Wednesday, May 09, 2018


When I was a teenager the library of my parents contained a volume with the title of The Works of Rabelais.  Not knowing any better, I thought that the name was pronounced “Rebellious.”

Was this ascription in any way accurate?  Not really, for despite his subversive aspects, Rabelais was a solid professional, very well connected in his time.  Over the centuries his works, despite their linguistic difficulties, have long attracted attentive readers.

François Rabelais (ca. 1494-1553) played many roles. He was a major French Renaissance writer,  together with at times a lawyer, monk, doctor, humanist, and oenophile. Both bawdy and learned, his work was highly original in both subject matter and quality. While his narratives are sometimes shocking, the inventive use of language displays an almost modern sensibility, as does his storytelling ability with its use of monologue and dialogue.

It is probable that François Rabelais was born in 1494, near Chinon, now in the department of Indre-et-Loire, where his father worked as a lawyer and his mother was a homemaker. Apparently, he too studied law, but left the field to join the Franciscan order, taking vows by or before 1521. He soon left the order to study at the University of Poitiers and University of Montpellier. In due course he joined the Benedictines, probably studying medicine with them. In 1532, he moved to Lyon, a major intellectual center of his day in France, where he served as a physician at the hospital. He not only practiced medicine, but edited Latin works for the printer Sebastian Gryphius. He employed his spare time to write and publish humorous pamphlets critical of established authority and stressing his own perception of individual liberty. While they were satirical his innovative writings revealed his role as an astute observer of the social and political events unfolding during the first half of the sixteenth century.

After the publication of his major literary works, Rabelais traveled to Rome with the ecclesiastic Jean du Bellay,.  He lived for a short time in Turin with du Bellay's brother, Guillaume, during which time king Francis I was his patron. Rabelais probably spent some time in hiding, threatened with the accusation of heresy. Only the protection of du Bellay saved Rabelais after the Sorbonne condemned his works.

Later Rabelais taught medicine at Montpellier in 1537 and 1538, and, in 1547, became curate of Saint-Christophe-du-Jambet and of Meudon, from which he resigned before his death in Paris in 1553.

There are different accounts of Rabelais' death and of his last words. According to some, he wrote a famous one-sentence will: "I have nothing, I owe a great deal, and the rest I leave to the poor," and his last words were "I am off in search of a great perhaps.”

In 1532, using the pseudonym Alcofribas Nasier (an anagram of François Rabelais), he published his first book, Pantagruel, a work that turned out to be the start of his Gargantua series. In his book, Rabelais sings the praises of the wines from his hometown of Chinon through vivid descriptions of the "eat, drink, and be merry" lifestyle of the main character, the giant Pantagruel, and his friends. Despite the great popularity of his book, both it and his prequel book on the life of Pantagruel's father Gargantua were condemned by the authorities of the Sorbonne for their unorthodox ideas, and for its derision of certain religious practices. Rabelais's third book, published under his own name, was also banned.

His books tell the story of two giants—a father, Gargantua, and his son, Pantagruel—and their adventures.  While the first two books focus on the lives of the two giants, much of the rest of the series relates the adventures of Pantagruel's friends—such as Panurge, a roguish erudite maverick, and Brother Jean, a bold, voracious and boozing ex-monk—and others on a collective naval journey in search of the Divine Bottle.

In 1532 when Pantagruel first appeared, relations between Catholics and Lutherans in France were relatively peaceful, with some (including Rabelais) drawing from both traditions.  Thirty years later, when the Quart Livre, or fourth book, appeared, the conflict had become lethal.  Thus Rabelais’ literary accomplishment spans the period when the fissure between Catholics and Protestants became a permanent feature of Western civilization.  

Rabelais’ extravagant, “over the top” literary style accommodated both high and low elements - embracing learning in many languages as well as coarse bawdiness.   The plot lurches from one episode to another in a randomness that seems to mirror life itself.

Even though most chapters of the volumes are humorous, rambunctious, and sometimes absurd, some relatively serious passages have become famous for descriptions of humanistic ideals of the time. In fact, the letter of Gargantua to Pantagruel and the chapters on Gargantua's boyhood present a detailed program of education.

A celebrated narrative is that of the utopian Abbey of Thélème, built by Gargantua.  Because of its importance. this fictional institution, which ranks as the first utopia in French literature, deserves extended analysis.  After successfully completing the war against Picrochole, Gargantua decided to build an abbey.  The rules of this institution were quite different from those governing European monasteries of the time, emphasizing as they did obedience to fixed hierarchical structure. The motto of the new abbey was «Fais ce que voudras» (*Do what thou wilt.”). The word «Thélème» derives from the Greek θέλημα (« thélêma »),  which in the New Testament characterizes the divine will, something that naturally manifests itself in human beings without the need for direct divine intervention. 

In its architectural form the Abbey of Thélème evokes a Renaissance chateau, such as Chambord, and not a medieval monastery. Unusually, however, the plan of Rabelais’ abbey was hexagonal.  It also had six floors, each devoted to books in a particular language: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, Italian, and Spanish

Rabelais describes a collective mode of life based on general will.  The Abbey's inmates, both women and men, observe lives of gentle decency governed by their apprehension of the divine will.  “All their life was spent not in laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their own free will and pleasure. They rose out of their beds when they thought good; they did eat, drink, labour, sleep, when they had a mind to it and were disposed for it. None did awake them, none did offer to constrain them to eat, drink, nor to do any other thing; for so had Gargantua established it.” Indeed life was joyful, filled with drinking, reading, singing, and playing musical instruments. 

As a humanist of his time, Rabelais postulates that a society without constraint or conflict was possible if only one could liberate the goodness inherent in human nature. To achieve this result he emphases the importance of education.

The conception of the abbey of de Thélème evokes a number of utopias popular at the time, such as the Heavenly Jerusalem of the Christian Apocalypse, the Dream of Polyphilus by Francesco Colonna (1499), and Thomas More’s Utopia. In fact Rabelais knew this last work, published in 1516 in Louvain. 

The French Renaissance was a time of linguistic ferment. Among the issues debated by scholars was the question of the origin of language. What was humanity's first language? Is language something that all humans are born with or something that they must learn (nature versus nurture)? Is there some organic connection between words and the objects they refer to, or are words purely arbitrary? Rabelais addresses these matters, among many others, in his books.

The early sixteenth century was also a time of innovations and change for the French language, especially in its written form. The first grammar appeared in 1530, followed nine years later by the first dictionary. Since spelling was far less codified than it is now, authors chose their own orthography. Rabelais himself developed his personal set of rather complex rules. He fostered etymological spelling, one that displays the origin of words by adding or modifying letter.  In this way he opposed those who favored a simplified spelling.

Rabelais' use of his native tongue was astoundingly original, lively, and creative, displaying a flexibility that was later to be discouraged by the French Academy.  He introduced into French dozens of Greek, Latin, and Italian loan-words,together with direct translations of Greek and Latin compounds and idioms. He also employed dialect forms, inventing new words and metaphors, some of which have become part of the standard language today. Rabelais arguably ranks as one of the authors who enriched the French language in the most significant way.  His works are also notorious for being filled with sexual double-entendre, dirty jokes, and bawdy songs that can still startle modern readers.s

The hybridity of Rabelais' style, mingling elevated and coarse elements, was a direct challenge to the reigning ideal of literary propriety promulgated by Roman literary theorists, who held that there were three distinct styles: high, middle and low. The high style was suited for the depiction of monarchs and aristocrates and their deeds of valor.  Middle styles were just that: renderings of the middle orders of society and their doings.  Finally, low styles were suitable for modest, even sordid scenes. For his part, Rabelais throws together the elevated and the sordid: one shades into the other.  It is natural to see in this hybridity a reflection of the turbulence of sixteenth-century Europe.  May not it also have relevance to our own era, when long-standing continuities seem to be giving way to a kind of omnipresent hurly burly?

Be that as it may, Rabelais has been much read and enjoyed over the centuries, but rarely emulated.  The French rightly regard him as a classic author, but the imposition of normative grammatical and lexical standards in the seventeenth century precluded any wide use of him as a model.  Only in the twentieth century did a major writer emerge, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, whose experiments in writing rise to the level of those found in the imposing work of Rabelais.

Perhaps certain aspects of the cinema, such as the noir films, indirectly reflect his influence in our own day.  More clearly, Rabelais inspired the remarkable theory of the carnivalesque advanced by the Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin.


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