Rooted to the plot: what can Voltaire’s ‘Candide’ teach gardeners?

The 1759 satire has many lessons to impart about the good life and the value of place and belonging
‘Harvest Moon’ (1833) by Samuel Palmer © bridgemanimages.com

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

This is an experimental feature. Give us your feedback. Thank you for your feedback.

What do you think?

I was recently asked to talk on the subject of Il faut cultiver notre jardin and I realised that it is one of those phrases, like genius loci, that trips off the tongue with rather lazy assumptions. Troubled, I went in search of my A-level copy of Voltaire’s Candide and found it sleeping at the end of a bookshelf. The text was full of intense teenage asterisks, exclamation marks and underlining that only make vague sense to me now. But reading the book again, I am amazed at the pace and race of it all. Scenes and locations change with the speed of a James Bond film. It is a really good read.

In school we concentrated on French nihilism and studied Candide as an adumbration of the theatre of the absurd. It was great adolescent stuff. Then gradually the emphasis changed. I began to understand cultiver notre jardin as meaning the good life; working sympathetically and responsibly with the land — a kind of Soil Association meets News from Nowhere by William Morris.

In 1726 Voltaire visited Alexander Pope at his Twickenham villa and there are theories that Voltaire drew his inspiration from Pope’s garden. Pope had created his suburban idyll as a revival of Cicero’s Tusculum villa outside Rome:

Content with little, I can piddle here

On Broccoli and mutton, round the year

Voltaire was powerfully impressed by Pope. He later described Pope’s An Essay on Man as: “The most beautiful, the most useful, the most sublime didactic poem ever written in any language”.

‘Pope’s Villa, Twickenham, Middlesex’ (c1820). Anonymous © Getty

The good and simple life is a recurrent theme distilled into Arcadia. It is a theme that was picked up by the Augustan poets, revived in the Renaissance and championed by the Enlightenment and the English landscape movement. The focus shifted from the protected and enclosed hortus conclusus of divine patterns to a celebration of the grazed and productive landscape — the animated prospect. Instead of Hercules at the head of the avenue, the vista opened out to meadows, sheep and cattle; human toil and agriculture were seen as beautiful in their own right. Horace Walpole sipped sherbet from his Strawberry Hill terrace as he gazed down his Thames vista to the sailors in Twickenham, his “seaport in miniature”. Samuel Palmer painted the haunting beauty of the farmed English landscape. And since then the good life has been variously reawakened by, among others, Morris and Californian flower power.

Beneath the theme is a notion of something called otium: a state of mental equilibrium induced by rural tranquillity and contact with soil that gives true clarity of thought. The Augustan poets thought they could only achieve this pure state in agricultural simplicity. There is no direct translation of otium, though the word is usually identified by its opposite: negotium — the pernicious and clouding effects of the city. Jonathan Bate, in The Song of the Earth (2000), astutely noted that, “You only need Arcadia when your reality is Rome”.

Voltaire was 65 when Candide was published in 1759. He had led a turbulent life and his writing may reveal a trace of calm exhaustion and wry amusement at the enthusiasm of youth. Rather than change the earth, he seems more to want to belong to it. Of all the characters in Candide, Martin’s voice feels closest to Voltaire’s: “persuadé qu’on est également mal partout; il prenait les chooses en patience” — persuaded that things are equally bad everywhere, he approached life with phlegm.

Ultimately, the protagonists in Candide end up doing a variety of things, but none of them is actually gardening: Cunégonde makes pastry; Paquette sews; the old lady does laundry; and frère Giroflée is a carpenter.

I suppose my take on the jardin now is therefore much more to do with being settled and belonging. There is a sense of connection and acceptance that comes from taking a notional ownership of a place. That might involve planting and growing things; but it might also just mean having a sense of the continuing stories of a corner of the world and feeling absorbed into the pattern.

One of the more disconcerting advertisements I have seen recently is the Airbnb poster with the banner line “Belong Anywhere” — or perhaps belong nowhere? There is a beguiling freedom to anonymous movement. It allows you to develop individual identity and escape the preconceptions of your childhood. But at what point does freedom become rootlessness and alienation? Perhaps wandering is ideally just for teenagers, especially if you can choose which part of your life to spend as the teenage years.

A ‘love-in’ at Griffith Park in Los Angeles, 1967 © Getty

By contrast there is something very grounded about connection to the soil and belonging to a place, which develops community and helps you to feel part of something larger and more stable. There is a lovely piece in David Malouf’s book Remembering Babylon (1993) about the first Anglo-Saxon settlers in Australia: “It was the fearful loneliness of the place that most affected her — the absence of ghosts . . . It made the air that much thinner, harder to breathe. She had not understood, till she came to a place where it was lacking, the extent to which her sense of the world had to do with the presence of those who had been there before . . . They would be the first dead here. It made death that much lonelier, and life lonelier too.”

As a teenager I was taught that Candide was about the implausibility of optimism. Through the middle years, I thought it was about stewardship of the land. Now as an older man rereading the book, I take away something rather different. Farming is still an obsession. I have been hugely impressed by the gentle land management practices of Transylvania and I am working with the Rothschild Foundation to look at the future of farming, but the book now seems to me to be more about settlement than agriculture. I was particularly struck by Candide’s whizz through El Dorado. The king’s advice — “quand on est passablement quelque part, il faut y rester”, when you can cope with somewhere, stay with it — seems to get to the heart of the matter. There is a gentle acceptance of letting life take its course that is actually rather sweet and optimistic. Voltaire shows no bitterness in his heaping of disaster on disaster. There is no outrage. Instead there seems to be a sense of surrender and reconciliation to the world.

In a very ad hoc survey I made of the Fort Mason Community Garden in San Francisco, I concluded that the elderly love pruning, children like growing seeds and those in between are focused on how much food they can produce. I was particularly convinced by octogenarians brandishing sharp secateurs. On this basis I came up with the spurious notion of only three Ages of Man on the land: absorbing from birth through the teenage years; doing during the working years; and reflecting through retirement. Of course many of us remain teenagers until we die and others are wise before their time, but there is a kind of pattern.

One of the joys of Candide is that you can take it as your age or state of mind inclines. For all that I admire Pope and Voltaire, I would, however, like to give the last word to the master of them all, Montaigne: “I want death to find me planting my cabbages, but careless of death, and still more of my unfinished garden.”

Fort Mason Community Garden, San Francisco © Getty

Photographs: bridgemanimages.com; Michael Ochs/Getty Images; Heritage Images/Getty Images; Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.