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The Last Laugh

Rabelais and His World

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

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 his life in the convent is that he was a keen student of books in both languages, that is, Greek as well as Latin.

At this time Greek studies were still an exciting novelty. We know of Rabelais’s early interest in Greek from the letters of the great scholar, Guillaume Budé. The authorities of the convent, alarmed at the unsettling effect of the new learning, confiscated Rabelais’s books. He left his convent for another, and then left that one also. In 1530 he was studying medicine at Montpellier, having shaken off the monastic life. In 1532 he was at Lyons engaged in literary work, and in 1533 and 1535 the first editions of Gargantua and Pantagruel came out, to be followed, after a long gap, by a third and fourth volume of the novel.

The early years of Rabelais’s life, the formative years before the publication of his famous work, were a momentous turning point in the history of western civilization. The tools of Latin and Greek philological scholarship, polished by the Italian humanists in their recoveries and re-editions of classical texts, were now being used on religious texts, on new editions of the Fathers, on the Scriptures, culminating in Erasmus’s Greek New Testament of 1516, which marked a new return to the Gospels and to the Pauline epistles, opened up by the new humanist scholarship. These tremendous innovations in theological studies, revolutionizing the medieval traditions, came at a time when many seeking souls were profoundly dissatisfied with the deadness and corruption of the Church and were thinking about reform. The writings of Erasmus, written in a most vivid and readable Latin style, were speeding about in Europe. One in particular, the Encomium Moriae or Praise of Folly, written while Erasmus was living in the house of Thomas More in London and published in 1512, made an immense impression. The demand for this little book was insatiable; it both stimulated and suited the ferment of the times.

The Praise of Folly satirizes the old learning, the old medieval world, the monks and friars, the pilgrimages and processions, the cult of saints, in a style of biting humor. Erasmus was a great humorist, subtly ironical and elusive. In the Praise of Folly, Folly herself comes to life as a personage. There is probably a mystical influence on Erasmus’s Folly. Did not St. Paul say that the wisdom of the Gospel is foolishness in the eyes of men? While perhaps hinting at such Evangelical innocence, Erasmus’s Folly can also recall the comic figure of farce, the Fool with his bauble. The words “Evangelical Reform” do not conjure up in our minds the idea of some immensely comic yet immeasurably profound personification. We think rather of hymns and prayer meetings, occasions which do not generally echo with gigantic laughter.

Rabelais was studying Greek in his convents, restlessly leaving his convents, during the years of the Erasmian movement and the early Lutheran Reformation movement. Like Erasmus, and unlike Luther, Rabelais never left the Church; in his later life he moved in influential French Catholic circles. But these vast questions of religious unrest and the need for reform pressed on the lives and minds of all thinking people in those times. Many scholars have sought to find Rabelais’s answers or thoughts about them in his comic novel with its huge laughter-provoking figures.

Abel Lefranc, the Rabelais scholar who was active in the Twenties of the present century, believed that Rabelais was an atheist and that he was hiding this dangerous opinion in his novel. He worked out this view in some detail, and it was at that time one of the attractions of Rabelais that he was thought to have been so bold as to disbelieve in God at such an early date. Since Lefranc’s time there has been a great expenditure of scholarly effort on the history of religion, including the history of religion in early sixteenth-century France. Lucien Febvre studied the problem of unbelief in the sixteenth century and decided that there were no atheists in that century. In his book, La religion de Rabelais (1942), he demolished Lefranc’s proofs of Rabelais’s atheism. Febvre’s argument is that Rabelais derives from Erasmus; that he is not more bold than Erasmus in his treatment of religious controversy; that his boldness is of the same kind as that of Erasmus though presented in the form of a humorous novel; that his religion was that of Erasmus, an Evangelical Christianity, impatient of scholasticism and monasticism. These views have since been developed in greater detail by other scholars, particularly M. A. Screech, who in his L’Evangelisme de Rabelais (1959) proves Rabelais’s close knowledge of Biblical texts and commentaries, particularly those of Erasmus, and argues that Rabelais’s religion was influenced by Luther but above all by the Erasmian type of Evangelism.

The image which Erasmus presents to the world and to history, that of the studious and ascetic scholar, may seem quite the opposite of the popular Rabelaisian image, yet the similarities between the Erasmian attitude to the times and that of Rabelais are profound. Erasmus began the witty and popular discussions of current religious problems which Rabelais continued in a form apparently still more popular but in reality just as learned. Erasmus and Rabelais glory in the new learning and pour scorn on medieval backwardness. Erasmus and Rabelais, both in their different ways, are drunk with enthusiasm for the new Greek studies which, exciting as they were for every aspect of human thought and activity, were of revolutionary excitement for religion. Silenus figures might contain the new wine of a Gospel which it was dangerous to proclaim.

One of the few pieces of documentary evidence which we have from Rabelais himself about his inmost thoughts and sympathies is the letter which he wrote to Erasmus in 1532. Rabelais had heard that Erasmus was thinking of publishing a Latin edition of the Jewish Antiquities of Josephus and was seeking a Greek manuscript of the text. Rabelais obtained one for him from Georges d’Armagnac, Bishop of Rodez, and wrote to announce its arrival. In this letter Rabelais addresses the great scholar in language almost of passion, calling him “my spiritual father and mother” and stating that all that he has, all that he is, he owes alone to Erasmus and his writings, to this beloved father, the protector of letters and the defender of truth. This debt would certainly include the Erasmian Evangelism. And Erasmus, like Rabelais, incurred the reproach of grossness in some of his wit and of irreverence in his treatment of sacred subjects. Being however so obviously Christian, and not given to mystifications as to the “marrow,” the “substantifique moelle,” of his meaning, Erasmus is never likely to become a favorite with atheists.

Yet there are occasions in the Rabelaisian corpus in which mystification is laid aside, when jokes and laughter cease, and the evangelical attitude is expressed with unfeigned seriousness. One such occasion comes in the famous description of the Abbaye de Thélème. This abbey was built and endowed by the amiable giant, Gargantua, for that cheerful character, Friar John, who wished to found a new kind of order. Monks and nuns were to be excluded from the abbey and only well dressed and good-looking persons admitted. Though the sexes dwelt together in it, there was no disorder, and the motto of the abbey, “Fay Ce Que Vouldras,” or “Do what you will,” meant indeed that the inmates were at perfect liberty and could come and go at will, but being civilized and wellbred persons they possessed a natural instinct which inclined them to virtue and saved them from vice.

This instinct they called their honor. The inmates of the abbey were to be splendidly and richly dressed; each had an apartment magnificently furnished, with a chapel attached to it for private devotions. Their time was enlivened by sumptuous entertainments, jousts and balls and other diversions; and the abbey contained an important library, rich in many Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, Italian, and Spanish volumes, grouped in sections. Its courtier-inmates were to be versed in the learning of the Renaissance as well as in all the refinements of the new affluence. The abbey was situated on the banks of the Loire; its architecture is carefully described and its plan shows knowledge of Renaissance architectural theory. It was evidently to be a “château of the Loire,” an ideal product of the dawning age of French Renaissance culture. And the inscription on the main gate of the abbey invited the wise, the gay, the courteous to enter, and particularly scholars who propound “novel interpretations of the Holy Writ.” From this abbey, as from a fort and refuge, they are to attack false teaching and destroy the foes of God and of his Holy Word.

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