The Absurd World of Pantagruel

There is a long tradition of outrageous satirical writing in Western literature. One need only flip through the pages of Chaucer, Cervantes, or Swift to find analog to the notorious and infamous writings of Rabelais.

After recently reading the Screech translation of Pantagruel, I was struck by the anarchic chaos of the text. The book is, at once brilliantly laughable in its scattered comedy, yet it is also oddly disorienting. Perhaps this is owing to all the unnecessarily Joyce-esque quips in Latin, Greek, German, Hebrew as well as extensive esoteric allusions to a panoply of ancient writers. The book breeds a certain degree of skepticism or distrust among its readers because it seems to have no rules. There is no such thing as verisimilitude in Rabelais. What boundaries can still exist when a character’s head can be severed, only to be re-attached moments later? Indeed, the frantic nature of the book is coupled by the fact that latter editors spent a great deal of time revising and re-writing the book such that there are now many differing versions available and it is difficult to discern the true authority of the text. Perhaps that is part of the joke –a complete lack of authority.

However, taken in another light, Pantagruel is an unparalleled satire of the new age. Filled with farting, puking, lechery, genitalia jokes, diseases, excretions, and so on; and yet this ribaldry is also coupled with ceaseless allusions to the classics -Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Virgil and so on. It compares lowly things with noble things. The obvious parallel of the modern era is Cervantes’s Don Quixote, published about one hundred years later. Or another example might include Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. In all cases, we are exposed to the nature of the absurd (“absurdity” comes from the Latin for absurdius meaning inharmonious, or out of tune) via a frenzied, irrational comedy that is somehow made rational by the internal incoherence of the text. It is a mock-epic. Like Don QuixotePantagruel was written as if to be a true history appealing to all classes of people. The lecherous jokes appeal to the crowd, while the more high-brow lore are offered for the more educated classes. The book has been called “grotesque realism” and even a “carnival.” However, while Don Quixote travels around the Spanish countryside as a madman in the modern world battling false dragons and enchantments, Pantagruel wanders into situations with a seemingly limitless horizon of chaotic possibilities.

Why is Pantagruel laughable? The book is funny precisely because it makes no sense. It is a hurried history, as if Pantagruel was an illustrious or an important person accomplishing important things. On the contrary, he lacks wisdom. He is large and out of place, he is a physical anomaly, and he is continually dropped into seemingly random situations wherein order is turned into chaos. His and Panurge’s presence brings disharmony wherever they go. In the grand scheme, the whole text is a parody of an ancient epic. On a smaller scale, everyone is laughing at the circus fun-house mirror clown-show of ridiculousness: the Catholic Church, the Bible, the Sorbonne, Parisian intellectuals, country folk, rich businessmen, poor people, fat ladies and so on. All people and everything are laughed at throughout the text. Indeed, the satire is a mirror to the reader. Who are we laughing at? Ourselves? The whole of Western culture? The highly esteemed tradition of our culture? The preservation of its knowledge? Religion? Politics? All are mocked. In this way Pantagruel, like the works of Aristophanes, is hardly innocent or at least it is not devoid of political significance. Rabelais, himself, was concerned with the particular prejudices of his time, thus needing to conceal his name. Since 15th century France was a place of particular prejudices, a bawdy and salacious satirist like Francois Rabelais was in need of a disguise, a cloak to hide his name from the church and the Sorbonne. Thus he chose the name: Alcofribas Nasier, an anagram of Francois Rabelais.

The original title of the first book of Pantagruel was as follows: Pantagruel, The horrifying and dreadful deeds and prowess of the most famous Pantagruel, king of the dipsodes son of the great Giant Gargantua. It was published in 1532. It spawned five sequels. Various editions exist, including an early edition from the 1530s in which Salel, a courtier of Francois I’s court, writes an introduction that refers to the author of Pantagruel as akin to Democritus, the ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher (the “atomist” as Bertrand Russell once referred to him, and elsewhere he is known as the “laughing philosopher.”) The introductory poem concludes with “long live all good Pantagruelists” -as if the text spawned some kind of religious cult. Perhaps we see later “Pantagruelist” writers in the figures of Arthur Rimbaud or Jack Kerouac and ‘The Beats.’

Rabelaisian – a descriptive word meaning someone who is chaotically or perhaps even crudely and absurdly humorous.

Late 15th century portrait of François Rabelais

Rabelais was likely born in 1483, or perhaps 1494-1495 in France. He studied law and then studied under the Franciscans before getting into trouble for excessive study of the ancient Greeks, including translation of portions of Herodotus, so he became a monk (i.e. he joined the Benedictine order). He later studied medicine (Galen and Hippocrates). Laws against heresy and restrictions on books. During his life, he had primarily liberal Renaissance-influenced patrons who financed his studies, translations, and writings. Throughout his life he was persecuted for his writings, resorting to lying low in hiding, and the Sorbonne condemned his novel(s). In 1564, the Council of Trent placed Rabelais’s ‘Gargantua and Pantagruel’ series at the top of its list of prohibited books.

Rabelais opens the text of Pantagruel with an author’s prologue -an apologia for its contents, addressing the audience as ‘knights most noble and chivalrous’ and he justifies his work as both appealing to the earlier adaptations of the Gargantua chronicles (which read much like the early books of the Bible), and he issues a warning to anyone who discovers lies told within its pages: may they be condemned to hell-fire.

The beginning of the book is a direct satire of Genesis: the moon goes off-course and women eat of a strange fruit that makes their bodies grow hideous protuberances, so Rabelais lists a genealogy of mythical giants born of this race  (a la the Hebrew Bible), “who begat Goliath…who begat Atlas…Titys…who begat Polephemus….Goliath….who begat Sisyphus…” and so on down the line in rich allusion to the many varying giants and heroes in Western literature. Then Gargantua has Pantagruel at the age of four hundred and four score four and forty. His mother died in childbirth due to his enormous size. The word Panta comes from the Greek meaning “all” (‘pan’) and gruel in Hagarene refers to “thirst” (for there was a great drought upon his birth in Africa). Gargantua grows sad at the death of his wife, but joyful to the point of laughter at the sight of his giant son.

As he grows, Pantagruel is so big that he bites the teats off cows because no woman will suckle him, and he is eventually sent away to school in Poitiers, and from there he travels widely. A hilariously laughable section occurs in Chapter 6, wherein Pantagruel encounters a pretentious group of pseudo-intellectuals from Paris who speak nonsensical intellectualisms (‘they think they are pindarizing’) and he physically attacks . one of them for ‘flaying’ the Latin language. In Paris, he finds a heavy bell in a courtyard that none have been able to move using the writings of the ancient geometers, like Euclid and Archimedes, but Pantagruel lifts it with one finger. He also encounters libraries filled with absurd books (as the people of Paris are “daft”) including the “Testes of Theology” or “On the Ladies of Easy Virtue” or “The Mumblings of Celestine Padres” among many, many others (the list goes on for pages in chapter 7).

Pantagruel is a satire that knows no bounds. It pokes fun at the absurdity of useless intellectuals, the genealogies of the bible, the hero stories dating to Homer, and even Martin Luther is jabbed when Pantagruel posts his 9,764 theses on doors throughout the city, touching upon every controversy of the day which spawns a lengthy and silly lawsuit. They are sent a mysterious ring inscribed with Hebrew writings, encounter a man who only speaks in other languages, defeat a series of knights (via intoxication) and compose heroic songs to commemorate their victory. At the end of Book I, the next chapters are summarized as Panurge, Pantagruel’s companion (whose name comes from the Greek for “knave” or “rogue” -appropriate for a libertine coward), marries and is immediately cuckolded. Pantagruel then discovers the philosopher’s stone, they venture into the bowels of hell and kick the devil in the teeth, they encounter cannibals, and even visit the moon – “all true” and “beautiful evangelical texts in French.”

It is told as a series of ridiculous and seemingly unrelated scenes – a drunken series of laughable serials. Pantagruel was followed by a sequel two years later in 1534, Gargantua, which tells the “horrific” story of Pantagruel’s father, Gargantua. Like his son, his birth is outrageous, leading to an eleven month pregnancy and birth from his mother’s ear. Gargantua goes on all manner of adventures, and he famously builds the Abbey of Thélème, a place where men and women can study, but only good-looking people are allowed to enter (among other odd prohibitions) and the chief rule is: DO WHAT YOU WANT.

Gustave Doré’s sketch of Gargantua eating a pilgrim (1873)

Rabelais again returns to the story of Pantagruel in a third book, published in 1546. Book III, is largely a parody of a Platonic dialogue. Panurge, Pantagruel’s companion, argues in favor of indebtedness -a notable nod to the question of ‘paying your debts’ raised by Cephalus in Plato’s Republic. Panurge gets married (as alluded to at the end of Book I) and the two embark on a sea voyage. A fourth book was published in 1552, continuing the mock-epic style, in which Homer’s Odyssey is satirized as Pantagruel and Panurge sail to east Asia and argue with a sheep merchant named DingDong ending in his death. They encounter sea monsters, and half-men half-sausage people, and giants, and an island of arrogant Catholics who who worship the Pope. The book ends with Pantagruel firing a salute to the island of the Muses, and Panurge soils himself at the alarming sound.

A fifth book was published posthumously in 1564 under somewhat dubious authority (portions are entirely borrowed from Lucian’s True History). In the text, Pantagruel and Panurge continue their seafaring adventure to an island of birds and the Catholic Church is again jabbed. They go to an island of fat people, cats, and an abbey of sexually-engaged people. Eventually they go deep into the darkness of the earth to drink liquid from a book of interpretation. Panurge (the Kerouac-esque character of the series) praises wine, and vows to marry again, and frequently.

For this reading I used the Oxford French scholar, Michael Andrew (M.A.) Screech’s translation as featured in the Penguin classics. He has also completed a celebrated translation of Montaigne.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s