Monthly Archives: April 2013

Books your high school English teacher never let you read

In keeping with the general topic of Spring: of joyful gushings and sudden flowerings, of reawakened appetitites, of nymphs and satyrs frolicking in fields and woods – I thought I’d post a review of Rabelais*.

You might remember Francois Rabelais from your high school English class (or probably you don’t – especially if your teacher avoided it out of misplaced concern for your safety) as the author of the bawdy 16th century novel, Gargantua and Pantagruel. Rabelais  (roughly: rabblelay) was a French Renaissance writer, humanist, monk, doctor, and a teller of dirty jokes.

So here’s this 16th centurygargantua_pantagruel classic which proudly appears in Great Books of the Western World.  I plowed this compendium of arse-wind symphonies, infarctious bum-hole fruppery, codpiece flip-flappery, and vertiginous piles of latinate verbiage, much of which only a scholar from the Beansquiddle School of Counterposed Argumentation and Juxtiperous Scholary Assidification would understand, or profit therefrom. . .

And for all that, it was fun.

Yes, the complaint that I formed early on was that the writing was overwhelmingly verbose. Despite outlandishly bawdy humor, it took forever to get through what I took to be pointless descriptions, words piled up in a groaning sideboard of verbiage, chapters with no apparent aim toward what I thought should be the meat of the enterprise: advancing a book’s plot. But that complaint, I finally realized, was really my 20th-century American upbringing speaking: my get-out-of-the-way-I’m-in-a-hurry, time-is-money, nose-to-the-grindstone, put-it-in-a-sound-byte upbringing.

Compared to Gargantua and Pantagruel, today’s novels are practically written in short hand where an economy of words wins. Blogs must be digestible in two minutes or less.  We can quit any newspaper article after only three sentences and come away with its essential point. Got to keep moving, folks. We’ve basically re-written Descartes’ famous dictum to: ‘I stress, therefore I exist. . .’

On the other hand, with Gargantua and Pantagruel you have sat down with someone from the 16th-century, and you must not be interested in getting anywhere in a hurry. You must be prepared to sacrifice the entire afternoon to careless, rambling conversation where the person repeats himself, gets sidetracked in colorful but pointless tangents, tells lewd jokes, flirts with passersby, pauses frequently to order more beer, farts at will, and has a love for rattling off endless lists: of popular games, of foods appearing at a banquet, of ways to run someone through with a weapon, or the best materials to use in an outhouse.

The characters,  Gargantua and Pantagruel, are of a race of giants, and in a satire the figure of a giant usually becomes a device for showing human traits writ large. It occurs to me that Rabelais’ use of this literary device may be seen as a kind of rejoinder to Plato’s Republic. In The Republic, man was writ large in the form of an ideal city to explore the question: how should a man live? Then, in Gargantua and Pantagruel, perhaps the corollary occurs: the city or society is writ large in the form of a giant man to explore the question: what is the end of life?

And if this be the case, then Rabelais tell us, in effect, to chill…  There you go! There’s your modern urge to reduce everything to one formulaic pithy equation: just chill. Rabelais seems to be saying: what’s the use in being so pretentious and tight-assed? Humanity is funny, flawed, tragic, comic, both beautiful and ugly – and driven by passion and appetite more so than rationality. Relax, understand this, and stop pushing.

If you don’t mind bawdy jokes, gutter humor, satire, and enough crude body functions to start a riot in a whorehouse, this will be a delightful, if somewhat long read. Let it have its effect on you. On other hand, “If you say to me, master, it would seem that you were not very wise in writing to us these flimflam stories, and pleasant fooleries…” as Rabelais interjects, near the end of Book II, “I answer you that you are not much wiser to spend your time reading them.” ‘Tis a sentiment truer than meets the eye, because to respond out of impatience to this book is to have missed much of the point.

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Gargantua and Pantagruel can be read in the public domain on sites such as: Ebooks and Project Gutenberg. Nothing quite compares to a physical copy, however, and for a translation, I might suggest Burton Raffel for liveliness and fun.

*This review slightly repackaged from a post on LibraryThing..

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time’s winged chariot drawing near. . . and blowing right by

bizarro-world

Me like! This am perfect world!

I am faced with a minor dilemma. Shall I choose a standard topic and write. . . blithely, as though this blog had seen no intervening silence. Or shall I post about the silence. It’s a bit awkward, starting right off with a meta-discussion about blogging. But friends, I follow the bizarro- world recipe for success: make a flurry of posts, lapse into silence, rise up again with apologies. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But a six month gap? This just shoots the limit for attention spans. By now, I may be talking down an empty Ethernet cable, so how can I expect you to give two spits in a beggar’s cup? Let’s see: last time, I used the spiritual sabbatical angle to excuse the lapse in posts. If you recall, it was about how interplays of light and shadow, color and sound had hypnotized my soul to the point where I simply threw up my hands and sat gawking at clouds. What fun! and by the way, have you tried that? It fulfills a perfectly reasonable behavioral need at times. However, it turns out that somebody still has to fry the eggs and pay the electric bill.

So, been there and done that. Scrap that explanation.

Ok, got it! I stopped blogging in anticipation of the world ending.

439069-mayan-calendar

Yes! That’s it! The world ended last December. It was the singularity of humankind. The zero point. The whole enchilada – all wrapped up and stuffed in a “to go” bag. With that monolith approaching, I just couldn’t bring myself to string two words together. Sounds reasonable, right?

Oh wait. . . you missed the end of all time?? I kinda did, too, actually, because. . . well gosh, we’re still here! But let’s qualify that statement.  This time-line has persisted (the one where I am writing this sentence, and you are reading). Maybe we should try the next universe over (cue up the ominous music).  Then who knows? Maybe they’ve actually stopped showing ‘Friends’ reruns over there.   This all might sound clever from a quantum-physics-wannabe point of view. However, in the end it’s rather the same thing  – for us souls in this universe – as: ‘didn’t happen.’

You know, I was really looking forward to the end of the world. What glorious drama that could have been. It’s not that I dislike blogging, and to be sure, I don’t particularly like large explosions. It’s just that, for a shining moment, thereThe_Scream loomed the possibility that this good old dystopian realm of ours, this jaded planet Earth, might have been traded for something new.  We could have all been leveled up, raptured, or at least cast into the outer darkness!

Instead, life has gone on pretty much as usual, and I suppose that’s reassuring. The profiteering, the wars, the terrorist attacks, the viral plagues, all the usual suspects that give us warm fuzzies on the Nightly News – all are still here. This is called ‘finding comfort in a normatively toxic environment.’ It’s also called pessimism for folks who enjoy not smiling.

Meanwhile, seeing as how the world didn’t end, I was cast adrift for a while. There I was, having quit my job, cashed in all my savings, and waiting on a mountaintop.* Then I found refuge in the smothering embrace of Nutella and Wild Turkey. Yes. . . you read right: chocolate hazelnut cake icing and good ol’ Kentucky 101! Now, there’s a remarkable sensory combination and a cautionary tale in one go. Such smothering sweetness, such amnesial decadence! I may as well have been languishing in a nineteenth century London opium den. One might even recommend it for short-term psychic downtime . . . but you are likely a person who takes your body drama more seriously. In that case, you’ll find green tea and brown rice less normatively toxic – at least, over the short term. As always, choose your own adventure.

green tea.jpg

whiskey.jpg

So here we are, still hanging onto God’s merry-go-round, whilst a demonic steam calliope keeps banging out the same crazy tune.  Or maybe that’s just the TV left on.

But Oh Fortuna! it’s Spring again! And that’s something, at least. Warm sunny days, startlingly blue skies coasting with wind-frayed clouds, open windows, two-blanket nights, suddenly overgrown lawns, pollen-streaked windshields. . . and sneezing. Yes, Virginia, there is an April!  I really think we can do this. Here’s a Kleenex.

So, what do you think? Are you buying any of this? Having read this far, it would be a shame not to check back next week to see if another bizarro world post actually makes it up. The underlying message is: we are still alive over here and trying to figure out what to do with a year that ends in ’13’.  Actually, this is the most fun I have had with an overdue post.

* One of these statements is actually true.

Status

New Widget – 1000 Words a Day

Just added a widget to my sidebar – over on the right just below Categories: a new “1000 Words a Day” sticker. It’s really nothing new, as I have been able to bang words out in quantity for some time. The badge is just kind of fun, plus I like the motivation. The first two secrets to high daily word counts: keep a journal and don’t censor yourself. It should be no surprise that paragraphs pile up like snow drifts when the subject is you.  The intent is then to transfer this momentum to other projects.