St. Francis, and John Donne. So in Mort Sahl. She is a club member, a coloured girl, an Afro-American, a homey from Down Home. She has hit the Big Town, the big towns, the LP discs and the TV shows — and she is still from down home. She did it mostly all by herself. Her name is Nina Simone.

They would become close friends and mutual admirers. Hughes sent her “books he thought would inspire her,” including several of his own, and wrote "words for her to set to song.” She wrote to him with earnest expressions of appreciation, especially in the letter here, penned in 1966 just before Hughes' death.

Simone had just read Hughes' autobiography The Big Sea. The book, she says, “gives me such pleasure—you have no idea! It is so funny.” She also writes, with candor:

Then too, if I’m in a negative mood and want to get more negative (about the racial problem, I mean) if I want to get downright mean and violent I go straight to this book and there is also material for that. Amazing—

I use the book—what I mean is I underline all meaningful sentences to me…. And as I said there is a wealth of knowledge concerning the negro problem, especially if one wants to trace the many many areas that we’ve had it rough in all these years—sometimes when I’m with white “liberals” who want to know why we’re so bitter—I forget (I don’t forget—I just get tongue-tied) how complete has been the white races’ rejection of us all these years and then when this happens I go get your book.

Hughes’ is rarely “mean and violent,” but Simone brought to her reading her own despair and rage and raw sense of rejection, emotions she was never afraid to explore in her work or talk about with humor and fierce ire in her life. “Brother, you’ve got a fan,” she gushes. The Big Sea “grips my imagination immediately plus everything in it I identify with, even your going to sea and I’ve never been to sea.” She had not been to sea, but she had been adrift, “depressed, alienated and low,” as she sang at Morehouse College in 1969 in a performance of her civil rights anthem and tribute to Lorraine Hansberry, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”

The adlib framed Simone’s feelings with the same "emotional and political dimensions,” writes Gaines, she found in Hughes’ work. Though she does not mention it in her letter, her annotated copy of The Big Sea surely marks up the passage below, in which Hughes’ describes his early unhappiness and his transformative encounter with art:

When I was in the second grade, my grandmother took me to Lawrence to raise me. And I was unhappy for a long time, and very lonesome, living with my grandmother. Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books--where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas.

For Simone, music gave her suffering purpose, but not the music she played for audiences and on record. One of the saddest ironies of her career is that the woman dubbed “The High Priestess of Soul” had little interest in playing soul. She embarked on her popular music career to fund her classical education. However, the opportunities to play the way she wanted to did not arise. “Nina closed her letter on a strangely down note,” writes Nadine Cohodas in Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone. “Her melancholy overwhelmed any excitement about playing for the first time in France and Belgium. ‘No pleasure,’ she told Langston, ‘just work.’”

So much of Simone’s frustration and burnout in the music industry came out of a deep sense of alienation from her work. The shy Eunice Waymon had never craved the spotlight, something Hughes must have come to know about her in the years of their acquaintance. In his first note of praise, however, he gets one thing wrong. As she was always the first to point out, Simone did not do it “mostly all by herself.”

The support of her mother, her teacher, and her small "down home" community took her as far as it could. Her relationships with Hansberry, Hughes, and other artists/activists carried her the rest of the way. Until they were gone. But when Hughes died, Popova writes, “a devastated Simone turned her coveted set at the Newport Jazz Festival into a tribute and closed it with an exhortation to the audience: ‘Keep him with you always. He was a beautiful, a beautiful man, and he’s still with us, of course.'” See much more of their correspondence at the Beinecke.

via the Beinecke

Related Content:    

Nina Simone’s Live Performances of Her Poignant Civil Rights Protest Songs

Nina Simone Song “Color Is a Beautiful Thing” Animated in a Gorgeous Video

Langston Hughes Reads Langston Hughes

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Back to the Arena: Battling the Hunger Games Prequel with Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast (#57)

Remember when The Hunger Games was everywhere? Its author Suzanne Collins has decided that young people could benefit from more exploration of Just War Theory through the world of Panem, and so has published The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a prequel covering the early years of future president Coriolanus Snow during the 10th Hunger Games.

Pretty Much Pop hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt give their spoiler-free reviews of the new book and look back on the original book trilogy and its adaptation into four films (and do spoil those, in case you want to go watch them). We talk about what makes these novels "YA," the function of adapting them to film, and the limits of the franchise's premise and world-building. Does the work critique yet glorify violence at the same time? Will the film version of the new novel be our next Phantom Menace?

Some articles we looked at included:

Learn more at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

Dessert Recipes of Iconic Thinkers: Emily Dickinson’s Coconut Cake, George Orwell’s Christmas Pudding, Alice B. Toklas’ Hashish Fudge & More

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Of all the desserts to attain cultural relevance over the past century, can any hope to touch Alice B. Toklas' famous hashish fudge? Calling for such ingredients as black peppercorns, shelled almonds, dried figs, and most vital of all Cannabis sativa, the recipe first appeared in 1954's The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. (Toklas would read the recipe aloud on the radio in the early 1960s, a time when the fudge's key ingredient had become an object of much more intense public interest.) More than a how-to on Toklas' favorite dishes, the book is also a kind of memoir, including recollections of her life with Gertrude Stein — herself the author of the ostensible Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

This puts us in the realm of serious literature where sweets, you might assume, are scarcely to be found. But baking constituted a part of the creative process of no less a literary mind than Emily Dickinson, whose handwritten recipe for coconut cake appears above.

That same sheet of a paper's reverse side, which you can see in our earlier post about it, bears the first lines of her poem "The Things that never can come back, are several." Dickinson also, as we've previously posted here on Open Culture, had her very own recipes for gingerbread, donuts, and something requiring five pounds of raisins called "black cake."

It may seem obvious that women like Toklas and Dickinson, born and raised in the 19th century, would have been expected to learn this sort of thing. But a fair few of the literary men of generations past knew something of their way around the kitchen as well. George Orwell, for instance, wrote an essay on "British cookery," early in which he states that "in general, British people prefer sweet things to spicy things." While describing "sweet dishes and confectionery – cakes, puddings, jams, biscuits and sweet sauces" as the "glory of British cookery," he admits that "the national addiction to sugar has not done the British palate any good." And so he includes the recipe for a Christmas pudding which, subtle by that standard, calls for only half a pound of the stuff.

Born a generation after Orwell, Roald Dahl made no secret of his own sugar-addicted British palate. In his book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Dahl had "dazzled young readers with visions of Cavity-Filling Caramels, Everlasting Gobstoppers, and snozzberry-flavored wallpaper," writes Open Culture's own Ayun Halliday. But his own candy of choice was "the more pedestrian Kit-Kat bar. In addition to savoring one daily (a luxury little Charlie Bucket could but dream of, prior to winning that most golden of tickets) he invented a frozen confection called 'Kit-Kat Pudding,'" whose simple recipe is as follows: "Stack as many Kit-Kats as you like into a tower, using whipped cream for mortar, then shove the entire thing into the freezer, and leave it there until solid."

If you're looking for a slightly more challenging dessert that still comes with a cultural figure's imprimatur, you might give Normal Rockwell's favorite oatmeal cookies a try. Going deeper into American history, we've also got Thomas Jefferson's recipe for ice cream, the taste for which he picked up while living in France in the 1780s. That same country's cuisine also inspired Ernest Hemingway's fruit pie, meant for summer-camping with one's pals: "If your pals are Frenchmen," Hemingway adds, "they will kiss you." Alas, if anyone has determined the exact recipe for the most famous dessert in all of French literature, Marcel Proust's memory-triggering madeleines, they haven't released it to the hungry public.

Related Content:

The Recipes of Iconic Authors: Jane Austen, Sylvia Plath, Roald Dahl, the Marquis de Sade & More

Ernest Hemingway’s Summer Camping Recipes

82 Vintage Cookbooks, Free to Download, Offer a Fascinating Illustrated Look at Culinary and Cultural History

Historic Mexican Recipes Are Now Available as Free Digital Cookbooks: Get Started With Dessert

Wagashi: Peruse a Digitized, Centuries-Old Catalogue of Traditional Japanese Candies

Animated Noir: Key Lime Pie

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Raymond Chandler’s 36 Great Unused Titles: From “The Man With the Shredded Ear,” to “Quick, Hide the Body”

For Chandler's birthday today. He was born on this day in 1888.

via Chris Power

Related Content:

Raymond Chandler’s Ten Commandments for Writing a Detective Novel

Hear Raymond Chandler & Ian Fleming–Two Masters of Suspense–Talk with One Another in Rare 1958 Audio

Watch Raymond Chandler’s Long-Unnoticed Cameo in Double Indemnity


When Astronomer Johannes Kepler Wrote the First Work of Science Fiction, The Dream (1609)

The point at which we date the birth of any genre is apt to shift depending on how we define it. When did science fiction begin? Many cite early masters of the form like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as its progenitors. Others reach back to Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein as the genesis of the form. Some few know The Blazing World, a 1666 work of fiction by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, who called her book a “hermaphroditic text.” According to the judgment of such experts as Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, sci-fi began even earlier, with a novel called Somnium (“The Dream”), written by none other than German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler. Maria Popova explains at Brain Pickings:

In 1609, Johannes Kepler finished the first work of genuine science fiction — that is, imaginative storytelling in which sensical science is a major plot device. Somnium, or The Dream, is the fictional account of a young astronomer who voyages to the Moon. Rich in both scientific ingenuity and symbolic play, it is at once a masterwork of the literary imagination and an invaluable scientific document, all the more impressive for the fact that it was written before Galileo pointed the first spyglass at the sky and before Kepler himself had ever looked through a telescope.

The work was not published until 1634, four years after Kepler’s death, by his son Ludwig, though “it had been Kepler’s intent to personally supervise the publication of his manuscript,” writes Gale E. Christianson. His final, posthumous work began as a dissertation in 1593 that addressed the question Copernicus asked years earlier: “How would the phenomena occurring in the heavens appear to an observer stationed on the moon?” Kepler had first come “under the thrall of the heliocentric model,” Popova writes, “as a student at the Lutheran University of Tübingen half a century after Copernicus published his theory.”

Kepler’s thesis was “promptly vetoed” by his professors, but he continued to work on the ideas, and corresponded with Galileo 30 years before the Italian astronomer defended his own heliocentric theory. “Sixteen years later and far from Tübingen, he completed an expanded version,” says Andrew Boyd in the introduction to a radio program about the book. “Recast in a dreamlike framework, Kepler felt free to probe ideas about the moon that he otherwise couldn’t.” Not content with cold abstraction, Kepler imagined space travel, of a kind, and peopled his moon with aliens.

And what an imagination! Inhabitants weren’t mere recreations of terrestrial life, but entirely new forms of life adapted to lunar extremes. Large. Tough-skinned. They evoked visions of dinosaurs. Some used boats, implying not just life but intelligent, non-human life. Imagine how shocking that must have been at the time.

Even more shocking to authorities were the means Kepler used in his text to reveal knowledge about the heavens and travel to the moon: beings he called “daemons” (a Latin word for benign nature spirits before Christianity hijacked the term), who communicated first with the hero’s mother, a witch practiced in casting spells.

The similarities between Kepler’s protagonist, Duracotus, and Kepler himself (such as a period of study under Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe) led the church to suspect the book was thinly veiled autobiographical occultism. Rumors circulated, and Kepler’s mother was arrested for witchcraft and subjected to territio verbalis (detailed descriptions of the tortures that awaited her, along with presentations of the various devices).  It took Kepler five years to free her and prevent her execution.

Kepler’s story is tragic in many ways, for the losses he suffered throughout his life, including his son and his first wife to smallpox. But his perseverance left behind one of the most fascinating works of early science fiction—published hundreds of years before the genre is supposed to have begun. Despite the fantastical nature of his work, “he really believed,” says Sagan in the short clip from Cosmos above, “that one day human beings would launch celestial ships with sails adapted to the breezes of heaven, filled with explorers who, he said, would not fear the vastness of space.”

Astronomy had little connection with the material world in the early 17th century. “With Kepler came the idea that a physical force moves the planets in their orbits,” as well as an imaginative way to explore scientific ideas no one would be able to verify for decades, or even centuries. Hear Somnium read at the top of the post and learn more about Kepler’s fascinating life and achievements at Brain Pickings.

Related Content:

Mary Shelley’s Handwritten Manuscript of Frankenstein: This Is “Ground Zero of Science Fiction,” Says William Gibson

Stream 47 Hours of Classic Sci-Fi Novels & Stories: Asimov, Wells, Orwell, Verne, Lovecraft & More

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: 17,500 Entries on All Things Sci-Fi Are Now Free Online

Free Science Fiction Classics Available on the Web (Updated)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

More in this category... »