University High School
Instructor: Lee Fallon
We Love Leibniz, Horatio Alger, and Prejudiced Americans…NOT!
We Love Leibniz, Horatio Alger, and Prejudiced Americans…NOT!
Normally, most people would not find a connection between mid-18th century European literature, Great Depression writing, and 2000s films. Yet, the genre of satire has seamlessly bridged these gaps in time through the works of Voltaire's Candide, Nathanael West's A Cool Million, and Sascha Baron Cohen's Borat. Moreover, these authors have mostly followed the model of the quest satire. Candide journeys throughout the western world in search of his lover, Cunégonde. Lemuel Pitkin embarks on a journey to achieve success, but unfortunate endeavors constantly ruin his American Dream. Borat Sagdiyev travels across the country, documenting America to benefit his native Kazakhstan. Each author uses a naïf as the main character to aid his narrative and satire of different targets.
The key difference between these three works is context, which shapes how each author approaches his targets. Voltaire published Candide in 1756 in response to the Seven Years' War and the Lisbon Earthquake. These events directly contradicted the theodicean ideas developed by Leibniz, summarized as the "best of all possible worlds." Voltaire was also a part of the Age of Enlightenment, so his satire focuses on larger ideas surrounding human nature, such as optimistic determinism, war, religion, and aristocracy. 175 years later, West satirized a similar optimistic attitude, but this time, in America, and with a much darker tone. West's personal experiences combined with the dismal years of the Great Depression reflect his extraordinarily dark and hopeless outlook and his seething criticism of the Algerian mythos and American Dream. Finally, Cohen's Borat uses a visual medium, which gives Cohen additional strategies, such as visual irony. Cohen produced his satire in a post-9/11 America when emotions were running high over the fight against terrorism. Furthermore, many topics, such as Muslim and Arab-Americans' roles in the United States, were taboo. Cohen breaks this barrier by playing a naïve foreigner in real interviews and seeing how extreme Borat can act to reveal Americans' true beliefs. Cohen's style of satire and humor also appeals to modern audiences because it uses instances directly from the world people lived in at the time, and it boldly makes fun of issues that Americans oppose but are unwilling to take action on. Thus, each author builds off of his unique context and utilizes his own style and techniques to satirize various targets.
Voltaire's primary target is Leibnizian optimism, though this occasionally ventures into criticism of war, religion, and nobility. His primary strategy is to maintain consistency with the quest formula and symbolic characters, and he uses irony, sarcasm, and exaggeration to elaborate on his criticisms. The primary symbolic character is Cunégonde, who, throughout the novella, represents the idea of the "best of all possible worlds" that is always just out of reach. From the very beginning, Candide obsesses over Cunégonde. However, when he kisses her, he gets banished from the castle. Later on, when Candide flees from Buenos Aires and leaves Cunégonde with the governor, Candide continues to think about his dream woman, but she remains tantalizingly just out of reach. Even in the rich country of El Dorado, Candide is "wholly occupied with the thoughts of presenting his sheep to Miss Cunégonde" (Voltaire 75).
Afterwards, Candide arrives in France, where he meets an Abbé. Candide chats with the Abbé and gets "carried away by the pleasure [Candide] took in [recounting] his adventures with that illustrious Westphalian beauty" (Voltaire 94). The Abbé capitalizes on Candide's naivety and sends him a fake letter from Cunégonde. The letter tells Candide that she is ill and asks him to come see her at her house in Paris. However, when Candide arrives at the house, he is told that he cannot open the curtain in the dark room because "light will be the death of Cunégonde" and that Cunégonde cannot speak and can only reach out her hand (Voltaire 95). Candide cries and gives the woman whom he thinks is Cunégonde diamonds and gold. The Abbé easily deceives Candide in this scene and eventually brings a squad of officers to arrest Candide. Voltaire adheres to the naïf satire formula in this scene, and this is an effective way to relate Candide's gullibility to the idea that Cunégonde is a false dream. Voltaire believes that humans who follow Leibnizian optimism and intangible ideas constantly fall into traps just like Candide does.
When Candide finally finds the true Cunégonde again, her ugly physical appearance only reaffirms that the "best of all possible worlds" is a hoax. Candide's entire journey is built on the perfect image of Cunégonde: an infinitely beautiful woman whom Candide will one day marry. However, by the end of Candide's journey, Voltaire completely tears apart this optimistic vision. In fact, when Candide reunites with Cunégonde, she is "sun-burnt, with bloodshot eyes, a withered neck, her face wrinkled, and her arms red and scaly" (Voltaire 124). To this point, Cunégonde has been the symbol of everything good, but now, she is so ugly that Candide even admits he would not want to marry her anymore. Thus, Voltaire builds up Cunégonde's image only to destroy it in the end, crushing Candide's dreams and bringing him back to reality.
In addition to maintaining continuity with Cunégonde's image and the quest formula, Voltaire employs irony and euphemism in certain scenes to make additional criticisms. For example, Voltaire describes the Bulgar-Abar armies in the war as "gallant, well-accoutred, so brilliant, and so finely disposed" (Voltaire 17). This sarcastically positive description of war illustrates Voltaire's disapproval of this violence and brutality. After all the bloodshed, the kings of both sides start singing Te Deums, which are sung prayers asking God for victory. The irony is that by praying for victory, one side is also praying for the other side's defeat, so the result is mutual slaughter, which is exactly what Voltaire views these religious wars as. Voltaire illustrates that man's arrogance in believing God is on their side leads to ridiculous justification of the carnage incurred. The Lisbon earthquake is another instance of Voltaire's criticisms of the optimistic view. Pangloss, who embodies Leibniz in this novella, desperately tries to justify the natural disaster by arguing that "everything is for the best." When he is questioned on the ideas of free will and original sin in relation to the punishment of humans in the earthquake, Pangloss struggles to defend his argument (Voltaire 27). Yet again, Voltaire challenges the "perfect world" with the existence of natural disasters, like this earthquake. This real-life event partly inspired Candide, so it illustrates especially clearly why Voltaire views Leibnizian optimism negatively.
West satirizes the Horatio Alger "formula," which implies that hardworking, honest Americans can achieve success through the American Dream. In contrast to Voltaire, West maintains a less consistent storyline. Instead, he opts for a cynical criticism of the Algerian mythos through Lemuel's succumbing to Whipple's ideas and the illusions created by Asa Goldstein and Wu Fong. West uses the naïf to portray Lemuel as a foolish, innocent child who is easily misled by the nonsensical ideas of Shagpoke Whipple. From the very start, Lem's situation turns dire, as he loses his house and leaves his mother to find a job in the city with Whipple's encouragement. Whipple convinces Lem that America "takes care of the honest and industrious and never fails them as long as they are both." He goes on to tell Lem to follow the paths of Rockefeller and Ford to become rich (West 74). West precisely describes the "rags-to-riches" idea that Alger portrayed in his stories. Of course, the ultra-wealthy men, like Rockefeller and Ford, are the exception, not the norm. Thus, Whipple is the "Pangloss" of this novella, setting up Lem for failure. When Lem lands in prison due to a misunderstanding involving the ring and pawnbroker, Whipple is there again to repeat his perverted message of optimism. Holding a bedpan, Whipple says Lem's chance of success is "even better [now] because [Lem has] been in prison" (West 97). Common sense dictates that being an ex-prisoner has absolutely no correlation to success. The symbolism of the bedpan also supports West's view that the ideas of Whipple are false and even counterproductive.
Lem's "dismantling" and Whipple's rhetoric continue to build up to the end of Lem's journey. By this point, Whipple is working to promote his National Revolutionary Party. This party symbolizes Whipple's incompetence. In a speech in Detroit, Whipple claims that Americans will "be driven from [their] farms" and become "common property of foreigners to maul and mouth at their leisure" (West 169). Whipple spews meaningless words that incite violence in order to indiscriminately take over America. West portrays Whipple as a demagogue to discredit any of Whipple's ideas, including the Algerian mythos that Lem has followed. As a direct result of being misled, Lemuel is physically torn apart, with only one eye, one leg, no teeth, and no scalp. Whipple is also responsible for Lem's death, as Lem is shot dead giving a speech on Whipple's behalf to incite a mob of supporters. However, Lemuel's true undoing is when Whipple describes Lem's legacy as demonstrating "the right of every American boy to go into the world and there receive fair play and a chance to make his fortune by industry and probity" (West 179). The final dismantling of Lem is Whipple's distortion of Lem's story to support his deluded narrative of the American Dream. This clear destruction of a continuous theme at the end mirrors Voltaire's approach, albeit a little less organized and more pessimistic.
Asa Goldstein and Wu Fong's actions further symbolize West's view that Americans are falsely informed and that the American Dream that is instilled in so many is a fantasy. Goldstein is the opportunistic Jew who takes Lem's home to his shop in New York. Lem visits the shop when he first arrives in New York and sees his house "through a veil of tears" because he is thinking of his "poor mother" (West 102). However, when Lem tells the clerk his story, the clerk is overly concerned about where to position the chest of drawers, paying no attention to Lem's emotions. West uses Goldstein's shop as a representation of a pure, revolutionary America that no longer exists. He satirizes Americans' naïve belief of these ideas that are being sold to them in an over-simplified and misrepresented form.
Similarly, Wu Fong's house of prostitutes creates an illusion and represents the exploitation of American innocence. Betty Prail is held there as the "real American girl" from the "New England countryside" who "rounded out [Wu Fong's] collection" (West 92-93). Betty is another naïve character who is constantly knocked down in this novella. Later on, Wu Fong has decided to embark on a "Buy American" campaign and dispense with all the foreign women. Unsurprisingly, Wu Fong hires Asa Goldstein to redecorate the rooms in exaggerated American styles, including "Pennsylvania Dutch, Log Cabin Pioneer, California Monterey, Indian, and Modern Girl" (West 126). West satirizes this overly patriotic, American attitude from the Great Depression era. This distrust of the outside world is part of the illusion that Americans are exceptional and have a unique chance at success with the Algerian formula. Thus, together, Asa Goldstein and Wu Fong embody West's perspective on the American Dream. It is simply that, a dream that can never be attained.
In Borat, Cohen's primary strategy is to act as a naïve and somewhat clueless foreigner to draw in his interview subjects. Then, Cohen pushes his questions, statements, and actions to the limit to see how extreme he can be and to elicit responses from Americans, illustrating their prejudiced views. Aside from Borat being a movie, the key difference with this satire that it has a much looser plot and does not follow the "quest" as closely. Borat is more of a collection of scenes that, together, convey Cohen's message.
One of the first interviews portraying poor social awareness in America is the car dealership scene. Borat keeps asking to buy a car with a "pussy magnet," and, after much effort to explain that a "pussy magnet" does not exist, the salesman gives in. Thus, when Borat asks what speed a car needs to go to kill a group of gypsies, the car salesman responds that "35-40 miles per hour" would probably do it. The car salesman lets his guard down out of frustration with Borat's ridiculous questions and comments and makes an insensitive remark.
The most notorious scene from the movie is probably the rodeo scene. When Borat is talking to Bobby Rowe, the director of the Imperial Rodeo, Rowe says that Borat looks like a dangerous terrorist and jokes about having him shave his mustache. Rowe also implies that Americans want to hang all homosexuals and gives Borat a high five. These extremely racist and homophobic comments portray the true deluded views of some Americans. Yet, it is reasonable to assume that Bobby Rowe would never elaborate his true beliefs if not for Borat's seemingly harmless naivety. If that was not enough, Borat steps into the rodeo to sing the "national anthem." Before singing, though, he makes a few statements including: "We support your war of terror" and "May George Bush drink the blood of every single man, woman, and child of Iraq!" The crowd erupts into cheers for each declaration, showing their extreme and misinformed view, as well as Cohen's critical view on the war. People find this scene funny because it exposes how American society normalizes these unacceptable prejudices.
As Borat continues along his journey to California, he arrives at a house in the South on appropriately named "Secession Drive." Borat receives an invitation to a formal dinner at this mansion, but he does not understand proper dining etiquette in America. One of the men at the dinner is a pastor, who ironically encourages a conversation sexualizing women. Borat takes this already unfortunate conversation too far by insulting another man's wife. During this conversation, the rich group of people try to "Americanize" their guest, seeing Borat's "Kazakhstani" ways as uncivilized. Cohen then takes it to the extreme by bringing in Borat's dinner guest, a black prostitute. Behind the cover of his character, Cohen is able to do things that would be utterly unacceptable in normal situations. In this situation, his offensive and stereotypical humor brings out the larger problem that is these white Americans' ethnocentric views.
Another notable interaction is when Borat hitchhikes with the frat brothers from the University of South Carolina. Borat gets drunk with the brothers and parties with them. Eventually, he shockingly gets them to say that we should go back to the "good old times" with slaves and that the minorities, who have the "upper hand" in our country, are against the American mainstream. When Borat leaves, the frat brothers tell him that he's "American now" and that he'll find success. Cohen again reveals some of the egregious social prejudices that these frat brothers are willing to buy into. The link between being "American" and success also hearkens back to the optimistic views of Pangloss and Shagpoke Whipple. Cohen satirizes what it means to be an "American," which in this case, appears to be someone accepting of racism.
The most successful and enduring satire has a moral purpose that is applicable to most people and prompts change in the world. Some would point out that West's A Cool Million accomplishes this by explaining the shortcomings of the American Dream and its contribution to the Great Depression. However, West's hopeless attitude and dark criticisms do not provide much inspiration to improve the world. Others argue that Cohen's Borat inspires audiences to take action on social prejudices through a funny and clearly realistic approach. While this may be true to an extent, Borat seems to entertain more than inspire, and many of the offensive stereotypes in the movie are borderline counterintuitive to Cohen's purpose. Thus, Voltaire's Candide is the most successful satire of the three due to his universally applicable criticisms of human nature, and his inspiring ending that offers a solution. Voltaire famously says that "we must cultivate our garden" to keep us from the evils of "boredom, vice, and want" (Voltaire 129). Voltaire emphasizes that humans could never know what or who God really is, and it is silly of humans to rely on God. The "cultivator" represents Voltaire himself, who produces his intellectual ideas through individual work. Voltaire offers the self-sufficient toiler as an alternative to the chaos of subscribing to Leibnizian optimism. Hence, Voltaire is the only one of these three authors who offers a clear solution to these overwhelming problems.
Lasting satire provides a unique insight into how a society functions and what it values through the lens of a specific context. Voltaire's Candide has already lasted over 200 years as a classic of satire because of Voltaire's commentary on the nature of humans and his response to the events and collective values of the society surrounding him in the 18th century. Voltaire's voice of reason offers us a better understanding of human folly. Whether West's A Cool Million or Cohen's Borat will stand the test of time depends on how we perceive the value of these works in providing a deeper comprehension of the contexts they came from. On the surface, A Cool Million would seem to be the least likely to become a classic of the genre due to its sheer darkness and pessimism, but the fact that it has already persisted for close to 100 years indicates that West's approach appears to resonate with readers. The outrageous interviews and interactions in Borat are unlikely be reproduced with the same quality and effect any time soon. Borat challenges the preexisting discourse of injustice and prejudice in America, and it certainly stands out as a work that is easily identifiable with the era and setting it came from. While Voltaire has already cemented his place in the sophisticated, upper realms of satire, we must wait to see if society deems West and Cohen masters of the genre too.