Rabelais’s Box

Peter Burke

  • Rabelais by M.A. Screech
    Duckworth, 494 pp, £35.00, November 1979, ISBN 0 7156 0970 X

When Alcibiades, in that dialogue of Plato’s entitled The Symposium, praises his master Socrates, beyond all doubt the prince of philosophers, he compares him, amongst other things, to a Silenus. Now a Silenus, in ancient days, was a little box, of the kind we see today in apothecaries’ shops, painted on the outside with such gay, comical figures as harpies, satyrs, bridled geese, horned hares, saddled ducks, flying goats, stags in harness, and other devices of that sort, light-heartedly invented for the purpose of mirth, as was Silenus himself, the master of good old Bacchus. But inside these boxes were kept rare drugs, such as balm, ambergris, cardamum, musk, civet, mineral essences, and other precious things. Just such an object, according to Plato, was Socrates. For to view him from the outside and judge by his external appearance, no one would have given a shred of an onion for him, so ugly was his body and so absurd his appearance, with his pointed nose, his bovine expression, and his idiotic face … What is more, he was always laughing, always drinking glass for glass with everybody, always playing the fool, and always concealing his divine wisdom. But had you opened that box, you would have found inside a heavenly and priceless drug: a superhuman understanding, miraculous virtue, invincible courage, unrivalled sobriety, unfailing contentment …

Gargantua, Prologue, translated by J.R. Cohen

Rabelais, too, may be compared to a Silenus. His big book is not unlike that little box painted with grotesques. Whether the comic exterior conceals a serious message – the marrow of the bone – has been a matter of controversy from his day to ours. Unfortunately, the historians and critics who believe that Rabelais’s ‘Pantagrueline mythologies’ have a serious meaning could hardly disagree more about what that meaning is. For Etienne Gilson, writing in the 1920s, as for Alban Krailsheimer more recently, Rabelais belongs to the medieval Franciscan tradition. For Abel Lefranc, also writing in the Twenties, Rabelais was a secret rationalist, and his book intended to undermine Christianity. Lefranc’s work irritated Lucien Febvre, one of the founders of the Annales school of French historians, into writing a study of the religion of Rabelais (published in 1942), designed to show not only that Rabelais was not an atheist, but also that there were no atheists in the 16th century, and even that there could not possibly have been any. For Febvre, Rabelais was an Erasmian. Professor Screech, however, argued in 1959, as he still does, that Rabelais was an ‘evangelical’, sympathetic to Luther as well as to Erasmus.

Commentators who are less convinced that there is a serious message hidden in the box disagree just as much about the place of Rabelais in the history of literature. To the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, it is obvious that Rabelais belongs to ‘the culture of folk humour’; to the French Marxist, Henri Lefebvre, he is the spokesman of the bourgeoisie; to other critics, from Northrop Frye to Dorothy Coleman, he is a humanist, reviving the tradition of the Menippean satires of Lucian.

There are times when the sight of the critics disputing over the Pantagrueline marrow may remind the onlooker of the philosophers portrayed in the Cymbalum Mundi of Rabelais’s contemporary Bonaventure Des Périers, searching in the sand for the philosopher’s stone and fighting over the fragments. If one thing is visible in the dust of controversy, it is the need for a painstaking and precise explication de texte. Without a detailed map of the terrain, the quest for Rabelais’s real meaning is bound to go astray. Even if there is no ‘real’ meaning below the surface, a text as allusively comic and comically allusive as that of Rabelais is bound to be in need of a certain amount of commentary after 450 years or so.

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