Harrison Middleton University

Reading Rabelais, Part III

Reading Rabelais, Part III

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.


June 16, 2023

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

For me, reading Rabelais was slow going. Crawling through the text, however, brought moments of joy as I saw strains of other, later works. The past few blogs attempted to highlight some of those connections as a way to bridge the gap between Rabelais and contemporary students. I’m not sure what the best way might be to introduce students to his work, however, I hope these connections resonate for some. (Also, while I found the reading tedious, I should note that reading satire in translation may present insurmountable obstacles.)

Having said that, though, there are a couple of reasons to continue to read and teach Rabelais. First: he wants to be, and perhaps is, a master of the arts. Rabelais demonstrates a mastery of medicine, mind, and bodies. He writes with great humor, wit, and puns. He squeezes every drop out of language, including entire chapters written in a variety of languages. He plays with Latin and Greek at every possible turn. He satirizes church, state, history, elitism, and arrogance of any kind. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, he influenced an incredible amount of authors. The sheer number should be noteworthy at the very least, if not a reminder for us who study literature that all great art is iterative. Ideas germinate and then spill over into the works of others. Tracing back the roots of an idea thrills and satisfies. So many authors can be traced back to Rabelais that it is like playing some literary version of six degrees of separation.

So, with that in mind, once again I turn to ways that this ancient humorist might be incorporated into a classroom. Today’s blog picks up where blogs “Reading Rabelais” Part I (https://hmu.edu/2023-5-19-reading-rabelais-part-i/) and Part II (https://hmu.edu/2023-5-26-reading-rabelais-part-ii/) left off.

~ Chapter 9 of Book Three continues a discussion about Panurge’s desire for marriage. Still undecided about whether or not to marry, the entire book talks about an absent subject. There are absolutely literally no women in it. Therefore, the looooong discussion about marriage is really one of the most fantastical parts of the story because these men have no understanding of females. Regardless, Panurge fixates on the idea of female companion. Chapter 9 presents a back-and-forth conversational dance similar to Vizzini’s decision-making process in the “Battle of Wits” from The Princess Bride. Unlike the unflappable Wesley, however, Pantagruel gets fed up with Panurge, and finally says in exhaustion: “Marry then, in the name of God, and thus have I given you my advice!” Watching the “Battle of Wits” scene might add a little flavor to this section.

~ In Chapter 19 of Book Three, Pantagruel opines on the nature of natural language. He claims to greatly prefer plain speech, but then casts doubt as to what plain speech might mean. He realizes that culture is incorporated into our very essence. He says, “[I]t is mere abusing of our understanding to give credit to the words of those, who say that there is any such thing as a natural language. All speeches have had their primary origin from the arbitrary institutions, accords and agreements of nations in their respective condescendments to what should be noted and betokened by them.” This section would make a great comparison to Augustine’s understanding of language, both how it is used and how it is learned. Also, to see Pantagruel’s comments in action, compare the speeches of Brutus and Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act 3, scene ii.

~ Parts of Book Three, Chapter 28 felt remarkably similar to some of Chaucer’s tales. Friar John tells the story of a man, newly married, and increasingly jealous. He contrives all sorts of tactics to increase his wife’s fidelity (which I’m sure she thoroughly enjoyed). He finally settles upon help from the devil (seems logical enough, I guess).

It reads: “To prevent which inconveniency, he did tell her many tragical stories of the total ruin of several kingdoms by adultery; did read unto her the legend of chaste wives; then made some lectures to her in the praise of the choice virtue of pudicity, and did present her with a book in commendation of conjugal fidelity, wherein the wickedness of all licentious women was odiously detested; and withal he gave her a chain enriched with pure oriental sapphires. Notwithstanding all this, he found her always more and more inclined to the reception of her neighbor cope-mates, so that day by day his jealousy increased. In sequel whereof, one night as he was lying by her, whilst in his sleep the rambling fancies of the lecherous deportments of his wife did take up the cellules of his brain, he dreamt that he encountered with the devil, to whom he had discovered to the full the buzzing of his head, and suspicion that his wife did tread her show awry. The devil, he thought, in his perplexity, did for his comfort give him a ring, and there withal did kindly put it on his middle finger, saying, Hans Carvel, I give thee this ring, – whilst thou carriest it upon that finger, they wife shall never carnally be known by any other…”.

And while we’re on the subject of Chaucer, Rabelais’s character Rondibilis, reminiscent of Chaucer’s Monk, shows his true greed at the end of Book Three, Chapter 34: “From wicked folks I never get enough, and from honest people I refuse nothing. I shall be always, sir, at your command. Provided that I pay you well, quoth Panurge. That, quoth Rondibilis, is understood.”

~ Though fools are prevalent throughout the history of literature, the fool in Book Three, Chapter 37, reminds me of Tom Stoppard’s portrayal of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. As Rabelais’s fool walks around testing the quality, shape, size and veracity of the coin in his hand, I see a constant game of coin flipping from the film version of Tom Stoppard’s play. Rabelais describes his behavior like this: “Then with a presidential majesty holding his bauble [the coin], sceptre-like in his hand, muffling his head with a hood of marten skins, each side whereof had the resemblance of an ape’s face, sprucified up with ears of pasted paper, and having about his neck a bucked ruff, raised, furrowed, and ridged, with pointing sticks of the shape and fashion of small organ pipes, he first with all the force of his lungs coughed two or three times, and then with an audible voice pronounced this following sentence. The Court declareth, that the porter, who ate his bread at the smoke of the roast, hath civilly paid the cook with the sound of his money.” And everyone applauds his equitable arrangement.

~ Later, in Chapter 45, the fool begins to shake with force. This odd behavior puzzles the group and readers receive an aside (an entire chapter, which is actually quite interesting) about the history and nature of shaking. The uncontrolled shaking unsettles each character. They find it odd and inexplicable, outside of the norm. Therefore, Rabelais runs through every sort of reason that might account for the shaking. For example, the fool’s sort of shaking appears unlike someone who has been fasting, but more like the Pythian divineress who waves laurel branches just before pronouncement of an oracle. He notes that some people use walking as a conduit for thought, but while walking, they begin to shake their heads in a sort of mad self-counsel. Some worshippers of Bacchus, he also writes, wag their heads in holy reverence. And the list goes on and on. What is clear, however, is that constant, jerky movements of the head appears abnormal. Rabelais presents it as an odd characteristic reserved for the fool.

Perhaps it is meant to make the fool appear more divine, but it reminded me of a chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Talking to Strangers in which he compares the way we judge others’ behaviors based upon staged cues from literature or television shows like Friends. The chapter titled “The Friends Fallacy” explains that we expect certain emotions to correspond with clear, distinct facial expressions. Everyone smiles when they’re happy, right? In Friends, everyone’s reactions are crystal clear. Gladwell even notes that without sound, you might miss the humor, but you’ll still understand the plot. Yet, he continues, unfortunately life is not simple like an episode of Friends. Staged reactions only limit or caricature a type of reaction and dismiss any notion of diversity in response. When we try to read others, we are actually limited by the expressions that we see in media because they are staged and over-exaggerated. We expect shock to look like the shock on Ross’s face, for example. Gladwell demonstrates how dramatic portrayals limit our expectation of the diversity of human expression. We think we know what to expect from our neighbors, friends, and family, but when something out of the ordinary happens, do we really know how to read their reactions? Rabelais’s fool presents a similar dilemma (though clearly a hilarious one). His actions and expressions challenge the others’ understanding. In the end, they decide that the fool must be divine because nothing else could account for such radical behavior. Score one for the fool!

Next week’s blog, the fourth and final installment of contemporary connections to Rabelais, will conclude the series. If you enjoy Rabelais, here are two other recent blogs about his work: Considering the Cuckold (https://hmu.edu/2023-6-2-considering-the-cuckold-rabelais-continued/) and Rabelais on decision-making (https://hmu.edu/2023-6-9-have-a-difficult-decision-to-make-have-a-copy-of-virgil-or-homer-handy/).

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