What I Talk About When I Talk About Rabelais

I intended to open this blog much earlier, and with a more contextualizing post. Events, and life in general, have rather overtaken me, however, so I’m posting here, rather later than intended, but hopefully not without value.

My aim for this blog is to write quite specifically on the grotesque and laughing elements of science fiction: the Rabelaisian. This first true post, then, sets out some of that stall, and sits within a series of posts – The Rabelais/Bester Sequence – in which I will explore that concept with specific reference to the book from which this blog grew – Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.

But let’s begin with Rabelais himself.


Born in France at the end of the fifteenth century, Francois Rabelais grew up at a turning point in European history. His life saw the tail end of the Medieval period and the flowering of scientific, political and religious revolution. Practising as both a cleric and a physician, Rabelais was also a humanist who published comical pamphlets which critiqued authority and stressed individual liberty. Humanism of this period can be simplistically defined as an attempt to revitalize the values and knowledge of classical antiquity, and to offer this education pervasively, to all society, not just an elite few. Milan Kundera called him the founder of the novel – ‘in the eyes of nearly every great novelist of our time he is, along with Cervantes, the founder of an entire art, the art of the novel’ (New Yorker, 2007). And yet, in the same article, Kundera also notes how he is often placed low in importance by French literarians – in part, he suspects, because of his vulgarity. To our contemporary eyes, he is certainly extremely profane – curses and disgusting events litter the lives of Gargantua and his family – and yet he inspired Lawrence Sterne, Alfred Jarry (who, admittedly, is also quite coarse) Hilaire Belloc, and Honore de Balzac’s La Comédie humaine. Ultimately, Rabelais’ works are human – with all the gross and laughable elements that implies. We may have hierarchies, which are socially imposed, but we all shit.

By Гюстав Доре [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Гюстав Доре [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Rabelais most famous work, Gargantua and Pantagruel, embodies many of these ideas: egalitarianism, critique – whilst also throwing in their medico-fantastical discussions of the body and of language, and the ways in which these are perceived and used.* It is a story of excessive people, in the best sense of the term. Gargantua is born to a father, Grandgousier, and a mother, Gargamelle, in a profoundly (and I use that word in association with its many etymological relations) explosive, grotesque fashion – his mother being treated for diarrhoea, which treatment tightens up all relevant parts of her anatomy, he leaps up her body and crawls out through her left ear. His first call is for drink, and he continues his excess throughout his childhood and adulthood. His own son, Pantagruel, is so large that in being born, he kills his own mother, and his birth is surrounded by portents of his greatness. Their adventures, which are many, are a parade of oddity and, to our eyes, nonsensical and tasteless, but they are presented by Rabelais with admiration – almost hagiographic. Their excess is brightly coloured, their adventures strange and otherworldly: there lies an immediate parallel with pulp characters such as Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius, though we must be cautious, as ever, about over-emphasizing such associations.


I’m hoping that, in the following blogs, I will be able to uncover, and interrogate more subtlety than I can in this introduction, more parallels between Rabelais and science fiction. The Stars My Destination, to my eyes, is the perfect vehicle for this exploration: it’s (anti?)hero is excessive, in his laziness and in his lusts; marked out by his facial tattoos, which give him a gigantic personality in the public domain; its language and events are colourful, bright, excessive, outlandish; its language buoyant, twisted and coarse. In these blogs I’ll talk about language, laughter, the carnivalesque, sensuality, sexuality, the body, parodies, death and rebirth, hierarchy, fear, the grotesque, madness and utopia. I hope you’ll come and join me.

*In the Renaissance, the ‘rehabilitation of the flesh’ was a reaction against the body-denying asceticism of the religious life of the Middle Ages (Bakhtin, 1984, 18).

Bakhtin, M., Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky, Indiana University Press, 1984

Kundera, M., ‘Die Weltliteratur: European novelists and modernism’, The New Yorker, January 8, 2007


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