From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
François Rabelais (c. 1494 - April 9, 1553) was a major French Renaissance writer best-known for Gargantua and Pantagruel and his relation to the grotesque. Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian philosopher and critic, derived his celebrated concept of the carnivalesque and grotesque body from the world of Rabelais.
Although the place (or date) of his birth is not reliably documented, it is probable that François Rabelais was born in 1494 near Chinon, Indre-et-Loire, where his father worked as a lawyer. La Devinière in Seuilly, Indre-et-Loire, is the name of the estate that claims to be the writer's birthplace and houses a Rabelais museum.
Later he left the monastery to study at the University of Poitiers and University of Montpellier. In 1532, he moved to Lyon, one of the intellectual centres of France, and not only practised medicine, but edited Latin works for the printer Sebastian Gryphius. As a doctor, he used his spare time to write and publish humorous pamphlets which were critical of established authority and stressed his own perception of individual liberty. His revolutionary works, although satirical, revealed an astute observer of the social and political events unfolding during the first half of the sixteenth century.
Using the pseudonym Alcofribas Nasier (an anagram of François Rabelais minus the cedilla on the c), in 1532 he published his first book, Pantagruel, that would be the start of his Gargantua series. In this book, Rabelais sings the praises of the wines from his hometown of Chinon through vivid descriptions of the eat, drink and be merry lifestyle of the main character, the giant Pantagruel and his friends. Despite the great popularity of his book, both it and his prequel book on the life of Pantagruel's father Gargantua were condemned by the academics at the Sorbonne for their unorthodox ideas and by the Roman Catholic Church for its derision of certain religious practices. Rabelais's third book, published under his own name, was also banned.
With support from members of the prominent du Bellay family (especially Jean du Bellay), Rabelais received the approval from King François I to continue to publish his collection. However, after the king's death, Rabelais was frowned upon by the academic elite, and the French Parliament suspended the sale of his fourth book. Hee was born in November,1494.
Afterwards, Rabelais travelled frequently to Rome with his friend, Cardinal Jean du Bellay, and lived for a short time in Turin with du Bellay's brother, Guillaume, during which François I was his patron. Rabelais probably spent some time in hiding, threatened by being labeled a heretic. Only the protection of du Bellay saved Rabelais after the condemnation of his novel by the Sorbonne.
There are diverging accounts of Rabelais' death and his last words. According to some, he wrote a famous one sentence will: "I have nothing, I owe a great deal, and the rest I leave to the poor," and his last words were "I go to seek a Great Perhaps." (Rabelais to Surratt)
Gargantua and Pantagruel tells the story of two giants - a father, Gargantua, and his son, Pantagruel - and their adventures, written in an amusing, extravagant, and satirical vein.
While the first two books focus on the lives of the two giants, the rest of the series is mostly devoted to the adventures of Pantagruel's friends - such as Panurge, a roguish erudite maverick, and Brother Jean, a bold, voracious and boozing ex-monk - and others on a collective naval journey in search of the Divine Bottle.
Even though most chapters are humorous, wildly fantastic and sometimes absurd, a few relatively serious passages have become famous for descriptions of humanistic ideals of the time. In particular, the letter of Gargantua to Pantagruel and the chapters on Gargantua's boyhood present a rather detailed vision of education.
It is in the first book where Rabelais writes of the Abbey of Thélème, built by the giant Gargantua. It pokes fun at the monastic institutions, since his abbey has a swimming pool, maid service, and no clocks in sight.
One of the verses of the inscription on the gate to the Abbey says:
- Grace, honour, praise, delight,
- Here sojourn day and night.
- Sound bodies lined
- With a good mind,
- Do here pursue with might
- Grace, honour, praise, delight.
But below the humor was a very real concept of utopia and the ideal society. Rabelais gives us a description of how the Thelemites of the Abbey lived and the rules they lived by:
All their life was spent not in laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their own free will and pleasure. They rose out of their beds when they thought good; they did eat, drink, labour, sleep, when they had a mind to it and were disposed for it. None did awake them, none did offer to constrain them to eat, drink, nor to do any other thing; for so had Gargantua established it. In all their rule and strictest tie of their order there was but this one clause to be observed,
Rabelais and language
The French Renaissance was a time of linguistic controversies. Among the issues that were debated by scholars was the question of the origin of language. What was the first language? Is language something that all humans are born with or something that they learn (nature versus nurture) ? Is there some sort of connection between words and the objects they refer to, or are words purely arbitrary? Rabelais deals with these matters, among many others, in his books.
The early 16th century was also a time of innovations and change for the French language, especially in its written form. The first grammar was published in 1530, followed nine years later by the first dictionary. Since spelling was far less codified than it is now, each author used his own orthography. Rabelais himself developed his personal set of rather complex rules. He was a supporter of etymological spelling, i.e. one that reflects the origin of words, and was thus opposed to those who favoured a simplified spelling, one that reflects the actual pronunciation of words.
Rabelais' use of his native tongue was astoundingly original, lively, and creative. He introduced dozens of Greek, Latin, and Italian loan-words and direct translations of Greek and Latin compound words and idioms into French. He also used many dialectal forms and invented new words and metaphors, some of which have become part of the standard language and are still used today. Rabelais is arguably one of the authors who have enriched the French language in the most significant way.
His works are also known for being filled with sexual double-entendre, dirty jokes and bawdy songs that can still surprise or even shock modern readers.
Contemporary writers on Rabelais
Rabelais has influenced many modern writers and scholars.
Jonathan Swift was influenced by Rabelais and Cervantes, and his writing has been compared with theirs.
Anatole France lectured on him in Argentina. John Cowper Powys, D. B. Wyndham Lewis, and Lucien Febvre (one of the founders of the French historical school Annales) wrote books about him. Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher and critic, derived his celebrated concept of the carnivalesque and grotesque body from the world of Rabelais.
Aleister Crowley's writings heavily borrow from Rabelais themes.
Milan Kundera, in an article of January 8, 2007 in The New Yorker: "(Rabelais) is, along with Cervantes, the founder of an entire art, the art of the novel." (page 31). He speaks in the highest terms of Rabelais, calling him "the best", along with Flaubert.
Rabelais was a major reference point for a few main characters (Boozing wayward monks, University Professors, and Assistants) in Robertson Davies's novel The Rebel Angels, part of the The Cornish Trilogy. One of the main character in the novel, Maria Theotoky, writes her Ph.D. on the works of Rabelais, while a murder plot unfolds around a scholarly unscathed manuscript. Rabelais was also mentioned in Davies's books The Lyre of Orpheus, and Tempest-Tost.
In popular culture
- The public university in Tours, France is named l'Université François Rabelais
- The notorious student magazine Rabelais at the La Trobe University campus in Bundoora, Australia, is named after him.
- The bus that runs late at night in his university town of Montpellier is named "Le Rabelais" in his honour.
- Asteroid (5666) Rabelais is named in honor of François Rabelais.
- In his novel Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne quotes extensively from Rabelais's novels Gargantua and Pantagruel.
- In his novel Looking for Alaska, John Green's character Miles Halter is inspired by Rabelais' last words: "I go to seek a Great Perhaps."
- The songs "The Advent of Panurge" and "Pantagruel's Nativity" by British progressive rock band Gentle Giant were inspired by Rabelais.
- In the song "Pickalittle, Talkalittle" from Meredith Willson's The Music Man River City's ladies deem Rabelais (as well as Chaucer and Balzac) a "dirty" writer.
- The song "Hellfire" by Inkubus Sukkubus refers to "Wild Rabelaisians" and uses the motto "Do What You Will" which is derived from Rabelais' fictional Abbey of Thélème.
- In Nabokov's novel "Pale fire", the poet John Shade states that Rabelais referred to the afterlife as the "grand potato", a pun on Rabelais' famous last words.
- In Jean-Maroe Gustave Le Clezio's Nobel Prize Lecture, he referred to Rabelais as "the greatest writer in the French language".
- In the novel "The Rebel Angels" by celebrated Canadian author Robertson Davies, the main character, Maria Theotoky, studies Rabelais as the main focus of her post-graduate thesis.
- Les Songes Drolatiques de Pantagruel by François Desprez
Works of Rabelais
- Gargantua (1532) Translated by Thomas Urquhart (1653)
- Pantagruel (1534)
- The Third Book (1546)
- The Fourth Book (1552)
- The Fifth Book (1564) (it is no more debated whether it was written by Rabelais. See the French edition 'La Pléiade', 1994.)