The Best of All Possible Worlds

Monday, March 21, 2011

So I put up that post about bento where I said I feel like I was Japanese in a past life, and then Japan was devastated by a natural disaster and I felt like I should put up something telling people how they could help. But I wasn’t exactly sure how people could help and then got caught up in other things and didn’t get anything written. Then I read that the Japanese government and the Japanese Red Cross weren’t accepting outside help, they were relying on internal resources to deal with the situation. Because they’re Japanese and part of the Japanese culture is to be self-reliant.

Most of the media attention has been focused on everything going on with the nuclear reactor, but I did hear a few stories about earthquake and tsunami survivors, one of which talked about how orderly the shelters were, with shoes lined up outside, and in another (or possibly the same) story, the reporter talked about the incongruity of a woman at the shelter, surrounded by utter destruction for miles and miles, separating trash from recyclables and focusing very hard on making sure everything was sorted properly.

All of which made me feel even more Japanese.

This is definitely what I would do if everything I ever had had been destroyed: I would not accept help from anyone, I would take my shoes off before going inside, and I would make sure the trash was separated.

But my heart breaks for those who lost so much, especially older people, many of whom reportedly kept their savings in their houses, so they literally lost everything, their money as well as all their possessions, along with, in many cases, children and other family members.

It’s so sad.

And it makes you think about how everything you have could be gone at any moment.

It also reminded me of Candide, which I may have read in high school but definitely read in college, and then re-read a few years ago, and I suppose it depends on how you feel about satire, but I for one think it’s completely brilliant. Because so many horrible things happen, every page has three horrible things on it, yet Pangloss the philosopher keeps insisting that we are living in the best of all possible worlds, how could anything be otherwise.

There are many parts I love, though I think my favorite is when Candide ends up in Eldorado, the long-rumored paradise, where there are no wars, no prisons, everyone always has enough to eat, and everyone is rich and happy. But he decides he needs to return to Europe, because if they stay in Eldorado they’ll just be like everyone else, but if they go back, they’ll be richer than kings.

As Candide’s manservant Cacambo notes, “a man who has traveled always enjoys coming home to show off and tell impressive stories about the things he has seen abroad.”

So the two fortunate men decided to be fortunate no longer: they asked His Majesty permission to leave.

What the earthquake and tsunami in Japan made me think of was the scene in the beginning of the book, inspired by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and subsequent fire that destroyed most of the city.

(This scene is between when Candide and Pangloss and their benefactor James the Anabaptist are shipwrecked — and James the Anabaptist dies after rescuing a sailor who then proceeds to watch the Anabaptist drown without lifting a finger — and when Candide and Pangloss are burned at the stake by the Inquisitors. “After the earthquake had destroyed three-quarters of Lisbon, the wise men of the country could think of no more effective way of avoiding total ruin than giving the populace a fine auto-da-fé.”)

They had scarcely set foot in the city, mourning the death of their benefactor, when they felt the earth tremble beneath them. The sea boiled up in the harbor and smashed the vessels lying at anchor. Whirlwinds of flame and ashes covered the streets and squares, houses collapsed, roofs were thrown onto foundations and the foundations crumbled; thirty thousand inhabitants of all ages and both sexes were crushed beneath the ruins.

The sailor whistled, swore and said, “I’ll get something out of this.”

“What can be the sufficient reason for this phenomenon?” said Pangloss.

“This is the end of the world!” cried Candide.

The sailor immediately rushed into the midst of the wreckage, braved death to find money, found some, took it with him, got drunk and, after sobering up a little, bought the favors of the first willing girl he met in the ruins of the destroyed houses, amid the dead and dying. But Pangloss pulled him by the sleeve and said to him, “You’re behaving badly, my friend: you’re not respecting universal reason, you’ve chosen a bad time for this.”

“By the blood of Christ! I’m a sailor and I was born in Batavia: I’ve walked on the crucifix four times during four stays in Japan — you’ve come to the right man with your universal reason.”

Candide had been wounded by several splinters of stone. He was lying in the street, covered with rubble. He said to Pangloss, “Alas! Get me some wine and oil: I’m dying.”

“This earthquake is nothing new,” replied Pangloss. “The town of Lima in America felt the same shocks last year. Same cause, same effects; there is surely a vein of sulphur running underground from Lima to Lisbon.”

“Nothing is more likely,” said Candide, “but in the name of God, bring me some oil and wine!”

“What do you mean, likely?” retorted the philosopher. “I maintain that the fact is demonstrated.”

Candide lost consciousness, and Pangloss brought him a little water from a nearby fountain.

The next day, having found a little food as they slipped through the ruins, they recovered some of their strength. Then they worked like the others to help those inhabitants who had escaped death. Some of the citizens they assisted gave them as good a dinner as was possible in such a disaster. The meal was sad, it is true. The hosts wet their bread with their tears, but Pangloss comforted them by assuring them that things could not have been otherwise: “For,” he said, “all is for the best. For if there’s a volcano in Lisbon, it couldn’t be anywhere else. For it’s impossible for things not to be where they are. For all is well.”

I think one of the reasons I like Candide is because you tend to get caught up in awful things, thinking that everything is worse than ever. But in fact things have always been terrible, just in a different way. Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.

And at least the Inquisition is over.

But none of that helps anyone in Japan, so my heart still breaks for them.

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