Homage to Rabelais

M.A. Screech

This will be a happy year if everyone who owns a Rabelais gives it a good read. The French have made 1984 ‘L’ Année Rabelais’, treating it as the 500th anniversary of his birth. Glasgow (which has one of the world’s best collections of Gargantua and Pantagruel) got in early, celebrating it last year. But 1983 was Luther year. Luther and Rabelais, committed ex-monks with a genius for writing in their vernacular, have much in common, but each needs a year to himself. Rabelaisian laughter is both a complement to Luther’s scornful vehemence and an antidote to it. Nobody knows when Rabelais was born: 1483 or 1484, in the comfortable house of a rich Touraine legal family, is a good guess. We know that he studied law before he studied medicine; was a Franciscan before he became a Benedictine; was influenced by Erasmus; had three children; travelled abroad; remained a secular priest (an Evangelical Royalist Gallican); lived a life full of incidents, with periods of want in virtual exile as well as periods of comfort in the households of powerful men. About his early years we know nothing, except that, in his first two comic Chronicles, writing about giants brought him to think happily about his own childhood. It often does.

The comic war in Pantagruel is set in Utopia – Rabelais knew his Thomas More and borrowed from him both the thirsty Dipsodes and the obscure Amaurotes. In Gargantua he fits the rivalries between France and the Holy Roman Empire into the tiny world of castle, wood and ford which could be seen from the windows of his childhood home at La Devinière. (It still can.) His wars are like children’s games: he delighted in games, while seeing most of them as ways of wasting time when extended beyond infancy. Great conflicts, treated this way, become good for a laugh: a therapeutic laugh, Dr Rabelais maintains – making for balance and sanity when seriousness returns. We laugh at the wounded and dying in the war against Picrochole (‘Bitter Bile’): but when that tale is over and the Rev. Dr Rabelais thinks of real men in real wars, a ‘tyrant’ such as Charles V, who ransomed the King of France, is condemned and the once-comic figures who egged Picrochole on are treated as ‘seditious’ (a sin as well as a crime) and made to toil in the printing-presses; the wounded are nursed back to health. Rabelais came to see joyful laughter as a means of comforting the sick in body and the sick in soul. In this way he reconciled his twin vocations of priest and doctor. Dr Rabelais, like Father Rabelais, comforts the afflicted.

A Platonising bishop held that the surname Rabelais, by mystical Hebrew etymology, truly means ‘Prince of Mockers’. In 1818 Hazlitt ended his introductory lecture ‘On the English Comic Writers’ not with Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Congreve, Sterne or Garrick but with Rabelais. He was defending the French from one of our bouts of Gallophobia. ‘Even to those who have never read his book,’ he wrote, ‘the name of Rabelais is a cordial to the spirits, and to mention it cannot consist with gravity or spleen.’ Odium criticum can make the last phrase untrue; there are, as always, rival schools of criticism – and some schools place critic above author. But most unite in finding Rabelais a source of joy. Whoever writes or talks about Rabelais soon discovers that joy for Rabelais, like truth for Esdras, is great and shall prevail. Hazlitt knew his Rabelais well – in uncritical editions. He would not have been satisfied with the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of ‘Rabelaisian’: ‘Pertaining to, characteristic of, or resembling Rabelais or his writings, which are distinguished by exuberance of imagination and language, combined with extravagance and coarseness of humour and satire.’ Neither this definition nor the examples mention wisdom or laughter. Hazlitt did. He quietly provoked the Gallophobes: ‘The wise sayings and heroic deeds of Gargantua and Pantagruel ought not to be set down as nothing.’ Rabelais loved his glass of piot – there is little reason for believing that the draughts of wine are always allegories of higher things – but when Hazlitt conjured up a picture of Rabelais set among his wine-flagons he also thought of him ‘with his books of law, of school divinity and physic before him, which were his jest books’. And so they were. From them ‘he drew endless stores of absurdity; laughing at the world and enjoying it by turns, and making the world laugh with him again, for the last three hundred years, at his teeming wit and his prolific follies.’ A fine tribute with which to end an introduction to the English comic writers.

But not everybody likes Rabelais. Young Calvin did. The later Calvin did not. Nor did the Council of Trent – where the French were a tiny minority. Rabelais’s Christian comedy was too much for Pius IV. His Index Tridentinus (1564) casts Rabelais among the ‘forbidden authors of the first class’. He was ranked with Luther and Calvin. (Erasmus was in a different category.) Later he was joined by Montaigne, Pascal, Balzac and others, until the silly enterprise was laughed out of existence. To read, without prior permission, a ‘first-class’ author entailed excommunication. Or so they said. But French Catholics never stopped reading Rabelais. Only Protestants or Anglicans could print him openly. Protestants dropped his attacks on Calvin or turned them into anti-monastic gibes, so managing to divert Rabelais’s Gallican via media into channels pleasing to the Eglise Réformée. Rabelais the Gallican Anti-Papalist has often been taken over this way, but he would not have lasted a year in Calvin’s Geneva – or in Mao’s China, for that matter.

Rabelais was, for generations, read only in distorting editions which generated jokes of their own. All his Greek was turned into gibberish; careless arrangement of material by printers led Sterne to believe that Rabelais was sporting typographically with his reader by displacing a poem or by leaving blanks – hence the blanked-out chapter in Tristram Shandy. These editions – sometimes printed clandestinely in France – kept Rabelais alive but helped to create a ‘Rabelais legend’ which had nothing to do with the works he wrote. Montaigne enjoyed Rabelais, finding him at least ‘simplement plaisant’ (‘straightforwardly delightful’). Molière assumed that his audience enjoyed him too. And they did. For many Frenchmen Rabelais embodies that Gaulois humour which they love to see as a permanent element in the national character.

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