Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Portable Rabelais: Carnivàle

Pieter Brueghel de Oude: Strijd tussen Carnaval en Vasten, 1559
Finally, I've read most of of the works of François Rabelais (ca. 1480s-1553), primarily four novels that he composed in the 1500s. At turns poetic, philosophical, surreal, outlandish, ribald and bawdy, Rabelais has had a significant impact on various writers over the centuries. In recent times, think John Kennedy Toole (A Confederacy of Dunces, 1980), Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961), Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969), Thomas Pynchon, and, flipping the gender card, Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale (1985). In this case, it's worthwhile to go back to the source. 
Rabelais, living in a time like ours of seemingly random warfare and pillage, has a lot to say -- by way of description and dark satire -- about humanity's penchant for such activities. From "The Cake-Peddlars' War," for example, in Book First: Gargantua (1534), a snippet of Samuel Putnam's translation:

"And so, without any military order, their ranks in confusion, they took the field, despoiling and laying waste everything that came in their way, sparing neither poor nor rich, neither sacred nor profane. They drove off oxen, cows, bulls, calves, heifers, lambs, sheep, nanny-goats and billy-goats, hens, capons, pullets, goslings, ganders, geese, hogs, sows, and pigs. They knocked down the nuts, picked the vines clean, carried off the hedges, and shook all the fruit from the trees . . . It was, in short, an indescribable havoc that they wrought. . ." (page 144 of The Portable Rabeleis, Viking, 1946).  
After the appearance of a flying pig that thrice shouts "Carnivàle!," Rabelais takes us on strange new voyages. 

Eventually, by ship, Gargantua's son Pantagruel comes upon a realm of thawing words.

"And with this, he cast down upion the deck whole handfuls of frozen words, and they were like striped candy of various colors. We saw there throaty words, quartz-green words, azure words, sable-colored words, golden words, which, when they had been heated a little between our hands, melted away like snow; and we could really hear them, but we could not understand them, for they were in a 'barbarous' tongue . . ." (Book Fourth: Pantagruel, p. 620). 

Rabelais' vocabulary is rich and colorful, and just to keep readers on their toes, he frequently employs naughty euphemisms and "double sens" phrasing (double-entendre), such as: "she was having her buttocks drummed somewhere else . . ."  And, from "The Remarks of the Drunkards:" "Crown her till she's cardinal-red on top . . ."  "Breton fashion, bottoms up!" Indeed, there's rarely a dull moment in Rabelais' Carnivàle world.  

Today's Rune: Possessions. 


Charles Gramlich said...

The more things change, I guess

jodi said...

Erik-Rich and colorful indeed! I could only dream to be able to write like that!