Writers who influenced Laurence Sterne

François Rabelais

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

John Locke

Jonathan Swift

François Rabelais (1490-1533)

Rabelais ranks with Boccaccio as a founding father of Western realism. As a satirist and stylist (in his hands French prose became a free, poetic form), he influenced writers as important as Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, and James Joyce and may be seen as a major precursor of modernism. His five books concerning the deeds of the giant princes Gargantua and Pantagruel constitute a treasury of social criticism, an articulate statement of humanistic values, and a forceful, if often outrageous, manifesto of human rights. Rabelaisian satire took aim at every social institution and (especially in Book III) every intellectual discipline. Broadly learned and unflaggingly alert to jargon and sham, he repeatedly focused on dogmas that fetter creativity, institutional structures that reward hypocrisy, educational traditions that inspire laziness, and philosophical methodologies that obscure elemental reality. His heroes, Gargantua and his son and heir Pantagruel, are figures whose colossal size and appetites (Rabelais's etymology for Pantagruel is "all-thirsty") symbolize the nobility and omnivorous curiosity that typified the humanistic scheme. The multifarious educational program detailed in Gargantua is reminiscent of Vittorino, Alberti, and the Montefeltro court; and the utopian Abbey of Thélème, whose gate bears the motto "Do as you please," is a tribute to enlightened will and pleasure in the manner of Valla, Erasmus, and More. Characteristically overstated and never wholly free of irony, Rabelais's work is a far cry from the earnest moral and educational programs of the early humanists. Rather than rebuild society, he seeks to amuse, edify, and refine it. His qualified endorsement of human dignity is based on the healthy balance of mind and body, the sanctity of all true learning, and the authenticity of direct experience.

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Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616)

Miguel de Cervantes, born in Alcalá de Henares in 1547, was the son of a surgeon who presented himself as a nobleman, although Cervantes's mother seems to have been a descendant of Jewish converts to Christianity. Little is known of his early years. Four poems published in Madrid by his teacher, the humanist López de Hoyos, mark his literary début, punctuated by his sudden departure for Rome, where he resided for several months. In 1571 he fought valiantly at Lepanto, where he was wounded in his left hand by a harquebus shot. The following year he took part in Juan of Austria's campaigns in Navarino, Corfu, and Tunis. Returning to Spain by sea, he fell into the hands of Algerian corsairs. After five years spent as a slave in Algiers, and four unsuccessful escape attempts, he was ransomed by the Trinitarians and returned to his family in Madrid. In 1585, a few months after his marriage to Catalina de Salazar, twenty-two years younger than he, Cervantes published a pastoral novel, La Galatea, at the same time that some of his plays, now lost except for El trato de argel and El cerco de Numancia, were playing on the stages of Madrid. Two years later he left for Andalusia, which he traversed for ten years, first as a purveyor for the Invencible Armada and later as a tax collector. As a result of money problems with the government, Cervantes was thrown into jail in Seville in 1597; but in 1605 he was in Valladolid, then seat of the government, just when the immediate success of the first part of his Don Quixote, published in Madrid, signaled his return to the literary world. In 1607, he settled in Madrd just after the return there of the monarch Philip III. During the last nine years of his life, in spite of deaths in the family and personal setbacks, Cervantes solidified his reputation as a writer. He published the Novelas ejemplares in 1613, the Viaje del Parnaso in 1614, and in 1615, the Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses and the second part of Don Quixote, a year after the mysterious Avellaneda had published his apocryphal sequel to the novel. At the same time, Cervantes continued working on Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda, which he completed three days before his death on April 22, 1616, and which appeared posthumously in January 1617.

What we know of Cervantes's life is the result of a long series of inquiries begun during the first three decades of the seventeenth century. But the most significant contributions have been those of scholars in the early part of this century, especially Cristóbal Pérez Pastor. The documents that have been published through their efforts come from public, parochial, and notarial archives, and they generally refer to Cervantes's captivity, the posts that he occupied in Andalusia, and certain other important events in his life. Few of these documents, however, cast any light on his life as a writer, much less on his personality. We need a methodical commentary on these documents to bring up to date the sketch which James Fitzmaurice Kelly published in Oxford in 1917: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra; reseña documentada de su vida. We also need a critical biography worthy of the name. Luis Astrana Marín's big book Vida ejemplar y heroica de Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (Madrid, 1948-1958, 7 vols.) suffers from a less-than-solid methodology as well as a number of personal biases. Still it contains a considerable amount of information and so remains an essential work of reference. Rosa Rossi's essay Escuchar a Cervantes (Valladolid, 1988) attempts to do away with the idealized portrait of Cervantes by interpreting his life as the confluence of his supposed Jewish origins and his latent homosexual tendencies. Certain recent biographers--such as Andrés Trapiello (Las vidas de Cervantes, Barcelona, 1993) and, not without a hint of scandal, Fernando Arrabal (Un esclavo llamado Cervantes, Paris and Madrid, 1996)--have revived the tradition of romanticized biographies in which the biographer's personality obliterates that of the writer whose life is the supposed subject.

The biography written by the author of this note (Jean Canavaggio, Cervantès, revised and amplified edition, Paris: Fayard, 1997) differs from its predecessors in its pretentions. Unlike other works, it does not attempt to plumb the depths of the irrational in order to decipher the symbolism that Cervantes's fiction presumably contains. Rather than "explain" Cervantes, a man who disappeared almost four centuries ago and whose creation has taken on a life of its own, this biography aspires to "tell his story" better. We must first establish with all the necessary rigor what is actually known of Cervantes's actions and experiences, and we must exclude the legends, such as his having studied at the Jesuit school in Seville or his having composed the Quixote while in prison. Then Cervantes, who was an obscure participant in a heroic adventure, a lucid observer of a time of doubt and crisis, and a very personal interpreter of Spain at a crucial moment in its history, must be placed in his own milieu and his own time, better known now because of the work of recent historians. We must do our best to find that man. As we trace this life which has become a destiny that we attempt to render comprehensible, the book offers us a likely profile of a figure who is not the same individual that his friends and family knew, nor the "rare genius" whose profile Cervantes himself created, nor the figure which, since his death, has arisen from a series of myths which some day ought to be looked into. In other words, we are looking for the missing profile which we assign to the secret narrator hidden behind his masks, this absent one who is always present, whose voice is his alone and, through the magic of his writing, is always recognizable even among a thousand others.

© Copyright 1997 Prof. Jean Canavaggio
(Translation by Melvin Hinton)

John Locke (1632-1704)

One other late 17th-century figure with a formidable influence in the 18th century demands consideration: the philosopher John Locke. His Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) rejects a belief in innate ideas and argues that the mind at birth is a tabula rasa. Experience of the world can only be accumulated through the senses, which are themselves prone to unreliability. The Essay, cautiously concerned to define the exact limits of what the mind can truly claim to know, threw exciting new light on the workings of human intelligence and stimulated further debate and exploration through the fertility of its suggestions--for example, about the way in which ideas come to be associated. Locke was equally influential on political thought. He came from Puritan stock and was closely linked during the Restoration with leading Whig figures, especially the most controversial of them all, the Earl of Shaftesbury. His Two Treatises of Government (published in 1690, but mainly written during the Exclusion Crisis 10 years earlier) asserts the right of resistance to unjust authority and, in the last resort, of revolution. To establish this he had to think radically about the origins of civil society, the mutual obligations of subjects and rulers, and the rights of property. The resulting work became the crucial reference point from which subsequent debate took its bearings.


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Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

Swift, who also wrote verse of high quality throughout his career, like Gay favoured octosyllabic couplets and a close mimicry of the movement of colloquial speech. His technical virtuosity allowed him to switch assuredly from poetry of great destructive force to the intricately textured humour of Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift (completed in 1732; published 1739) and to the delicate humanity of his poems to Stella. But his prime distinction is, of course, as the greatest prose satirist in the English language. His period as secretary to the distinguished man of letters, Sir William Temple, gave him the chance to extend and consolidate his reading, and his first major work, A Tale of a Tub (1704), deploys its author's learning to chart the anarchic lunacy of its supposed creator, a Grub Street hack, whose solipsistic "modern" consciousness possesses no respect for objectivity, coherence of argument, or inherited wisdom from Christian or classical tradition. Techniques of impersonation were central to Swift's art thereafter. The Argument Against Abolishing Christianity (1708), for instance, offers brilliant ironic annotations on the "Church in Danger" controversy through the carefully assumed voice of a "nominal" Christian. That similar techniques could be adapted to serve specific political goals is demonstrated by "The Drapier's Letters" (1724-25), part of a successful campaign to prevent the imposition of a new, and debased, coinage on Ireland. Swift had hoped for preferment in the English church, but his destiny lay in Ireland, and the ambivalent nature of his relationship to that country and its inhabitants provoked some of his most demanding and exhilarating writing--above all, A Modest Proposal (1729), in which the ironic use of an invented persona achieves perhaps its most extraordinary and mordant development. His most wide-ranging satiric work, however, is also his most famous, Gulliver's Travels (1726). Swift grouped himself with Pope and Gay in hostility to the Walpole regime and the Hanoverian court, and that preoccupation leaves its mark on this work. But Gulliver's Travels also hunts larger prey. At its heart is a radical critique of human nature in which subtle ironic techniques work to part the reader from any comfortable preconceptions and challenge him to rethink from first principles his notions of man.


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