Monday, January 29, 2018

Zadig by Voltaire

The fortunes and misfortunes of a man of reason
Zadig, or The Book of Fate, a philosophical novel by the French author Voltaire, was first published in 1747. It relates the adventures of the title character, a wealthy young man of Babylon, as his life undergoes a series of extreme reversals of fortune. Through all his ups and downs, Zadig conducts himself as a gentleman of impeccable reason, dispensing and acquiring wisdom with each episode of his roller coaster life. Zadig’s extraordinary travels and tribulations are told in a very straightforward matter-of-fact manner, often with wry humor, as a little parable is played out with each new character that he meets. For much of its length, Zadig doesn’t feel like much of a novel at all, but rather a patchwork series of disconnected scenes, each imparting a moral or philosophical lesson. Towards the end of the book, however, many of the earlier plot points come full circle and the story starts to feel more like a novel with a preconceived narrative structure. Ultimately Voltaire ties up all the loose ends of the story into a neat little package, leaving the reader with a feeling of satisfactory resolution.

Zadig is often cited by literary critics as being the first modern detective story. Such a statement is a bit of a stretch, quite frankly. This is not a mystery story, and solving crimes, puzzles, or riddles is not Zadig’s primary purpose. The designation of Zadig as a detective comes from one particular scene in which he uses deductive reasoning to describe a horse and dog that he has not seen, based on physical evidence such as tracks in the dirt. This scene can certainly be seen as a forerunner to the reasoning employed by detectives such as Sherlock Holmes, and it is rumored that early detective fiction authors like Edgar Allen Poe, Emile Gaboriau, and Arthur Conan Doyle were influenced by Zadig when creating their classic detective characters. The funny thing about this particular “detective” scene is that Zadig is not rewarded for the use of his reasoning faculties, but actually punished for it.

Voltaire is famous for being one of history’s most staunch paragons of reason in the face of religion and superstition. Zadig, the character, embodies this rationalism as he spreads enlightenment wherever he goes (for those who are willing to receive it). The characters he encounters are often foils to this rational mindset, displaying irrational and superstitious behavior or thoughtlessly slavish devotion to unreasonable customs. For example, Egypt insists that widows burn themselves alive immediately following their husband’s death, but Zadig shows everyone the error of their ways, and the custom is abolished. Elsewhere in the book, however, Voltaire introduces the character of an angel who illustrates how we are all slaves to fate and subject to a grand plan of the universe that exists beyond our knowledge. It is hard to see how this angel jibes with Voltaire’s freethought, but perhaps he (or the translator) just couldn’t come up with a better word than “angel.” Voltaire’s deistical view of fate, as presented by this rather absurdly behaving angel, can be seen as an almost secular determinism that emphasizes man’s insignificance in the face of the clockwork indifference of the universal forces of nature.

For today’s readers, Zadig’s only real fault is that it’s over 250 years old. The conventions of storytelling were different back then, and the sense of humor doesn’t always translate through the intervening centuries. Even so, it’s not an overly labor intensive read, its lessons are still relevant, and after all these years it still manages to enlighten and entertain.
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