Saturday, June 23, 2012

Why Rabelais?

(Good grief, I screwed up the formatting on this.  Or had conflicting edits or something because now that I look at it, there are parts missing from what I wrote.  I've updated it and hopefully now it makes more sense.  Sorry!)

Why are we reading Rabelais anyway?  He's educated, true, but he's also one of the coarser and filthy writers that you'll find.  At least, let me say, I'd be shocked if anything else in the Great Books series compares. 
So.  Should it be included in the Great Books?  As a fellow blogger asked:

I just don't get why this made the Great Books... especially when books like Ovid's Metamorphoses and Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur are noticeably absent.
Rabelais started publishing in 1532 and quickly came under fire from the church and the universities.  His work would have been banned if the King himself hadn't stepped in.  Eco writes of a man a full century later who is still upset that he is being persecuted for his reading tastes.  And persecuted by men who are full of sin.Well . . . let me take a swing at this.  I'm going to lean a bit on two different books by Umberto Eco, one of my favorite authors.  If you're not familiar with Eco, he's an Italian author who studied medieval philosophy and literature and used that knowledge to create some wonderful historical fiction.  I was reading from his 'Island of the Day Before' and there is a description of a fighter in the 30 years war.  The figher is complaining about the state of the world and says:
Now Jesuits lascivious as rams fulminate against the readers of Rabelais and the latin poets, and would have us all be virtuous and kill the Huguenots.

The state church of the 16th century had too much power.  Any organization that can ban books probably has too much power.  That's doubly true if they can also grab the ear of the state and spark religious wars.  In short, they had too much authority and needed someone to stand up to them. 
That's the role that Rabelais played.  He said that man should laugh and he provided targets for them to laugh at.  He also deflated the authority of some groups that dearly needed to be taken down a notch.  (I'd also argue that it does the church no good to become that powerful in worldly affairs.  The higher levels of the church were notoriously corrupt.  Several medieval popes were contemptible creatures.  It's hard to imagine that today.)
But Rabelais is sooo crass!  Yes, he is and if he wasn't, he might not have been nearly as effective.  His writings wouldn't have been as popular if they'd been more subtle.  If he had only offended a little, he would have been quickly forgotten. 
The other book by Eco is one of my all time favorites, 'The Name of the Rose' and if you haven't read it before, well, I can't recommend it highly enough.  The book is set in an abbey in the late 12th century and it involves a murder mystery.  During the book there are a few discussions on the value (if any) of laughter and the ridiculous.  Eco's protagonist argues that humor, especially that of the crass and absurd, is important because there is no better weapon against the too powerful.  Authority can stand power and challenge but it has trouble with laughter. 
Did Rabelais have some effect on the move towards the Enlightenment?  I'd have to read more but I wouldn't be surprised if he did.  There was a long period of time when much scientific effort was spent solely on Biblical study.  Not that such a study is wasted, no, but if it keeps the brightest from studying other areas as well, that's a problem.  If Rabelais convinced some of the geniuses of his age to branch out, then he did the world a huge favor. 

If I get more time, I'll look online and see if I've suggested too much about Rabelais' influence.  Other opinions are certainly welcome and if I'm wrong I look forward to correction in the comments.


  1. When Bakitin tried to translate Rabelais into Russian, Stalin said, "NO WAY!" (In Russian, of course.) He has inspired anti-authoritarians for centuries (Crowley's Abbey of Theleme comes to mind). He inspired much in the way of literature (Sterne, Joyce, Balzac, Moliere, Diderot, Swift, all mention him and write like him...that's a hefty list). And, he is a genius, and it shows if you dig into him as you would Shakespeare. Rabelais generates serious critical literature. He says more about his time period and the French Renaissance than any other author. He says more about Western philosophy up to his point than most authors. He says it by means of irony and satire. I mean, why any of the literature? If crassness gets you thrown out, then let's boot Freud and Joyce. And, for that matter, let's boot every other author that says things people may find offensive. We'll end up booting Marx, the Bible (Old Testament has some really intense passages of violence, incest, rape, and genocide), Homer (so bloody), Huckleberry Finn (the 'N' word), Virginia Woolf (subtle Lesbianism), Darwin (evil crazy theory robbed us of Genesis story)...etc. Rabelais can't be dismissed only on the grounds that he is crass. I've had students dismiss Fitzgerald, Shakespeare, Hemingway, Austen, and a host of others, but, sometimes, they changed their tune when they worked through the authors slowly and pondered them as they would a religious or scientific text.

    1. The anti-authoritarian streak in western philosophy is easy to understate and it shouldn't be. Many, many authors in the great books stood up to various powers that be and said 'no, this is the truth!'. We shouldn't forget that.

  2. With authors of Rabelias's stature, the burden of proof isn't on him, it's on the reader. That doesn't mean everyone has to read him. If he's too crass for someone, I don't fault them that. But I do fault them hasty judgments about his other merits.

  3. You won't find any others as shocking as Rabelais, but bawdiness was typical of the Renaissance zeitgeist. Boccacio's Decameron has bawdy stories. Chaucer (who is in the Great Books) isn't as bawdy as Rabelais, but he sometimes gets close. Even Dante wasn't entirely free of it. Renaissance men of later ages were often bawds, B. Franklin, for example. In Orwell's 1984, Big Brother regulates the sex lives of the people. O'Brien even tells Winston that Big Brother would like to eradicate the orgasm. I learned of extreme sexual control by Mao in China while reading "Wild Swans." That Rabelais's fight for free thought is tied to bawdiness is no accident. He has grasped the relation between sex and freedom at a very deep level. The Abbey of Theleme's motto and the commentary that follows it is really helpful in interpreting what he's up to. DO WHAT THOU WILT. I can see why someone would disagree with that, but I disagree with many authors in the Great Books, but that doesn't make me dismiss them. Rabelais captures the DO WHAT THOU WILT spirit better than many authors.

  4. I think Rabelais is there more for historical context than anything. I can see what you're saying about his books being very bold for the time they were written, but to the average reader in the 21st century who doesn't know the context, the book comes across as a waste of time. Personally, I think good books should be read on their own merits without having to know the cultural context and still come across as a good book. The context can certainly add insight to a book like Paradise Lost, but it works wonderfully without any cultural background. Just my opinion, but I still think Le Morte d'Arthur or Metamorphoses (or other classics that I'm not familiar with) should be here in place of Gargantua and Pantagruel.

  5. how did the Huegenots get on with Rabelais? - I ask becuase of Shakespear's knowledge of the French living and working in London - and the fact that R's great work wasnt' translated into English until well after S had died.

    1. Barrie, I don't know from my own readings, how they got on. A quick internet search doesn't give me much help. My guess (and that's all that this is) is that they didn't get on well at all. Rabelais was very anti-authority, and while that may have appealed to the Huguenots, he would also have challenged their religious beliefs. If you think of the Protestant and Catholic peoples as two warring sides, then Rabelais is probably best placed in a third camp. This was the camp that ultimately spurned religion and gave way to people like Voltaire.
      Again, this is just a guess of mine. If anyone has more direct knowledge of the situation, I'd be interested to know what it was.