Most of our literature disappears over time. Or it becomes a footnote for some later work that, in turn, disappears or becomes a footnote. And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would have said.
But certain literature is immortal, destined to live on forever in the imaginations of all generations that encounter it.
These are the works that transcend time and place, that speak of a common humanity that persists no matter the traumas to which we subject it.
Fine satire survives because we survive, despite our follies. Satire is that form of literature that takes the familiar and, with wit, reveals the grotesque. It magnifies our odd behavior, censures our shortcomings and forces us to peer into a mirror that reveals the distortions of our misdirected lives, that forces us to be honest with ourselves.
Satire, therefore, is demanding in a way that other literature is not: It asks us to change.
Voltaire, born Francois-Marie Arouet in 1694, was the product of a bourgeois family in Paris. He refused to study law, as his father wished him to do. He chose literature and gained a reputation as a satirist. Suspected of poking fun at the powers that were, he was imprisoned at the Bastille twice. A visit to England enlightened him, for there the government better tolerated intellectual activity. Upon return to the continent, he wrote an indictment of the French political system called "Philosophic Letters," then went in hiding, eventually abandoning France altogether to live in Geneva, Switzerland. There, he wrote his most famous work, "Candide."
An enemy of tyranny, Voltaire voiced concerns that still resonate in modern times. The Enlightenment in Europe was characterized by a renaissance of Greek philosophy. Europeans rediscovered ancient thinkers such as Democritus and Epicurus.
The Epicurean paradox is thought to be the first expression of the problem of evil in the world. "Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to," Epicurus said, as recorded by Lucretius. "If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and really wants to do it, then why is there evil in the world?"
This question dogged Voltaire in the wake of an enormous earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal. The 1755 quake, and subsequent tsunami and fires, killed as many as 90,000 of the 275,000 inhabitants. Voltaire set himself the daunting task of dissuading a complacent populace that the predominant "all-for-the-best" attitude of the day was inadequate for explaining away natural disaster and human suffering.
Thus "Candide." In the book, the young Candide contends with the "metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-nigologist" Pangloss and a series of meetings and adventures during his imperfect search for happiness. It is the journey of an anti-hero, the travails of mankind.
Fast-forward to postwar America, 1953. The McCarthy Era. The House Un-American Activities Committee is interrogating alleged communists. The great playwright Lillian Hellman had appeared before the committee a year earlier. She refused to name names, saying, "To hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions."
Hellman is blacklisted. She's angry. She's reading Voltaire. She gets an idea and calls Leonard Bernstein, then-assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic.
This is the beginning of a project to transform "Candide" into a musical, a project that would continue until the year before Bernstein's death in 1990. It is musical theater's most revised work.
And on Saturday, it will be performed by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Chorus and College of Charleston Choir, with tenor Thomas Cooley, sopranos Nancy Allen Lundy and Suzanne Fleming-Atwood, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Luiken and baritone Jacob Will. Evan Parry, associate professor of theater at the College of Charleston, is the narrator.
The concert at the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium will be the last of this season's Ginn Resorts Masterworks Series. "It is the upbeat to my 25th-anniversary season," Conductor David Stahl said.
The upbeat to the upbeat will be a "Candide Day" on Thursday at the College of Charleston, featuring an afternoon colloquium sponsored by the Honors College.
Stahl, who worked with Bernstein on several projects, said he conducted "Candide" once before in Charleston, in 1993, three years after the composer's death and four years after Bernstein conducted the "final" concert version in London. The great American tenor Jerry Hadley played the title role in both performances.
Bernstein felt possessive of "Candide," as though it were the special child that never quite emerged from the shadow of its bigger sibling, "West Side Story," Stahl said.
It was the most political of Bernstein's works, all of which referred explicitly or implicitly to the human struggle, Stahl said.
"He always wrote pieces that he thought would affect mankind," Stahl said. "He thought he could change mankind for the better, and he firmly believed that art and music could do that."
"Candide" was an expression of that yearning, of Bernstein's perennial search for "that better place," Stahl said.
When the world was in disarray, Bernstein took it personally. Stahl recounted the September day in 1975 when the two conductors were in Paris for a performance of Hector Berlioz's Requiem at the church of Les Invalides, the place where the grand music premiered in 1837. Nearby, at the Spanish Embassy, protesters had gathered to condemn Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Bernstein saw the crowd and remembered when, in 1938, he had marched against Franco at Harvard University. Stahl said the maestro was despondent. He felt helpless. Had so little changed in nearly four decades?
When, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with its famous "Ode to Joy," was organized, it was Bernstein who came to conduct it. And it was Bernstein who changed the word "Freude" (joy) to "Freiheit" (freedom). Only he could get away with that, Stahl said.
In a sense, Bernstein had inherited Voltaire's gift for delivering social commentary through art. More than 200 years later, art was still being used to critique and glorify our crazy world.
The colloquium at the college is designed to provide the context necessary for a full appreciation of Voltaire's great work, said John Newell, director of the Honors College and colloquium coordinator. And it will illuminate how the subjects students study in the classroom are played out in the real world.
Stahl will be there with some of the musicians. Historian Bill Olejniczak will talk about the Enlightenment. Voltaire expert Norbert Sclippa will talk about "Candide." Music historian Bill Gudger will talk about Bernstein.
"It's all about the intellectual excitement and pleasures of learning," Newell said.