Voltaire (1694 - 1778), with whom I was perhaps slightly acquainted through high school history classes, came smashing into a far more central location in my life with his satirical novella Candide, which I picked up one day from my father's amply-endowed bookshelf and took to reading on an impulse.  (The cover picture of the crazed pirate and helpless woman showing a lot of leg had little to do with it.)  What impressed me most about this little book was how Voltaire was able to take on such heavy topics as religious intolerance, hypocrisy, and persecution, brutal war, pillage, and rape, the thoughtless and callous waste of human life which characterized the world into which he was born, natural disasters (God, where are you?) and multitudinous other calamities, and to treat it all with a light, ironical, and humorous but restrained voice without engendering our outrage as modern readers (how dare he???), or sabotaging himself with our resentment (what poor taste!)  On the contrary, his remarkable tone, so unsuited for such weighty topics (it at first seemed), somehow coated all the madness of the human race with a visible layer of absurdity, stripping away the solemnity and piousness which give the crimes of the world the 'moral' space they require in order to be perpetrated.  His mocking tone, linked to a clear vision free of blind loyalty to the Ideals which separate men from their common sense, was a thousand times more powerful than one battery of cannons firing upon another.  He rose above the endless carnage around which the world seemed to revolve, gave Reason a new voice, and a higher place to stand...  Although Candide is considered just a small part of Voltaire's contribution to the world (he was one of the great thinkers and personalities of the Enlightenment, which gradually nudged Western civilization away from savage wars of religion towards democratic and secular practices), this little book instantly became one of my literary maps.  It taught me how the most serious topics can be taken on with a serious spirit, but in a satirical manner, without capsizing; it showed me how humor can walk among the landmines of bitter realities without blowing up, and how the comic voice, so long as it retains its compassion and connection to the suffering of others, can sometimes break past the deadlock of opposites battling opposites, and come to the aid of others from a new and unexpected angle.  'Sometimes, the greatest weapon to use against injustice is the laugh.'




Moliere (1622-1673), was another of the French literary giants, a brilliant playwright known for the production of such masterpieces as Tartuffe, The Misanthrope, The School for Wives, The Affected Ladies, and The Physician In Spite of Himself.  I remember settling down to reading an edition of his collected plays in the green, attic-like room in which I resided at the time, and lighting up with delight at his unsparing caricatures of the hypocritical, the pretentious, the pompous and the dull.  All the vices of normal society which we are sadly accustomed to tolerate to the point of not seeing, or even plunging headfirst into ourselves (we are educated by the failings of others to expect less of ourselves), he exposed then tore apart with his brilliant comedies.  Shining a light upon the preposterous, he delegitimized the routine, and gave the world the option of changing.  Or, if one believes that change is impossible, at least he gave to us the chance to vent, to mock the absurd for one honest evening in the darkness of a theater, or in the sanctuary of a library...   In the manner of the best French writers, including Rabelais and (more particularly) Voltaire, he was pressured and threatened during his life by powerful forces which did not appreciate his seeing eyes and his challenging spirit.  The fact that he persevered to give us the works he did is a testament to his courage as well as his genius.



Rabelais - my God, another Frenchman???? - lived from 1494 - 1553, and is best known for the tales of Gargantua and Pantagruel, which are extensive, learned, rowdy, fantastical (in the sense of preposterously unreal) and satirical.  The tales involve enormous giants (16th-century French versions of Paul Bunyan?) with gigantic appetites and equally huge requirements for adventure, as well as not very well-behaved monks, engaged in quests, wanderings, battles, and encounters with social realities in need of poking.  Simultaneously playful and mind-expanding (especially for the public of the day which best understood this material),  Gargantua and Pantagruel earned Rabelais great praise, among friends, for his imagination, humor, joie de vivre, literary cleverness, and soul-abundance, while among enemies he was roundly condemned for blasphemy, obscenity, disrespect and in general the failure to be grim.  I at once fell in love with this humanist physician turned writer, mesmerized by the gushing nature of his creativity, which seemed to come into being in the manner of a dam breaking rather than in the manner of an accountant counting pennies.  Not just his liberated and daringly open material, but his style of giving birth, resonated with me and encouraged me to approach my own writing with that same spirit of freedom: not cringing, not limiting, not taming, not transmuting gold into safety by self-censoring at the outset (at least wait till someone shows up with an axe), not whittling away a universe until one is left with one perfect atom (give me the unruly, unwieldy universe!), not taking out the wrinkles which make the story more alive!  Vive Rabelais, as spectacular in stature as the giants he wrote about!  Truly one of my influences...




And now, on to someone who was not French! -- Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) --  who was Irish!  Swift, well-known for his biting ironical skills, best evidenced by A Modest Proposal, was also a brilliantly imaginative satirist most successful in the creation of his undisputed masterpiece, Gulliver's Travels.  Of course, the picture above is not of Swift, but of Gulliver (unless something happened in Swift's room one night which has yet to come to light).  In these tales, an Englishman by the name of Lemuel Gulliver traveled to many exotic lands, including the realm of the Lilliputians, a tiny, war-like people whose sense of glory and self-importance perfectly emulated the pride of the world's nations and armies, whose mighty agendas were thereby cast into perspective.  (It is, perhaps, our myopia which ruins us.  What a gift, then, is Swift's Gulliver, literally rising above the chaos to view the world as it is... and the way Gulliver put out fires ... got to love the guy!)  Later, Swift sent Gulliver on to a land of giants where he learned the meaning of powerlessness, that feeling which the subject classes and races of the earth have most often experienced alone - but now, through Gulliver's plight, more could share in it, and even partake of the valuable lesson that benevolence from the top down is not synonymous with fairness, and does not guarantee the 'weak one's' safety.  And then there was a land of brilliant horses, so much more noble than humans who paled in comparison; and besides that, a magnetically-levitated island hovering in the sky, home to great thinkers who had no common sense.  (Their clothes did not fit, they frequently walked into one another, and their wives cheated on them while they abstractly pondered the mysteries of the Universe.)   Swift's fantasies instantly appealed to me, as they have appealed to millions.  As a child, I simply loved the adventures, the storybook images and the fantasy elements; as an adult, the keenness of the social observation and critique, presented through those elements.  Swift is up there with the great satirists of all times, and is necessarily on any contemporary satirist's list of major influences...



Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), is another of my major influences.  Of course, this Spanish literary genius is best known for his masterwork, Don Quixote, one half satire of the medieval-derived chivalrous romance still popular in his day, and one half paean to the Obsolete, somehow noble in the context of its demise.  In the end, the mockery of the figure of the Knight (a role sustainable in modern times only via the path of delusion) seems to some of us to be transformed into a tragic homage to the outdated archetype:  a kind of commentary on the cruelty and stale practicality of the times which have converted him from a heroic and admirable role-model into an absurd character who is the laughingstock of his age.  The novel (two now joined as one) is filled with amazing incidents, hallucinations brought on by enthusiasm, and misperceptions.  These are comical and immensely enjoyable in and of themselves.  But in the overall context, one is left not to mock Don Quixote, but to cherish and revere him.  He has become the saint of all impossible causes, of all unattainable dreams, of the fight to breathe another air that is not so practical, of the desire to be bold in a world tailored to the tame, and lofty in a world recreated for souls that crawl.  Besides this allure, the true life story of Cervantes is also deeply moving to me.  The author of Don Quixote is an amazing example of courage and perseverance - nothing was handed to him on a plate, and if it were not for his extraordinary will, we would never have heard of him at all - not a single ray of light would have escaped from his personal ordeals.  He was in his early days a soldier, badly wounded in battle (in fact, he lost the use of his left arm from a gunshot wound).  He was later captured by Algerian pirates and held as a slave for five years before his family was able to put together a ransom sufficient to earn his release.  Later, due to misunderstandings with the King of Spain's bureaucracy, he was imprisoned for several months more. Through all these struggles, something which needed to be born stayed alive inside of him, growing all the while in power as his pain scarred him, and left many of his surfaces ruined.  Cervantes knew it was there, felt it coming, and on account of it would not quit.  Somehow, at the age of 57, he finally brought Don Quixote to life, brought forth the fruit of all his suffering and what it had done to his mind, and not been able to do to his mind.  It is an astounding achievement, and an inspiration to any writer who has faltered in the early part of the race.  Long live the hero of La Mancha, battler of windmills!



And then, of course, we have Charlie Chaplin (1889 - 1977)!  It may seem strange, at first, to place him here amidst a listing of literary figures, but then, again, was he not an artist as they were artists?  And what an artist!  Creator of a deluge of silent shorts, he went on to write and star in such feature-length film classics as The Gold Rush, Modern Times, and City Lights (silent), and The Great Dictator (talkie).  Although best known for his principal film persona of "the tramp" - a scrappy, funny, quite imperfect, but usually good-hearted magnet for calamity and hard luck - I love the picture of him above, out of costume, in which one can discern the intelligence and the hunger to succeed of the young performer, who had survived real poverty and tragedy to find the perfect vehicle for his salvation in California's rising motion picture industry.  Charlie is for me one of the consummate artists of all times, and a special inspiration to me for a myriad of reasons, foremost among these being his ability to combine hilarious comedy, with incisive and timely social commentary, and deeply-moving personal drama, which is at the same time emotionally intense and universally comprehensible.  All in the same movie, he could get you to laugh your head off, to cry your eyes out, and to awaken to, or recall, pressing issues of social justice. The mix was harmonious, perfectly blended - with so much going on, the odds of something coming apart, and of everything then falling out of balance, and sinking the whole project, were astronomically high - and yet, time and time again, he pulled it off: somehow, the slapstick did not cancel out the heartbreak, the pathos did not crush one's ability to laugh, the social critique did not drown out the personal story.  Instead of pulling you in different directions, the elements combined to create one powerful organic experience. Amazing!  Charlie was truly one of the giants of our planet's cultural history, and he must surely count as one of my major influences, stimulating me to write in a more visual way (seeing clear scenes and images, as a motion-picture director), and inspiring me to attempt the same daring mixture of comedy and seriousness in order to produce an effect of greater depth and impact (the comedy outflanking the barriers always erected in the path of seriousness, the seriousness saving the comedy from the irresponsibility of excessive lightness in a world of great need).  Without a doubt, Charlie belongs on this page, along with Voltaire, Moliere and Swift (but do they belong with him?)


^  Charlie in his most recognizable form as "The Tramp."