Notes of a Former Rabelaisian:
An Essay on François Rabelais’
Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Fall 2001
A longtime fan of writers who have often been described as Rabelaisian, I’ve always assumed that the word meant something like what all the blurbs said: vast, erudite, boozy, hilariously satirical, ingeniously inventive, sick, potty-mouthed, and horny. Writers like William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, Angela Carter, and Rikki Ducornet were Rabelaisian. They were writers capable of writing anything that their minds could imagine, no matter how absurd or obscene, and of respecting no limitations other than the parameters of the alphabet.
Through the criticism of Mikhail Bakhtin, the word Rabelaisian has also come to mean subversive, grotesque, and more or less left wing—a kind of mixture of the Marxist, the Kafkaesque, and the Tod Browningesque: Rabelais the critic, Rabelais the arch-clown, Rabelais the father of “carnivalesque” dissent, Rabelais the solace of Pynchon’s preterite souls.
But is Rabelais any of these things? Can a sixteenth-century monk possibly fulfill these twentieth-century expectations? For many readers (and just as many critics) it doesn’t seem to matter. Rabelais is out there the way that Proust is out there: as the root word of an extremely useful adjective. I may have even used the word Rabelaisian myself once or twice—in describing the shit-storm in Gravity’s Rainbow, maybe, or perhaps the miter-fucking fantasy in Ducornet’s Phosphor in Dreamland. But recently, after reading Jan Potocki’s ostensibly Rabelaisian novel, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, and living in what I thought was an extremely Rabelaisian situation—two months of literary squalor at the Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris—I decided to see for myself what this Rabelais business was all about. I decided to actually read Rabelais.
After getting my hands on a copy of Gargantua and Pantagruel—a serendipitous process too long to go into here but which I now know to be “Potockian”—I was first surprised to learn that Rabelais didn’t invent Gargantua. Gargantua was the subject of a popular anonymous book of the time called the Great Chronicles of Gargantua, and what Rabelais did was write a sequel: Pantagruel. With the success of Pantagruel, Rabelais then decided to go back and write his own version of Gargantua, which included many episodes lifted straight from the earlier Gargantua. Then he wrote three (or maybe only two) continuations of Pantagruel’s story. So when we read Gargantua and Pantagruel now, we read the second book first, then the first, and then the remaining three, which is maybe a little like watching The Phantom Menace before watching the other three Star Wars films—and then maybe reading a couple of those Star Wars continuation novels. And it’s just as inconsistent.
Gargantua, the “first” book in the series, recounts “The Most Fearsome Life of the Great Gargantua, Father of Pantagruel,” following the giant-king and his group of cronies around as they get drunk, perform feats of derring-do, and generally whip a bunch of ass. For the first fifty pages it all seems very impromptu, with no real sense that Rabelais has any idea where the book is going. But then, about halfway in, he comes up with an inspiration: Friar John, the ass-kicking boozer who defends his abbey only because his supply of wine is in danger. When he joins the ranks of the roving gang, however, he quickly highlights Gargantua’s run-of-the-millness as a hero, throwing the book into even further imbalance. We’re clearly supposed to be impressed by Gargantua’s hyperbolic feats—this isn’t a story about how the sidekick is more interesting than the main character—but it’s just as clear that Rabelais is incapable of making Gargantua all that exciting.
Then in the “second” book, which recounts the “Terrible Deeds and Acts of Prowess” of Gargantua’s son, Pantagruel, there’s an entirely different cast of characters, most notably the even more fire-stealing Panurge, Pantagruel’s proto-Falstaffian sidekick. But as in Gargantua, not much really happens. It’s all just a series of disconnected anecdotes and unremarkable fight scenes, with a few comical asides from Panurge.
Then when the third book rolls around, somehow Friar John has become part of the second generation’s crew, with no explanation of why he’s Pantagruel’s pal now instead of Gargantua’s. My guess is that since he’d just invented Friar John for his flashback first volume, Rabelais must have liked him so much that he decided to let him step a generation into the future, skipping over the now unrevisable Pantagruel. Granted, this isn’t Ulysses we’re talking about (although Joyce was a great admirer of Rabelais) and the text was written the old-fashioned way—dictated like a scroll instead of scrutinized like a modernist hypertext—but such a big inconsistency does seem a little strange. But then again, since everybody’s so eager to claim Rabelais for our century—and since the lapse of character and frame is so much like the episode in Mason & Dixon where a character from The Ghastly Fop (a book within the book) enters the story of Mason and Dixon—let’s just call it postmodern.
With Panurge and Friar John now in the picture together—the foil playing the foil to the foil—the book’s focus shifts a bit. Panurge is a notorious rake, and when he gets the idea to put aside his codpiece and look for a wife of his own—Friar John all the while egging him on and scaring him with insinuations of cuckoldry—the book finally finds a direction. Going to philosophers and theologians and lawyers and physicians for advice—all of whom assure him that he’ll be a cuckold if he marries—Panurge decides to seek the Oracle of the Holy Bottle to find the answer.
Books four and five follow the crew through an interminable series of sea adventures, bringing them into contact with the Chitterlings, the Papimaniacs, the Siticines, and the utterly unbearable Furrycats. When they reach the Oracle at the end of the “Fifth and Last Book,” Panurge finally gets his answer, bringing the whole saga to its conclusion, but by then it’s impossible to care anymore. Part of the problem is that it’s unlikely that Rabelais wrote the final volume: The format seems wildly altered; the narrator’s voice (and placement) has changed; and the things that before had seemed dull and formless are now unbearably dull and formless. But whether Rabelais is responsible for this final volume or not, the text that’s been passed down to us that attributes itself to Rabelais is almost impossible to finish.
So the question is, What’s the big deal? Why is this series of not-very-inspired adventures so important? Why is Rabelais such a touchstone—or at least such a catchphrase—to so many writers and critics? Why is Rabelais Rabelais?
The answer lies in who he was and when he wrote—and especially in the precedents he set. As a monk in the early sixteenth century, he was a part of the rising tide of Humanism, which meant that he took in a vast amount of learning that was considered to be outside the limits of clerical bounds. Against the wishes of his superiors—and often having his books confiscated—he taught himself Greek, first to read the New Testament in the original, and then so he could read the Classics without the mediation of Averroës and the other (mostly Muslim) commentators. Even Dante got his Homer from secondary sources, and so with such a wide variety of thought—and weird inspiration—at his fingertips, Rabelais was free to do just about anything.
But the next question is, does he put this inspiration to good use? Is the fruit of all this learning ultimately any good? And the answer is, not really. There are very few things that Rabelais does really well, and since so many of the subsequent Rabelaisians did them all so much better than he did, reading Rabelais ends up mostly being tiresome. His greatest talent seems to be his gift for hilarious exclamations (“God’s balls!” and “By the foreskin of Christ!” are my favorites), but compared to writers like Angela Carter or Jeanette Winterson, his blasphemies seem pretty feeble. He also loves to make extended lists of disparate things, stringing them all together in an attempt to amaze you with his vastly absurd imagination. But his juxtapositions seem uninspired and poorly planned when compared to those of master list-makers like Joyce or Borges. There’s no sense of things being plucked from the far reaches of the cosmos and lined up in all their glorious Library-of-Babel incongruity, despite all the references he makes to Scipio Africanus or how many types of fish he can name. Then there’s the variety of the formats he uses—the frequent shifts in the narrative from narrative proper to songs to drama to verse to Q&A to long lists and then back to narrative again. It’s pretty entertaining at times, if only for variety’s sake, but compared to the meaningful uses to which writers like Sterne and Joyce put their format changes, it mostly ends up seeming off-the-cuff and empty. Which is also the main problem with how he uses his vast storehouse of knowledge. A writer like Borges uses his infinity of reading judiciously, picking out exactly what he needs and putting it to work as effectively and dramatically as possible. Rabelais just goes off on his erudite digressions for no apparent reason, rarely illustrating any meaningful point or following any of the text’s internal logic. And then there’s the most important question: Pantagruel’s shit-balls that sprout into little women, or Pynchon’s awesome shit-storm? No contest. But I have to admit that I was impressed by Gargantua’s trial-and-error discovery of the best thing with which to wipe his ass. After experimenting with, among other things, a lady’s velvet mask, a page’s bonnet, roses, beets, his own codpiece, a basket, a penitent’s hood, and an otter, he finally strikes upon the perfect ass-wiper: a well-downed goose.
To compare Rabelais to writers more suitably contemporaneous, he again comes up quite pale. With luminaries like Dante, Boccaccio, and Chaucer before him and Shakespeare and Cervantes soon afterwards, he’s barely worth mentioning. Dante’s incredible precision and systematically pointed erudition—not to mention his ingenious grossness—make Rabelais look like a joke, his long-winded digressions positively first-draft compared to the amazing symmetry of the Commedia. And although Cervantes can be clumsy at times, his comic depth and the breadth of his understanding reveal Rabelais to be quite shallow. Comparing two similar scenes, the episode in Don Quixote when Sancho Panza finally gets to rule over his “isle,” and the scene in book three of Gargantua and Pantagruel when Panurge is made “Warden of Salmagundia in Dipsodia,” the difference is polar. When confronted with his own authority, Sancho comes across as a nearly Solomonic figure, rising so far above the occasion that the episode’s amazing comedy (mostly at Sancho’s expense) only serves to illustrate the squire’s profound humanity. In Panurge’s big scene, there’s little more than a (relatively funny) disputation on the merits of Lending and Borrowing, with a cynical spin on the four cardinal virtues. So even the ostensibly show-stealing Panurge doesn’t put on much of a show. It’s hardly Salmagundian.
Which in a roundabout way brings things back to the question of sidekicks—and to the larger question of Rabelais’ depiction of power relationships, which seems to be in some dispute. For someone looking for the proto-Marxist critic in Rabelais, his inability to make his main characters interesting and his reliance on his trickster-figure sidekicks is tempting fare. But looking at the book more broadly, there’s little question of Rabelais being any kind of dissenter. Even though he’s quite liberal in his judgment of what’s blasphemous and what’s not—his characters’ actions and sayings often pushing the boundaries and provoking his critics to condemn him—he always makes it clear that he and all his characters are good Christians. Reactionary Christians, even, if we’re to judge by his attitude toward the Reformation, or to Jews, or by the great fuss Panurge makes about a character not getting to make his final confession. Granted, Rabelais’ depiction of the Papimaniacs and their idolatrous devotion to the Holy Decretals is hilariously scathing, but then again, didn’t Dante—the ultimate Catholic line-toer—have a special place in Hell reserved for the popes he didn’t like? It could also be argued that, like Chaucer may have been doing, Rabelais was simply using his Christian mouthings as a shield so he could be as blasphemous and bawdy as he wanted to be. Or that he was expanding the parameters of Christianity to include bawdiness and fun—a sort of boozing version of Blake’s “Garden of Love.” But whether this is the case or not, Rabelais still holds his Christian shield high, and he in no way stands for people outside or beneath the structure that protects him. Rabelais’ enemies are all at the Sorbonne, not in Rome, and his attacks on them are all petty and local—hardly the stuff of meaningful satire. This is no Swift we’re talking about—no bitterly satirical social critic. He’s more like the Oscar Wilde of The Importance of Being Earnest: His critiques are self-serving, viciously trite, and empty, leaving little for the reader to really digest.
To compound Rabelais’ demerits for the modern reader, he also shows himself to be a monarchist (don’t forget that Gargantua and Pantagruel are kings), an unquestioningly despotic imperialist, and a shocking gynophobe. Tod Browning’s freaks would hardly consider him “one of us.” Which is all as it should be, I guess. Rabelais was a monk in sixteenth-century Catholic France; he wasn’t Angela Carter. It’s pretty disappointing, but I don’t think we should pretend that he was anything but what he was. Because anyone who thinks Rabelais was putting his “carnivalesque” grotesqueries to work for the consolation of the underdog is only fooling himself. Such a view would be like thinking of Milton as a feminist, or of Dostoyevsky as a nice-guy socialist, or of Flannery O’Connor as a freethinker.
So after all the air’s been let out, what does that leave in Rabelais for the deflated Rabelaisian? Is there anything left in him worth reading at all? Or is he to be tossed in the bin with Stendhal and Dostoyevsky and Mann and all the rest of so-called “important” writers who aren’t worth your shelf space, let alone your precious time. If you’re a completist—or a masochist—the way I am, you have to read him. And now that it’s over, I have to admit that I’m glad I have. Rabelais isn’t much fun to read, but he’s kind of fun to remember, and the good bits will probably stay with me for a while. But other than filling in a blank space in my spotty connect-the-dots understanding of literature—and giving me some good ideas about ass-wiping materials—Rabelais’ cacata carta kind of seemed like a waste of time. I recommend reading Jan Potocki instead.