Fictional Evil and the Reader's Seduction: Rabelais's Creations of "L'esprit Maling"

Article excerpt

Among other readers of Francois Rabelais, Robert Griffin and M. A. Screech have written convincingly on the subject of evil and the Devil, and especially on the moral and religious meaning of evil, as it helps to shed light on the enigmatic yet totally fascinating character Panurge. (1) For Griffin, the reader's first encounter with Panurge, in all his "misfortunes and his puzzling appearance" (in Pantagruel 9), is an encounter with "the Biblical Lucifer" (332). For Screech, the reader's last encounter with Panurge (in Quart Livre 67, "Comment Panurge par male paour se conchia ...") is also an encounter "with the Devil and matters diabolical" (457), with Panurge as the Devil in his complete "physical and moral impurity ... [his] ugliness and dirtiness as associates of evil" (459). At the end of his quest, then, as at its beginning, Panurge has been viewed as a man who is "bad, sick, wicked, diabolical; a man who delights in the foul, the dirty, the ugly, the unclean" (460).

Now, as most readers of Rabelais know, Panurge has infinite readerly appeal, as much even as (if not more than) Pantagruel, who clearly incarnates "the clean spirit, the pure spirit," that is, "cleanliness and godliness" (Screech, 459). No other fictional character, not even Pantagruel, has intrigued and seduced Rabelais's readers like Panurge. What is it, then, that accounts for the fascination that we have (like Rabelais obviously had) for the character Panurge, for Panurge as the embodiment of evil whom Rabelais variously calls, or intimately associates with, "l'esprit maling" or 'Tesprit immonde" or "l'esprit calumniateur"? (2)

It does not seem to be without merit to stress that the readerly appeal of Panurge achieves its impact, not so much because of the moral or religious meaning of evil per se, a meaning that is undeniably in Rabelais's works, but because of the aesthetic or fictional meaning of evil with which Rabelais presents the reader. Evil is everywhere in Rabelais's works, and it is there, more powerfully and more profoundly, as the result of Rabelais showing it, rather than telling it, to the reader. Stated differently, it is Rabelais's portrayal of evil that seduces, not the principle of evil itself. Rabelais is not a didactic moral philosopher who proffers principles and propositions on what constitutes good or evil, who "tells" or presents to the reader a ready-made set of ethical conclusions for immediate inculcation in life. Literature as envisioned and written by Rabelais does not speak to us merely by providing abstract descriptions of the human condition. Fictional narrative literature is not just a repository of moral insights and an endless source of ethical examples. These are the domains of philosophy, not literature. This is not to say, however, that moral understanding is not a major concern of literature, but that such understanding is, and must be, presented differently. It is useful here to turn to Frank Palmer, who has written lucidly on this subject: "To have an understanding of fictional characters that goes beyond merely 'knowing about', [the reader] must therefore be in some sense acquainted with them via the power of the work to "show'." Furthermore, in the matter of the reader's moral understanding and the literary epistemology of value, what the writer "shows us, acquaints us with, is something that deepens our understanding of what we already know. [...] In showing, as opposed to telling, a work of art does not present us with descriptions of the world (from which we are left to infer propositions about life), it acquaints us with scenes, objects, people, and circumstances in such a way that we learn through that acquaintance." (3)

Rabelais is just this kind of master fictional writer who, with his highly developed sense of evil, "shows" it to the reader in many forms, and especially in the character form of Panurge, the great illusionist and master of deception. …