Laughter and the Agelasts in Rabelais

What a post title that is!

Writing about Rabelais and Gargantua and Pantagruel reminds me of the foolish errand of the men who try to scientifically parse what makes something funny. That is like determining the materials used to paint the Mona Lisa by seeing how fast it burns.  

Rabelais is, or at least was, funny. He was famous in his day because he was funny, and he’s remembered today because he was funny. It’s worth noting that of the first three novels that were truly novels on the Master List (Le Morte D’Arthur, Gargantua and Pantagruel, and Don Quixote), two are satirical. Not long after Rabelais succeeded in birthing the lewd satire and Shakespeare turned it into high art. The novel as an artform was born out of a long tradition of poetical and theatrical works that were in constant conflict between the weighty and sober (Divine Comedy, etc.) and the earthy and bawdy (Canterbury Tales, etc.). In the 16th century there was still a strong ecclesiastic resistance to comedy. Consider the opinion of a monk in Ecco’s The Name of the Rose, which takes place a century or so before Rabelais was born:

“…laughter is something very close to death and to the corruption of the body.”

Yikes, what a grump!

Rabelais coined a word to describe those that can’t take a joke. He called them agelasts, from the Greek word agelastos, which means” not laughing.” (I would regret being born into a family with that as a surname.) Rabelais despised agelasts, considering them the worst kind of villain. Rabelais loved wit, buffoonery, and a tempered ego. The kind of sanctimonious ankle-biting that consumed much of French life in the time drove him batty. 

The author Milan Kundera, in his collection of essays called The Curtain, writes “People who at the time cast ideological… anathema upon Rabelais were driven to do so by something deeper than mere loyalty to an abstract dogma… For if agelasts tend to see sacrilege in every joke, it’s because every joke is a sacrilege. There is an irreconcilable incompatibility between the comical and the sacred, and we can only ask where the sacred begins and ends.”

That passage, of course, proves the argument I made at the beginning of this post. So let’s simply end with a truism: good comedy is its own best defense.

And perhaps a touch of Rabelais?

Appetite comes with eating, says Angeston, but the thirst goes away with drinking. I have a remedy against thirst, quite contrary to that which is good against the biting of a mad dog. Keep running after a dog, and he will never bite you; drink always before the thirst, and it will never come upon you. 

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