Monday, July 11, 2016

Gargantua and Pantagruel - Rabelais

(This concerns books 3 and 4 only.)

With book three, we rejoin Pantagruel and his friend Panurge.  Panurge now has some money to himself and there is a lengthy discussion about whether or not he should marry.  Pantagruel says that he should but Panurge is afraid that he will be cuckolded; that his wife will sleep around on him.  They agree to consult various sources for advice.  This includes wisemen, learned men, married men.  It also includes various forms of fortune telling.  The answer is remarkably uniform: if he marries, his wife will sleep around and he will end up beaten and robbed.
Panurge refuses all of these answers.  He constantly finds ways to deflect and reimagine the advice or prediction.  In this, he shows off high abuse of logic in every way imaginable.  He also shows disrespect for every level of authority he can find.  I laughed and laughed.
In book four, the two friends go on a long sea voyage so that they can consult with an oracle known as the 'Divine Bottle'.  This trip reminded me of Gulliver's Travels, in that they go to many different bizarre and absurd places.  The strangest is an island of 'Chitterlings', which are sausage like beings.  They fight against Pantagruel until a giant pig flies overhead and excretes mustard over everyone.  The book ends without a satisfying conclusion.  There is a fifth book but there is great doubt as to whether it was written by Rabelais.  It was published some years after his death.  There is speculation that it contains materials of his that were then polished up by someone else or not.  I didn't read it.

Rabelais is something of an acquired taste.  He is disrespectful of authority, writes outrageous things about women, is incredibly fond of bathroom humor and is very, very funny.  I wouldn't recommend him to everyone, but he has an important role in Western thought (as I've argued here).  We need to be able to laugh at those in power and Rabelais helps us in this.  I love that he is included in the Great Books of the Western World.
Not that his role is as easy as others to communicate.  Last year I read a book called 'Dead White Guys' by Matt Buriesci.  The author wrote this book as a gift to his young daughter for when she turns 18.  He read through the first year of the ten year plan and wrote about each of the pieces.  Except one.  He skips Rabelais. 
I don't blame him for this.  I would be hard pressed to really explain to my young children why Rabelais was important and why he still is important.  For one, they have no trouble questioning my authority and two, they're already too fond of bathroom jokes for my taste. 
One other small note: the ten year reading plan divides Rabelais in an awful manner.  His first two books come up in the first year.  The second two don't arrive until the seventh year.  Putting six years (and more than 100 other works) between the two sections is outrageous. 

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