Francis Rabelais: the Man and his Work
(Chapter VII, Section II)
1929

Most especially at this juncture, then, with the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Books in view—that enormous field which criticism of a transcendental, partial, and more or less obscurantist type has found always so inviting—we say to the reader: Never forget, never for a moment lose sight of our fundamental proposition, Rabelais is a story-teller. Before attempting to analyze somewhat the structure of the Third Book, we think it might be appropriate to examine and illustrate his leading qualities as a story-teller, because it is important that the reader should be thoroughly penetrated by a sense of them. They are five in number. In the first place, Rabelais is extremely rapid; second, he has the momentum of great mass; third, he is essentially direct in his ideas; fourth, he is essentially informal and direct in his diction—he is conversational without triviality, always giving the sense of the spoken word, and therefore always best read if read aloud; and finally, he is consistently objective, the "moral elevation" which Coleridge remarked of him is always sustained.

First, then, Rabelais is rapid. His thought is never involved, never slackly turning around on itself. One thing runs off into another without digression and at high speed. Each of his sentences says a straight sentence-worth and then runs off swiftly into the next. Nor is his swiftness uneven and jerky, with the movement that the French call saccadé; his sentences and clauses are usually long, but they never drag, they are always pressing swiftly and smoothly forward, carrying the reader with them. By way of illustration, we may cite Epistemon's resume in a single sentence of "the moral comedy of him who had espoused and married a dumb wife"; it occurs in the thirty-fourth chapter of the Third Book:

The good honest man, her husband, was very earnestly urgent to have the fillet of her tongue untied, and would needs have her speak by any means; at his desire, some pains were taken on her, and partly by the industry of the physician, other part by the expertness of the surgeon, the encycliglotte which she had under her tongue being cut, she spoke and spoke again: yea, within few hours she spoke so loud, so fiercely and so long that her poor husband returned to the same physician for a recipe to make her hold her peace.

Mark the length of that sentence; there are ninety-eight words in it; yet see how swiftly and smoothly it keeps driving forward, how straight and level the track over which it runs. Here one observes, too, in the second place, that Rabelais's speed is not that of the delicately balanced and graceful skater; it is the speed of the heavy express train, giving off an impressive suggestion of great mass and momentum. No weight of words seems able to slacken it, not even the huge polysyllabic monstrosities that he manufactures and throws in every now and then in deference to the conventions of popular farce. He carries the heavy load of Panurge's reflections on the dying poet Raminagrobis, in the twenty-second chapter, as easily and swiftly as he does the story of the dumb wife:

Panurge, at his issuing forth of Raminagrobis's chamber, said as if he had been horribly affrighted, 'By the virtue of God, I believe he is a heretic; the devil take me if I do not; he cloth so villainously rail at the mendicant friars and jacobins, who are the two hemispheres of the Christian world; by whose gyronomonic circumbilivaginations, as by two celivagous filopendulums, all the autonomatic metagrabolism of the Romish Church, when tottering and emblustricated with the gibble-gabble-gibberish of this odious error and heresy, is homocentrically poised. But what harm, in the devil's name, have those poor wretches, the capuchins and minims, done unto him? Are not those beggarly devils sufficiently wretched already ? Who can imagine that these poor snakes, the very extracts of icthyophagy, are not thoroughly enough besmoaked and besmeared with misery, distress and calamity? Dost thou think, friar John, by thy faith, that he is in the state of salvation? He goeth, before God, as surely damned to thirty thousand basketsful of devils, as a pruning-bill to the lopping of a vine-branch.'

The quality we are now dwelling on, the force of mass and momentum, is much more effectively apprehended in the art of a master than through the prose of a critic. We therefore ask the reader to do something that will give both himself and us a happy escape from plodding through a good many words of more or less ineffectual exposition of a characteristic that he can much more satisfactorily take in for himself. Let him study the foregoing passage, carefully fixing in his mind the rhythm and accent of each sentence, like an actor studying a part; and then let him declaim it to himself. If he will do this, he is bound to get the point that we are making; he cannot help getting it, and far better than by any aid that we could give him. In fact, a very short devotion to this exercise here and there in one's general reading of Rabelais will presently be found to settle into a habit; one finds oneself instinctively declaiming him; and there is no other way so good for maintaining an adequate appreciation of his literary qualities in general, and of this one in particular.

It will not do, moreover, to say that in the feeling induced by this exercise, Rabelais is getting the adventitious aid of the matchless English prose of the seventeenth century, and hence making his way upon the reader's sensibilities on borrowed credit. The reader may make comparison with the original in any passage he likes, and he will find that the translation gives him, not always the same thing, but always the corresponding thing, the thing necessary to reproduce upon an English reader the total impression produced upon a French reader by the original. The translators are sometimes unfaithful to literalness, but never to Rabelais. After all the hard things we have been saying about Mr. Smith's little failures in literary tact, it is a great pleasure now to say how much he rejoices us by his remark that "Rabelais's style, when translated quite literally, lends itself readily to a translation of that kind [that is, into idiomatic English] something in the nature of the English adopted by the translators of our Bible." Naturally so, and for the same reason; even here, Mr. Smith is perhaps not quite clear and explicit enough, he does not put his finger quite firmly enough upon what he sees. Rabelais anticipated the need of a competent French prose, exactly as the King James translators anticipated that of a competent English prove; like them, too, he did much to focus that sense and make it effective. As nationalism developed, as peoples speaking somewhat the same tongue drew together into large centralized political units and their language became increasingly standardized, as printing came into use and Latin gave way to the vernacular, there presently developed the imperious need for a competent prose. This need began to be generally felt in England about half a century after the King James translators had finished their work; in France, somewhat later. The first effort made in England to construct such a prose, anticipatory as it was, remains unapproached in point of achievement; but in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries almost everybody would seem to have been able to manage a competent prose with ease; and even today, in the progressive degeneration that set in upon our prose in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the vestiges of a good prose still seem more or less a popular property in England. Owing largely to the salutary despotism of the Academy, a good prose is now probably much more a popular property in France than in England; but the development of French prose followed the same general course as that of English prose, and Rabelais stood in the same anticipatory relation towards it as the King James translators stood towards the corresponding development in England.

Thirdly, Rabelais is essentially simple and direct in his ideas. His ideas are greatly elaborated, though every elaboration gets them forward, presses them rapidly on, none is content to coruscate around a pivot, like a pinwheel; but the ideas themselves are never pseudo-ideas, almost never abstract, and never recondite or involved. An excellent example is found in the long discussion of Panurge's wastefulness, in chapters II-VI of the Third Book. One would say that elaboration could go no farther, though there is no dragging, every period goes on swiftly and smoothly to its end; yet the central thesis or idea is the very simple one established by common observation, that all humanity lives in a state of mutual dependence—the idea that St. Paul presents in his allegory of the body and the members. Like all the humanists, Rabelais fought shy of abstractions and logomachies. Believing in Nature and in the return to Nature, the humanists were aware that Nature's operations, august as they might be, were yet simple; that Nature's regulatory laws, while utterly incomprehensible in their why and wherefore by any mind, were yet apprehensible for practical purposes of obedience by almost the meanest intellect. Besides this, the Schoolmen had bequeathed to the world of the Renaissance an abundant sufficiency of sterile abstractions and fruitless metaphysics. The humanists especially regarded the mediæval world of theology and philosophy as having "lived upon air and empty nothings," as Jeremy Taylor finely says; "falling out about nothings, and being very wise about things that are not, and work not." Rabelais had been fed to the full on academic discussion of the number of angels that could stand together on the point of a needle; he was for driving at practice, and letting all that sort of thing go by the board as nugatory and preposterous. Among the books in the catalogue of the library of St.-Victor, he mentions a dissertation on the question, "whether a chimæra buzzing in a vacuum could devour second intentions"; and in the Lyons edition published after his death, in I 558, there is interpolated in the Second Book a list of eleven similar theses, under the heading, "The Philosophical Cream of the Encyclopædic Questions of Pantagruel which will be sorbonicolificabilitudinissily discussed in the Schools of Decree, near St.-Denis-de-la-Chartre at Paris." We quote one or two:

Whether a Platonic Idea, bounding to the right under the orifice of chaos, could drive away the squadrons of the atoms of Democritus.
Whether the atoms, whirling to the sound of the hermagoric harmony, could make a compaction or a dissolution of a quintessence by the subtraction of the Pythagorean numbers.
Whether the hibernal frigidity of the antipodes, passing in an orthagonal line through the homogeneous solidity of the centre, could by a gentle antiperistasis warm the superficial connexity of our heels.

In their application of strong common sense to the task of discriminating between the essential and the non-essential in theology and philosophy, the humanists had much in common with the mystics, and like the mystics, they have been much misunderstood and disparaged in consequence; the mystics for a vague faith in moonshine, and the humanists for a cultivated inaction and indifference, marking them as mere Gallios. In fact, however, there is no more hard-headed good sense, no more direct appeal to the evidential value of practice and experience, in any school of religious thought than in that of mysticism. Erasmus and Rabelais would heartily have subscribed to the theology and teleology set forth by John Smith, the Cambridge Platonist of the seventeenth century:

Where we find wisdom, justice, loveliness, goodness, love and glory in their highest elevations and most unbounded dimensions, that is He; and where we find any true participations of these, there is a true communication of God; and a defection from these is the essence of sin and the foundation of hell.

Such is the theology discernible behind Gargantua's admonition to Pantagruel, in the eighth chapter of the Second Book, that " 'it behoveth thee to serve, to love, to fear God, and on him to cast all thy thoughts and all thy hope, and by faith formed in love to cleave unto him, so that thou mayest never be separated from him by thy sins.'" The humanist was invincibly suspicious of a more highly organized and speculative theology, whether emanating from Augustine or from Calvin; it tended too far beyond what was practical and necessary. They would have united in unfeigned praise of the common sense of another mystical writer, Thomas Wilson, for fifty-eight years bishop of Sodor and Man, who declared that "since the practical truths of the Gospel are plain, no Christian need complain of want of light." Moreover, an unchecked license of speculation and affirmation breeds controversy, and controversy breeds hatred, and the humanists were keenly aware that hatred is essentially irreligious. Who had ever greater occasion than the humanists of this period to agree with the golden sentence of another English mystic, Whichcote, that "nothing is worse done than what is ill done for religion. That must not be done in defence of religion which is contrary to religion"? All the spirit of the humanists, again, was in the hard good sense of the author of the Imitation, who so pertinently asks, "What does it avail to dispute and discourse high concerning the Trinity, and lack humility, and so displease the Trinity?"

Fourthly, Rabelais is not only simple and direct in his ideas, but he is also informal and direct, even conversational, in his diction. We have said a good deal about this already, so that beyond giving an illustration or two from the Third Book, we need say nothing more; one may find an illustration for oneself in any sentence or paragraph taken at haphazard. In the eighteenth chapter, Panurge tells a story which he introduces informally, almost garrulously, as one that " 'the good friar Arthur Wagtail told me once, upon a Monday morning, as we were (if I have not forgot) eating a bushel of trotter-pies; and I remember well it rained hard; God give him the goodmorrow!'" In the next chapter, too, one may see how direct and purely informal Rabelais's diction is, when he addresses himself to Panurge's retrospect upon "'what happened at Rome two hundred and threescore years after the foundation thereof'":

'A young Roman gentleman encountering by chance, at the foot of Mount Celion, with a beautiful Latin lady named Verona, who from her cradle upwards had always been both deaf and dumb, very civilly asked her (not without a chironomatic Italianising of his demand, with various jectigation of his fingers, and other gesticulations as yet customary amongst the speakers of that country) what senators in her descent from the top of the hill she had met with going up thither. For you are to conceive that he knowing no more of her deafness than dumbness, was ignorant of both. She, in the meantime, who neither heard nor understood so much as one word of what he had said, straight imagined by all that she could apprehend in the lovely gesture of his manual signs, that what he then required of her was what she herself had a great mind to, even that which a young man cloth naturally desire of a woman. Then was it that by signs (which in all occurrences of venereal love are incomparably more attractive, valid and efficacious than words ) she beckoned to him to come along with her to her house; which when she had done, she drew him aside to a private room, and then made a most lively alluring sign unto him, to show that the game did please her. Whereupon, without any more advertisement, or so much as uttering one word on either side, they fell to and bringuardised it lustily.'

Finally, Rabelais is eminently objective; and of this too, we have already said something. He composes "with his eye on the object," never insinuating his own personality between the object and the reader. His personages think, act, and speak in character, and he reports them disinterestedly; he does not undertake to marshal them arbitrarily one way or another. The reader is never, for instance, uncomfortably conscious of a sickly salacity in such matter as the foregoing, or of an effete sanctimoniousness in such passages as the last words of the dying poet to Panurge and his companions. Rabelais's absolute objectivity insures the reader against any sense of violence, disorder, or ineptitude in his quick transition from the finesse of the pregnant nun, sister Fatbum, to the plea of Raminagrobis to be left alone in his last moments to enjoy undisturbed " 'those sweet thoughts wherein I was already beginning to repose myself, and acquiesce in the contemplation and vision, yea, almost in the very touch and taste of the happiness and felicity which the good God hath prepared for his faithful saints and elect in the other life, and state of immortality.'" After all, the pregnancy of sister Fatbum was an event as strictly in the order of Nature as the death of Raminagrobis, and as such it was to be as objectively regarded, and to be reported in a fashion as appropriate to its circumstances.

So the reader who approaches Rabelais in all seriousness, frankly looking for benefit and profit, such profit to the spirit as but two or three writers can give in like viability and measure—the reader, we repeat, should be thoroughly penetrated with a sense of these five qualities. We may go over their recapitulation again; the reader cannot fix them too firmly in his mind. He cannot too often say to himself in his progress with his author, Rabelais is neither propagandist nor buffoon; he is a story-teller; he writes primarily not for critics or polemists, but for himself and his Christian friends. As a story-teller, he is rapid; he has immense momentum; he is simple and plain in his ideas; he is direct and conversational in his diction; and he is eminently objective.


Introducing Nock ||| Biography ||| Bibliography ||| Selected Essays
Challenge ||| Divagations ||| Nockian Society ||| Books in Print

Latest Authorized Area ||| Fulton's Lair

hits since July 12, 1999