Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel
Montaigne, Essays
Cervantes, Don Quixote




Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel

Standards of decorum in literature change with the greatest rapidity. The Regency buck gives way to the Victorian maiden in a matter of months. It is a curious experience to read the apologetic prefaces to the various nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century editions of Rabelais. Even Jacques LeClercq and Samuel Putnam feel it necessary to apologize for his bawdry and scatology. Today, when prurience so gluts the literary market that the customers are beginning to revolt, the humor of Rabelais seems not just remarkably wholesome but a most aggressive insistence on wholesomeness.

In fact, The Adventures of Gargantua and Pantagruel strikes our age — as it must have struck its own — as a manifesto of sanity, health, and general moral salubriousness. Few books in history are more well, no characters in all literature less sick than those genial giants and their companions. This is the secret of the book. Rabelais used the broadest farce, the coarsest slapstick, to portray that primary ideal of the Renaissance, man at his optimum. Although it needed to be explained to several troubled and alienated periods that have intervened between his time and ours, Rabelais’s choice of the vehicle of the simplest, least contaminated folk humor was wise indeed.

What does man do at his optimum? He creates. He uses his mind and body to their fullest capacities. His curiosity is always busy. He works with joy. Joy; one thing man certainly does when living at his fullest potential is laugh, and for very simple reasons.

The legend is that Rabelais’s last words were, “The farce is finished. I go to seek a vast perhaps.” This is one of the most apposite of the tales about Rabelais, but only if we realize what a different meaning the words have for us. There is no bitterness like ours in the choice of the word “farce,” no hint of Hamlet’s instruction to the players. There is no hint of Hamlet’s soliloquy in the choice of the word “perhaps.” Rabelais meant a farce like those he had seen a thousand times on a stage of planks in a town square full of sound and fury, uproarious with laughter about copulation and defecation — or as Aristotle would say, coming to be and passing away. The skepticism of the perhaps is an untroubled skepticism, as far from Pascal’s agonized wager or Kierkegaard’s leap into the dark as could be imagined.

It is untroubled acceptance of all possibilities that gives the work of Rabelais its special character, a character neurotic critics of the modern age are so unused to that they have called it neurotic. The Adventures of Gargantua and Pantagruel is an extraordinarily passionless book in every sense of the word. Rabelais feels strongly about the squalor and spiritual poverty of much of the monasticism of his time. He expresses these feelings in guffaws, an expression we do not usually call passion.

Although the latter part of the story is concerned with Panurge’s quest of a wife, women appear rarely in the book, and the lust for them never. Legend may be right, that Rabelais had a mistress and a bastard son, Theodule; but on the evidence, he might just as well have been a perfectly content celibate. Every sentence is lusty, but no sort of lust ever appears. Greed, pride, the itch for power are comic masks in a Medieval charade. They are hilariously funny because Rabelais cannot believe in his guts in their existence. People eat and drink wildly exaggerated quantities, even for giants, but this is not gluttony. It is farce.

Today our point of view is so remote from that of Rabelais that it requires a special effort of will to even know what he is talking about. Our science of the mind is founded on the study of the behavior of the mentally ill; our Public Health on epidemiology; our practical sociology on a kind of social worker’s criminology; our economics on Marx. It has been said of America that its philosophy of life, like that of the ancient Greeks, is medically oriented. The ethics or the politics or the psychology of Aristotle or Plato is founded on a clear concept of the fully healthy man. Our parallel disciplines begin with pathology. Psychiatrists say we are all neurotics. Rabelais would not have known what they are talking about.

Rabelais’s giants live in an optimum moral environment in which they are free to develop the utmost of every potential, and it is this, not the mere description of their size, that gives them their tremendous scale. Rabelais thought of the ethics he preached as enabling an explosion of human energy. “Do what you will,” says the inscription over the gate of his abbey of Thélème — his answer to the monasticism of his day.

We should never forget that Rabelais was himself a monk. However he may have wandered about the world and may in a measure have been excused from his vows, he never left the ranks of the clerical elite. The rule of Saint Benedict is, after all, a “mandarin ethic” for an elite that was otherworldly because this world was not subject to its control. What Rabelais is preaching is a mandarin ethic of the elite of the onrushing secular civilization. With him and with his colleagues Erasmus and Dolet, the first generation of humanists of the northern Renaissance, this ethic worked. As portrayed by them it has remained attractive and satisfying.

As we look back over history, we realize that it has actually attracted only a small minority, and even fewer have made a success of it. Perhaps they are the tiny minority of the sane. François I, Henry VIII — were they contemporary successful embodiments of Rabelais’s optimum man? Was Saint Thomas More? And what happens when this gospel is given to men not at their optimum, too ignorant to understand it and too malformed to act upon it? The secular religion of the Renaissance, like all the historic religions, demands the capacity for nobility in those who come to it for salvation.

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The favorite translation of Rabelais is the Urquhart-Le Motteux, done in the seventeenth century. It is in itself a great work of literature — or at least, Urquhart’s share is — but it is seriously misleading. Urquhart was a dotty Scotch eccentric, more like a character of Rabelais than like Rabelais himself. His translation is in a spectacularly eccentric prose that readers of English have come to think of as specifically Rabelaisian. There are a number of modern translations in plainer English, which, though none of them are works of art, do show more of the character of Rabelais — the magnanimous humanist, the very opposite of an eccentric.

[You can compare diverse Rabelais translations here.]



Montaigne, Essays

Que scais-je? What can I know? So said the medal Montaigne had struck as the symbol of himself. He was the inventor of the empiric ego. He was the inventor of the word essai applied to a literary form. The title of his collection Essais did not mean then what we mean. In fact it still doesn’t in French — but rather “assay” or the noun of our verb “to essay.” For Montaigne existence was an experiment. The subject was experience; the instrument was the self defined in terms of the experiment. Expérience in French also means experiment.

Since Montaigne there has always existed and sometimes flourished one type of characteristically Gallic personality that makes a principle of the equivocation experience-experiment and in literature presents all its products as essays in Montaigne’s sense. Raymond Queneau’s “Nicolas chien d’expérience” — “Nicholas, the Experimental Dog” — one of the most comic modern poems, not only depends on this equivocation but might well stand as a parable of the Montaignian spirit in France and of Montaigne himself. So Gertrude Stein on her deathbed: “What is the answer?” and after a few minutes, “What is the question?” — a very French death.

There is no answer, no Quod erat demonstrandum at the end of a logical operation, but an attitude at the end of a lifelong, inconclusive experiment:

I have suffered rheumes, gowty defluxions, pantings of the heart, megreimes and other suchlike accidents, to grow old in me, and die their naturall death; all which have left me, when I halfe enured and framed my selfe to foster them. They are better conjured by curtesie, then by bragging or threats. We must gently obey and endure the lawes of our condition.

In the final essay, significantly titled “On Experience,” epistemology becomes not the reduction of psychology to logic but the basic concern of a kind of psychosomatic medicine, a matter of mind-body “tone.” This is the Stoic law of obedience to nature so reiterated by Marcus Aurelius — but the slight difference in mood results in a fundamental difference in meaning.

Because he was afflicted with one of the most painful, in his day incurable but seldom fatal, diseases, kidney stone, the latter part of Montaigne’s life was a long medical experiment, and the Essays throughout are haunted by the spirit of Hippocrates and Aesculapius. Today such a description would mean that Montaigne would be a hypochondriac, fascinated by his own morbidity. He was quite the opposite. Paragraph after paragraph in “On Experience” are the first French prose poems, written in wry humor to the stone, in thankfulness that the touch of death, so sharp, yet so fleeting and easily sustained, has taught him wisdom. The rhythms of Montaigne at his most lyric survive in the prose poems of Léon-Paul Fargue, the greatest prose poet of the twentieth century and a very Montaigne reborn in the cafés of the Faubourg Saint-Germain between the wars.

Marcus Aurelius struggling on his throne and in his purple tent to achieve the unruffled acceptance of life was a moral hypochondriac tortured by scruple; the resulting virtue, a kind of anguished amiability. Montaigne, writing of the most gruesome subjects, radiates an active joy. His scruples are those of the chemical laboratory, never of the couch or confessional. The dilemmas that create the tensions in Marcus Aurelius are met by Montaigne with the simplest possible solutions of ethical activism, the commonplace relations of a country gentleman with common people, with Henri IV or the woodcutter on the estate.

Of course, it was the historical situation that made Montaigne possible. The viciousness of all parties in the Wars of Religion had canceled out all ideologies. Montaigne is a kind of passive Henri IV. “Paris is worth a Mass” — by this, the French have always known, their greatest king meant not the crown, but a great city “in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left and also much cattle.”

We think of Montaigne as the begetter of the English secular sensibility at its most acute, and we trace his influence on Shakespeare and Bacon and Locke; but we must not forget that his great popularity in seventeenth-century England also helped to form the peculiarly English tradition of sweet-tempered spirituality. Hooker, Browne, Jeremy Taylor, even William Law and the Quaker Barclay learned from Montaigne to respond with an amiability new to the Christian Church to the old questions that burned men alive — the older, and newer, answer that turns away wrath. When Barclay says when questioned about the sacrament of Holy Communion, “I do not think that I ever broke bread or drank wine without being conscious of Christ’s body broken and his blood shed for me,” he is returning an answer Montaignian in temper. It is this temper, forged in the most troubled period in European history before the twentieth century, that is Montaigne’s specific contribution to civilization, and it is the essence of civilization itself. In its own day it seemed utterly without influence, yet it made its way. Weariness stopped the Wars of Religion, but skeptical magnanimity healed their wounds. Who can be sure that it is, as it seems to be, ultimately failing in our own time?

Retiring to his sun-gilded tower on his country estate, unguarded, his gates open to all factions, and surviving amidst the pillagings and burnings of religious war, it might seem that Montaigne the skeptic renounced all effectiveness and responsibility. The man who questioned the very existence of the Stoic ordered cosmos without and constantly questioned the evidences of a moral cosmos within to discover if they were delusions — such a man might be said to represent in history the final resignation of Plato’s Guardian, the philosopher-aristocrat.

On the contrary, Montaigne was more like the indifferent Bodhisattva or Taoist sage devoted to government by inaction — wu’wei; the scholar-statesman who left high office for a thatched cabin amongst mountains and waterfalls and whose meditations were the most powerful force in Chinese civilization. “A wistful tolerance so rare in that age,” said Walter Pater, “was the outstanding trait of Montaigne’s character.” So rare in any age.

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One of the great classics of English prose is the John Florio translation read by Shakespeare, available in a Modern Library Giant and many other editions. The best accurate modern translation is by Donald M. Frame, Stanford University Press. There is an excellent selection translated by J.M. Cohen in Penguin Classics.

[You can compare diverse Montaigne translations here.]



Cervantes, Don Quixote

Many people, not all of them Spanish, are on record as believing that Don Quixote is the greatest prose fiction ever produced in the Western world. Certainly it is one of the few books a genuinely international critic would dare to group with The Dream of the Red Chamber or The Tale of Genji or The Mahabharata. It epitomizes the spiritual world of European man at mid-career as The Odyssey and The Iliad do at his beginnings and as The Brothers Karamazov does in his decline. It is so vast, so ecumenical, that it serves only inadequately as the epic of Spain — a role better played by the more national Poem of the Cid. Don Quixote represents only a part of Spain, but a part that is far greater than the whole.

Much is made in schoolbooks of Cervantes’ intention to satirize and destroy the popular romances of chivalry. What he did in fact was to transubstantiate them. Don Quixote is the Quest romance of the Middle Ages raised in power and elevated to an entirely new plane of being. The Mediterranean countries never took kindly to the legend of the Grail, a myth spiritually closer to northern paganism than to Christianity. For all its pseudosacramentalism, the Grail legend is also far more Protestant than Catholic. The doctrine of the body and blood of Christ shared by all the Grail romances has nothing to do whatever with the Catholic dogmas of the Blessed Sacrament. The Quest of northern romance was a Quest of the Utterly Other — true from the Mabinogion to Franz Kafka.

Don Quixote starts on his quest with his head full of phantasm. What he finds is his own identity, but he finds it in communion with others. He discovers what Don Quixote is really like by discovering that other people are like himself and that he is like them. The mystery that is slowly unveiled in the course of his complicated adventures is the mystery of the facts of life. His encounters are the opposite of the Gnostic trials and questions of the soul.

In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the ghost of the dead man must answer the riddles of The Mystery with formulas of The Incomprehensible. In Don Quixote the living man advances, stage by stage, toward reality through the puzzles of fact. Sancho Panza and the facts themselves share the skepticism and ingenuity of Ulysses. These Sirens and Cyclopes are the subjective corruptions in Don Quixote’s head. In both epics the same Mediterranean man of many devices and a thousand journeys seeks the same redemption. What is that redemption? It is merely life lived.

The comic delusions of Don Quixote — the sheep and the windmills — fall away as the narrative progresses, but they are far from mere foolishness. As we read we learn that they are not delusions at all, or if so, merely delusions of reference. They are misreadings of intent, misunderstandings of the powerful mana, the secret force, with which windmills and sheep and the commonplace life of the country inns and farmhouses of the Spanish highlands are surcharged. Sancho Panza always undercuts this mystery, as Don Quixote overshoots it. For Sancho the common is only commonplace; for Don Quixote it is continually revealed as being its own transcendence.

Possibly all great fictions deal with self-realization, with the integration of the personality. This is, in a special way, the subject of Don Quixote. Even more than in the wise reveries of Montaigne, Cervantes in this golden book gives us the purest expression of humanism — not just its message, but its special wisdom that can be found only in adventure in the manifold, inexhaustibly eventful ways of men.

Such humane wisdom is hardly the Spanish temper we associate with San Juan de la Cruz, El Greco, Unamuno, or García Lorca. Black Spain — the Spain of blood and sand, the dark night of the soul, the equation of love and death — is often attributed to the heritage of Islam. Nothing could be less true. The notion of life itself as a kind of auto da fé arose in specific reaction against the sensuous humanism of the Caliphate of Córdoba.

Fully as much as The Song of Roland, The Poem of the Cid, or the Byzantine romance of Digenes Akrites, Don Quixote is a Border Epic, an artistic resolution of the culture clash of Islam and Christianity. Cervantes spent most of his life in fighting or in captivity with the Muslims who had so recently been his countrymen. Here, if ever captivity took captivity captive, Don Quixote is just such a romance as might have been written in Córdoba in its splendor, in Fatimid Cairo, or in the Baghdad of Haroun al Raschid — for the immemorially civilized audience of The Arabian Nights.

There is a most important difference of tone. It is an evangelical difference. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza go their way through the windy barrens of La Mancha as Christ and his Apostles wandered through a very similar landscape, snapping the heads of wheat and chewing the green grain on a Sabbath morning, the Don learning, as they say, “the hard way” that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. This is a moral that half of Spanish culture has consistently and bloodily refused to accept — most surely a vision of real splendors surpassing any imagined ones and, says Cervantes, accessible only to the nobility of a Fool, the most noble fool in literature.

How urbane it all is, although Don Quixote’s adventures are set amongst peasants and castles, squalor and brocade. The intelligence operating on this material is the intelligence of a citizen of no mean city — that universal Mediterranean republic that goes back to Stone Age Jericho with its sand-swept streets, its efficient sewers, its adobe houses closed around their garden courts, its forums where men came to hear and talk about every new thing, its life of decency and order. Iberia answers the Visigoths.

Nothing shows better the all-encompassing humanity of Don Quixote than the immense literature to which it has given birth. There are as many interpretations of Cervantes’ hero as there are of man himself. Theosophists, Christian Scientists, Baptists, Roman Catholics, and the apostles of Service-with-a-Smile — all find themselves in the Bible, and so too can they in Don Quixote. There are as many interpretations as interpreters, and most interpretations are very antagonistic indeed to my own.

It is this universality that makes the problem of the translator close to insoluble. The standard classic translations in English of Motteux and Shelton were done in the English Renaissance and to contemporary readers overflavor the narrative with grotesquerie. Modern translations, on the other hand, seem too commonplace. The best writing, grotesque or no, is still Motteux’s, and with it I guess we must be content.

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There are any number of editions of Don Quixote in paperback and hardcover. If the newcomer to the novel only had time and patience enough, he would be well advised to read and compare more than one translation, classic and modern.

There are, incidentally, a number of anthologies of the critical literature on Don Quixote that make fascinating reading, not least for their amazing disparity of interpretation. Were it not that my interpretation would then seem unduly flattering to myself, I would say that every man finds himself in Don Quixote, as Don Quixote finds himself in his adventures and as Sancho Panza is never lost.

[You can compare diverse Don Quixote translations here.]


Selections from Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited (copyright 1968 Kenneth Rexroth) and More Classics Revisited (copyright 1989 Kenneth Rexroth Trust). Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Both of these volumes are in print and available from New Directions. Do yourself a favor and get them.

Other “Classics Revisited” essays