Last Thoughts on Gargantua

After a leisurely summer break, we wrap up Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel and move on to a new book!

Following reads like Naked Lunch and all things Updike, Irving, and Roth, the sexual brazenness, visceral violence, and moral ambiguity of Gargantua delivers more snores than shocks. Yes, taken in context, this nearly 500 year old episodic work is shocking. The violence, for example, near the end of part one is not what you’d expect from a book published in the era of John Calvin and Thomas More:

Then at one stroke he cut off his head, cutting his scalp upon the temple-bones, and lifting up in the upper part of the skull the two triangulary bones called sincipital, or the two bones bregmatis, together with the sagittal commissure or dartlike seam which distinguisheth the right side of the head from the left, as also a great part of the coronal or forehead bone, by which terrible blow likewise he cut the two meninges or films which enwrap the brain, and made a deep wound in the brain’s two posterior ventricles, and the cranium or skull abode hanging upon his shoulders by the skin of the pericranium behind, in form of a doctor’s bonnet, black without and red within. Thus fell he down also to the ground stark dead.

It’s as if Titus Andronicus were written by Henry Gray, isn’t it? That level of obsessive detail on how a head gets chopped off is classic Gargantua, and is what I will remember most about this book, its obsession with the punctilious and the ludicrous. For pleasure reading, though, it is a challenge. The book is episodic and rambling, but the writing remarkably vivacious nevertheless. 

The take-away from Rabelais is the utter humanity of his work. The final episode of Gargantua, part 1 is the famous Abbey of Theleme parable. It tells the story of a special abbey where all the monks and nuns “Do what thou whilst.” In an era where there was a stifling pressure to suppress all the demonic tendencies of the human person that make it human, Rabelais was the one holding up the bazooka. He celebrated the messiness and meanness and insanity of humanity. It is refreshing to see that this banner has been raised with manic persistence, with good intentions and bad, ever since.

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