Trouble With Rabelais

The current reading I am stuck on is Rabelias Gargantua and Pantagruel. I am really struggling with this one and am considering abandoning it. If someone wants to explain the value of this work to me, I would be glad to hear it.

While there have been a couple of amusing passages, this book is not grabbing me. It is a novel about a giant, written by a French cleric in the 1530s.

As near as I can tell, it seems to be a reaction to several cultural trends of its time. One passage I especially enjoyed was in the beginning where he talks about genealogy. He says that many emporers, kings and popes are decended from “porters and pardon-pedlars” while many beggars are descended from kings.

“I cannot think but I am come of the race of some rich king or prince in former times, for never yet saw you any man that had a greater desire to be a ling, and to be rich, than I have, and that only I may make good cheer, do nothing, nor care for anything, and pentifully enrich my friends, and all honest and learned men.”

Why, I must also be descended from similar royal blood. I have the same desires, as evidenced by my desire to spend my time reading this set and being slightly lazy about it.

Still, with this book, I am seeing some of the problems with the composition of this set as mentioned in earlier posts. The translation in the Britannica set is somewhat dated and written in a formal style that I think translates out some of the humor of the original.

Translations always make me suspicious. It was dealing with multiple translations of Oedipus Rex during a summer program while I was in high school (yes, I have always been a dork), that taught me how radically a translator’s choices can change the meaning of a work. I have spotted some of the potential issues with Rabelais because I also have a set of the Franklin Mint books, which includes Rebelais. I think there must be something to this book for it to be included in both sets, but I am having a hard time still seeing what that is. The Franklin Mint edition is a more modern translation and includes pictures. It is a far cry from the two columns of tiny type on every page of the Britannica set. So, if I come back to this book, I may switch editions. Given the descriptions of how the Britannica set was created, I am not sure that Robert Maynard Hutchins would tsk at me for doing so (though Mortimer Adler might).

You can see some of the variations of the translations with the character names whihc are rendered as “The Lords of Kissbreech and Suckfist” in the Britannica version and “Lords Kissmyarse and Suckfizzle” in the Franklin books version. Regardless, there are a enough variations in the translations to cause me to wonder whether or not there might not be something lost regardless of the translation or even in the orginal, given the passage of time.

I think that this book might be about sticking it to The Man and going agains tthe grain of society, which apparently Rabelais did his fair share of as a monk who became a lay clergy man and as someone who pursued science and did a public anatomical dissection. A friend who is working towards a Ph.D. in literature and has taught this book tells me that it is written in part as a reaction to the reformation and the rise of Humanism. my first guess was that it had somethign to do with the Enlightenment, but I was off by a few hundred years.

Still there are a lot of descriptions of how Gargantua bulls his way through authority and academics and the tut-tutting of his tutor. There is a kind of wild nature over civilized society strain that runs through things.

Even so, while there seem to be some things of interest in this book, the work in and of itself seems to hint at bigger things and reference bigger things happening in the world in which it was written. I think that it might be problematic to understand the work on its own merits. If someone cares to make an argument to the contrary, I am willing to listen. For now, though, I think I will move on to the next readings, which are essays by Montaigne. It was suggested to me that I read Montaigne by my Ph.D. friend, so I think it is time to move on.

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