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 of Calvin with little difficulty. But for Rabelais, because of his enormous vocabulary, his often deliberately archaic style, his virtuosity in the use of expressive verbal devices, the same reader must use either Demerson’s useful edition, which contains an original text and, facing it, a modern French version, or use some other translation as a crib, or, better still, the copiously annotated editions published by Droz of Geneva.

Secondly, a reader embarking on Rabelais for the first time is likely to be dismayed, and perhaps put off for good, by large patches in the novel which seem to be quite pointless or even totally incomprehensible. Some of these, for example the list of books in the library of St. Victor, seem senseless only because of our ignorance, and can be to a large extent explained by historical scholarship and then enjoyed. Others, such as the long lists of games, fools, and testicles, or Panurge’s foreign languages, in spite of painstaking scholarship, remain to our taste boring, but presumably seemed funny or interesting to a contemporary reader or listener. Still others, such as the speeches in the law-suit of Baisecul and Humevesne, or the enigmatic poem, Les Fanfreluches antidotées, are today sheer nonsense, and perhaps always were—nonsense far more obscure and chaotic than is that of “Jabberwocky,” even without the help of Humpty-Dumpty’s masterly exegesis. Faced with such opaque passages it is comforting and encouraging for the amateur reader to know that even the experts are baffled. It is a great merit of Screech’s book that it makes such admissions of failure.

A more important obstacle encountered by the innocent reader is the difficulty of finding out what sort of book Rabelais’s novel is, for what kind of audience it was intended, and hence with what expectations and manner of interpretation he should read it. Here scholarship can provide little help, except of a negative kind. For Rabelais’s book is an extraordinary, isolated phenomenon, with no true forebears or progeny; it cannot be placed in any literary genre. The first book published, Pantagruel, is attached by Rabelais in his Prologue to a recent best seller, the Grandes et inestimables Croniques du grant et enorme géant Gargantua (1532), a very simple, coarsely obscene parody of an Arthurian romance, plainly intended for uncultured readers, of whatever social rank; and Pantagruel was known to popular legend as a little devil who enjoyed throwing salt into sleeping drunkards’ mouths to make them more thirsty. But an uneducated purchaser of Pantagruel in 1532, expecting anything like the Grandes Croniques, might well have asked for his money back; for, though the hero, now a giant, does still cause thirst, and though it does contain parodies of medieval romances and plenty of obscenity, such a reader would have been completely bewildered by most of the book.

Apart from overtly serious passages, such as Gargantua’s letter on education or Pantagruel’s prayer before his combat with Loup-Garou, the satire on the theology of the Sorbonne, legal practice, and scholastic debates presupposes a well-read public. Even primarily comic episodes, such as the écolier Limousin with his Latinized French, demand a reader who knows Latin quite well. The subsequent books are still more clearly intended for a highly educated, humanist elite. Screech quite rightly emphasizes this point: Rabelais is not a popular writer in the sense that he wrote for an uneducated, working-class public. His novel grew out of a popular literary genre, the parody of medieval romances, but it at once burst out of the limits of that genre; it was written in the vernacular, but demanded readers familiar with classical and modern Latin literature.

Our innocent reader, then, seeking to discover what kind of interpretation is correct for Rabelais, receives only a little help from scholars: he is warned against being misled by the novel’s attachment to a frivolous, popular genre, and he is led to expect learned allusions and serious meanings. He will receive more guidance, but of an apparently ambiguous kind, from the first pages of Rabelais he reads, the Prologue to Gargantua, the second book to be published, but first in the order of the novel. Here he is told to search for hidden wisdom under the surface of a grotesque tale about giants, to discover “high mysteries” about religion and politics, and then, immediately after, he is warned against the kind of interpretation which finds secret meanings in Homer and Ovid that the authors never intended.

In this warning Rabelais refers to exegesis such as Stoic allegorizations of Homer and the late medieval Ovide moralisé, in which meanings of a totally different order are arbitrarily put into a story’s persons, things, and events that in no way suggest them. It is a specific warning against a particular type of allegorical exegesis, a warning that is still being disregarded by some scholars—the attempt, for example, to base an interpretation of the whole novel on symbolic meanings (derived from the spurious Cinquiesme Livre) imposed on Rabelais’s frequent mentions of wine and drinking. This warning also, I think, rules out an ingenious and otherwise convincing interpretation by an erudite Ancient, Defaux, of the bells of Notre Dame, which Gargantua had removed to hang on his mule, as standing for three theologians exiled from Paris in 1533, an interpretation which Screech very nearly accepts.

The “mysteries,” the serious meanings that the reader will in fact find in Gargantua, are many of them hardly hidden at all: the good humanistic education of Gargantua contrasted with the caricature of a medieval one, or the peace-loving, paternal monarch, Grangousier, contrasted with the aggressive megalomaniac, Picrochole. But some important episodes are indeed mysterious and susceptible of very various interpretations, such as the Abbaye de Theleme and its rule, Fay ce que vouldras, or the plague in the Picrocholine war, and some are deliberately ambiguous, such as the enigma at the end of the book, but ultimately clear in intention. What the reader will not find anywhere in Rabelais is anything that asks to be, or should be, interpreted allegorically, except of course for the overt allegories of the Quart Livre (the Andouilles, Messer Gaster, the beautiful story of the death of Pan), which Rabelais presents as such and explains. The giants, their companions, and their adventures are exemplary and imply meanings beyond the literal sense of the story; but they do not stand for things of a different order, for abstract qualities or ideas, and only very rarely for real people.

All this talk of mine about the interpretation of Rabelais is, I think, justified. Apart from the quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns, we must remember that such erudite scholars as Abel Lefranc and Henri Busson presented Rabelais as a militant, anti-Christian freethinker, and that, in spite of the effective demolition work done by Etienne Gilson and Lucien Febvre, such a view is not quite dead today. More recently, Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World (1965, translated 1968) has been enthusiastically welcomed by some otherwise intelligent scholars, although it presents Rabelais as a revolutionary propagator of destructive, but progressive folk humor:

Rabelais’ basic goal was to destroy the official picture of events. He strove to take a new look at them, to interpret the tragedy or comedy they represented from the point of view of the laughing chorus of the marketplace.

Screech does not discuss or refute such plainly erroneous interpretations—it would have taken up far too much space—but I have thought it worthwhile to mention a few of them because there is a danger that innocent readers may find them in their facile simplicity more attractive, and certainly less demanding, than Screech’s careful, solidly based, often complicated exegesis.

An essential aid to the understanding of Rabelais provided by modern scholarship is the historical background, political, religious, and social, of his novel. For Rabelais wrote as a patriotic, royalist Frenchman, as an evangelical Catholic, as a man with deeply held views on war, education, and marriage. As Screech said in his The Rabelaisian Marriage (1958), “He often wrote with a direct desire to persuade. His novel, in other words, is in part a work of propaganda.”

To appreciate this aspect of his work we need to know not only the general history of his times, which would enable us, for example, to place precisely his particular kind of evangelism—synergistic, near to Melanchthon and Erasmus, far from Calvin, syncretistic, especially in a Stoic direction—but also as much as we can of his life. To know that he had been a Franciscan, became a doctor, admired Erasmus and Marguerite de Navarre, and corresponded with Guillaume Budé, illuminates much in the novel.

But the most important single biographical fact is that he was a protégé of the great statesmen and diplomatists Cardinal Jean du Bellay, his brother Guillaume, Seigneur de Langeais, and, later in his life, of Cardinal Odet de Châtillon. These men stood for humanist learning, an eirenic religious policy, and a reformed Gallican Church. Rabelais lived in the households of Jean du Bellay and later of Guillaume; and this relationship explains how well-informed, firm, and wide in scope his propaganda is. It also explains how very bold it could sometimes be: the extreme, anti-papal Gallicanism of the Isle des Papimanes in the Quart Livre would seem extraordinary if one did not know of the Gallican crisis of 1551, when France was on the brink of following the example of Henry VIII into an irrevocable schism with Rome, and of the support Rabelais had from Henri II and Châtillon (who later did become an Anglican).

The modern reader of Rabelais is helped in this way, and many others, by Screech’s thorough, firsthand erudition. The satire and comedy concerned with legal matters are particularly obscure without this help. As Screech explains, when Rabelais was writing, the study of law was by no means confined to professionals, but was of fundamental importance to all humanists; he could therefore count on his audience having some knowledge of Roman Law and the long line of medieval and modern commentators on it.

To give one example out of many, the modern reader, without Screech’s help, would completely misunderstand the long episode in the Tiers Livre about Judge Bridoye, who had for forty years successfully decided his cases by throwing dice, and, less importantly, the reader would be baffled by the intricate, dotty legal references which adorn the judge’s speech. Once we know the technical meanings of perplexitas and that a casus perplexus can, under certain conditions, be resolved by the use of lots, what seemed superficially to be only a rather long-winded satire of legal inefficiency turns out to be also a profoundly serious and very funny illustration of the theme of Christian folly, the Pauline folly of the end of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly. Moreover, this episode and this theme are shown to be linked, in complicated but satisfying ways, with the mental state of Panurge, the protagonist of the Tiers Livre, just before it, and with his consultation with the court fool Triboullet, just after it.

While giving us all this necessary help to an understanding of the serious propaganda and satire in Rabelais’s novel, Screech is careful not to forget the aesthetic aspect. Here, as with any successful work of art, the most that can be done is to point out connections, relationships, patterns that might easily escape a student’s notice, as, for example, Screech has done with the Bridoye episode and much else in the Tiers Livre. If, this having been done, the student still does not see the beauty, there is nothing further we can do, except perhaps advise him to try again when he is a bit older.

But, unfortunately for Screech, the major part of the novel is undoubtedly meant to be funny, and this makes the situation much more difficult. For, although humor and comedy should surely be a subdivision of aesthetics, they are not in fact dealt with in that department of philosophy, and in consequence there are very few general theories of laughter. The best I know of is Bergson’s Le Rire, which at least explains in some measure why the whole subject is so mysterious and confusing. The basis of Bergson’s theory is that laughter is a kind of social reproof for clumsy, inept behavior which ought to be discouraged, but is either not seriously wrong enough to merit punishment or is due to disabilities and circumstances that call for help and pity. If this is true, funniness will vary historically to an enormous degree, as social manners, customs, and taboos change, and will vary at any one time among different individuals and groups who make different judgments of their fellows’ behavior.

Screech is certainly aware of these difficulties, and discusses them at various points in his book—indeed he begins the book by stating some of them—but there is nothing like any general theory of comedy that might explain why and how these problems arise. One should not perhaps expect such a theory when there is so little past work to fall back on; but it would have made the whole book clearer if he had gathered these discussions together and placed them near the beginning. For example, the connection between breaking taboos and laughter comes after his first reflections on scatology and antifeminism, whereas it surely is logically prior; and an important sixteenth-century witness to the relationship between indecency, cruelty, and humor, the physician Laurent Joubert, is not cited until page 174.

Apart from this question of order I think there may be more serious defects in Screech’s treatment of Rabelais’s humor: he is inclined to accept that certain things and actions are intrinsically funny, and also that laughter can be, and perhaps ought to be, innocent or kindly. With regard to the first of these, we are told, for example, that “to refer to the arse is a means of deflation; to mess your trousers (whether from fear, anguish, complacency, or self-indulgent guffawing) is laughable”; or that in the legal gloss about horses, “nasum ad culum posuit,” “the five-letter basic words still remain comic and laughable.” Now, to many people and in many situations, to refer to the arse is more likely to be sexually exciting than deflating or laughable, and to mess your trousers when you are very old is a tragic abomination for which we may justifiably, as Job’s wife advised, curse God. Nothing is in itself funny, and everything may be. With regard to the second point, we read of “good uncomplicated laughter” aroused by cuckoldry, or of “good simple amusement” from deluges of urine; I would suggest that such laughter is, on the contrary, murky and complicated, the former having its roots in Schadenfreude, and the latter, like most scatology, in regression to infantile sexual perversions.

About the possibility of kindly laughter Screech seems to be in two minds. In his preliminary discussion of Rabelais’s satire he states that “certain kinds of parody are not in the least unkind or destructive,” giving as one example the Papimane bishop, Homenaz, who, in spite of his bloodthirsty remarks about heretics, remains quite a jolly figure. But later, when dealing with Frère Jean’s military exploits, he writes: “Cruelty is probably inseparable from all comedy….” On this assumption, which I believe to be true, he goes on to analyze, subtly and convincingly, the various ways in which Rabelais, both here and in the Noces de Basché in the Quart Livre, prevents our laughter-inhibiting pity being aroused by the beaten, maimed, and dying, by reducing the victims to the status of puppets in a Punch and Judy show.

It will be a long time before anyone produces a more comprehensive and illuminating book on Rabelais. But of course much remains to be done, and much in the novel remains obscure and doubtful. Indeed, to me, the most fascinating and exciting parts of Screech’s book are those where I feel that he is surely on the right track but has still not reached an entirely satisfactory solution to the puzzle. I am thinking particularly of his commentary on the Quart Livre, in which Rabelais’s preoccupation with words and signs plays a major role. This preoccupation culminates in the episode of the thawing words, and, within this episode, in Pantagruel’s strange transformation of the myth attributed to Petron in Plutarch’s De defectu oraculorum, a philosophic myth describing transcendent logoi and ideas which flow into the realm of time. Rabelais, by changes and additions, both christianizes it and connects it with language, while keeping its original Platonic flavor.

One way he does the latter is to translate logoi as parolles, and another is to introduce the extraordinary similitude of “catarrhs” for the flowing of the words and ideas into our world. Now this must be an allusion to the equally odd appearance of catarrh at the end of Plato’s dialogue on language, the Cratylus, where Socrates uses it as a derogatory metaphor for the Heraclitan world of flux. We seem to have all the pieces of the puzzle; but how do they fit together? What precisely is Rabelais saying about language, truth, and revelation? Screech’s answer, which you must read for yourselves, goes a long way toward solving the puzzle; but, to my mind, the catarrh remains as an annoying little piece that doesn’t quite fit. The Cratylus is a very difficult and influential dialogue, and the history of its interpretation has yet to be written; when it is, Rabelais, thanks to Screech, will play an important part in it.

There are many other passages in Rabelais that present as yet unsolved problems; I will give just one example. In Gargantua Rabelais recounts how Picrochole’s marauding soldiers, “ces diables pilleurs et meutriers,” were immune to the plague that was raging in the invaded country, whereas the good priests and doctors, tending the sick, all died of it; then he says: “Dont vient cela, Messieurs? Pensez y, je vous prie.” Screech’s answer is that, because of the phrase “these pillaging devils,” Rabelais means that the plague is caused by the “Devil who knows how to look after his own in this world, of which he is the Prince.”

I don’t think this answer can be right. It is not what Rabelais says, and it is much too near Manichaeanism, a danger of which Christians of all kinds, except perhaps St. Paul, have always been acutely aware when they are talking about the Devil; in the sixteenth century assertions of diabolic activity are nearly always accompanied by the explicit proviso: Deo permittente. My own suggestion is that Rabelais is here attacking an oversimple view of Providence (perhaps even some particular theologian?), such as St. Augustine had to face when, in the City of God, he argued that the sack of Rome was not due to the Empire’s change to Christianity. If we knew more about the history of ideas on Providence, this passage might seem less strange.

This is one of the rare cases where Screech seems to me to be on the wrong track. On the whole, even where this book does not provide entirely satisfactory solutions to problems, it points in a direction that will probably lead to them. It is therefore not only, as it rightly claims to be, a book that will help the general reader to understand and enjoy Rabelais, but also a book for scholars, full of growing-points for new research.