François Rabelais

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Rabelais, François

 

Born circa 1494, near Chinon, Tou-raine; died Apr. 9, 1553, in Paris. French writer.

Rabelais was born on the estate of his father, a lawyer and landowner. As a young man he was a monk. After leaving the monastery in 1527, he studied law, topography, archaeology, and medicine. He became a doctor of medicine in 1537. A humanist, he led the life of a traveling lecturer and physician. In 1532, Rabelais published Pantagruel as a continuation of a popular chapbook about giants. Over the next 20 years he published three more books of the novel Gargantua and Pantagruel, which was enthusiastically received by his contemporaries. Each part of the novel was banned for its outspoken, daring freethinking, and the author often had to go abroad to escape persecution. The Fifth Book of Pantagruel, published posthumously, in 1564, under Rabelais’s name, was written by an unknown writer, who probably used materials left by Rabelais.

Rabelais’s great novel is truly an encyclopedia of French Renaissance culture, encompassing religious and political life, pedagogical and scientific thought, everyday life, and the aspirations of man. His laughter at an obsolescent world is all-encompassing and merciless, but at the same time Rabelais has limitless faith in the renewal of life and in scientific and social progress. This faith takes the form of predictions of great discoveries and inventions or the form of a Utopian free society (the description of the abbey of Thélème). Behind the unbridled fantasy and seemingly chaotic structure of the book, “le plus merveilleux livre du monde” (A. France, Oeuvres complètes, vol. 17, Paris, 1928, p. 45), one senses the remarkable sobriety and harmony of a universal humanist world view. Rabelais himself defined his Pantagruelism, that is, his humanism, as “a certain lightness of spirit compounded of contempt for the chances of fate” (Gargantiua and Pantagriuel’, Moscow, 1966, p. 437).

Pantagruelism thrived on the Renaissance, which F. Engels called “the greatest progressive upheaval that mankind had experienced until that time” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 20, p. 346). It is represented in the novel’s two chief characters: Pantagruel and Panurge. The giant king Pantagruel (“all-thirsting” for knowledge), who is eternally imperturbable before the vicissitudes of fortune and “the chances of fate,” is the personification of the ideal future of mankind. Panurge, Pantagruel’s bosom friend and companion, an eternally doubting, restless rogue, is the personification of the actual people of that transitional era. The two represent a symbolic union between humanism’s progressive quest, on the one hand, and mankind’s own restless seeking, which is the material force of progress, on the other. The last three books of the novel are based on this union. The upbringing and youth of the giant Gargantua, Pantagruel’s father, are depicted in several chapters of the first book, chapters that are famous in the history of pedagogy; Pantagruel’s childhood is described in the second book.

The same union is at the basis of the allegorical, yet easily comprehended, journey of the Pantagruelists to the Oracle of the Divine Bottle (Truth) for answers to the question that comically troubles Panurge—to marry or not to marry—and to all painful questions. During an adventurous sea voyage, the Pantagruelists encounter all kinds of misfortunes and visit various islands, whose satire-provoking inhabitants personify stagnation, fanaticism, and absence of reason—all vestiges of the old world that serve as the contrary proofs encountered by the thirsting and searching Pantagruelists in their quest for truth.

In world literature, Rabelais is one of the greatest geniuses of the comic. Like the plot of his novel, which is the continuation of a folk novel, Rabelais’s laughter is rooted in the sources, techniques, and spirit of folk literature. The folkloric genres of the tale, fabliau, farce, and saying, as well as grotesque devices of language and imagery, all form part of his novel. His humor is based on particularizing the incorporeal in the manner of folk poetry and on the ambiguous nature of his protagonists’ “thirst,” a thirst for both wine and knowledge. Rabelais rejects the medieval ideal of asceticism and self-denial, glorifying the complete satisfaction of physical and spiritual needs and the unlimited development of the individual personality, “for between the body and soul there is an indissoluble sympathy” (Gargantiua and Pantagriuel’, Moscow, 1966, p. 321). A favorite comic technique of Rabelais is the exaggeration of vices (“the offspring of Antiphysis,” that is, Antinature) into fantastically one-dimensional, monstrous, palpably obvious, and therefore particularly comical, grotesques.

On the whole, Rabelais’s profoundly life-affirming and versatile humor is not satire. Rabelais approaches satire only in his choice of material—vices—not in his tone. This tone is gay and mirth-provoking; it mocks evil but does not fear it and is unconcerned with the course of life or the outcome of comic conflicts. Rabelais’s laughter is festive, like laughter at a carnival. It has many shades of meaning but is always vigorous, joyous, and purely comic, lacking the sorrow or melancholy over human weakness characteristic of humor. It is based on the age-old popular belief that laughter signifies happiness, contentment, lightheartedness, and health. Laughter, according to Rabelais the physician, also has another side. It heals and revives, dissipating sorrow, disharmony with life, and morbidity of spirit. Laughter attests to and at the same time bestows a healthy, clear spiritual vision. In Rabelais’s view, it frees us from all that beclouds our consciousness, thus playing a therapeutic role in our cognition of life. The influence of Rabelais’s comic style on the subsequent development of French literature, from La Fontaine and Molière to R. Rolland (Colas Breugnon), has been immense.

WORKS

Oeuvres complètes. Text established and annotated by J. Boulenger. [Paris, 1934.]
In Russian translation:
Gargantiua i Pantagriuel’. Translated by N. Liubimov. Moscow, 1966.

REFERENCES

Evnina, E. M. F. Rable. Moscow, 1948.
Pinskii, L. “Smekh Rable.” In his book Realizm epokhi Vozrozhdeniia. Moscow, 1961.
Bakhtin, M. Tvorchestvo F. Rabie i narodnaia kul’tura srednevekov’ia i Renessansa. Moscow, 1965.
F. Rabelais: Ouvrage publié pour le 400 ans de sa mort. Geneva, 1953.
Tetel, M. Rabelais. New York [1967]. (Contains bibliography.)
Claude, C. Rabelais. [Paris, 1973.]

L. E. PINSKII