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Justine Brown, author of Hollywood Utopia and All Possible Worlds

Candide and Cacambo are the antithesis of the rapacious gold-hunters who dreamed of El Dorado– Candide is thinking of Cunegonde, and Cacambo is eager to quit South America. Ironically, only they are permitted to gaze upon it.

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Candide has his own reasons for journeying through South America. However, as regards the historical explorers, it is important for us to keep in mind the heady effect that all this uncharted land in the Americas had on Europeans; indeed, parts of the Northwest Pacific remained unmapped until the late 19th Century. What a spur this was for speculation, both literal and figurative! For Spanish, English, French and Portuguese explorers and settlers, the idea that the perfect place might lie just over the horizon was irresistible, and it powered the drive West in South, Central, and North America. Some of the most intriguing artefacts from this period are what one might call speculative maps: when cartographers lacked information, they often simply guessed instead of designating the area in question terra incognita. For example, one Spanish map situates a kind of Silverado in what is now known as Oregon and Washington State. (Argentina is of course named for silver as well.) Another posited a massive inland sea covering the West.

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Everyone is on friendly terms with the monarch: kissing the king on both cheeks is to bridge the gap between social classes, and would of course have been unthinkable in Voltaire’s time.

“Possibly there is a part of the world where everything is right,” says Candide as he and his companion reach El Dorado, “for there must be some such place.” Voltaire conjures up such a (no-) place, affording a glimpse of the perfect society as he understood it.For Voltaire, the ideal human community was one in which there was total agreement about life’s fundamentals. Rank and riches are as dust, while art and science stand supreme. People want for nothing. Religious life is invariably simple, universal, and beautiful. The King of “El Dorado”, as the Spaniards insist on calling it, counsels the two against leaving, and almost as soon as they do they lose the gold they had accrued as the red sheep falter and fail. But it is not wealth that has burst the utopian bubble for Candide; rather, it is human love. The loyal Candide still yearns to be reunited with Cunegonde, his heart’s desire, and it is rather difficult—for us, at least– to reproach him for that.

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The old man considers Candide’s questions to be strange because the truth, once revealed, is single and self-evident. The religion of El Dorado reflects Voltaire’s ideals. There is no religious hierarchy; all are priests and spend their devotions in wonderfully musical thanksgiving. Since God has given them everything they could possibly desire, there is no need for affective prayer. In fact, such prayer would be considered churlish in the face of such divine generosity. Religious conflict is unknown. In Voltaire’s eyes, this religion is a marvel of rationality.

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By the Voltaire’s time it had become a popular activity to describe the contours of one’s own “ideal commonwealth,” and this is precisely what Voltaire was doing when he delineated the contours of El Dorado. All of its attributes point to this (with the possible exception of the large red sheep).

Above all, Voltaire’s utopia is a place where gold has no value. In this section, he reminds the reader of some of the destruction that has been wrought by gold fever. The inhabitants of El Dorado see nothing special in it. They are extraordinarily wealthy in other respects, but they do not cling to their wealth, and are happy to share it with the newcomers. Candide and Cacambo enjoy what seems to them a banquet fit for a king, but learn that their hosts consider it very ordinary. Trying to pay for their meal, they are told it is free. We can safely assume that this applies to many if not most of life’s essentials in El Dorado.

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Another possibility regarding the origin of the legend of El Dorado is that it sprang from a simple, and rather ridiculous, misunderstanding. As noted, “El Dorado” can translate as “The Golden One”– or even “The Golden Man.” As early as 1638, the Spanish observer Juan Rodriguez Troxell wrote a detailed account to the governor of what is now Bogota, Colombia, describing a mystical rite among the Muisca tribe, one used to anoint a new ruler. For some days prior to the ceremony, the ruler designate would fast alone in a cave. When he emerged, he would be bathed and then covered in gold dust before being launched onto a sacred lake in a boat full of gold and emeralds. He was the Golden Man– El Dorado.

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The fabled material wealth of El Dorado begins to unfold before Candide’s and Cacambo’s eyes. The Spanish claimed that this legend originated with the native peoples. Reportedly, many of them spoke of a glittering entity further West– “El Dorado”, as the Spanish translated the term, was always “over there, over there.” Several likely explanations exist for this, a couple of which would have been sure to appeal to Voltaire’s sharp sense of humor. One is simply that the native peoples filled the invaders’ heads with dreams of a golden city elsewhere in order to get rid of them. It did not escape their notice, of course, that the white men were obsessed with the gold so plentiful among the Aztecs and other tribes.

In one exceedingly gruesome incident, an Aztec leader is said to have poured molten ore down the throat of a gold-thirsty Spanish captive. Gold– and silver, as well as precious stones– were primary animating forces among the unwelcome arrivals, and to hold out the promise of such riches was to hold some power over them.

For his part, Candide is naturally impressed by El Dorado and does begin to collect the “yellow clay” and rocks that the locals shrug off as worthless. To his credit, however, he seems as impressed by this attitude as he is by the abundance of wealth. It is as if Voltaire rewards him with a visit to El Dorado precisely because he does not long for it as the feverish explorers do.

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And then there were those who wrote of El Dorado… here, Candide and Cacambo stumble across the wildly rumored and at one time desperately sought city where the streets were paved with gold. New arrival to South America envisioned such a city with intense excitement, and set off in search of it. Many if not most were simply greedy, but it is worth remembering all that gold represented to them, and still does to us in several respects– the pinnacle of value both literally and metaphorically, as well as intrinsic beauty and excellence. It is “the king of metals”, just as the lion is “the king of animals.” So it is fair to say that some of these roving Europeans “saw” in El Dorado the promise of an ideal city, not just a rich one. Gold has long been used to represent spiritual perfection.

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Voltaire parodies the sort of travelogue that continued to be plentiful in the wake of Columbus’ encounter with the Americas, and all that followed. These travel books ranged from serious, even scientific, accounts of exploration to the wildest sorts of fantasy and all things in between. Some of the most striking examples came from sailors who ventured into uncharted areas in hopes of finding the actual Garden of Eden. Descriptions of new and unfamiliar creatures jostled with stories of mermaid seductions, dragons and sea monsters of all kinds.

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Perhaps to establish that he was not himself a dreamer, Voltaire locates his utopia in a place widely known by that time to be imaginary. He writes in a tradition that begins with Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1517), and includes Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). All three authors present mock travelogues, books which describe wanderings into the great beyond, but announce their status as fiction at every turn.

Contrary to popular belief, More’s Utopia is a playful book– in more than one sense. We have only to analyze More’s coinage, “utopia”, to see this. The term plays upon two Greek words: eutopos, meaning “a good place”, and outopos, meaning “no place” or “nowhere.” More would have expected his audience to pick up on this jest, this oscillation, immediately, for the community of scholars in Europe used Latin among themselves (Utopia was originally published in Latin) and studied Greek as a matter of course.

All through the book, Greek-derived place-names and other words enhance the joke: the good place is no place at all. The degree to which More intended his text to be read as a series of serious proposals is the subject of much debate. Voltaire’s case is much clearer. We have every reason to think that he approved of the conditions in his “El Dorado”– as outsiders insist on calling it.

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In the two El Dorado chapters, Voltaire gives us a kind of utopian sketch. Candide and Cacambo reach the fabled city of gold quite by chance, and find that the coveted metal lacks any value at all there. For Voltaire, they both have and have not reached El Dorado. “The Spaniards have had a confused notion of this country, and have called it El Dorado,” says a wise old citizen. In many respects, as we shall see, this is the most telling line of Voltaire’s portrait of the place. The term, which may be translated as “The Golden” or “The Golden One”, was firmly inscribed in the European cultural vocabulary by Voltaire’s era, having emerged out of 16th Century adventurism in the Americas. Its ancestry is quite specific, though it joined a little group of terms that many people use interchangeably– terms like Eden, Paradise, Shangri-La, and of course Utopia– to denote “the perfect place.” It is intriguing that Voltaire, who is at great pains in Candide to deny the possibility of perfection in human life, nonetheless reserves a portion of South America for his own utopia.

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