Reading the Body in Rabelais


By Eric Mader


A word is in order about the special role played by [Rabelais] in this book.  There are two essays on him, both of them stressing the resistances he offers to the modern critical theorist (resistance being a matter of central relevance to my argument in this book).  The reasons for this are not only that [Rabelais] cannot easily be assimilated to current ideas about "writers," "the text," or "the heroic author," but that his work is at once occasional, powerful, and--from the point of view of systematic textual practice--incoherent.  To read [Rabelais] seriously is to try to apprehend a series of events in all their messy force, not to admire and then calmly to decode a string of high monuments.  In addition, his own social role was that of the critic involved with, but never possessing, power: alert, forceful, undogmatic, ironic, unafraid of orthodoxies and dogmas, respectful of settled uncoercive community. . . .


            --Edward W. Said, The World, the Text and the Critic  (27)



Rabelais is indeed, to use one of his most celebrated metaphors, a hard bone to crack. His work hints everywhere that analysis will be fruitless unless carried out with massive erudition and painstaking rigor.  One might say this is the case with any literary work as culturally removed from us as Rabelais', but there seem to be particular aspects in which Rabelais is difficult, aspects which earlier critics presented either in terms of a learned but eccentric individual or a rambunctious century of tumultuous change in every realm.  Recent criticism has trouble saying anything very interesting about Rabelais.  For example, psychoanalysis might be used to great effect when studying other texts in the tradition of Western grotesque literature: the tales of Hoffmann or the novels of Dostoyevsky prove endlessly amenable to even undergraduate techniques of psychoanalytic reading.  However, to apply psychoanalysis to Pantagruel with anything other than an anthropological breadth and seriousness, one that musters moreover a deep understanding of Rabelais' historical moment, seems something of a waste of time.  His characters are too polymorphous, his range of reference too wide, his sense of subjectivity too fluid and untroubled.  Rabelais does not have enough of the requisite modern variety of repression to make for the kind of unveilings and reconstructions that psychoanalysis usually calls for.                 

     Because of Bakhtin's early book on Rabelais I was thinking initially it might be worthwhile to apply some of the critic's later notions (heteroglossia, the dialogic nature of discourse) to sections of the pantagrueline oeuvre.  But one soon finds oneself in the same boat as with Freud.  Rabelais' work, on its very surface, is nothing less than an explosion of voices--a glossolalia of voices.  Rabelais has not built a careful ideological construct in the manner of a nineteenth century novel, within which one can hear the would-be stifled voices of an underclass.  Rabelais stages his contradictions in the open, which has led to the confusion of many early critics as to what he is trying to say, what he could possibly mean, what this writer wants.


Que voulait-il . . . ce Rabelais, dans sa plenitude d'homme?  L'argent?  C'est peu probable.  La gloire?  Ce n'est pas impossible.  L'amour?  Mais la femme n'existe pas dans l'oeuvre pantagruelique. . . .  Alors?  (T, 16)


[What does he want . . . this Rabelais, in his human plenitude?  Money?  It's hardly likely.  Glory?  It's not impossible.  Love?  But woman doesn't exist in the Pantagrueline work. . . .What then?]


I quote this little meditation of Lucien Febvre's from the back cover of the Folio Tiers livre in order to show to what extent the Rabelaisian resistance to many sorts of criticism--nay to staid modern comprehension--has come to be associated with Rabelais' work.  In this case the ideological befuddlement is used to promote Rabelais' book.  Readers should perhaps feel liberated by a writer who cannot be pinned down as to his politics.

     Because of this general befuddlement many will insist on the uniqueness of Rabelais, on his unparalleled slipperiness.  This is of course an insistence leading nowhere.  It leads nowhere precisely to the extent that it is indicative of a stubborn desire to interpret Rabelais as a "novelist," as a "humanist writer," as a "French Catholic" of the same mould as modern French Catholics, as a man with either a cryptic agenda or a preternaturally messy mind.  It sets up Rabelais as if he were a nineteenth century writer, and then says: "Look, he is like no other."  But the genre of the novel was not set when Rabelais was writing.  The writers against which he is judged to be unique hadn't yet come.  And besides, there are many other writers that resist easy encounter and interpretation in ways similar to the ways Rabelais does. In my epigraph to this paper I have replaced the name Swift with the name Rabelais, if only to show a critic grappling with the same problems in his attempt to understand another, if quite different, comic writer.

     This paper will focus on the narrative of the body in Rabelais, approaching the problem of understanding via three different critical methodologies.  I should point out ahead of time that this short study of the body in Rabelais can be nothing more than very sketchy and speculative.  One would need much more time than I've had, and, what is more important, much more erudition than I have, to do the topic justice.  Nonetheless I hope to reveal something of how different modern critical discourses can or cannot tell us much about this important element in Rabelais' work.

     My initial understanding of the body in Rabelais was of course heavily informed by Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World.  I hope to sketch the basics of that understanding here, and to show how it was further modified by a consideration of Rabelais through Freud's Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. I will also consider Rabelais in relation to Mary Douglas' cultural-anthropological approach as presented in her book Natural Symbols.



I. Bakhtin's Rabelais


The tiresome redundancy of Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World leads one eventually almost to forget the power of his general concepts.  Among these concepts one must include: the carnivalesque; the cosmological roots of the grotesque; the "lower bodily stratum"; and the vertical hierarchy of the medieval world.  Although Bakhtin's book could easily be knocked down to half its length without losing anything of its argument, it is also true that Bakhtin's style has something akin to Rabelais' in it. There is an ever-metamorphosing, yet somehow stable movement forward through the pages of Bakhtin's book.

     Bakhtin's notion of a "body of the people" strategically raises the image of a giant, thus putting this critical notion in tune with the giant heroes of Rabelais' work.  The medieval body of the people evoked by Bakhtin can be imagined as an obese gargantua of a human being, more massively built in the belly and the haunches than in the head.  Though clumsy in its movements, it is unstoppable.  It is constantly feasting, though it also indicates a continual decay through the tremendous amount of excrement it puts forth and through its obscenely swollen intestines.  It is childlike and hermaphroditic in its sexuality.  It moves forward in space and time like one of those dolls called weebles--its head held up both by faith in divine providence and by the prodigious heaviness of its lower body.  These are the salient features of the medieval monster that is Bakhtin's "body of the people," a congenial monster in many respects, and, it is important to note, the monster upon which Rabelais will put a ruffled collar, a handful of jewelled baubles and the sagesse of the most rigorous Renaissance education.

     Bakhtin's monster is a figure of the narrative movement and structure of Rabelais' work.  For one, there is throughout the chronicles an almost gratuitous change in perspective and dimension.  The text moves forward in a series of synchronic events (the chapters) that are only roughly integrated with a diachronic structure.  At best one can map the chronological sequence: birth, education, old age.  In most cases, however, one merely has the flat chronology of war or adventure or debate: events, in other words, that happen between the protagonist's education and death.  There is also a gratuitousness in the work's purported foundations.  The textual background of the Gargantua is an obscure fourteen stanza composition in verse (of the Renaissance literary genre known as the enigme: G, 51-57, ch. 2) while a prophesied historical future is offered in a mock Apocalyptic poem (interpreted by Frere Jean as the description of a tennis match rather than a telling of things to come; G, 431-439, ch. 58).  There is throughout a constant and seemingly random shifting of narrative focus, with the result that the reader feels he is always getting only what Rabelais is in the mood to give at the time of writing, rather than what might have been demanded by the narrative needs of a more self-consciously structured text.  Also, showing little in the way of a classical sense of textual measure or economy, Rabelais allows himself repeatedly what Freud would call polymorphously perverse pleasures: that of compiling pantagrueline lists (the list of games in G, 185-191, ch. 22; the list of weapons in T, 65-67, Prologue, for example); that of the technique called coq-a-l'ane (the plus, mais non mieulx sentant  [more, but not better smelling] poem that is chapter II of the Gargantua; the legal battle between M. Baisecul and M. Humevesne recounted in chapters XI-XII); and that of the proliferation of verbs or insults (the description of Diogenes's barrel-working in the prologue of the Tiers livre, 67; the volley of insults that leads to the cake-bakers' war: G, 217-218, ch. 25).  All of these pleasurable encyclopedic effects are seemingly the textual work of that very child-giant described above as "the body of the people": a child-giant which Rabelais has somehow, and somewhat paradoxically, educated.

     From this mainly Bakhtinian viewpoint the economy of Rabelais' text is the economy of the body: the body knowing no strict narrative structure, no steadily objective time, no inherently bodily reasons to conform to the dictates of artificial sense or measure.  The only movements the body knows inherently are the movements of energy and fatigue, lack and satiation, growth and decay.  Further, all of these are experienced in continuum rather than in strictly defined synchronic periods.  This bodily continuum is the very continuum of Rabelais' text.  And it is Bakhtin's notion of a collective "body of the people" that leads us to a new realization of the movement of Rabelais' writing in history.  The idea of a quasi-eternal body of the whole people over time makes the borders between energy and fatigue, lack and satiation, growth and decay, even life and death virtually non-existent.  Bakhtin taught us to apply this notion to the Rabelaisian chronicles--that massive borderline book in which the same quasi-eternal effects are seen formally.  The body of the whole people over time transcends the birth and death of any individual within the people's body: it thus em-bodies historical continuity even as it breaks the boundaries of individuality.  Rabelais' writing plays this same game with time in his constant subversion of narrative decency: his texts destroy the reader's expectations by constantly changing focus; they everywhere undermine verisimilitude through the shifting size of his protagonists; they repeatedly mix high culture and low in an endless and multiform medley that suggests movement and growth more than it does any particular ideological message.

     One should hardly be surprised that some modern readers openly censure Rabelais for "never ending," or for allowing his giant at one moment to cover an army with half his tongue and at the next to sit at a standard-sized dining table with his friends.  This censure of course reveals things both about modern readers and about Rabelais' work.  We live in age that privileges the notion of a rational subject engaged in a predominantly rational social order built against the background of an empirically knowable world.  It is a world in which the borders have been defined.  Even fiction, even humorous fiction, is expected to respect certain rules.  Rabelais' work is part of something very different.

     Bakhtin presents us with a Rabelais both scholarly and folkish, a Rabelais halfway between royal physician and greensauce hawker.  Out of this dichotomous existence (one imagines Rabelais literally stretched between these "two worlds") Bakhtin identifies the general dynamic of Rabelaisian imagery.  The writer effects an endless uncrowning of the trappings of "official medieval culture," using his pen to throw them down into the "regenerating" "lower bodily stratum."  Once thus knocked down they must be reinterpreted in the light of this lower bodily stratum even as they are reborn through its regenerating power.  Bakhtin's obsessive use of these terms is noteworthy.  Each of the quoted terms in the previous sentences shows up in Bakhtin's book no less than fifty times (and probably more) as he goes haphazardly from one segment of Rabelais' work to another, analyzing everything in terms of  these general concepts.

     Usually Bakhtin's method works.  He is most impressive and most characteristic in his analysis of the "famous swab episode" (G, ch.12).  Here one sees clearly the validity of Bakhtin's model.  Under consideration is the following text:


   Je me torchay une foys d'un cachelet de velours de une demoiselle, et le trouvay bon, car la mollice de sa soye me causoit au fondement une volupte bien grande;

   une aultre foys u'un chaprom d'ycelles, et feut de mesmes;

   une aultre foys d'un cache coul;

   une aultre foys des aureillettes de satin cramoysi, mais la dorure d'un tas de spheres de merde qui y estoient m'escorcerent tout le derriere; que le feu sainct Antoine arde le boyau cullier de l'orfebvre qui les feist et de la damoiselle qui les portoit!

   Ce mal passa me torchant d'un bonnet de paige, bien emplume a la Souice.

   Puis, fiantant derriere un buisson, trouvay un chat de Mars; d'icelluy me torchay, mais ses gryphes me exulcererent tout le perinee.

   De ce me gueryz au lendemain, me torchant des guands me ma mere, bien parfumez de maujoin.

   Puis me torchay de saulge, de fenoil, de aneth, de marjolaine, de roses, de fueilles de courles, de choulx, de bettes, de pampre, de guymaulves, de verbasce (qui est escarlatte de cul), de lactures et de fueilles de espinards,--le tout me feist grand bien a ma jambe,--de mercuriale, de persiguire, de orties, de consolde; mais j'en eu la cacquesangue de Lombard, dont feu gary me torchant de ma braguette.

   Puis me torchay aux linceux, a la couverture, aux rideaulx, d'un coissin, d'un tapiz verd, d'une mappe, d'une serviette, d'un mouschenez, d'un peignouoir.  En tout je trouvay de plaisir plus que no ont les roigneux quand on les estrille. (G, 130-131, ch.12)


   [Once I wiped myself on a lady's velvet mask, and I found it good.  For the softness of the silk was most voluptuous to my fundament.  Another time on one of their hoods, and I found it just as good.  Another time on a lady's neckerchief; another time on some ear-flaps of crimson satin.  But there were a lot of turdy gilt spangles on them, and they took all the skin off my bottom.  May St Anthony's fire burn the bum-gut of the goldsmith who made them and of the lady who wore them!  That trouble passed when I wiped myself on a page's bonnet, all feathered in the Swiss fashion.

   Then, as I was shitting behind a bush, I found a March-born cat; I wiped myself on him, but his claws exulcerated my whole perineum.  I healed myself of that next day by wiping myself on my mother's gloves, which were well scented with maljamin .  Then I wiped myself with sage, fennel, anise, marjoram, roses, gourd leaves, cabbage, beets, vineshoots, marsh-mallow, mullein--which is red as your bum--lettuces, and spinach-leaves.  All this did very great good to my legs.  Then with dog's mercury, persicaria, nettles, and comfrey.  But that gave me the bloody-flux of Lombardy, from which I was cured by wiping myself with my codpiece.

   Then I wiped myself on the the sheets, the coverlet, the curtains, with a cushion, with the hangings, with a green cloth, with a table-cloth, with a napkin, with a handkerchief, with an overall.  And I found more pleasure in all those than mangy dogs do when they are combed. (Cohen tr., 66-7)]


Bakhtin reads this text as an almost systematic re-evaluation of the various objects in terms of the "lower bodily stratum". (Bakhtin 371-377)  Rabelais would here seem to be playing the Renaissance scientist not through the privileged medium of the eyes or the understanding, but through the anus, which has its own standards of classification. Such a "lower bodily stratum" reinterpretation of the world is of interest to us because it comically suggests the extent to which we privilege the upper bodily stratum in our experience of the world, an experience in large part determined by Enlightenment notions of reason and the place of the individual subject in society.

     These Bakktinian concepts of regeneration and the lower bodily stratum are presented through a large amount of supporting scholarly work, and one's reading of the body in Rabelais can be greatly informed by them.  There are, however, many elements in Rabelais' work that seem to be subjected to an all too stringently reductive reading.  For one, I am not convinced that Bakhtin's interpretation of insults is exactly on the mark, which is to say that I have a hard time believing the plethora of insults and even violent invective in Rabelais is all to be grouped under the heading "Regeneration Through Recourse to the Lower Bodily Stratum."  One senses that Rabelais is not interested in the "regeneration" of many of those he attacks, not even somehow subconsciously interested: for example, the Sorbonnists, or the purveyors of the "old education"--i.e., those who would have liked to see Rabelais burned at the stake.  One suspects that, did the invective concern even a revolutionary thinker such as Calvin, Rabelais would still not be interested in "regeneration," but rather in playing a trick such as the one the writer has Villon and his troop play on their enemy in the Fourth Book.

     One thinks in this context of the Indian mother goddess Kali.  Kali is depicted wearing a necklace of human skulls.  She is said to be continually eating and giving birth to the universe (anus and birth canal are here seemingly one).  Kali's priestly followers roamed the highways of India committing random and horrible acts of violence to celebrate what they saw as the most essential characteristic of their goddess: destruction.  Perhaps comparing the earthly violence of the Kali cult to the earthly violence of the Rabelaisian carnivalesque is stretching it.  I do it, however, to point to the importance of the violent side of earthly "regeneration" in at least one culture.  It is not here simply a matter of bringing something low in order to later regenerate it through carnival humor.  It is a matter of the uncanny link between that which destroys and that which brings forth new life.  Judging from many of the elements of Rabelaisian language, one might say that Rabelais was in touch with a similar kind of cosmic violence.  But then one might say that all violence could be seen as cosmic in this sense, which would mean that singling out Rabelais is meaningless.

     There is, as well, a paradox inherent in Bakhtin's explanation of the origins of the carnivalesque.  On the one hand, he treats it as an ancient phenomenon, "surviving" well into the sixteenth century.  On the other hand, he treats it as a necessary "response" to the unflinching seriousness of official medieval culture: the Renaissance is in fact one of its great moments.  There is of course no reason that the Renaissance carnivalesque cannot be both of these at once, but Bakhtin seems to avoid a possible interpretation of official medieval culture as not merely the negative "cause" of the vehemence of the carnivalesque, but as rather the expression of an aristocratic class consciousness engaged in an ideological war against the subversive desires of the people.

     One could perhaps rewrite the history of the carnivalesque from this different viewpoint.  The carnivalesque, growing out of polytheistic pre-Christian religious festivals, took on in the medieval period the character of a collective cultural rebellion against the monotheistic, repressive structures of the Church.  The clergy and nobility struggled to co-opt these collective pagan festivals by renaming them as saints' feasts.  In this view, the struggle went on steadily until the fifteenth century, when an aristocratic interest in ancient culture, the breakup of the Roman monopoly on religion, and a vernacularization of writing allowed the aristocracy to more easily co-opt these inherently polytheistic, unrepressed popular forces Bakhtin calls the carnivalesque.  Renaissance writers (the educated class) helped in the co-optation of these forces by charging them with high learning, certainly an aspect that is not part of the truly popular character of the carnivalesque. 

      Bakhtin interprets the "true" carnivalesque as reaffirming the established cultural order, but one must take into account the fact that all Bakhtin's evidence is written evidence, i.e. the production of a writing and reading class.  But once in writing the "true carnival body of the people" became mainly a matter of upper-class leisure and learning.  And it was eventually sapped of its radical features under pressure of a rising bourgeoisie that ultimately found its authority in Protestantism and then Enlightenment.  As a writer, Rabelais might thus be not the ideological champion of the people, but rather the beginning of the end of popular carnival.  The popular "body of the people" finds its expression in the trappings of the high culture of the day. Bakhtin himself points to the Renaissance as the beginning of the end of the popular carnivalesque, but does not see it as part of the cause of this end.  The Renaissance might really be the final Naissance of the rational monotheistic order, a Naissance pulled off through the new ideological power of the vernaculars, and very importantly through the ideological power conferred by the printing press.  Is it perhaps a quick dash from Rabelais to the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV and the nation states of modern Europe?  And how is that to be read in relation to the "body of the people"?



II. Freud's "joking" Rabelais


     A new joke acts almost like an event of universal interest; it is passed from one person to another like the news of the latest victory.  Even men of eminence who have thought it worth while to tell the story of their origins, of the cities and countries they have visited, and of the important people with whom they have associated, are not ashamed in their autobiographies to report their having heard some excellent joke.


    --Freud, from the Introduction to Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious  (15)



To further open up the dynamics of Rabelaisian writing, Freud's Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious would seem to be an obvious work to look into.  This opening up would necessarily take the form of an analysis of jokes in Rabelais, using the joke model proposed by Freud and the critical techniques implicit in that model.  One must inquire into how the joke in Rabelais unveils, represses, or otherwise relates to the body as Rabelais experiences, or at least writes it.  In doing so one must remember that humor and the joke are not the same thing, and that Rabelais' work is humorous narrative, not simply a joke book.  Nonetheless, jokes play an important part in the work, particularly in those sections where dialogue is prominent. Taking the general Freudian principle that all psychical activity is the overcoming of resistance to pleasure (the Pleasure Principle), we may ask, then: What is Rabelaisian pleasure, what are the resistances to this pleasure, and what is the function of the joke in Rabelais' psychical textual economy?

     Freud divides jokes into two broad categories: "innocent" jokes and "tendentious" jokes.  Innocent jokes are most apparently jokes without an underlying hostility.  They are jokes that depend upon turns of phrase, logical inconsistencies, or the subtle construction or unveiling of absurdity for effect.  They often depend upon an absurd rigorousness in logic, in this way having some similarity to the classical Greek paradox.  Indeed, the following linquistic paradox of Chrysippus could be seen as an innocent joke:


If you say something, that thing goes over your tongue.  Therefore, if you say "wagon," a wagon goes over your tongue.


Freud quotes one innocent joke that seems to me quintessential in its affect:


"Never to be born would be the best thing for mortal men," [we read in the Greek].  "But," adds the philosophical comment in [the weekly] Fliegende Blatter,  "this happens to scarcely one person in a hundred thousand." (57)


This is an innocent joke because the joke evokes laughter at the expense of no one in particular.  A statement of numerical exactitude--"scarcely one person in a hundred thousand"--is brought to bear on a statement of the direness of the human condition.  The result is a shock of absurdity: the laughter is at the absurdity of the two kinds of statement being linked.  Because of Rabelais' heavy satirical content, however, one would guess that such innocent jokes don't play as large a role in his work as tendentious jokes.  I've suggested above that hostility plays a large role indeed in Rabelais' writing. 

     There are three persons in the Freudian model of the tendentious joke: the joker, the receiver, and the third person.  What is the typical scene of the tendentious joke?  Being very Freudian about it, one might posit the third person as a haughty woman inherently disposed to resist the sexual advances (real or imagined) of the joker.  The joker, a frustrated male, unable to break down the resistance put up by this third person, is sitting with the receiver (either male or female) in a tavern.  The joker tells an obscene joke to this receiver, psychically targeting the third person (the haughty woman sitting at the end of the table), and, if the joke is successful, the receiver bursts out laughing. 

     What has happened here, according to Freud?  The joker has brought forward pleasure in the receiver in the form of laughter.  This laughter signifies a breakdown in the resistance of the receiver, or is an attack on that resistance.  The breakdown of resistance signified by the laughter of the receiver is felt by the joker as compensation for the resistance offered by the third person (the woman who is the target of the joke).  At the same time both joke and laughter are a kind of retaliation against that third person for her resistance: the joke is usually, consciously or not, at her expense.  The third person's genitals are symbolically exposed by the obscene joke.  The third person's prim behavior is undermined. The joker evokes pleasure in the receiver at the expense of the third person, and this successfully evoked pleasure has, for the joker, the pleasure-evoking content of a successful conquest.  The hidden sexuality of the receiver is brought into the open: it is indicated by the receiver's laughter, this laughter proving that the receiver understood the joke. 

     This is the most basic model of the tendentious joke, upon which there are many variations, all of which, however, work through what we may call the actants of the tendentious joke: joker, receiver, and third person.

     Applying this model to Rabelais' text, we have two levels on which the joke structure can be seen.  In the first level the actants are thus:


                                     Rabelais (joker)


          ? (third person)                 reader (receiver)


In the second, inner-textual level they are thus:


                          character making a joke (joker) 


    ? (third person)              character receiving the joke (receiver)


Without going into the complex interrelations of these two levels, I will mainly concern myself here with the first level.

     Who is the third person or third people at the expense of which the Rabelaisian joke is written?  How does the fact that the joke is written--that in this case both the joker and his society are long gone, while reader/receivers live on--how does this situation complicate interpretation?

     We are here already embarking upon questions that are very difficult to answer and that engage the critical enterprise in general.  I only raise such questions to give a hint of the power inherent in the Freudian joke model, a critical power that immediately exposes the weaknesses of criticism itself.  We might return to more specific questions so as to find a means of continuing with our consideration of Rabelais' narration of the body. And one question suggests itself here: Is the throwing down/regenerating movement identified by Bakhtin in Rabelais' text also the action of the Freudian tendentious joke? 

     One sees that according to Freud's understanding the tendentious joke is not at all a "regeneration" of the third person, but most quintessentially an act of frustrated hostility toward the third person.  Realizing this may further qualify my comments above on what I felt to be Bakhtin's insufficient explanation of the function of insults in Rabelais' work.  It would seem to me, however, that much of Rabelais' humor (this is a key term, replacing jokes) is somewhere halfway between the Freudian tendentious joke and the Bakhtinian carnivalesque regeneration.

     How might we get at the "halfway nature" of Rabelaisian humor?  How might we define its characteristics?  One way might be to look at the techniques Rabelais employs to evoke laughter and to consider these techniques in the light of Freudian joke techniques and Bakhtinian regeneration.

     Before considering Rabelais' techniques, then, it will first be necessary to lay out some of the techniques the Freudian joker uses to bring forth the burst of laughter from the receiver.  Freud's joke book immerses itself in a steady telling of jokes in an effort to discover these techniques.  In his efforts to be complete, Freud analyses and categorizes many kinds of jokes within the two broad categories.  Without embarking on a rehash of all this Viennese humor and science, I will merely point out something of interest to the literary critic: Freud discovers that the list of joke techniques is almost synonymous with the list of the techniques employed in creative writing.  Jokes thus depend on: punning, rhythm, timing, narrative suspense, surprise, subtle allusion, striking juxtaposition, metaphorical and sometimes even allegorical structures--these and other such devices besides.  What is of key interest here is that the joke Freud discusses is generally a tight little narrative structure with a punch line, a building up of suspense followed by a dissolution of that suspense in laughter/hostility/pleasure.  By means of such devices, this dissolution either manifests itself in linguistic or logical absurdity or cuteness (the innocent joke), or in a quick and subtle recourse to obscene sexual content (the tendentious joke).

     Where is laughter most readily evoked for readers of Rabelais?  It is difficult to say.  I myself found some of the funniest sections to be the following: Les propos des bien yvres  [The Banter of the Thoroughly Soused]; the "swab" episode analyzed above; the stories of Gargantua's infant feeding; Panurge's prank on the haulte dame; certain instances of absurd list making: the long lists of weapons, insults, games, etc.

      What are the techniques Rabelais employs to bring forth my laughter in these instances?

      In the propos des bien yvres, laughter is evoked through punning:


          --Quelle difference est entre bouteille et flaccon?

          --Grande, car bouteille est fermee a bouchon, et flaccon a viz.


          [--What is the difference between a bottle and a flagon? --A great difference.  For a bottle is stopped with a cork, a flagon with a cock. (Cohen, 50)]

                                             . . . .


          --Or ca, a boire, a boire ca!  Il n'y a poinct charge.  Respice personam; pone pro duos; bus non est in usu.  (G, 73) 

           [The pun is untranslatable.]


through conversion, or switching of content:


          --Si le papier de mes schedules beuvoyt aussi bien que je poys, mes crediteurs auroient bien leur vin quand on viendroyt a la formule de exhiber.


          [--If the paper of my bonds drank as well as I do, my creditors would have a fine job when the time came to make out their titles.] 


                                              . . . .


            --Voulez-vous rien mander a la riviere?  Cestuy cy va laver les tripes.  (G, 71-73)


          [--Won't you keep anything for the river?  That fellow's going to wash his tripes.  (Cohen, 49, modified)]


and through the swiftness of the repartee, unhindered by narrative intrusion.

     It is thus mostly innocent joking; or self-deprecatory tendentious joking (the joker is also third person).

     But aside from the Freudian categorization another element of Les propos des bien yvres that brings forth laughter is the framing of the whole episode as a warmly communal celebration.  This is the famous Rabelaisian camaraderie, an element found everywhere in Rabelais, and one that may have been partly responsible for leading Bakhtin to his notion of a body of the people.  It is also this joyously communal sense that allows us to posit a sort of Rabelaisian laughter both generally tendentious and generally innocent: it is the joyous laughter of fellow drinkers, who are truly sodden in their togetherness.  Much suggests that the group of drinkers is made up from different "levels" of society, different social groups.  The communal spirit is further emphasized by the presence of discourse alone, without the need to separate individuals by the author's attribution of the statements to this or that particular drinker. The tone is established in exclamations like the following, which use neither joke techniques nor even what might be called comic techniques:






          --Boutte a moy sans eau; ainsi, mon amy.

          --Fouette moy ce verre gualentement;

          --Produiz moy du clairet, verre pleurant.

          --Treves de soif!  (G, 69)



           --Pass it!

           --Fill 'er up!

           --A mixy!

           --Give it to me without water, like that, my friend.

           --Toss me off that glass, neatly!

           --Draw me some claret, brimmful!

           --Death to thirst!]


     The good humor of the Propos des bien yvres seems then to have little to do with Freud's strict categorization of jokes.  Granted that jokes and humor are not exactly the same thing, still the verbal humor of Rabelais, containing as it does so much dialogue, should give us more in the way of something we may identify as recognizable jokes.  Do other instances of Rabelais' humor show similar resistance to Freud's categories?

     The swab episode was discussed in part above.  Most of the techniques used to draw laughter in the swab episode do not at all fit either Freud's innocent or tendentious joke models.  Without reproducing any of the text again, I will use Bakhtin's analysis and say that the laughter drawn by the young Gargantua's precocious anal inquiry into the objects of his environment depends primarily upon three techniques: 1) the young Gargantua's straightfaced recounting of his experiments--this first aspect becoming humorous only under the pressure of 2) "civilized" attitudes toward excrement and language, two things which under normal circumstances are not loudly and uninhibitedly combined (though here we probably have a case in which many a modern American reader, with his or her white porcelain toilet bowl and sterilized environment, feels a stronger sense of taboo than Rabelais' contemporaries felt), and 3) the sheer polymorphous variety of objects sent down to do the wiping.  This third and last technique we might call encyclopedic substitution: dozens of objects, in fast succession, are used in place of a more traditional swab.  All three joke techniques (comic naivetŽ; the taboo over lower bodily functions; substitution) are discussed by Freud, of course, but again this episode of the swab is not properly seen as a series of jokes, but as something else--as pantagrueline humor.

     There are many aspects of the infant feeding of Gargantua which could be taken up here, but it is clear that the important ones are: 1) abundance or size as a cause for laughter; and 2) the absurdly specific quantification of abundance or size as a cause for laughter.  As for the second of these techniques, absurdly pedantic quantification, one may look for understanding to Freud's innocent joke model and to the joke quoted above about the scarcity of men who are never born ("scarcely one in a hundred thousand"): a joke which depends on a sensibility similar to that in Rabelaisian absurd quantifications.  The humor behind these absurd measurements and enumerations can be explained thus: such precise numbers are humorous because their pedantic, matter-of-fact precision is juxtaposed with the impossibly large size or quantity of the thing quantified.  This technique, used very often by Rabelais (to count soldiers, fabric, casualties, amounts of food or drink consumed, etc.), belongs properly in Freud's innocent joke category.

     Panurge's prank on the haulte dame [aristocratic lady] is clearly tendentious in character.  That it would more readily draw laughter from heterosexual male readers than any female readers is obvious, a fact which emphasizes its tendentious character.  (One cannot exactly put it in Freud's tendentious joke category, however, because it is not really a joke, but a prank.)

     The laughter produced by the long catalogues of weapons, insults, verbs, adjectives, whatnot, cannot be explained in any way by any of the joke techniques discussed by Freud.  Rampant encyclopedism is clearly a comic technique rather than a joke technique.  Does the laughter and pleasure produced by these long lists (a pleasure evidently to be had in both writing and reading them) have any similarity to the laughter and pleasure produced by grotesquely oversized objects?  Perhaps there are some parallel elements here.

     Though Rabelais' encyclopedism doesn't fit the Freudian joke categories, Freud's joke book is not without comment on this kind of production.  Freud would probably call this technique "play," and would insist that it is the prototechnique of later joke techniques.  This is of particular interest for our reading of the body as experienced by Rabelais, because Freud associates this prototechnique with children.


Before there is such a thing as a joke, there is something that we may describe as "play" or as "a jest".

   Play--let us keep to that name--appears in children while they are learning to make use of words and to put thoughts together.  This play probably obeys one of the instincts which compel children to practise their capacities.  In doing so they come across pleasurable effects, which arise from a repetition of what is similar, a rediscovery of what is familiar, similarity of sound, etc., and which are to be explained as unsuspected economies in psychical expenditure.  It is not to be wondered at that these pleasurable effects encourage children in the pursuit of play and cause them to continue it without regard for the meaning of words or the coherence of sentences.  Play with words and thoughts, motivated by certain pleasurable effects of economy, would thus be the first stage of jokes.

   This play is brought to an end by the strengthening of a factor that deserves to be described as the critical faculty or reasonableness.  The play is now rejected as being meaningless or actually absurd; as a result of criticism it becomes impossible.  (128)


     There are a number of ways in which this "play" category can illuminate Rabelais' listing "technique."  Freud would seem to be reinforcing what the reader knows intuitively: the "meaning" to be found in the absurd number of actions performed by Diogenes on his barrel (T, 67), for example, lies not only in the expression of feverish activity--for if this were so it wouldn't necessarily have a laughter-provoking effect--but in a kind of pleasurable wallowing in linguistic repetition: the rhythmic repetition of striking sounds for its own sake.  This can be applied even more fruitfully to the volley of insults that begins the Picrocholine War. (G, 217-218)  What an interesting twist to the question of what provoked this browbeating if we were to posit it simply as a childlike wallowing in language.

     But perhaps Freud would place these passages within his intermediate category, the "jest".  If play is the childhood of the joke, the jest is its adolescence.  Jesting comes into being when a consciousness of criticism, of the pressures of reasonableness, forces the child to justify his or her babbling.


And with this the second preliminary stage of jokes sets in--the jest.  It is now a question of prolonging the yield of pleasure from play, but at the same time of silencing the objection raised by criticism which would not allow the pleasurable feeling to emerge.  There is only one way of reaching this end: the meaningless combination of words or the absurd putting together of thoughts must nevertheless have a meaning. (129)


     Thus, in the case of Diogenes's barrel, as pointed out above, the verbs also have the effect of expressing feverish activity: thus there is some semantic justification for the proliferation of verbs.  In the case of Gargantua's games, one is making a catalogue, and not only wallowing in sounds for pleasure's sake.  With the comic battery of cake bakers' insults at the beginning of the Picrocholine War, Rabelais is also satirizing the petty causes for wars cited in many ancient histories.  In most of these instances, however, there are several terms used which have almost precisely the same meaning, as there is also repetition of similar sounds.  Rabelais seemingly takes the opportunities given by the movement of the narrative to engage in what we could either call "play" or "jest," both of these terms for Freud describing childlike or youthful behavior.

     Thus, of the episodes and instances cited as the most laughter-provoking for this reader, several of them depend at least in part on comic techniques which can be explained using Freud's joke terminology.  Others, the warmly communal laughter, and the laughter and pleasure provoked by wallowing in language or sounds, cannot be explained by joke techniques.  Neither can the communal aspects of Rabelais be covered by Freud's Jokes: one would have to go elsewhere in Freud's work.  The wallowing in language, however, is covered, though it is discussed as proto-"technique," pre-"reasonable," pre-"critical," and inherently childlike.  One thus sees Bakhtin's monster rearing its head anew: the body of the people is a communal notion, and wallowing in language is, for Freud, childlike behavior.  I have above, in the section on Bakhtin's Rabelais, described Bakhtin's medieval monster as wandering, childlike, and, of course, communal.  Freud's Jokes, however, can be used to expand Bakhtin's notions in some respects, even as it contradicts them in others.

     Through Freud's "tendentiousness" and "play/jest," we could begin to see Bakhtin's obsession with regeneration as not quite on the mark.  Nowhere in Freud's discussion of tendentious jokes does he suggest the third person is being somehow regenerated by the joker.  This is not to say, however, that this Bakhtinian notion is entirely wrong, for such would be presumptuous given his extensive and convincing scholarly efforts.  It is simply that regeneration is not the only dynamic behind Rabelais' stinging humor and attacks.  One sees also, in Rabelaisian play (his lists), a masturbatory as opposed to a regenerating sexual dynamic, a "childlike" wallowing in which both writer and reader indulge.  Again, this wallowing does not contradict Bakhtin, but only raises another "economy" in Rabelais' text.  Concerning the communal aspects of Rabelais' work (manifested, for example, in the lack of attribution in the propos des bien yvres), would we be far off track to suggest that Freudian science, with its positing of an individual subject almost narratively  inscribed in a personal history, is incapable of dealing with the world according to Rabelais?  Freud's positing of play as a necessarily childlike activity is historically and geographically specific to post-Enlightenment Europe, where "reasonableness" and "criticism" are privileged and where the worlds of adult and child are more clearly separated. 

     The risk inherent in the above observations is that they may lead to a sentimentalizing attitude toward Rabelais and his century.  Freud's theory of play, quoted above, could lead to a perception of the sixteenth century as a kind of childhood wonderland.  Using Freud's own language, one could see the sixteenth century as situated in that period of childhood innocence before the repressive dawn of "the critical faculty or reasonableness."  The Enlightenment would become the culprit in such an anthropomorphized simplification of history.  Regardless of the attractions of this kind of vision (I myself would trade 129 Voltaires for one Rabelais), one must recall history's depiction of the unbearably repressive mentality of official medieval culture; one must recall the hardships of the vast peasant class; one must recall that these "children" burned each other at the stake.  In short, the childlike element in Rabelais' work may have a solid basis in the real life of his century; even so, it only represents that century in one of its many moods.

     The problematic existence side by side of the rambunctious and the oppressive in Rabelais' century will hopefully be somewhat illuminated through a consideration of Mary Douglas's views on body politics and the body politic.

     But what has happened to "the body" in this discussion of Freud?  How, in other words, do Rabelaisian "jokes" relate to his narration of the body?  I hope that my replacement of "the body" with "pleasure" has not disjointed the discussion too much.  The more psychical term "pleasure" has allowed us to get at certain of the dynamics of Rabelaisian humor, and this, in turn, has expanded certain of Bakhtin's more inherently bodily notions, as it has contradicted others.



III. Rabelais and Mary Douglas's social body


     Mary Douglas's Natural Symbols, being comparative anthropology, would have much to offer were one to apply similar methods to Rabelais' case.  Douglas inquires into the symbolization of the body in several very different cultural instances, and into how this symbolization relates to "larger" cultural structures.  I will here attempt to apply Douglas's central notion to my inquiry into the body in Rabelais.  Douglas writes:


I [maintain] that the human body is always treated as an image of society and that there can be no natural way of considering the body that does not involve at the same time a social dimension.  Interest in its apertures depends on the preoccupation with social exits and entrances, escape routes and invasions.  If there is no concern to preserve social boundaries, I would not expect to find concern with bodily boundaries.  The relation of head to feet, of brain and sexual organs, of mouth and anus are commonly treated so that they express the relevant patterns of hierarchy.  Consequently I now advance the hypothesis that bodily control is an expression of social control--abandonment of bodily control in ritual responds to the requirements of a social experience which is being expressed.  Furthermore, there is little prospect of successfully imposing bodily control without the corresponding social forms.  And lastly, the same drive that seeks harmoniously to relate the experience of physical and social, must affect ideology.  Consequently, when once the correspondence between bodily and social controls is traced, the basis will be laid for considering co-varying attitudes in political thought and in theology. (70-71)


This is Douglas's central notion, a notion which is both new to our century (through structuralism), but can probably also be found as far back as one cares to look, though in less formulaic forms.  What do I mean by this?  In Rabelais' case, for example, one may cite Panurge's in-corp-oration of the universe in his long justification of being in debt. (T, 107-128, chs. 3-4)  The difference between Douglas's discussion of the body and Panurge's is of course that Panurge uses the body as a heuristic metaphor for the social cohesion to be found in indebtedness, whereas Douglas uses the body as a site on which to conduct an anthropological inquiry.  Of course their standards and goals are different (one could say perhaps correctly that Douglas's are more rigorous), but one should not overlook the fact that to a certain extent they are both engaging in a sort of intellectualization of the body, one based on the structure of metaphor and one in both cases undertaken in service to motives which are not exactly clear (motives are never clear).  Douglas's use of the body, in fact, leads one to question the extent to which she realizes her own implication in body politicking: her culture has given her the body as a site upon which to scientifically conduct an exposŽ of the effects of ideology have on that (abstracted) body.  Everywhere, within her sustained academic questioning, one reads a desire to liberate the body from its shackles through exposing those shackles.  On a more formal level, however, Natural Symbols is written within and for the academic community, by the standards of the academic community, standards which, need we say, are not exactly bodily in nature.  (Well now, there is the foot note, the appendix, the heading; and, one might say, there is the thrust of the argument.  This thrust, however, is usually not given its proper bodily title, but remains just a thesis, or a hypothesis.)  One might insist that it is only such academic rigorousness that will allow Douglas to expose the shackles ideology puts on the body, but this is somewhat beside the point.  Natural Symbols is part of the body of Douglas's scholarly works as a professional anthropologist: given the years of study one must undergo to become a professional anthropologist, one can assume that that body named "Mary Douglas" has been devoted to some great extent to the academic institution.  This is not to be read as a kind of accusation, however: as a charge of academic hypocrisy.  No, one merely points to it with a feeling for the necessity of being aware of one's own implication in one's thinking and writing. 

     Why begin this way?  After all, this is a study of the body in Rabelais, not a study of Mary Douglas, PhD.  I begin because Douglas's notions themselves imply these questions, because these are some of the most significant questions that can be raised.  I begin this way because as I write "Reading the Body in Rabelais," I am necessarily typing with the hands of "my own" body, and as I read Rabelais' humor through Freud's Jokes, I am reading this humor through a text produced by Freud's body, a body, moreover, which could discuss dirty jokes in the name of Science, but which felt it imprudent to quote any particularly "offensive" dirty jokes.  Implicit in any reading of the body in Rabelais, there is a whole collection of bodies with their own body politics, a pile of bodies connected through the black material of text--a material in which the weight of a hand is not felt; a material that--thanks to the technology of printing--no longer retains the smudge of anyone's dirty fingers.  


          Freud's body

          Rabelais' body

          The body that typed this

          Your body

          Mary Douglas's body

          Bakhtin's body


     The above-quoted text from Douglas allows us to raise the question of the entrances, exits, and relations we can discover in the Rabelaisian body as sites upon which Rabelais' cultural-ideological environment has left its mark.  We would necessarily be reading at several steps removed here: 1) the black ink body that is the Rabelaisian text could be read as signifying the "entrances" and "escape routes" of 2) the flesh body of an actual sixteenth century subject which, in turn, could be read as a text signifying 3) the body that is its sixteenth century cultural structure, a social body.  Rabelais himself (or perhaps the ink body of his text) is be our prime informant here, an informant, like all anthropological informants, who presumably tells us more about his culture than he thinks he is telling us.  We, from our privileged position as "critics" or "scientists" in the liberal university, thus posit Rabelais as a some-body to be interpreted.

     The problem we hoped to take up above was that raised by Bakhtin of understanding the relationship in the sixteenth century between official, repressive culture and popular "carnivalesque" culture.  I am already showing a bias here by loosely calling these two elements two "cultures".  Let me be more holistic for now and contrast them as reconcilable elements of one Renaissance French culture.  From this position, the questions raised would be the following:  What are the elements of strict officialdom in Rabelais' work?  What are the elements of loose unofficialdom?  How are these elements reconciled?  And, most importantly, how are these elements and this reconciliation mirrored in Rabelais' narrative of the body? 

     Working from Douglas's statements quoted above, and from what Bakhtin has told us about the nature of carnival, it would seem that the carnivalesque in Rabelais' sixteenth century should be considered in terms of a social structure that needs "[ritual] abandonment of bodily control" as a response to the requirements of "a social experience which is being expressed."  Is the Rabelaisian carnivalesque to be seen as "[ritual] abandonment of bodily control"?

     Bakhtin would seem to come close to this view in his assertion that the carnivalesque is a sort of necessary pressure valve which releases energy pent up under the repressive weight of official medieval culture.  According to Bakhtin, without the popular carnivalesque, medieval culture would have somehow exploded.

     Douglas makes this view possible by discussing cultures which are relatively restricted but which have different "defined sectors of behavior," certain of these allowing for cultural release:


Formality signifies social distance, well-defined, public, insulated roles.  Informality is appropriate to role confusion, familiarity, intimacy.  Bodily control will be appropriate where formality is valued, and most appropriate where the valuing of culture above nature is most emphasised.  All this is very obvious.  It goes without saying that any individual moves between areas of social life where formality is required and others where it is inappropriate.  Great discrepancies can be tolerated in differently defined sectors of behaviour.  And definition may be in terms of time, place or dramatis personae, as Goffman showed when he considered what criteria woman use to decide when it is and is not permissible to walk in the street in slippers and hair nets. (72)


     These considerations are certainly valid when considering the sixteenth century synchronically, as a temporally closed object of study.  However, when one has gathered one's synchronically specific evidence (the frozen tableau of Rabelais' social environment), it would be necessary to use one's discoveries to try to place Rabelais and his time within the greater context called history.  To do this would require a different approach, one that would not only inquire into the elements of Rabelais' world as part of a static social structure, but would also inquire into them as elements expressing economic and ideological clashes which make this structure inherently unstable.  Such an historical analysis would be concerned with dominant forces and subjected forces in their continual struggle, rather than with putting things in terms of a somehow unified bodily whole which works harmoniously.  Bakhtin, though he recognized the policing out of existence of the popular carnivalesque, finally has no compelling explanations for why it occurred.



IV. Concluding remarks


Since my first readings of Rabelais were heavily informed by Bakhtin, so this my first inquiry into Rabelais' narration of the body has also been in part an inquiry into Bakhtin's celebrated reading of Rabelais.  It would seem that Bakhtin's reading is reductive in many areas, even given its overall power and resiliency.  This reductiveness has been shown up in his interpretation of insults and in his one-sided reading of Rabelaisian "laying low" as being always somehow regenerative in nature.  Freud's tendentious joke model has lent its support to these criticisms.  Bakhtin's somewhat obstinately applied notion of regeneration has also led him to make what may eventually prove to be a flawed historical reading, though I can only speculate in this area.  Bakhtin reads the peasant festivals as ultimately supportive of the Catholic Church.  This reading may be mostly on the mark, but Bakhtin doesn't seem to show any significant awareness that not a word of his evidence was written by this popular class.

     Bakhtin's notion of a body of the people, our medieval monster, has led to some fruitful speculation and questioning concerning the decline of the carnivalesque.  Initially I might say that the invention of the printing press and the vernacularization of literature would seem to be key forces in this decline of the carnivalesque.  For now, however, this is only to say that if I were further to research this problem that I would look into these forces as slowly allowing for greater aristocratic (and, later, bourgeois) ideologization of the world in general.

     One of the most worthwhile discoveries I've made is the discovery of the gap between Freud's definition of play as pre-critical, pre-reasonable behavior, and the actual play present in Rabelais, one of the most educated people of his century and an acknowledged "monument" of the "tradition"--this tradition necessarily so full of grave and repressed adults.   This gap can only point to the repression characteristic of our own "liberal" century, a repression which pre-emptively labels pleasurable and "pointless" play as an activity for children alone.  Another issue worth considering in this context would be what has been called the "non-existence" of childhood in the medieval period, as compared to what has been called the "cult" of childhood in the modern world.  I've felt it prudent not to speculate in these areas here, though.

     Finally, Mary Douglas allowed me to face my limitations head-on, and reminded me in addition of the heavy and effaced presence of bodies in any academic inquiry into the body in Rabelais.  This may seem a strange turn for an academic paper to take--but I feel that it is becoming increasingly important for us not to repress that which we must looks so plainly in the face: in this case, the unbearable lightness of text in relation to the grotesque heaviness of the world it is meant to negotiate.


(This paper was written in the winter of 1988 for Professor Ullrich Langer's seminar on sixteenth century French literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Professor Langer probably knit his brows at various times while reading it; he undoubtedly shook his head when he got to the section on Mary Douglas.  But in general the paper was accepted.)


Works Cited


Bakhtin, Mikhail.   Rabelais and His World.  Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1968.


Douglas, Mary.  Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology.  New York: Pantheon, 1982.


Freud, Sigmund.  Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.  Trans. and Ed. by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton, 1963.


Logan, Robert K.  The Alphabet Effect: The Impact of the Phonetic Alphabet on the Development of  Western Civilization.  New York: William Morrow, 1986.


Rabelais, Francois.  Gargantua.  Ed. Pierre Michel.  Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 1972.


---.  Pantagreul.  Ed. Pierre Michel.  Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 1972.


---.  Le tiers livre.  Ed. Pierre Michel.  France: 1984.


---.  The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel.  Tr. J. M. Cohen.  Baltimore: Penguin, 1955.


Said, Edward W.  The World, the Text, and the Critic.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983.









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