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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Rereading the Classics [Rabelais]

In a few months, I shall visit Portugal. We have engaged a room in Navaré on the coast during the days of Carnival and shall blame only ourselves if we are kept awake by revelry. I have, in anticipation, been thinking of Bakhtin’s study of Carnival customs and of Rabelais. While dealing with Stalinism and his own osteomyelitis, Bakhtin found in the great Renaissance monk an irresistible source of laughter, a way to cope with being human, with belches and farts and pains and death and murderous hypocrites in power all the while.

Now, of course, physicality has always been a major source of humor, puncturing pretensions and downing idealistic flights of fancy. It is the stock in trade of clowns, of commedia dell’arte, and of a good many contemporary comic actors like Jim Carrey. Though comedy often springs from the most material human attributes, the abstract logical mind is the another major source, perhaps equally significant. This reflects the human predicament: as Pascal had it, neither wholly angelic nor wholly bestial. [1] Thus cerebral humor like incongruities and puns generate a laugh as well as pratfalls and stomach gurgles. [2]

The physical side has attracted the most attention to Rabelais. His reputation for obscenity and crudity is, in the end, inconsistent with his utter normalcy; his body-consciousness strikes the reader as unusually healthy. In spite of the basic impulse of monasticism to reject the world, Rabelais embraces physicality, not with resignation but with joy. Life, death, eating, excreting are such fun, such loci of energy that they inevitably spawn great torrents of words. Rather than fleeing their humanity, Gargantua and Pantagruel magnify it through their gigantism, and the language does its best to keep up.

His book, however, is as erudite as it is vulgar. Of course, the manipulation of symbols is indeed more distinctly human than intestinal gas, at which bovines, for instance, far surpass us. Surely the mind is the single characteristic that most distinguishes our species, the most critically important in the development of homo sapiens. Semiotic use belongs to humanity as pouncing to cats or webs to spiders, and Rabelais delights in language, the most sophisticated code in existence. His book is filled with effervescent examples of what the medievals called amplificatio, piling it on, compiling great catalogues, adding one largely synonymous figure to another, listing authorities as though presenting a learned argument. He makes endless allusions, employs every sort of rhetoric and verse imaginable, and elaborates commentaries on commentaries for the sheer exhilarated joy of it. Knowing no bounds, he invents outlandish names and words, and shuffles foreign tongues together. Such Whitmanic/Joycean exuberance in a learned French monk!

Loving language, he loves literature, and book-studies of all kinds. He is full to overflowing; he is encyclopedic. He mixes high and low styles in a way that would have seemed barbaric to the ancients. In the list of Gargantua’s games one feels the pulse of life even more than in Breughel’s painting. In Xenomanes’ description of King Lent [3] are a hundred surrealist images. Few others construct such grand textures of words out of playful high spirits alone.

His rhetorical figures correspond precisely to the author’s world-view. He is constitutionally filled with a buoyant delight at existence, inspired by learned studies no less than by a fine dinner or an admirable sunrise. This delight in simply being alive is stronger in some passages than others, but never absent through the entire work. This is surely in fact the work’s most significant theme. It may be true, as the Buddha said that life is suffering, but it is no less true that life is joyful, and it can only be salutary to look through the eyes of one who expresses the other half of the undeniable self-contradictory truth. As Rabelais says, echoing Aquinas in his initial address to his readers: “to laugh is natural to men.” [4]

Pantagruelism, according to its creator, arises from “a certain jollity of mind, pickled in the scorn of fortune” [5] But in fact, what the translator calls “jollity” is in French gaîté, and this word has a long history in French poetry. Among the troubadours “gai” was used to imply a sort of sublimity bordering on divine afflatus. [6] Thus gai saber came to be used for the “sciences” of poetry composition and of lovemaking as in the 14th century Consistori del Gay (or Gai) Saber. Rabelais in the stirrings of the Reformation and Nietzsche with the 19th century “death of God” both saw the world opening before them.

Nietzsche says in his Fröhliche Wissenschaft, “Indeed, we philosophers and ‘free spirits’ feel, when we hear the news that ‘the old god is dead,’ as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea.’” [7]

In a temperament of a soberer sort, George Santayana thought of the world as a grand mardi gras, saying “It is a great Carnival, and amongst these lights and shadows of comedy, these roses and vices of the playhouse, there is no abiding.” [8] In fact, Pantagruel’s whole story, like that of Dante or of Monkey in Journey to the West is a journey toward enlightenment.
Less foregrounded, but a natural consequence of Rabelais’ sensibility, is his political radicalism, his uncompromising sharp satire of the ruling class of church and state, and his admiration for More’s communist utopia. Bakhtin was on the money, as many subsequent critics have agreed, when he associated Rabelais’ attitude with the social practices around Carnival in which social order was overturned, at once revealing temporarily the artificiality of the everyday and reinforcing its essential reality by playfully enacting its opposite. All laughter has an element of letting go, of a sudden release of repressed ideas. [9] When Epistemon’s throat is cut and he finds himself in the underworld, social roles are reversed. [10] Kings and conquerors are reduced to beggary, while the philosophers prosper. Of course, in the Abbey of Thélème, with its slogan “Do as thou wouldst,” the inmates need not support themselves; indeed, like nobles, they have troops of workmen to provide their needs. Their behavior is decorous due to the aristocratic virtue of “honor,” really an aesthetic category. Still, Rabelais’ book must be counted among those that presaged the breakdown of Roman Catholic hegemony and of European feudalism, though what followed was not liberation but new varieties of Protestant intolerance and capitalist exploitation.

Am I the only reader to suspect a poignant note in the constant barrage of good humor about drinking alcohol? To me it sounds as though, for all the ebullient story-telling, all the optimistic brio, all the hearty Renaissance self-celebration, the subject in the end must seek some anesthetic or analgesic at least to make it through the night. Even the healthiest of monkish physicians felt the need for a chemical fix when it seemed that reality was gaining on him. In addition the fantasies of titanic meals may be seen as the inversion of the sort of starvation anxiety Bettelheim found in stories like Hansel and Gretel. Clearly, the fantastic liberty of actors like Pantagruel and Panurge gains its appeal from the compromised and highly programmed lives most people live. Similarly, Rabelais’ frequent “jolly” references to people identified as physically ill (most often “syphilitics” and “gouty ones,” two conditions that were associated with over-indulgence) reinforces the fact of mortality and the transience of worldly things. Just as in ancient Greek and Chinese poetry, the recognition of the illusory nature of pleasure heightens its enjoyment even as it adds a dark shadow to the scene.

Glorious as I find him, Rabelais is not, indeed, to everyone’s taste. For those of us who like to believe in the power of words, it is gratifying to find that the Church is still after him as it was during his life. The Catholic Encyclopedia says of Rabelais’ book, “It is impossible to analyse it” yet adds as well the caution: “as a whole it exercises a baneful influence.” I would not blame the pious fathers for doubting that the author of Gargantua and Pantagruel was a believer in original sin.

He is also capable of offending George Orwell who calls him precisely what he is not: “an exceptionally perverse, morbid writer, a case for psycho-analysis.” Orwell marvels that “anyone can find something ‘normal’ and ‘hearty’ in coprophilia,” [11] and suggests that Rabelais’ reputation can only exist due to people’s failing to actually read his book.
Orwell wrote on the eve of the immensely and deservedly popular translation of an abridgement by Samuel Putnam. Urquhart/Motteux is good fun but can tire the reader. J. M. Cohen’s Penguin version is complete and reliable as well as inexpensive and easily available. Donald M. Frame’s The Complete Works of François Rabelaisis the best current scholarly version for serious students who don’t read French. I can only think that the more people who read Rabelais, the better. He is an enormous spirit and we can all use the tolerance, good sense, and profound learning as well as his high spirits which delighted not only in food and drink but in the most entertaining play of all, the play of the mind.






1. Blaise Pascal, Pensées 329.

2. For the gastric sounds I am thinking of Chaplin’s “stomach duet” with a charitable prison visitor in Modern Times, for which he created the noises himself by blowing bubbles into a pail of water.

3. Book IV, chapters 30-32 contains such figures as “his lungs like a fur-lined hood,” “his imagination like a peal of bells,” and “if he blew his nose, it was salted eels.”

4. Rabelaisian it may sound, but the line is directly from the Summa Theologica, LI, 1.

5. “Une certaine gaîté d'esprit confite dans le mépris des choses fortuites.” In Urquhart’s edition, though by this point translated by Motteux, from the prologue to Book IV. Motteux was also an early translator of Don Quixote, though, according to Samuel Putnam, he was very free, adding obscene material in particular and omitting at liberty while emphasizing the “slapstick.” His death in a brothel led to a sensational closely watched trial.

6. See, for instance, the Contessa de Dia’s “Ab joi et ab joven m’apais,” William IX’s “Pos de chantar m'es pres talenz,” and Peire Vidal’s “Ab l’alen tir vas me l’aire.”

7. Aphorism 343 of Die fröhliche Wissenschaft in Walter Kaufmann’s translation. Nietzsche owes to Emerson for these concepts. Among the many commentators, Harold Bloom regards Nietzsche as “Emerson’s belated rival.”

8. Santayana 34 in "Carnival" from Soliloquies in England and later soliloquies.

9. For Freud, humor arose from a rejection of reality and a triumph for the pleasure principle, the superego temporarily allowing the ego to gain id satisfaction from introducing tabooed topics. Among the likely sources of comedy, then are sex and scatology, heterodoxy and revolution.

10. Rabelais owes a debt, here, to Lucian’s Menippus.

11. The line is from a dismissive review of Albert Cohen’s now-forgotten Nailcruncher that appears in George Orwell, My country right or left, 1940-1943, p. 45-6. I am curious as to what episode Orwell thought could properly be termed “coprophilic.”

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