Candide, after many vicissitudes, retreats to a primitive cabin in the woods; he will cultivate his garden. He drinks, smokes too much. He goes to AA, an avowedly apolitical social machine for sobriety. At each meeting one volunteer reads the Twelve Traditions, a second the Twelve Steps, each member speaks briefly in turn (cross-talk forbidden), the serenity prayer is recited in unison. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
The Twelve Traditions forbid political or commercial affiliation, alteration to the Traditions, Steps, much more apparently written in stone. The beginner is told to attend 90 meetings in 90 days. Surely unemployment is highly correlated with alcoholism? Might political action not be a remedy? Can solidarity not sometimes bring about change unachievable by individuals? How can changing the very mechanisms for change be off-limits?
After a meeting Candide meets 5 former smokers, each of whom says: Well, one day I just realized it was stupid and stopped. Candide wants to apostrophize the world. Alcoholics who did the same thing don’t turn up for 90 meetings in 90 days; those who do turn up don’t hear from those who don’t; how can members know what they can change when they are forced to cherrypick evidence? Il meurt de ses ennuis.
But there’s always his garden. The garden offers an overabundance of things Candide not only can but should change (fallen trees, invasive weeds, demoralized plants). He goes to the local greenhouse for advice. Why has his iris failed to bloom? Likewise his daylilies? Why has the hydrangea purchased for its bright blue blooms come out with flowers of an insipid shade of pink?
A wealth of advice on these and other matters is offered. Irises like sun; perhaps he planted in the shade? (He did.) If daylilies are left to grow wild, they may be crowded out by ferns and weeds; perhaps they face too much competition? (They do.) The color of a hydrangea’s blooms depends on the acidity of the soil; alkaline soil produces pink, for blue one must acidify the soil.
The greenhouse is bursting not only with advice but also with plants, each with a small plastic tag indicating the preferences of the plant, not to mention implements, fertilizers, insecticides, soil, endless ingenuity on display for the care of these cultivars. How different from the world of men! No one argues with an iris or hydrangea. No one tells an iris it must stay in the shade and bloom by an act of will. No one tells a hydrangea that it must triumph over the soil provided and be blue. The greenhouse is a social machine for nurturing diversity. Perhaps this is the root of all evil, that gardeners are not put in charge of our schools. Perhaps his former comrades in AA are simply mistended plants?
Candide’s neighbor, Candida, shows him how to use her chainsaw. The chainsaw is the first of many treasures. It enables Candide to extend the range of trials that need not be borne. The chainsaw, explains his charming neighbor, was invented by Andreas Stihl in 1929; the first one-man saw was invented in the 1950s, weighing some 30 pounds. The first lightweight saw, weighing 12 pounds—that is, easily deployable by a woman—was invented in the early 1960s. In 2003, the Easy2Start model was launched—one easily started by persons of moderate upper-body strength. Candide is entranced. Fond as he is of Candida, he can’t help being grateful that he will not be called upon to fell trees for her benefit, even with new improved equipment. (Thank you, Herr Stihl.) Engineering is a social machine to give us the gift of solitude when we choose it.
Candida takes him to the local branch of Ace Hardware so he can buy a chainsaw of his own. The place is crammed to the rafters with kit—solutions to every conceivable problem afflicting the primitive little cabin, and helpful, knowledgeable staff to make good the ignorance of the plucky amateur. Candide is dazzled. Since Candide is wholly innocent of the world of hardware all his questions must necessarily be FAQ. But he can get an answer in two minutes by the simple expedient of walking into Ace Hardware and approaching a member of staff. (We pass over in silence his thankless hours as wannabe hacker, trawling the endless archives of Stack Overflow …) He goes to Ace on a daily basis for the beauty of this little world of solutions—it is entirely possible, in fact, that he goes to Ace 90 times in 90 days. Or more. He remembers that Jesus was a carpenter. Perhaps this is the root of all evil, that our schools are not run by Ace Hardware. Perhaps his former comrades in AA need new lives, lives in which most problems can be solved with kit.
Candide has despaired of the official channels. He could fill a novel the length of Les Miz with his vicissitudes. He resolves instead to write a different sort of novel, one revealing to the world the glories of the greenhouse, Ace Hardware, Trappist Taxis, the single transferable amend, and much more which space does not permit us to share.
Altogether it seems both brilliant and mad, so alien that it would have been hideous to impose these things through official channels (even if this could be done). Still, much could be done with a publisher in sympathy with his aims. He writes the book. He explains his requirements to an agent, who says, “It doesn’t work like that.” The agent gets him an advance for $200,000 from an editor who liked his quirky sense of humor.
Candide bought a splitter, and a Bobcat, and a backhoe, and a pick-up truck; a chicken coop with 12 Leghorns; two goats; twelve rhododendrons; 5 apple trees, 2 pear trees, one plum; the Oxford Latin Dictionary, Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, and a complete set of Discoveries in the Judaean Desert. And he lived happily ever after.
Helen DeWitt is the author of The Last Samurai and Lightning Rods.
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