The prototype of French comedic excess is François Rabelais with his gross, bawdy, scatalogical, jesting, fantastical narratives that pushed back the frontiers of decency. His two classics texts Pantegruel and Gargantua (both 1530s) reveal him to be a moralist in the French sense, inclined to paint folly than inveigh against it. Knowing that humans are not at ease with their condition or sexuality, bodily functions or death he asserted that laughter was the “property of Man”. In doing so he gave us the term Rabelaisian, defined by the Oxford dictionary as “an exuberance of imagination and language, combined with extravagance and coarseness of humour and satire”.
Pantegruel finds some of its best laughter in the Bible with scripture exploited for comic ends. In one episode Panurge (his codpiece embellished in the German style) falls in love with a beautiful woman and is determined to have her. In a Parisian church, on the festival of Corpus Christi, after rejecting his obscene advances during Mass, she dons a beautiful robe of crimson satin and a tunic of white velvet. Panurge sprinkles her gown with the minced genitals of a bitch on heat (a substance known to Greek geomancers). Every dog in town comes and urinates upon her, creating a stream outside her house sufficient for ducks to swim. In another episode the giant Gargantua pisses in the streets of Paris and thus, Rabelais tells us, completes the act of baptism of the city giving its name in laughter ‘Par-ris’ (whilst drowning thousands in the process). Rabelais wielded his pen as a weapon for the love and justice of mankind (agape). His targets were backward monks, manipulative churchmen and scholastic Sorbonne theologians of the Aristotelian school. In doing do he challenged a solemn official culture with a raunchy and crude tirade of laughter, paradox, parody, anomaly and contradiction. For him anything could be turned into comedy, no topic was too awesome.
Each book provoked a storm of protest. The main body of French theologians (the sixteenth century ideological police) and the Vatican condemned him. The censors marched in. Paris at the time was in turmoil over heresy and religious riots were being provoked by the preaching of evangelical clerics. In January 1535 Rabelais had to flee from the threat of the stake by moving from Lyons (where he practiced as a physician) to Italy. In 1562 the Council of Trent placed the texts on the Index of Forbidden Books and Rabelais was asserted to be a “heretic of the first class”. It wasn’t just the Catholics, John Calvin denounced him in the 1560s.
For the theocratic mind comedy is worse than an intellectual attack. An argument can be defended on its own ground. But unique truth is powerless before comedy as it is unable to confront its ambiguity. Rabelais was a humanist who inverted the world with his emphasis on the earthy and the grotesque and he revealed a peculiar language of the laughing people that signified the symbolic destruction of authority. His is the phrase: “The wise may be instructed by a fool.” But what modern leader employs someone to mock them?
A similar impossibility of discourse existed in Paris this week between Islamist absolutists powerless before the unbridled, obnoxious cartoons of Charlie Hebdo. The satirical magazine since 1970 has been the keeper of the Rabelaisian flame. Gargantua starts with a verse:
Dear readers: hereon cast your eyes
All sterile passions lay aside.
No offence here to scandalize;
Nothing corrupting lies inside.
Little perfection here may hide
Save laughter: little else you’ll find.
No other theme comes to my mind
Seeing such gloom your joy doth ban.
My pen’s to laugh not tears assigned.
Laughter’s the property of Man.