I finished reading Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World (1965) and took notes here.
“Our study is only a first step in the vast task of examining ancient folk humor” says Bakhtin on the last page of his monumental work. To me, this was not a first step, but a pretty comprehensive overview of Rabelais, his language and his time. Sometimes I even felt there was just a bit too much repetition.
What I will most likely remember best of Bakhtin’s analysis is the metaphor of the pregnant death: symbol for a number of processes characterized by the prefix re-: renewal, rebirth, regeneration, reconstruction, revitalization and ultimately Renaissance.
I find myself smiling and nodding in admiration simultaneously when reading Rabelais.
Spain had Cervantes, England had Shakespeare, but the Frenchmen Rabelais was the father of them all.
When he died, he said “I go to seek a Great Perhaps“.
Nobody knows, actually.
More and more I am confronted with the spuriousness of attributions.
I have this thing with bodily fluids.
So does François Rabelais and it seems to me even more, his chief theorist Bakhtin, whose emphasis on excreta such as blood, sweat and tears is … well … emphatic.
In one of Doré’s illustrations of Gargantua and Pantagruel, the perverse emphasis on bodily fluids is hyperbolically administered. The print is informally titled He Did Cry Like a Cow and depicts the “grief wherewith Gargantua was moved at the decease of his wife Badebec.”
In my perverse imagination, the tears of Gargantua become drops of sweat or even sperm in a similar way that Yoshifumi Hayashi depicts those excretions of the lower bodily stratum.
While I’m on the subject of Metamorphic Genitalia and Fantastical Sexual Images, I recently found out that I’d previously misinterpreted the famous “How Panurge showed a very new way to build the walls of Paris” episode in Gargantua and Pantagruel by French writer Rabelais.
I thought that Panurge wanted to build the walls with women’s bodies while in fact he wanted to build them with women’s vulvae, these being cheaper than stones. My mistake was due to the fact that the Urquhart and Motteux translation I based my research on, speaks of “kallibistris” (“callibistrys” in the French original), probably one of the neologisms of Rabelais (although Rabelais scholar Lazar Saineanu (1859-1934), remarks that the word callibistrys was used in the valley of the Yères, so it could actually be an obscure loan-word).
In Rabelais and His World (which uses the 1936 Jacques LeClercq translation of Gargantua and Pantagruel), kallibistris has been replaced by the much more straightforward “pleasure-twats”:
- “I have observed that the pleasure-twats of women in this part of the world are much cheaper than stones, therefore the walls of the city should be built of twats.”
Everyone knows what a twat is.
I can’t help but imagine what Yoshifumi Hayashi (the greatest living artist when it comes to grotesque genitalia, you should google him) would make of a wall of twats, a fortification of disembodied vulvae.
I’m reading Rabelais and His World and I’m taking notes as I go along.
There is much repetition of the tropes of Rabelais in Bakhtin’s book. For example, the term dismemberment is mentioned about twenty times and gaping about ten times. The grotesque body and what it stands for is explained over and over again.
It suddenly occurred to me that Francisco Goya is the specialist of the gaping mouth.The mouth which is wide open. Incidentally, gaping means yawning in my language (Dutch).
This morning I looked up the combination Goya/gaping/mouth.
British art critic David Sylvester came to the same conclusion:
- “The mouth plays a role in Goya‘s art more prominent than in that of any other major artist. Mouths leer, grin, gape, gasp, moan, shriek, belch. A hanged man’s mouth lies open and a woman reaches up to filch his teeth. Grown men stick fingers in their mouths like sucking infants. Mouths vomit, the sick gushing out of them, and a great furry beast sicks up a pile of human bodies. Mouths guzzle: they guzzle avidly, ferociously, living flesh as well as dead. Saturn grips one of his children in his fists and with his mouth tears him limb from limb.”
One can add to this the Lazarillo painting and the Caprichos There Is Plenty to Suck, Ya es hora, Estan calientes and the force-fed Chinchillas. And from the Desastres: the vomiting man in Para eso habeis nacido and the vomiting monster of Fiero Monstruo!
I’ve been reading up on the grotesque body, finally taking the trouble and the time to read how its ‘inventor’ Mikhail Bakhtin defined it.
Here you have it, from Rabelais and His World:
“Contrary to modern canons, the grotesque body is not separated from the rest of the world. It is not a closed, completed unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits. The stress is laid on those parts of the body that are open to the outside world, that is, the parts through the world enters the body or emerges from it, or through which the body itself goes out to meet the world. This means that the emphasis is on the apertures or convexities, or on various ramifications and offshoots: the open mouth, the genital organs, the breasts, the phallus, the potbelly, the nose. The body discloses its essence as a principle of growth which exceeds its own limits only in copulation, pregnancy, childbirth, the throes of death, eating, drinking, ordefecation. This is the ever unfinished, ever creating body, the link in the chain of genetic development, or more correctly speaking, two links shown at the point where they enter into each other. This especially strikes the eye in archaic grotesque”. (tr. Helene Iswolsky)
It’s quite a beautiful piece of prose. It reminds me of Deleuze and Guattari saying “there is no castration” and Sloterdijk’s genius comment on the the arse: “the arse is truly is the idiot of the family.”
See embodied cognition, body genres and body politics.
Also, anything coming out of the mouth of a ‘wise fool‘: morosophy and its mutant siblings serio ludere and spoudaiogeloion are still of great interest to yours truly.