François Rabelais — Humanist, Critic, and Satirist of Intellectual Arrogance
Renaissance humanism was rooted in philology — the study of language through written historical sources. Such an interest might not immediately strike the contemporary reader as one which could be quite humorous at times. Indeed, deeply learned men like François Rabelais (c.1483–1553) used his extensive knowledge of Latin literature and his contempt for custom and pretentious intellectuals his his magnum opus Gargantua and Pantagruel. This satirical work about two giants, published in the vernacular French, was immediately condemned by the authorities as obscene. The work is filled with dirty jokes, puns, satire, and crudity. Yet, despite authorities in the Sorbonne condemning it, the work remained popular and Rabelais found support with France’s Renaissance King François I.
“To laugh is proper to man.” -François Rabelais (1534)
François Rabelais demolished those wordy and superficial intellectuals with the greatest skill early on in Gargantua and Pantagruel — perhaps a lesson for those who wish to successfully challenge the absurdities associated with the labyrinthian prose of Jacques Lacan and his successors.
“One day, [I’m not sure when,’ Pantagruel was going for a stroll after supper with his companions through the gate which leads into Paris. There he met a dapper student coming along the road. After they had greeted each other, Pantagruel asked him,
‘Where are you coming from at this hour, my friend?’
The student replied:
‘From that alma, illustrissime and celebrated Academe vocate Luctece.’
‘What does that mean?’ Pantagruel asked one of his men.
‘From Paris,’ he replied.
‘So you come from Paris? And ow,’ he asked ‘do young gentlemen spend your time as students in the said Paris?’
The Student Replied:
‘We transfrete the Sequana at times dilucidatory and crepusculine, deambulating via the urbic carfaxes and quadruvia, we despumate the latinate verbocination, and like verisimilitudinous amorevolous, we captivate the omnijudicious, omniform and omnigenous feminine sex. On certain dies we invitate ourselves to the lupanars of Champgaillard, Matcon, Cul-de-sac, Bourbon and Huslieu. There, in venereal ecstasym we inculcate our veretra into the most absconce recesses of the pudenda of those more amicitial meretrices; then, in those meritful taberns, the Pomme-de-Pin, [the Castellum,] the Madeleine and the Mule……’
To which Pantagruel replied,
‘What diabolical language is this! You, by God, are a heretic!’”
-François Rabelais, from ‘Gargantua and Pantagruel,’ p.34–35.
French intellectual life, in the twentieth century, is little more than the exercise of speaking or writing much without really saying anything. It has become the realization of the caricature Rabelais depicts in Chapter 6 of Gargantua and Pantagruel. The habits of sophomoric students have not changed much, it seems, since the days of Rabelais. The dialogue continues:
“To which the student replied:
‘Signior, no. For most libentiously, as soon as the minutest matutinal section is elucidated, I demigrate towards one of those so-well architectured monasterial fanes; there I asperge myself with lustral aqueous fluid, mumble a slice of some missatical precative from our missariesm with a sub-murmuration of prectories from my Horary, I lave and absterge my animated part of its nocturnal inquinations. I revere the Olympicoles; I latreutically venerate the supernal Astripotent; I have in delectation and mutual amity my proximates; I observe the prescriptions of the Decalogue, and, according to the minuscule capacity of my vim and vigour, I do not descede one laterality of a tiny unguis from them. To be veriloquous, since Mammon never super-ingurgitates one ob into my pecuniary receptacle, I am somewhat rare and lentando in supererogationally eleemosinating to egenes who from ostiary to ostiary are quesititious of a small stipendium.’
‘Oh, Pooh, pooh,’ said Pantagruel. ‘What does this idiot mean! I think he is forging us some diabolical language and casting a charm on us like a sorcerer.’
To which one of his men replied:
‘My Lord, without any doubt, he is trying to ape the language of the Parisians; yet all he can do is to flay Latin alive. He thinks he is pindarizing; he believes he is a great orator in French because he despises the common spoken usage.’”
-François Rabelais, from ‘Gargantua and Pantagruel,’ p.35.
One of the literary developments brought about by true admirers of the Great Books of antiquity, those early Renaissance humanists, was an interest in the vernacular. The ‘Three Crowns of Italian Literature’ — Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio — all wrote in the vernacular. They were educated in Latin (and Boccaccio also knew Greek) but they understood the power of the vernacular in writing their poetry and some of their prose. They also tended to be quite earthy at times — Dante’s descriptions of hellish punishments, Petrarch’s poetry, and Boccaccio’s stories of lust in the Decameron. Rabelais and Montaigne carried the earthiness into French Renaissance writing, maintaining the important down-to-earth quality of humanism in the Northern Renaissance.
Renaissance humanists promoted education in the Classics and appreciation of Latin but were not so elitist as to promote ivory tower speak — deliberately obscuring meanings to make the listener or reader to far more work than necessary. This stands in stark contrast to the elitism of Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault. The first two, especially, hid their third- or fourth-rate ideas behind prose designed to be especially difficult. So too, the student Pantagruel encounters in this part of Rabelais’ dialogue seeks to separate and speak down to others by adopting superficially what he perceives to be the language of the Parisian educated elite. Abandoning and avoiding common speech, one becomes more like a high priests in some obscure cult muttering nonsense.
One of the most significant aspects of successful literature is use of the vernacular. This is why people in Italy can recite the opening lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy to this day and why William Shakespeare really was the greatest writer in the history of English literature. The same for Luther and Goethe in German. Luther made a point of using earthy language in his Bible to appeal the regular people.
“Is that true?’ asked Pantagruel.
The student replied:
‘Seigneur, [Sire]/ My genius is not innately apt — as this flagitious nebulon opines — for excoriating the cuticle of our Gallic vernacular. But, vice-versally, I am assiduous at striving, by oars and by sail, at locupleting it with latinate superfluity.’
‘By God,’ said Pantagruel, ‘I’ll teach you how to speak. But first tell me where you come from?’
To which the student said:
‘The primeval origin of my atavics and avics was indigenous to the Lemovic regions, where requiesce the corpus of that hagiarch, Saint Martial.’
‘I get you,’ said Pantagruel: ‘You come from Limoges. That’s what it all boils down to. Yet you want to ape Parisian speech. Come here, then, and let me curry you down.’
He then seized him by the throat, saying,
‘You flay Latin! By Saint John, I’ll make you flay up the fox: I shall flay you alive.;
Whereupon that wretch denizen of Limoges began to say:
‘Who, there, Maister! Aw! Zaint Marsault zuccour me! Ho, ho. I Gawd’s name, Lemme be! Don’ee touch me!’
Pantagruel said, ‘Now you’re talking naturally.’ And he let go of him, for that wretched man from Limoges was shitting all over his breeches.”
-François Rabelais, from ‘Gargantua and Pantagruel,’ p.35–36
François Rabelais was a genius, one of the most important writers in the history of France and one whose writing remains relevant to this day. He was one of the most well-read writers of his time and one of the most significant as his popular works were printed at a time when the French language had not yet been standardized. He understood that the best way to promote the real values of humanism (by focusing on the essence rather than superficial details) was through humor. Such remains the case to this day. This article explores only a single episode in the mammoth work (or rather series of works produced between the 1530s and 1560s) which ranks as one of the greatest satires ever produced. One can see the influence Rabelais had on later writers such as Laurence Sterne, Jonathan Swift, and Voltaire. With a firm foundation in the wisdom of the Great Books, François Rabelais was able to measure the merits and shortcomings of intellects (great and small) with a greater degree of accuracy and humor. A smattering of knowledge in the Classics leads to shallow obsession with words whereas depth in understanding of the Classics leads to the desire to breathe new life into them by creating something new.
The ‘great’ postmodern theorists are a mere caricature of what academia should be, a latter-day institutionalization of the pretentious student encountered by Rabelais in Gargantua and Pantagruel. What passes for passion when it comes to etymology is really just superficial careerism in a domain which rewards complexity over practicality and quantity over quality.
“The number one problem today is not ignorant students but ignorant professors, who have substituted narrow “expertise” and “theoretical sophistication” (a preposterous term) for breadth and depth of learning in the world history of art and thought.” -Camille Paglia, ‘Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf.’ (1991). p.174