Chocolate and Syphilis, A Satire (Voltaire I)

October 10, 2016

While treatises constitute an important and authoritative source for ideas about chocolate in the period before caffeine, chocolate also shows up in a host of other media from painting and literature to royal decrees and pharmaceutical advertisements. These books and ephemera offer a different angle on both the cultural presence and meaning of chocolate. One of the funniest appearance of the drink in the eighteenth century is the cameo it makes in Voltaire’s satirical novel, Candide, or Optimism (Candide, ou l'Optimisme, 1759).

 

Death by chocolate had long ceased to be a concern for scientists when the threat appeared like a ghost to haunt the fantastical world of Candide and his philosopher-mentor Pangloss. The reader need not know the story well to hear the irony in the chocolate scenes, which riff on one well-known stereotype about chocolate that traverses the historical treatises: chocolate “incites to Venus” (as Wadsworth put it in 1652). Voltaire combines those ideas to spin out a scenario in which chocolate and sex have a political relationship bound up with the excesses of a wanton nobility and the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church.

 

When we meet Candide, he is a war orphan that has been taken in and reared by his uncle, the baron of Thunder-ten-Tronckh in Westphalia. Of late, he has had the misfortune to fall madly in love with and kiss Cunégonde, the baron’s daughter and Candide's cousin, for which he has been driven from the estate to wander alone. As it happens, his philosophy teacher, Pangloss, master of “metaphysico-theologico-cosmolonigology,” has also been ejected from the chateau following an affair with Paquette, the Baroness's lady-in waiting. Together and apart and together again, their journey takes them far and wide in search of safety, in flight from aggressors, ultimately on a quest to find Cunégonde. Chocolate appears in the plot as an import from South America that has made its way to Europe and into the habits of the nobility and the clergy of Italy.

 

Pangloss first invokes chocolate to explain the rampant and deadly spread of syphilis throughout Europe following Christopher Columbus’s arrival on the shores of the Caribbean islands.* Pangloss explains syphilis as a necessary sacrifice to the pleasures brought about by chocolate and cochineal—insects used to make the rich red dye worn by royalty and clergy— which of course also came back to Europe following the conquest of the Caribbean and Mexico. At that moment of the novel, Pangloss’s body is being ravaged by the disease, which his young lover Paquette transmitted to him. For her part, Paquette contracted it through a dalliance with a Cordelier (a Franciscan friar) who traced his infection back through a countess, cavalry captain, marchioness and Jesuit, all the way to “one of the companions of Christopher Columbus.”

 

Overcome by the state of his friend and this wild tale, Candide wonders if the devil could be at the root of such a “strange genealogy.” In response, Pangloss explains that far from being diabolical, the deadly infection was a necessary ingredient in the overall plan to bring chocolate and cochineal to Europe:

 

…for if Columbus had not in an island of America caught this disease, which contaminates the source of life, frequently even hinders generation, and which is evidently opposed to the great end of nature, we should have neither chocolate nor cochineal.  (30).

 

According to Pangloss’s “best of all possible worlds” philosophy of life, something terrible on the surface must have a higher purpose. Thus, chocolate justifies the pox, which twists the prevailing logic of the previous century that chocolate would cure the pox, as well as a host of other ailments from gout to plague.The absurd genealogy notwithstanding, Pangloss has a point. A disease, a drink, and a royal dye together constitute Columbus’s material legacy, the booty gathered in Mesoamerica for European consumption, which also justified the ongoing purpose of imperialism. In that case, we might read syphilis as Voltaire's reminder of the havoc, slavery, and genocide that brought chocolate to Europe.

 

In another satirical call-out to history, the well-documented role Mesoamerican women played in preparing and serving chocolate finds perverse expression in the figure of Paquette. Along with the many women in the genealogy, right back to the Mesoamerican woman who purportedly infected Columbus’s crew, Paquette serves up syphilis instead of chocolate. Voltaire will triangulate chocolate, women, and illicit sex more than once and usually in Italy. Stay tuned for next week’s scenes of marital infidelity and seductive froth.

 

 

*A popular and convenient explanation of how the disease came to Europe is that it was carried back by the Columbian crew from their earliest voyage to Mesoamerica. For this and other hypotheses on the origins of the scandalous infection no culture wants to claim, see “Brief History of Syphilis.”

 

 

Bibliography

 

 Voltaire, Candide, or Optimism. Trans. John Butt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1947.

 

Tampa, M., I. Sarbu, et al. "Brief History of Syphilis." Journal of Medicine and Life  7, no. 1 (15 Mar. 2014): 4–10. Web.

 

 

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