On Reading Nonsense Satire

From the mailbag, Daniel writes to ask: Have you read Rabelais? In your reading of and about the classics, do you know of any reason why a Christian should hesitate to read him, for moral reasons or otherwise?

Good question, Daniel.

François Rabelais (1494–1553) was a contemporary of John Calvin (1509–1564) and the two Frenchmen couldn’t be more unalike. More on that in a moment. Rabelais’s two novels, Gargantua and Pantagruel are named for the central characters in each book (two giants). The works are non-sensical satire of farce, loaded with scatological humor.

I’ve read bits and pieces of the novels in the past and found his works to be so unnecessarily vulgar to lose all luster for me as a reader (there’s an entire paragraph describing how to use a live goose as toilet paper, and worse things I dare not share on this blog).

These novels raise other related questions. Here are a few things to consider regarding Rabelais (in particular) and the genre of nonsense satire (in general).

For a good start, be sure to read two G. K. Chesterton essays (both mention Rabelais).

In A Defence of Nonsense, Chesterton writes, “Nonsense and faith (strange as the conjunction may seem) are the two supreme symbolic assertions of the truth that to draw out the soul of things with a syllogism is as impossible as to draw out Leviathan with a hook.”

And in A Defence of Farce, he writes: “The literature of joy is infinitely more difficult, more rare and more triumphant than the black and white literature of pain. And of all the varied forms of the literature of joy, the form most truly worthy of moral reverence and artistic ambition is the form called ‘farce.’”

Traveling back in time to Calvin’s Geneva, Rabelais’s novels were condemned as obscene and one could face church discipline (i.e. public lashings) for being found with them.

Philip Schaff, in his History of the Christian Church, draws an interesting comparison (8:266):

These two men, so totally different, reflect the opposite extremes of French character. Calvin was the most religious, Rabelais the most witty man, of his generation; the one the greatest divine, the other the greatest humorist, of France; the one a Christian stoic, the other a heathen Epicurean; the one represented discipline bordering on tyranny [??], the other liberty running into license. Calvin created the theological and polemical French style — a style which suits serious discussion, and aims at instruction and conviction. Rabelais created the secular style, which aims to entertain and to please.

But this comparison is a bit overdrawn. Calvin was widely read and appreciated more literature than he commonly gets credit for, and he certainly appreciated the value of wit and sarcasm, as B. B. Warfield explains (W, 5:10–2):

The Reformation was the greatest revolution of thought which the human spirit has wrought since the introduction of Christianity; and controversy is the very essence of revolutions. Of course Calvin’s whole life, which was passed in the thick of things, was a continuous controversy; and directly controversial treatises necessarily form a considerable part of his literary output. We have already been taught, indeed, that his fundamental aim was constructive, not destructive: he wished to rebuild the Church on its true foundations, not to destroy its edifice. But, like certain earlier rebuilders of the Holy City, he needed to work with the trowel in one hand and the sword in the other. . . .

Of course he had nothing in common with the mere mockers of the time — des Périers, Marot, Rabelais — whose levity was almost as abominable to him as their coarseness. Satire to him was a weapon, not an amusement. The proper way to deal with folly, he thought, was to laugh at it. The superstitions in which the world had been so long entangled were foolish as truly as wicked; and how could it be, he demanded, that in speaking of things so ridiculous, so intrinsically funny, we should not laugh at them “with wideopen mouth”? Of course this laugh was not the laugh of pure amusement; and as it gained in earnestness it naturally lost in lightness of touch. It was a rapier in Calvin’s hands, and its use was to pierce and cut. And how well he uses it!

More recently, Kevin Vanhoozer makes a very good point about why Rabelais’s works may appeal to the postmodern mind (Is There a Meaning?, 432–3):

Nietzsche and Derrida capture the spirit of much postmodern interpretation — what I call the “spirit of carnival” [a phrase coined to describe Rabelais’s novels]. In the festivities associated with the medieval carnival, hierarchies are turned on their heads (fools become kings and kings fools) and the sacred is profaned. Everything authoritative or serious is mocked and subverted. Indeed, one critic has suggested that Derrida’s most important, though perhaps unintentional, effect has been the “carnivalesque impetus” that has taken hold of and overturned the humanities. To view the world, with Nietzsche and Derrida, as a Dionysian carnival is to celebrate its openness and indeterminacy. Yet the spirit of carnival is ultimately a rebellious spirit, one that undoes authority by mocking it: “Deconstruction subverts from within the system that liberation seeks to change from without. . . . Carnival as a social event is the mockery by the oppressed of the structures of oppression, through an ironic mimicry by the subordinate of the dominant, a reversal of roles.” Carnival is thus an apt metaphor for the postmodern condition.

Finally, I scanned through Douglas Wilson’s blog and books for mentions of Rabelais but with little to show for it. He’s a Chesterton-Calvin-Vanhoozer blended thinker, and I’m certain he could put all these thoughts together on Rabelais in a way I cannot.

There’s a lot more that can be said about the genre of nonsense satire, but for now — for my money — I’d skip Rabelais strictly on the basis of his gratuitous scatological humor and his filthy and crude joking (Eph. 5:3).

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