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: rabble–lay) was a French Renaissance writer, humanist, monk, doctor, and a teller of dirty jokes.
So here’s this 16th century 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.
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..