This blog is about writing and promoting creative writing, but today I have to honour those writers and cartoonists who were murdered in Paris for doing what writers and cartoonists in a political magazine do: challenge, confront, comment, lampoon and satirise authority, whether church or state, political or secular.
My deepest condolences to all those in France who have lost someone they love.
It was heartening to take part in a hastily organised vigil in Melbourne’s Federation Square this evening and be with 3000 others, as a mark of respect for those who have died, and to stand in solidarity with the grieving French community of Melbourne. So many shattered young travellers worrying about their families and homeland, coming together to support each other and trying to make sense of such a senseless violent act.
Many people queued to write or draw a message of condolence and also a message in defence of freedom of speech.
I owe a great deal of my development and education to the courage, talent and philosophical ideas of uncensored French writers.
My first real introduction to great French writers and thinkers was studying The Enlightenment during my last year at high school and reading Jean-Jaques Rousseau (The Social Contract) and Françoise-Marie Arouet de Voltaire (Candide) for Eighteenth Century History.
“Ecrasez l’infame!”- “Crush the Infamous Thing!”
Françoise-Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694-1778)
I interpreted the infamous thing as being superstition and intolerance – standard behaviour of the Catholic Church of Voltaire’s time, and like many others I often quote what he was reported to have said about freedom of speech. A very appropriate comment to reflect on today regarding intolerant fundamentalism.
Voltaire promoted empiricism, rationalism, social reform, and freedom of thought. Philosopher, satirist, dramatist, novelist, historian, essayist, poet, social reformer, and the most influential champion of the Enlightenment. Once read, never forgotten!
I was a child when I first saw films based on the books of Victor Hugo (Les misèrables and Notre-Dame de Paris – The Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame), a teenager when I read novels by other writers from France: Albert Camus (L’Étranger/The Outsider), Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Man in the Iron Mask and The Nutcracker, which Tchaikovsky based his ballet on.), and Jules Verne (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Around the World in 80 Days). Émile Zola’s defence of Alfred Dreyfus and his echoing Voltaire in the open letter J’accuse still resonates.
In the 1970s at university I read Simone de Beauvoir, a great feminist ( The Second Sex and The Prime of Life) and the truly amazing Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, best known by her pseudonym George Sand, existentialist Jean Paul Sartre, Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary), the poet Charles Baudelaire, and the playwright Molière.
Books by George Sand, a woman ahead of her time, can be read on the Internet here: http://archive.org/search.php?query=creator:%22George%20Sand%22&page=1
The most recent encounter with great French writers being for my Masters degree: Hélène Cixous (The Hélène Cixous Reader and The Writing Notebooks of Hélène Cixous), Roland Barthes (The Death of the Author) and the many writings of Jacques Derrida .
The nineteenth-century historian Thomas Macauley said of Voltaire,
“Bigots and tyrants, who had never been moved by the wailing and cursing of millions, turned pale at his name.”
There has never been a century free from bigots or tyrants – we will always need a Voltaire.
Two seemingly contradictory statements about the importance of writing from Jean Paul Sartre, one of the greatest of French writers and philosophers appeared in an article in the Guardian last year. The first quote he was refusing the Nobel Prize for Literature and the second quote was disappointment at not being able to change French policy in Algeria.
I have always declined official honours. A writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution. This attitude is based on my conception of the writer’s enterprise. A writer who adopts political, social or literary positions must act only within the means that are his own – that is, the written word.
For a long time I looked on my pen as a sword; now I know how powerless we are.
Sartre was obviously jaded and disappointed, but at least he didn’t stop writing.
I don’t believe writers are powerless and I hope there will always be those with the courage of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and writers. Here are two cartoons doing the rounds of social media to honour those killed in Paris and to illustrate a belief that the pen will be mightier than the sword!