Laugh-in with Rabelais


by M.A. Screech
Cornell University Press, 495 pp., $39.50

Gérard Defaux, in his Pantagruel et les sophistes (1973), announced that the study of Rabelais now has its “querelle des anciens et des modernes.” By this he means a quarrel between the Ancients who follow the traditional method of interpreting texts by bringing to bear on them as much relevant historical information as possible, and the Moderns who, wishing to concentrate on the text in itself, regard such information as a pernicious distraction from a purely aesthetic, timeless appreciation. The latter, as he says, when writing on Rabelais’s novel are more likely to cite Chomsky, Jakobson, and Lévi-Strauss than the Bible, Aristotle, Plato, or the Scholastics.

This quarrel does indeed exist, and extends far beyond the field of Rabelaisian studies; both writers and readers must take one side or the other. For my part, I have no doubt that the Ancients are right, though of course the traditional method may be well or badly used, may produce solid and illuminating results, or mistaken and trivial ones. There are good and bad Ancients. From the point of view of an old Ancient like myself, there are no good Moderns; for often they are not even talking about the same text. Many of their works on Rabelais use the fifth and last book of his novel as a key to interpreting the whole. Now the Cinquiesme Livre, first published in 1564, eleven years after Rabelais’s death, is certainly not authentic in its entirety, and most scholars, except for those who rely on computerized stylistic analysis, think that little or none of it is by Rabelais. Because of their unhistorical approach, the Moderns are at the mercy of pseudepigraphic works. In this book of Screech’s he considers only the first four books and other minor, certainly authentic works by Rabelais. For Screech is an Ancient, and a good one. This will come as no surprise to those who have followed his publications on Rabelais over the last twenty-five or so years.

The present book, which includes much of his earlier work and a great deal that is new, is a companion to reading Rabelais, a kind of giant commentary, and it should be used and judged as such. For although it is extremely rich in new facts and ideas of great interest to historians of the earlier sixteenth century, it would be bewildering, and sometimes even tedious, if read without Rabelais’s text being borne constantly in mind, if not reread. Screech’s aim is “to make the fruits of scholarship accessible to the reader who wants to read Rabelais with that peculiarly satisfying pleasure which comes from understanding,” and in this he has succeeded admirably.

There are several reasons why a modern reader needs help in reading Rabelais. The first and most obvious is the difficulty of his language. This is not primarily due to the development of the French language between then and now. A reader with a good knowledge of modern French can read the verse of Marot or the prose…

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