The Last Laugh

Rabelais and His World

by Mikhail Bakhtin, translated by Helene Iswolsky
M.I.T., 484 pp., $15.00

Francois Rabelais
Francois Rabelais; drawing by David Levine

Of all writers of the first rank, Rabelais is perhaps the least read. The reasons for this are obvious. First of all the language, the torrent of words poured forth to suggest the talk, movements, ideas of the characters in his amazing novel—a language untranslatable and often unintelligible even to French Renaissance experts. Submerged in this garrulity, the reader first gains the impression of being introduced to a master of burlesque, to a gallery of intensely comic figures whose adventures are above all intended to excite laughter. “Pleasant” and “facetious” were adjectives commonly applied to the adventures of the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel and their friends, as recounted by François Rabelais; and pleasantry and facetiousness implied in the French sixteenth century a strong admixture of the grossness of the farce tradition.

Yet this joker turns out to be a consummate humanist scholar, having at his command a vast range of classical reading, Greek and Latin. He is also a skilled theologian, a philosopher well versed in Renaissance Neo-platonism, and his scientific interests include medicine, architecture, mechanics—to mention only a few of the aspects of the Rabelaisian encyclopedia. This Laughing Philosopher, this Democritus (as he was called), presents the student of the Renaissance with one of his hardest problems. He throws us his comic saga as a bone, the marrow of which we are to try to extract. He tells us that his comic figures are like those boxes, made in the form of a drunken Silenus, within which Plato says that precious things are hidden, likening them to the rough and ridiculous exterior of Socrates which hid his divine wisdom. Yet in the same breath in which we are told to seek for a hidden “marrow,” or to open the Silenus boxes, we are also told that there is no hidden meaning, no allegory behind the lives and adventures of the Rabelaisian troop of comic characters.

The baffled reader is inclined to give up trying to understand a writer who is obviously too profound to be taken as a mere farceur but who gives so little help for his deciphering. Hence Rabelais remains unread, though the adjective “Rabelaisian” has a wide currency, used generally of wit or humor, and usually implying gross humor. Perhaps Rabelais himself might be well satisfied that only the exteriors of his Silenus figures are still known and that his secret (if he had one) is still hidden.

Rabelais was born about 1490. Very little is known of his early years save that his native town was Chinon, situated in the midst of the wine-growing districts of the Loire valley. His father owned a vineyard and he must often have heard the “propos des buveurs” as they sampled the exhilarating vintages of Touraine. By about 1520, Rabelais had entered the Franciscan order and had become an inmate of the convent of Fonteneyle-Conte. All that we know of…

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