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).

How C. S. Lewis Processed Great Fiction

C. S. Lewis to an inquirer, as published in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, 2:644:

I myself always index a good book when I read it for the first time noting (a) Linguistic phenomena. (b) Good & bad passages. (c) Customs: meal times, social classes, what they read etc. (d) Moral ideas. All this reading, though dedicated ad Dei gloriam [to the glory of God] in the long run must not be infected by any immediate theological, ethical, or philosophic reference. Your first job is simply the reception of all this work with your imagination & emotions. Each book is to be read for the purpose the author meant it to be read for: the story as a story, the joke as a joke.

This is a nice concise summary of principles more fully unpacked in Lewis’ book An Experiment in Criticism.

Happy Birthday C. S. Lewis!

C. S. Lewis, the Christian apologist and novelist, was born this day in 1898. Among modern Christian thinkers and writers he remains one of the most important voices, and you can learn much about him in the biographical address by John Piper (here).

Lewis spoke of the physical limitations that pushed him towards fictional adventure and novel writing in his autobiography, Surprised By Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (1955), page 12:

What drove me to write was the extreme manual clumsiness from which I have always suffered. I attribute it to a physical defect which my brother I both inherited from our father; we have only one joint in the thumb. The upper joint (that furthest from the nail) is visible, but it is a mere sham; we cannot bend it. But whatever the cause, nature laid on me from birth an utter incapacity to make anything. With pencil and pen I was handy enough, and I can still tie as good a bow as ever lay on a man’s collar; but with a tool or a bat or a gun, a sleeve link or corkscrew, I have always been unteachable. It was this that forced me to write. I longed to make things, ships, houses, engines. Many sheets of cardboard and pairs of scissors I spoiled, only to turn from my hopeless failures in tears. As a last resource, I was driven to write stories instead; little dreaming to what a world of happiness I was being admitted. You can do more with a castle in a story than with the best cardboard castle that ever stood on a nursery table.

Non-Fiction is True, Fiction is Un-True

A good number of Christians hold an unfavorable bias against fiction literature, assuming that since the events in a novel are not “real” they cannot be worth our attention, certainly not in light of all the great non-fiction books we can read. And if I was looking for a dogfight with a certain publisher in the comments of this post (which happens whenever I take issue with any of their books — something I hope to spare myself from today), I could point you to a recent book by a prominent evangelical writer that propagates this same conclusion.

The idea that non-fiction is true and fiction is un-true is a misnomer — an ancient misnomer. Greek philosopher Aristotle faced it 350 years before Christ. At one point in his brilliant book Poetics, Aristotle contrasts fictional poetry with historical writings. He writes:

It is not the poet’s function to relate actual events, but the kinds of things that might occur and are possible in terms of probability or necessity. The difference between the historian and the poet is not that between using verse or prose. … No, the difference is this: that the one relates actual events, the other the kinds of things that might occur. Consequently, poetry is more philosophical and more elevated than history, since poetry relates more of the universal, while history relates particulars. ‘Universal’ means the kinds of things which it suits a certain kind of person to say or do, in terms of probability or necessity: poetry aims for this. (59, 61)

Note two important points in this quote.

First, Aristotle was aware that the best fiction is guided by probability and necessity. An author is free to create spaceships and mythical worlds with floating mountains. But authors are not free to re-invent behavioral patterns. Characters must still act within boundaries of what is probable and necessary according to their own nature and the situations they are faced with. And this is one reason why literature, the best of it, is not un-true. In fact, literature with characters who fail to operate according to what is probable/necessary in a given situation are unbelievable to an audience of readers. In this sense even sci-fi writers must write stories that are “believable.”

One example comes to mind. A friend was reading atheist Ayn Rand’s novel Fountainhead (1943). He got to about 50 pages to the end, closed the book, and threw it across the room in frustration. Later he explained to me that as he read the book he watched Rand do things to her characters that were simply not guided by probability and necessity; the characters were acting contrary to the natures she had developed for them.

Second, Aristotle was aware that the best fictional authors spell out our common human experience in ways that prove elusive to other forms of non-fiction writing like history or biography. Fictional literature may prove at times to be more true than non-fiction! Why? Novels are free to move beyond the particulars of history to the universals of human experience, to abstract and philosophical concepts as love, hate, goodness, and evil. With such liberty, the author may probe the human condition more profoundly. Tapping into the soul of human experience, the writer spins a web of believability that is potentially more convincing than the historical account. As the plot thickens, the reader identifies with the probable experience of the fictional characters. The invented story serves to usher the reader into the most important realms of reality.

There’s much more to say and I attempt to cover this in my forthcoming book. The idea that non-fiction is true and fiction is un-true is a misnomer, an ancient misnomer, a misnomer that survives to this day in how Christians view fictional literature.

Book Recommendations Needed

Lately I’ve been spending quite a lot of time in Eckhard Schnabel’s incredible trio of books, Early Christian Mission (2 volumes) and Paul the Missionary. Those volumes are loaded with historic and cultural information about Paul’s missionary travels through ancient Roman cities and towns. On top of this, I have been reading several articles by Bruce Winter and have come to discover more fully the important role the cultural context factors into Paul’s mission and writings. I ordered a few of his books this morning.

And that brings me to a different genre altogether.

And this is where I need you.

I want to read more about this first century Roman world of the New Testament. I want to live in the world for a season. What was it like to live in the major cities? How was life for a common laborer or a slave? What were the philosophical influences in the air? What epic tales were woven into the common cultural heritage? What were the prominent cultural captivities and how did pagan temple life intrude? What was life like for the early Christians?

Non-fiction books are valuable for their details, but I’m also looking for some good historical fiction (with a strong stress on the word historical). Lately I’ve tried a few non-Christian authors. Harry Sidebottom is a scholar of 1st century warfare and his fictional works are good on ancient culture and battle tactics, but they’re also unnecessarily violent. Books by Simon Scarrow are set in the 3rd century, and are also quite realistic from what I’ve read, but they’re even more gratuitous.

Of Christian books, I have ordered a few books that look promising. Francine Rivers’ Mark of the Lion series looks good (3 volumes here, here, and here), although I suspect the series will have a strong romantic theme. I also plan to read Paul Maier’s, The Flames of Rome: A Novel. It’s an older work but Maier is a highly respected Lutheran scholar so I am hopeful. Have any of you read the books by Rivers or Maier?

So that’s a brief rundown of my thinking. I am searching for books about everyday life in the NT Roman world. Other technical non-fiction books would be great, but I’m especially searching for historical fiction recommendations.

Have any?

Thanks for reading and sharing!

The Winds of War

Sometimes I like to post excerpts from literature simply because I think they model great prose skill, like this excerpt from a historical novel set in WW2, The Winds of War by Herman Wouk. Wouk fought in the Pacific and his portrayals of the war have been acclaimed for their realism and accuracy. This quote is taken from near the end of The Winds of War, and takes place after the Pearl Harbor invasion (p. 884):

The darkness was merciful to Pearl Harbor. The smashed battleships were invisible. Overhead a clear starry black sky arched, with Orion setting in the west, and Venus sparkling in the east, high above a narrow streak of red. Only the faintest smell of smoke on the sea breeze hinted at the gigantic scene of disaster below. But the dawn brightened, light stole over the harbor, and soon the destruction and the shame were unveiled once more. At first the battleships were merely vague shapes, but even before all the stars were gone, one could see the Pacific Battle Force, a crazy dim double line of sunken hulks along Ford Island—and first in the line, the U.S.S. California.

Victor Henry turned his face from the hideous sight to the indigo arch of the sky, where Venus and the brightest stars still burned: Sirius, Capella, Procyon, the old navigation aids. The familiar religious awe came over him, the sense of a Presence above this pitiful little earth. He could almost picture God the Father looking down with sad wonder at this mischief. In a world so rich and lovely, could his children find nothing better to do than to dig iron from the ground and work it into vast grotesque engines for blowing each other up? Yet this madness was the way of the world. He has given all his working years to it. Now he was about to risk his very life at it. Why?

That is a picturesque and moving scene, one of many from Wouk’s writings. I look forward to reading his better-known War and Remembrance sometime in 2011 (DV), but after reading this article in The Paris Review I decided that my next historical fiction read would be The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson, which I hope to begin this weekend.

Are you reading any good literature? Did you read a great book earlier this summer? If you have any great excerpts to share please post those in the comments for us all to enjoy.