Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Of Nightmares and Whale Oil: Rabelais's Quart Livre and the Lure of Disenchantment

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Of Nightmares and Whale Oil: Rabelais's Quart Livre and the Lure of Disenchantment

Article excerpt

Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.

Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment 1

"The true image of the past flits by," writes Benjamin, and it stands to reason (255). The annals of human pain have swelled with ample precedent; the discontents of our modern era are bound to evoke those of another. But that is not all. In Benjamin's view, there exist "monads," wherein peoples past and present, no matter how far-flung, meet to embody each other's truth. Should the historian tune into this concordance--coiling through time like a hidden frequency--the intervening years would collapse, and now and then would convulse in mutual illumination .... Which is to say, certain historical motifs may at any moment become legible, while others recede into the murk from which, though formerly obscure (or in any case: of scant relevance), the newest batch has emerged.

Now, as the title of my article suggests, I intend to retrofit this theory to an analysis of the Quart Livre, relating troubles in the text to a twentieth-century paradox. This may sound like a recipe for gross anachronism, and maybe it is, but I refer skeptics to The Design of Rabelais's "Quart Livre" by Edwin Duval. Indeed, Duval tilts gallantly at the windmill of chronological chauvinism. He advocates instead a learned empathy, bidding us think as early moderns and setting, with his work, a splendid example. Such de rigueur pivots as "contrary to modern assumptions [...]" (1) thus read cumulatively like a mission statement: if we do not contextualize Les Faicts et dicts Heroiques du bon Pantagruel, we will fob our preoccupations off on the Renaissance and so fail to understand anything at all. Still, it is hard to imagine this study--attuned to the dangers of the closed system, suspicious of utopias, and relentless in its hunt for false tele--arising in (much less resonating with) any period prior to our own. Duval admits as much in an impassioned footnote:

   If the Quart Livre remains a painfully relevant book for us today
   it is precisely because our own century, like Rabelais' [...] has
   persisted in a headlong quest for the stasis of a definitive
   Answer, confirming in the process one of the most important
   underlying messages of Rabelais's last epic. From Stalinism,
   National Socialism, and the Cultural Revolution to Zionism, the
   Jihad, and the Christian Coalition, from the Shah to the Ayatollah,
   from Capetown to Jonestown, the chronicle of our times has
   confirmed Rabelais's fundamental insight that Utopias, Promised
   Lands, Supreme Authorities, and Absolute Values, are the stuff and
   substance of totalitarianism, imperialism, and oppression, and that
   there can be no Last Word without the most unspeakable of Final
   Solutions. (46-47)

Le Quart Livre, then, remains pertinent to our day and age. But does the obverse not hold true as well? The concepts of "imperialism," "totalitarianism," and even "oppression" do not merely have a history; they have been fashioned by history. Surely, the evils of autocracy and nation-state aggression have not always appeared as self-evident as they do to us (or so we flatter ourselves); nor have those evils always linked up, in such intimate cognation, to such an array of "-isms." When, in a Satanic parody of transubstantiation, Duval's anti-Caritas converts Last Words into Final Solutions, it transcends the religious wars that roiled Rabelais's age and invests the defining trauma of our own. Duval does not, for all that, fall prey to the anachronism that he decries. Rather, he acknowledges a plain truth: some aspects of the Quart Livre speak more clearly to us than to readers of any other era, including Rabelais's contemporaries. History has upturned a layer of embedded themes, made available (if briefly) for our inspection, while secreting others more deeply below. …

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