Harrison Middleton University

Reading Rabelais, Part II

Reading Rabelais, Part II

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


May 26, 2023

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Last week’s blog (https://hmu.edu/2023-5-19-reading-rabelais-part-i/) used Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel as the foundation to connect with contemporary works. Today’s blog continues in the same vein, connecting the old with the new. As I said before, however, Rabelais is not easy reading. The language feels foreign, even after translation. He prefers large, often obscure words, and includes anatomical puns whenever possible. He also likes to invent language. Also, many jokes repeat with a somewhat tedious (to my tastes, anyhow) regularity, heavily focused on potty humor and sexual innuendo. This type of humor, when done well, has a point. Howard Stern and Dave Chappelle come to mind. However, Rabelais’s insistence on repeating the same joke throughout his series leads to a level of exhaustion.

On the other hand, I do realize the novelty of his blasphemous satire. How strange that Rabelais was a priest, and yet, often calls out the failures of religion. In fact, he mocks superstition of all kinds. Though a medical doctor, I don’t get the sense that Rabelais prioritizes science above religion either, because science is a punchline just as often as the church. Rather, I believe that he wants to demonstrate the faults, frailties, and negative patterns of human nature. The customs which hold us back, for example. Or the superstitions which feed mistrust of science, as another example. To do this, however, he lampoons just about everything, which makes the reading feel more like treading water.  In linking this work to contemporary works, I continue to try and keep afloat. The following list introduces more contemporary connections made through discussion.

First, there’s no doubt that Rabelais was intelligent and well-read. He often quotes from theology, philosophy, mythology, and other classics. As one example, baby Pantagruel is compared with Hercules. Rabelais writes, “That which Hercules did was nothing when in his cradle he slew two serpents, for those serpents were but little and weak, but Pantagruel, being yet in the cradle, did far more admirable things, and more to be amazed at.” Pantagruel’s family tries to tie him into his cradle, but he breaks the footboard instead. This allows him freedom to roam with the cradle as a shell upon his back like a tortoise. In a very short time, he leaves home, begins studies of architecture, art, and languages, then fell in love. In other words, Rabelais exaggerates the already exaggerated nature of heroes. Compare this with any of the Marvel world, and you are likely to come up with something worth discussing. Why do humans love a hero story? When does the hero become superhuman?

Pantagruel learns the law rather quickly. Therefore, he’s called upon to settle a long-time dispute between lords Kissbreech and Suckfist (names reminiscent of Saturday Night Live skits). The lords present their cases in such confusing, nonsensical, but rhythmic language, I am reminded of Gertrude Stein. Kissbreech begins: “There passed betwixt the two tropics the sum of three pence towards the zenith and a halfpenny, forasmuch as the Ripheaen mountains had been that year oppressed with a great sterility of counterfeit gudgeons, and shows without substance, by means of the babbling tattle, and fond fibs, seditiously raised between the gibble-gabblers, and Accursian gibberishmongers, for the rebellion of the Switzers, who had assembled themselves to the full number of the bum-bees, and myrmidons, to go ahandsel-getting on the first day of the new year, at that very time when they give brewis to the oxen, and deliver the key of the coals to the country-girls, for serving in of the oats to the dogs.” Technically, this paragraph contains actual words, but who can make out the meaning?! This continues for two chapters until we arrive at the statement that: “Very true it is, that the four oxen which are in debate, and whereof mention was made, were somewhat short in memory.” In other words, the original debate has long since ceased. Only the jockeying and positioning, fed by anger and pride, remains. Though the points are very different, this section feels just as disorienting as reading Stein’s Tender Buttons.

The very next section introduces Panurge, who will soon become Pantagruel’s right-hand man. As Panurge relays his most recent predicament, he sounds a little bit like John Wick. For example: “I swaddled him in a scurvy swathel-binding, which I found lying there half burnt, and with my cords tied to him royster-like both hand and foot, in such sort that he was not able to wince; then past my spit through his throat and hanged him thereon, fastening the end thereof at two great hooks or cramp-irons, upon which they did hang their halberds; and then, kindling a fair fire under him, did flame you up my Milourt, as they use to do dry herrings in a chimney. With this, taking his budget, and a little javelin that was upon the aforesaid hooks, I ran away at a fair gallop….” The brutality continues, though I stop here. However, I might also mention that since Panurge likes to fit punishment to the crime, he might also be compared with Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, or Matthew McConaughey’s character (Michael Pearson) in The Gentleman.

It goes without saying that absurd literature often speaks to other absurdities. So, without much explanation, I will just say that the overly-dramatic nature of the battlefield scenes in Book 2, Chapters 27 and 28 remind me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Once in a lifetime, there comes a picture which changes the whole nature of motion pictures.” The same might be said of Rabelais’s Pantagruel.

Next week, I will once again continue with a string of connections between Rabelais’s world and our own.

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