Tuesday, March 27, 2012

493. Gargantua and Pantagruel – Rabelais

History: Although most modern editions of Rabelais's work place Pantagruel as the second volume of a series, it was actually published first, around 1532 under the pen name "Alcofribas Nasier", an anagram of Francois Rabelais. Pantagruel was a sequel to an anonymous book entitled The Great Chronicles of the Great and Enormous Giant Gargantua.
This early Gargantua text enjoyed great popularity, despite its rather poor construction. The censors stigmatized it as obscene, and in a social climate of increasing religious oppression, it was dealt with suspicion, and contemporaries avoided mentioning it. According to Rabelais, the philosophy of his giant Pantagruel, "Pantagruelism", is rooted in "a certain gaiety of mind pickled in the scorn of fortuitous things".
Rabelais had studied Ancient Greek, and he applied it in inventing hundreds of new words in the text, some of which became part of the French language. Wordplay and risque humor abound in his writing.
Plot: Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais is a collection of five novels describing the life and adventures of the giant Pantagruel. The first book describes his education, the second relates the early life of his father, and the remaining three books follow his adventures while trying to determine whether or not his friend, Panurge, should marry. Gargantua and Pantagruel is an entertaining and comical satire of many aspects of education, religion and life in general.
Grangosier and Gargamelle were expecting a child. During the eleventh month of her pregnancy, Gargamelle ate too many tripes and then played tag on the green. That afternoon, in a green meadow, Gargantua was born from his mother’s left ear. Gargantua was a prodigy and, with his first breath, he began to clamor for drink. To supply him with milk, 17,913 cows were needed. Tailors used 900 ells of linen to make his shirt and 1,105 ells of white broadcloth to make his breeches. Eleven hundred cowhides were used for the soles of his shoes.
In the first book, Pantagruel is so large that his birth causes his mother's death, and after the passing of his early childhood, his father Gargantua sends him to study. After visiting several schools of medicine and law, Pantagruel settles in Paris to pursue his studies. This is where he meets Panurge, who becomes his close friend. Pantagruel proves his wisdom and gains a respectable reputation while residing in Paris.
After the success of Pantagruel, Rabelais revisited and revised his source material. He produced an improved narrative of the life and acts of Pantagruel's father in The Very Horrific Life of Great Gargantua, Father of Pantagruel, commonly known as Gargantua. This volume included one of the most notable parables in Western Philosophy: that of the Abbey of Thélème, which can either be considered a point-for-point critique of the educational practices of the age, or a call to free schooling, or all sorts of notions on human nature.
Rabelais then returned to the story of Pantagruel himself in the last three books. The Third Book of Pantagruel concerns Pantagruel and his friend Panurge, who spend the entire book discussing with many people the question of whether Panurge should marry; the question is unresolved. The book ends with the start of a sea voyage in search of the oracle of the divine bottle to resolve once and for all the question of marriage.
The sea voyage continues for the whole of The Fourth Book of Pantagruel. Pantagruel encounters many exotic and strange characters and societies during this voyage, such as the Shysteroos, who make their living by charging people to beat them up.
The whole book can be seen as a comical retelling of the Odyssey, or of the story of Jason and the Argonauts. In The Fourth Book, perhaps his most satirical, Rabelais criticizes what he perceived as the arrogance and wealth of the Roman Catholic Church, the political figures of the time, and popular superstitions, and he addresses several religious, political, linguistic, and philosophical issues.
At the end of The Fifth Book of Pantagruel, which was published posthumously around 1564, the divine bottle is found.
Although some parts of book 5 are truly worthy of Rabelais, the last volume's attribution to him is debatable. Book five was not published until nine years after Rabelais's death and includes much material that is clearly borrowed or of lesser quality than the previous books.
Review: The arsehole is much maligned in modern times. It actually fits very neatly between two buttocks and fulfils a variety of roles - faecal, sexual, melodious, odiferous - as well as providing us with an essential epithet for politicians.
François Rabelais couldn't get enough of arseholes. When the giant Gargantua is born, the midwives can't tell at first if his mother's in labour, or merely evacuating her bowels of the 16 tuns, two gallons and two pints of tripe she's been eating. Another curious meal includes "fine turds, tweak-nose style", "Athenian rump", "shitlets", "collared bullfarts", "stitched bum-stirrings", "dirty-filths", "puffs-up-my-bum" and, for dessert, "shit drench with blossoming turds". Here are some books in a Rabelais library: On the Art of Discreetly Farting in Company, On How to Defecate, Fundamental Floggings, The Gut-cavities of the Mendicants, Spanish Pongs, Super-refined, The Backgammon of Belly-bumping Friars and Martingale Breeches with Back-flaps for Turd-droppers
But the arse isn't all that Rabelais is interested in. Why the sea is salty, how to cook pears in red wine, ironmongery, weaponry, war (he's a little too interested in war), decapitation (ditto), the names of games (including "judge alive, judge dead" and "shitty yew-twigs") and dances, glassware and grapes, history, mythology, archaeology, "foolosophy", scholarship, medicine of course (as a doctor he risked his life to save victims of the plague), anatomy, botany, lechery, law, magic, superstition, religion, servants, aphrodisiacs, wines, astronomy, astrology, tourist sites, even sci-fi. He wants, like any real writer, to explain the whole world to us - comically, satirically, ethically and unethically.
And the world's a messy place. All the big mock-heroic novels that followed Gargantua and Pantagruel - Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Gulliver's Travels, Ulysses - are about mess, they're about slops and slime, encyclopedic in their efforts to encompass humanity in all its bawdy, sexy, chaotic, grungy, skanky, tumultuous and painful reality. They're also very funny. Rabelaisian rabble-rousing is founded on the assumption that the humourless are not yet wise - these novels insist you learn to laugh.
Not for Rabelais the sheepish British notion that to be funny somehow reduces your seriousness as a writer: "You, my good disciples - as well as some other leisured chumps - when reading no further than the titles of certain books of our devising (such as Gargantua, Pantagruel, On the Merits of Codpieces, On Pease-pudding and Bacon, with a Latin Commentary and so on), too readily conclude that nothing is treated inside save jests, idiocies and amusing fictions, seeing that their ... titles ... are normally greeted, without further enquiry, by scoffing and derision. It is not however proper to estimate so frivolously the works of human beings." Of course we like his "idiocies" best, but Rabelais was also a humanist, a moralist, a rebel (in serious trouble with the government and the Sorbonne for much of his life), and a genius.
The chapter titles alone are a delight: "How Grandgousier recognised the miraculous intelligence of Gargantua from his invention of a bum-wiper"; "How lawsuits are born and how they grow to perfection". The characters' names, from Sieur de Slurp-ffart and Seigneur de Grudge-crumb to le Duc de Free-meals and Captain Squit, display the agility of his translator, MA Screech, too. And Monty Python surely benefited from Rabelais's insults: superfluities, stubble-tooths, silly ginger-nuts, shit-the-beds, sneaky smooth-files, fat-guts, pretty puffs, bad-'uns, scruff-'eads, smirkers, teeth-clackers, cow-pat cowherds, and shitty shepherds.
Rabelais mocks a student for over-doing Latinate terminology when describing his debaucheries: "in venereal ecstasy, we inculcate our veretra into the most absconce recesses of the pudenda of those more amicital meretrices". Less fortunate women get "treacherously pubicfumbled-crimpywrinkled". Then there's the fellow who Screech tells us personifies lenten deprivations (versus Rabelais's Mardi Gras stance). Somehow he reminds me of Tony Blair: "His thoughts, like a murmuration of starlings; his conscience, like a sedge of young herons leaving the nest; his deliberations, like a bag of barley; his intellect, like snails slithering out of a bed of strawberries", and "an arsehole, like a crystalline looking-glass".
Narrative, character and plot trip over each other and land in a heap by the end, but Panurge emerges as so central he deserved a whole book named after him. A devious trickster with a coat of many pockets, each filled with useful stuff such as burrs, fleas and unguents, Panurge sews one guy's head back on, enabling him to report on the lousy job-market in Hell: Agamemnon's now "a licker-out of casseroles", Hannibal's an "egg-man", and Pope Calixtus has to barber "women's naughty cracks".
Panurge knows 63 ways of raising money for his needs, yet still he falls into debt, and is admonished by his pal, Pantagruel. Panurge's eloquent defence of debt as the glue that binds everything together should be a comfort to contemporary shoppers. If debt is abolished, he says, the cosmos will be undone, since "Between the elements there will be no mutual sharing of qualities, no alternation, no transmutation ... one will not think itself obliged to the other: it has lent it nothing." In the human body, "the feet would not deign to carry the head". If only Micawber had thought of this!
Panurge decides he wants to get married but dreads being cuckolded. His quest to find out the likelihood of this happening leads to a trip round the world (and fills the last 500 pages of the book) - and he still doesn't know whether to get married or not. This is perhaps not the best moment for a merchant to call him a cuckold. Panurge replies: "If ... I had jiggedy-joggedy-tarty-fartied that O so ... honourable and O so proper wife of yours in such a manner that the erect god of the gardens Priapus ... were ... to remain eternally stuck inside her so that it could never come out but remain there for ever unless you yourself were to tug it out with your teeth, would you do it?" Not an easy question to answer.
The real oddity in Rabelais is the almost total absence of women. He's surprisingly coy, too, about what to call their genitals, settling usually on "thingummy" or private parts - on one troubling occasion, "that monstrous solution of continuity". Screech claims that knocking women was common comic currency at the time (it still is), but couldn't Rabelais have had a bit more fun doing it? Male genitalia inspire raucous irreverent stuff, from a discussion of popes' bollocks ("When this world runs out of bollocks this world will run out of popes") to a strange story of some men who ate so many medlars that they "swelled in length along that member which we call Nature's plough-share, so that theirs became marvelously long, big, plump, fat, verdant and cockscombed in the antique style, so much so that they used them as girdles, wrapping them five or six times round their middles." This "antique style" could come back into fashion.
You might well remark after reading Rabelais that "All my phrenes, metaphrenes and diaphragms are taut and fraught from infunnelizating your words ... into the game-pouch of my understanding." But it's worth it
Opening Line: “I must refer you to the great chronicle of Pantagruel for the knowledge of that genealogy and antiquity of race by which Gargantua is come unto us.”
Closing Line: “And so, farewell!”
Quotes: “Readers, friends, if you turn these pages
Put your prejudice aside,
For, really, there's nothing here that's outrageous,
Nothing sick, or bad — or contagious.
Not that I sit here glowing with pride
For my book: all you'll find is laughter:
That's all the glory my heart is after,
Seeing how sorrow eats you, defeats you.
I'd rather write about laughing than crying,
For laughter makes men human, and courageous.”
Rating: Very Funny, however I skimmed.

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