Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Of Horns and Words: A Reading of Rabelais's Signs

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Of Horns and Words: A Reading of Rabelais's Signs

Article excerpt

Among all the episodes of the Rabelaisian corpus perhaps that of the

frozen words (Quart Livre 55-56) is the most disturbing because it forces the

reader to stop short and consider a virtual oxymoron. Indeed, the

antithetical nature of the concept of a frozen word has prompted critics to

see the episode as the synthesis of two opposing ideological forces. Whether

it be the theory that the two chapters of the episode represent the

progression from an "ordre d'hallucination" to an "ordre de manipulation"

(Pouilloux 90) or the theory that unfreezing frozen words represents a stage

in the progression from literal to figurative discourse, from the written

word to the oral word (Jeanneret, "Les Paroles" 20), the episode nonetheless

stands out almost free-form because of its hauntingly surreal qualities and

because it is essentially self-referential, i.e. words about words. This

episode about words crystallizes in theory what even the casual reader

notices in Rabelais's praxis: verbal invention, jeux de mots, lengthy

catalogs and onomastic gymnastics. Such valorization of the word should come

as no surprise given the contemporary ethos of the word reflected even in the

theological arena by the Council of Trent's reaffirmation of the Savior as

Word made Flesh. Rabelais himself enfleshes the logocentricity of his culture

but to a hyperbolic degree by creating his gigantic characters and recording

(albeit fictionally) the eating and drinking that cause the flesh. Yet, these

gigantic Pantagruel and Gargantua with all their meanderings simply skate

along the surface of the text while at various points the text invites the

reader to stop, submerge and explore the subtext of word and language. One

such point is the episode of the frozen words. Here is where the reader stops

to obey the text and do exactly what it enjoins at that very point: "Ores

seroit A philosopher et rechercher si, forte fortune, icy seroit l'endroict

onquel telles parolles degellent" (QL 55). This is a point in the narrative

where the reader is seduced by the self-referentiality of the text embodied

in a world unusually surreal not because it is larger than real like the

giants of Rabelais's narrative space but because it is beyond the real, i.e.,

in the realm of prelogic and unnatural associations and combinations. Here is

where the linear voyage of the Quart Livre is temporarily suspended not by

the arrival at some place but by a semiotic event. The horizontal and

syntagmatic movement of the narrative is arrested while the travelers are at

sea, en branle, and confronted with a new problematic, a vertical and

paradigmatic concern, namely the origin and meaning of these words that have

become frozen.

That this problematic of signification is faced by the Rabelaisian

characters makes this episode doubly self-referential for the characters

themselves function as role models for the reader who is confronted with the

text. By decoding what is arcane the reader participates in the episode, this

"metaphor of cooperative textuality," by assuming the active role of listener

of words in imitation of the text's characters who melt the words by rubbing

them in their hands (Zegura and Tetel 149). The reader's task in this

synergistic enterprise is one that involves following the text in a

non-linear way, moving around and through it as in hypertext, perambulating,

engaging in philological peregrination, going where the text leads via its

words, signs and references to reveal hidden structures and meanings. In so

doing the reader is called to imitate in reading what on the grander scale of

the narrative space is described in the Tiers Livre and the Quart Livre,

namely to follow an itinerary in search of an answer, to accompany Panurge on

his journey in search of an answer to his nagging question of whether or not

he should marry and, if he should, would he become a cuckold. …

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