Rabelais, Rabelaisian

On this day in 1553 the French monk, physician, humanist scholar, and writer, François Rabelais died. His influential and inimitable Gargantua and Pantagruel is regarded as a masterpiece of the mock-quest tradition (emphasis decidedly on the mock). Its lampoon of religious orders, lawyers, Sorbonne scholars, and just about every other power group going brought condemnation and censorship in the author’s lifetime. Modern readers marvel more at the style, that exuberant combination of humor, sex, and scatology now deemed “Rabelaisian.” This is easily and most often illustrated through the chapter devoted to the search for the ideal toilet paper (the neck of a goose, well-downed), but almost any passage will do. For example, Pantagruel’s perusal of a renowned Parisian library, its shelves groaning with Renaissance scholarship:

The Churning Ballock of the Valiant.
The Niddy-noddy of the Satchel-loaded Seekers, by Friar Bindfastatis.
The Ape’s Paternoster.
The Hotchpotch or Gallimaufry of the perpetually begging Friars.
The Skinnery of the new Start-ups extracted out of the fallow-butt,
                    incornifistibulated and plodded upon in the angelic sum.
The Flimflams of the Law.
The Rasping and Hard-scraping of the Cardinals.
The said Author’s Apology against those who allege that the Pope’s
                    mule doth eat but at set times.

The last three volumes of Gargantua and Pantagruel are concerned with a journey to Cathay via some NorthWest Passage, undertaken so that Panurge might consult the Oracle of the Holy Bottle on the topic of his all-consuming worry: whether he should marry — or more precisely, whether once married he should be cuckolded. The answer to this lies beyond the land of Pettifogging; beyond Ringing Island, where the bells perpetually peal over the caged clerical birds (monkhawks, abbothawks, cardinalhawks, and one pope-hawk); beyond the Islands of Tools, Ignoramuses, For-ward Folks, Lies, and Queen Whim. Beyond, almost, comprehension: having passed through the door to the Temple of the Bottle (above which is inscribed, ‘In Vino Veritas’), and having finally posed the momentous question, the only response is: TRINC. In response to Panurge’s puzzlement, the Holy Bottle offers the elaboration that “trinc” is a panomphean word, “that is, a word understood, us’d and celebrated by all nations, and signifies Drink.” Some commentators gloss “trinc” as the drinking of knowledge, truth and love; many Rabelaisians enjoy a literal interpretation.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.