Let Us Cultivate Our Garden

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the working class rebellion against the American political establishment. I don’t pay much attention to political news, so the uprising kind of snuck up on me and I’ve been trying to make some sense of it.

Coincidentally, I’ve read a few books lately that have been real gut punches–reminders of the shame, humiliation and frustrations that come with growing up poor and ignorant. Memories I had put away with no intention to return to them.

I used to spend a lot of time alone in hotel rooms or on airplanes, brooding and plotting. A long time ago, it seems. But a few weeks ago I was there again. In a hotel room reflecting on what it all means, feeling drawn to my roots and culture, but feeling repelled and alienated by it at the same time. That’s when I wrote a list of “what I’m going to do.”

As I pondered my personal optimism, my culture’s pessimism, my peasant roots, and whether the future is as bright as I believe it to be, I was feeling discouraged. Then this came to me: “Let us cultivate our garden.”

I thought of Voltaire’s Candide. At the end of the book, the character Candide comes to a conclusion that seems to me to be good sense for our times too.

During this conversation, the news was spread that two Viziers and the
Mufti had been strangled at Constantinople, and that several of their
friends had been impaled. This catastrophe made a great noise for some
hours. Pangloss, Candide, and Martin, returning to the little farm, saw
a good old man taking the fresh air at his door under an orange bower.
Pangloss, who was as inquisitive as he was argumentative, asked the old
man what was the name of the strangled Mufti.

“I do not know,” answered the worthy man, “and I have not known the name
of any Mufti, nor of any Vizier. I am entirely ignorant of the event you
mention; I presume in general that they who meddle with the
administration of public affairs die sometimes miserably, and that they
deserve it; but I never trouble my head about what is transacting at
Constantinople; I content myself with sending there for sale the fruits
of the garden which I cultivate.”

Having said these words, he invited the strangers into his house; his
two sons and two daughters presented them with several sorts of sherbet,
which they made themselves, with Kaimak enriched with the candied-peel
of citrons, with oranges, lemons, pine-apples, pistachio-nuts, and Mocha
coffee unadulterated with the bad coffee of Batavia or the American
islands. After which the two daughters of the honest Mussulman perfumed
the strangers’ beards.

“You must have a vast and magnificent estate,” said Candide to the Turk.

“I have only twenty acres,” replied the old man; “I and my children
cultivate them; our labour preserves us from three great
evils–weariness, vice, and want.”

Candide, on his way home, made profound reflections on the old man’s
conversation.

“This honest Turk,” said he to Pangloss and Martin, “seems to be in a
situation far preferable to that of the six kings with whom we had the
honour of supping.”

“Grandeur,” said Pangloss, “is extremely dangerous according to the
testimony of philosophers. For, in short, Eglon, King of Moab, was
assassinated by Ehud; Absalom was hung by his hair, and pierced with
three darts; King Nadab, the son of Jeroboam, was killed by Baasa; King
Ela by Zimri; Ahaziah by Jehu; Athaliah by Jehoiada; the Kings
Jehoiakim, Jeconiah, and Zedekiah, were led into captivity. You know how
perished Croesus, Astyages, Darius, Dionysius of Syracuse, Pyrrhus,
Perseus, Hannibal, Jugurtha, Ariovistus, Caesar, Pompey, Nero, Otho,
Vitellius, Domitian, Richard II of England, Edward II, Henry VI,
Richard III, Mary Stuart, Charles I, the three Henrys of France, the
Emperor Henry I.! You know—-“

“I know also,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden.”

“You are right,” said Pangloss, “for when man was first placed in the
Garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum, that he might
cultivate it; which shows that man was not born to be idle.”

“Let us work,” said Martin, “without disputing; it is the only way to
render life tolerable.”

The whole little society entered into this laudable design, according to
their different abilities. Their little plot of land produced plentiful
crops. Cunegonde was, indeed, very ugly, but she became an excellent
pastry cook; Paquette worked at embroidery; the old woman looked after
the linen. They were all, not excepting Friar Giroflee, of some service
or other; for he made a good joiner, and became a very honest man.

Pangloss sometimes said to Candide:

“There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds:
for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of
Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had
not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron: if you had
not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would
not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts.”

“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our
garden.”

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