The Legacy of Les Délices

“Excellently observed ...
but we must cultivate our garden.”
Source & Fluence

Rachel Howard

Voltaire, 1674-1778
Plaque by J. Jusko. Library of Congress

This epigraph – arguably one of the most profound and oft quoted adages of all time – comes from the closing scene of Candide, the literary masterpiece by Voltaire. It is from these semantic depths that our concept of Inner Gardens (the mind, body, and spirit program at Scorpios) extracts much of its meaning.

Does Voltaire need any introduction? When the author died in 1778, just a few months after returning home from exile for the first time  in thirty years, French newspapers were forbidden to print his obituary, the Académie Française was not allowed to hold its customary service upon the death of a member, and his body was refused burial in Paris.

Both a calcified cynic and man of astute sensibility, a paradox in flesh and blood, an inversion incarnate, the most scandalous figure in France, he was thrown into prison twice for generally being a nuisance to the powers that be. A celebrity extraordinaire, the most successful writer of classical verse tragedies of his time, the dramatist’s fine garments were occasionally ripped off his body as keepsakes by crowds of frenzied aficionados. A consummate erudite in everything, an inexhaustible resource of wit and wisdom, a high-octane intellect, he had his muscle in every fight. The leading controversialist in the face of religious obscurantism and political bigotry in Europe, a prophetic Meliorist, he believed the world could be improved by the force of good will and free imagination. One of the first champions of human rights, Voltaire was determined to transform life one soul at a time.

Upon his death, François-Marie Arouet (his real name) was quietly laid to rest far in the countryside – purposely out of sight, safely out of mind. Thirteen years later, and two years after the French Revolution which his philosophy of enlightened humanism had inspired, Voltaire's body was exhumed and moved back to Paris; in a lavish ceremony, he was entombed at the Panthéon, the Temple of the Nation, erected to commemorate France’s most illustrious personalities. A full orchestra preceded the sarcophagus on wheels, drawn by twelve horses. An estimated one million people attended the procession (almost twice as many people as the entire population of Paris back then). The casket was inscribed with the statement: "A poet, philosopher and historian, he made a great step forward in the human spirit. He prepared us to become free."

"A poet, philosopher and historian, he made a great step forward in the human spirit. He prepared us to become free."

Shortly after, as the world goes when politics is ascendant, the ashes of this great flame were barbarously dug up from the sacred ground and tossed away, never to be recovered for posterity. It is hard to picture a testimony to the power of Voltaire’s immortal genius that is – ironically speaking – more revealing and flattering.

Recognized as Voltaire's magnum opus, this short novel has enjoyed both great success and great scandal. Immediately after its secretive publication under the pseudonym of "Dr. Ralph", the book was banned on account of its perceived religious blasphemy, political sedition, and intellectual virulence. However, with its sharp wit and insightful portrayal of the human condition, Candide has since become a revered classic, one of the most influential and most eulogized works of global literature.

“Gardening – carving out a tiny corner of the world and tending to it with love – is a way of saving our souls from all the noise and chaos of the world outside.”

The riotously rapid plot of Candide mirrors in some ways the turbulent and dizzying life of its author, who wrote this chef-d'oeuvre of classic world literature in barely three days – a rather productive and rewarding half-week. Voltaire’s young and hopelessly naive protagonist is schooled to hold the view that he lives in “the best of all possible worlds.” It is with this rosy outlook that one day Candide is “given a good kick up the backside and chased out of a beautiful castle”, his edenic home in Westphalia. The rest of the story runs through a seemingly inexhaustible catalogue of atrocities and disasters that the wide-eyed Candide and his companions encounter as vagabonds, roaming their allegedly wonderful world on a quest to find meaning and happiness. While trying to figure out what matters most in life, they are pummeled and slapped by fate in every direction, always going from bad to worse: the monstrosities of wars, brutalities, rape, fiendish tortures, harrowing diseases, earthquakes, shipwrecks, treachery, slavery, cannibalism ...

The wanderers suffer all kinds of diabolical nastiness and face all sorts of nonsense while desperately clinging to their pet doctrine that all this doom, gloom and degradation must have a solid good reason; therefore, all their pain is ultimately for the best. To some incorrigible, dimwitted optimist, this may very well appear to be the case, as this epic horror story culminates on a positive note, indeed. Candide and his fellow travelers bump into a kindly old man one day. The man is happy growing fruits and vegetables, tending to a small patch of land. This patch is all he cares about. He cares for it a lot.

01: "All is misery and illusion... We must cultivate our garden."
Illustration from "Candide ou L'optimisme" by Fernand Siméon (1884 – 1928).
02: "The sails were rent, the masts were smashed, the ship broke up." Against all odds, Candide makes it to Lisbon – only to see the city almost completely destroyed by an earthquake. Illustration by Gus Bofa (1883 – 1968)

It suddenly strikes Candide that to live in “the best of all possible worlds”, partaking in its grandiose affairs and trying to legislate for the whole of humanity, is to exist in the ceaseless convulsions of anxiety which leads only to a miserable end. The world at large can never be rendered perfect. Those involved with it all too much – ambitious political intrigants, self-important busybodies, idle quidnuncs, trolls and blabs – well deserve such a finale. Having seen on their travels enough of “the heads duly stuffed with straw being taken for display before the Sublime Porte”, Candide and his companions follow the wise greybeard's example, retiring to a simple and wholesome life on a farm. They conclude that the only worthwhile preoccupation for people is to cultivate their own gardens; for this is the only way to make life meaningful, with the possibility of at least a tolerable modus vivendi, if not sheer happiness.

“The little society all fell in with this laudable plan. Each began to exercise his talents. Their small amount of land produced a great deal ...”

The famous line at the end of the book suggests we should focus our attention and concentrate our effort on simple things within our immediate reach, commit ourselves to private pursuits, attending to the situations in our full control, wherein we actually have a chance of doing good. Gardening – carving out a tiny corner of the world and tending to it with love – is a way of saving our souls from all the noise and chaos of the world outside. Our garden is a version of Paradise here on earth. As Francis Bacon would have it in his essay “Of Gardens”, which in 1625 jump-started a trend for garden design across Europe: “God Almighty first planted a garden. And indeed it is the purest of human pleasures... It is the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man.” Alain de Botton, a philosopher of our times, drives the point home: the garden is “where one gets to after one has been hopeful, after one has tried love, after one has been tempted by fame, after one has despaired, after one has gone mad, after one has considered ending it – and after one has decided conclusively to keep going.”

“To know someone who thinks and feels with us, and who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth an inhabited garden.” — Goethe

A medieval handbook, The Tacuinum Sanitatis sets forth a number of essential elements for well-being: sufficient food and drink in moderation, fresh air, alternations of activity and rest, and positive states of mind.

Voltaire himself took this counsel quite literally: in exile, he purchased an estate on the lake outside Geneva, where he fulfilled his dream of a garden-centered life, which extended far beyond the delight and virtue of growing carrots. Voltaire knew first hand what it takes to cultivate a garden, both in a literal and metaphorical sense. Landscaping and designing his extensive lyrical gardens from scratch, he began by giving the project a proper name: Les Délices (The Delights).

“I have already planted 250 trees and created some avenues. So involved, I speak to no one except masons, carpenters and gardeners – when I am not doing all their jobs myself. I am having my vines and trees pruned and busy making a chicken run... The great misfortune of this place is that it was apparently created by a person who thought only of himself, who completely forgot about any convenient little apartments for his friends. I shall immediately rectify this abominable defect.”

And so he did. Away from court values and practices, Voltaire turned his exile into a blessing – a welcome escape from the deleterious effects of urban life. Laying out his dream in space and time, Voltaire abandoned the fashion for formal, artificial, and purely ornamental pleasure gardens in favor of a more productive arrangement, a more socially and culturally meaningful ferme ornée (ornamental farm). The philosopher landscaped Les Délices with a charming imprévu and irregularity – a radical breakthrough in style.Voltaire’s idea of a meaningful modus vivendi was to cultivate his garden of delights as the fecund seat of organic interaction across socio-cultural boundaries, begetting cosmopolitan tolerance and spiritual refinement – a strikingly original and bold idea at the time. This holistic experiment was based on the Epicurean principle of a simple life, in which the pleasures of meditation and reflection are a daily practice, and practical work is as vital as recreation.

His sleeves rolled up, Voltaire embarked on a far-reaching program of improvement, converting and furnishing rooms in the mansion, fixing fireplaces and refashioning them in marble, remodeling the attics, arranging living spaces for servants, equipping a large kitchen, planting a massive and omnigenous vegetable garden, building large terraces, constructing outhouses, sheds and hedges, designing long alleys ... Ultimately, Voltaire spent almost as much renovating the estate as he did to acquire it.

Providing solace and vitality, gardens have been seen and used throughout history as spaces of contemplation and creativity; of comfort, resilience and hope.
01: "Woman with a Parasol in the Garden" by Renior, 1875.
02: The 16th century French mille-fleurs or "thousand flowers" tapestry depicting the activities of aristocratic noble folk of the period.

Just as live music is integral to the experience of Scorpios, theater played an essential role in Voltaire’s mise-en-scène at Les Délices. Votaire, the playwright, could not possibly live without theatre in exile. However, theater was banned in the Republic of Geneva, on the grounds that it “corrupts the moral fiber of a nation”. This problem – along with many other issues related to Voltaire’s lifestyle, which did not square with the austere puritanism of local mores – would not crash his dream: “I speak what I think, and I do as I will.”

With flippant disregard for  local prohibitions, Voltaire staged his plays at Les Délices, often performing in his own productions, sometimes appearing before the upper crust of Geneva society, who would sneak in among the guests from far and wide: “We brought tears to the eyes of almost the complete Geneva Council ... Never have the Calvinists been so tender.”

Les Délices would play host to as many people, of wildly different outlooks, as the place could potentially accommodate and unite: “Windows wide, doors open.” A refuge for an assemblage of contrarians, a roll call of the world’s most influential people and an enthralling spectacle for lookers-on, Les Délices drew an endless stream of visitors fascinated by Voltaire’s brilliance, intrigued by his incendiary liberalism, and seduced by his lavish hospitality. In “Voltaire’s Garden, a brilliant article for The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik describes the gardener and his grand scheme as follows: “A provocateur who was also a universal literary celebrity ... a grand bourgeois with a big house who was also one of the first dissidents, embodying a whole alternative set of values, and who came to be treated even by the government almost as an independent state within a state.”

A tribute to Voltaire’s stage for radical ideas in beautiful natural surroundings, illuminated by his vision of a better world open to the power of human imagination and resolve, our Inner Gardens picks up where Les Délices left off. At Scorpios, gardening becomes a metaphor for mindfulness: a series of workshops, talks, meditation classes, bodywork and other encounters, all aiming at the cultivation of souls through interactions on a deeper psychological and very personal level.

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