Tag Archives: Rabelais

Marginalia, no.156

He had a vulgar inclination to make everything clear… He couldn’t see that to grasp a delicate thing outright was often to crush it.

~ Charles Portis, Masters of Atlantis

The principle of therapeutic mystification: that occultation of a thing proves beneficial.  The witch-doctor nods; the writer, artist, philosopher, theologian, and academic too. ‘Apollo, the god of prophecy,’ says Rabelais, ‘is surnamed Loxias, the Indirect.’ He’s also patron of music, poetry, the arts, medicine, and truth.

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Marginalia, no.147

I can see the hair on your head turning grey already.  Your beard looks to me like a map of the world with its mixture of greys and whites, of reds and blacks.  Look here.  See, this is Asia; here are the Tigris and Euphrates.  Here are the mountains of the Moon.  Do you see the Nile marshes?

~ Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Book III

Today I cross the thirty-seventh parallel and time’s geography lessons feel a little tedious.  Somewhere in Anthony Powell’s Music of Time Nick Jenkins says that a man never feels so old as he does in his middle thirties.  I hope that’s true.  It’s a pleasant thought to someday find myself contented in child-like antiquity, white-haired and bent, standing ankle-deep in the Nile marshes.

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More Pygmies vs Cranes

In Rabelais’s second book we read how the giant Pantagruel by a miraculous fart created the race of pygmies, after which “he sent them to live on an island close by, where they have multiplied mightily.  But the cranes make a continual war on them, and they put up a courageous defense.”  Again, in Rabelais’s third book, a truculent sheep-dealer informs Panuge that the ribs of Lanternland sheep are used by the pygmies “for making little bows to shoot cherry-stones at the cranes.”

If you read The New Psalmanazar at all frequently and the above sounds oddly familiar, you may be thinking, as I was, of the quote I shared some time ago from Matteo Ricci’s Impossible Black Tulip, an oversized map of the world the wily Jesuit made for the Chinese emperor in 1602.  An inscription on the map indicating a territory in the far north of Russia describes a ‘Country of the Dwarfs’ where, according to Ricci, a race of little people live precariously under constant threat from cranes.  They take refuge in caves, he says, and charge out periodically on goatback to make war on their foes.

I may very well be the last fellow in the room to have grasped what’s going on here, but I asked myself:  Did Ricci borrow the idea from Rabelais?  Or is there more to it than that?  The answer to the second question, it turns out, is: Far more.  It didn’t take any great amount of digging to discover that the story of the pygmies and cranes has a more antique pedigree than I had guessed.  It occurs, for example, in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History and shows up again and again in various other works over a period of over two millennia.  It seems to have first emerged from the murk of oral history in a passage from Book III of the Iliad, which I had managed somehow to forget.  There, Homer (via Fitzgerald below) describes the Greek battle lines fanning out across the plain of Troy:

…………………wave on wave, like cranes
in clamorous lines before the face of heaven,
beating away from winter’s gloom and storms,
over the streams of Ocean, hoarsely calling,
to bring a slaughter on the Pygmy warriors –
cranes at dawn descending, beaked in cruel attack.

Since unraveling this for myself I’ve also discovered a 2007 post from Michael Gilleland of Laudator Temporis Acti which suggests, to me, an interesting reading of the myth.  Gilleland juxtaposes the passage from Homer with a quote from Charles Eastman’s autobiographical Indian Boyhood, in which Eastman (a Dakota Sioux) recounts adventures with his brother that include the snatching of eggs and nestlings from ducks and geese and other birds.  One day, as he tells the story, they trespassed on the nest of a pair of cranes, who rose to the defense of their little ones:

It was really a perilous encounter! Our strong bows finally gained the victory in a hand-to-hand struggle with the angry cranes; but after that we hardly ever hunted a crane’s nest.  Almost all birds make some resistance when their eggs or young are taken, but they will seldom attack man fearlessly.

If in Homer we have the childhood of cultural memory, then in Eastman we have the memory of a particular childhood.  If in Homer we have little people in the form of pygmy warriors, in Eastman we have child warriors too.  One almost suspects Eastman of making a literary joke, but the pre-Homeric version of the myth must have some plausible scenario for its genesis and perhaps Eastman gives us a glimpse of something like it. 

Gilleland’s pairing of the quotes is wonderfully suggestive.  The psychological interpretation of myth can be a wooly affair, I know, but I’m led to wonder if the little people on the distant shore of Homer’s Okeanos don’t represent the heroic light and glory of childhood, and the cranes, ‘beaked in cruel attack,’ the violence of time and events which conspire day by day and year by year to irrevocably separate us from what we may come to look back upon, helplessly, as a personal primordial paradise.

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Marginalia, no.119

Owe your banker £1,000 and you are at his mercy; owe him £1 million and the position is reversed.

~ John Maynard Keynes

Panurge in Rabelais’s third book insists that “nature has created man for no other purpose but to lend and borrow.”  Vision is borrowed from light, breath from air, the atomic materials of flesh and blood from ancient exploded stars.  Life is a usurious circle guaranteeing insolvency, after which our effects are taken up by others.  My mother warned me not to “borrow trouble” by worrying over things that were in God’s hands.  Maybe there’s as much trouble in insufficiently mortgaging oneself.  Keynes would rewrite Polonius’ advice to Laertes: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be – but if you borrow, owe big.”

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Marginalia, no.114

So far as I am concerned, I would have every man put aside his proper business, take no care for his trade, and forget his own affairs, in order to devote himself entirely to this blog.

~ Rabelais

Needless to say, I’m flattered.  Thank you, François…  Let me explain, friends.  Last night I opened my copy of the URPO to see what some of my personal heroes made of my little project here at The New Psalmanazar.  I’ve put a selection of their responses on the sidebar below the archive links.  Some of these responses, you’ll note, are a little ambiguous.  But I believe in charitable interpretation and so receive them all in the best possible humor.

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The Virgilian Lots

My wife asked what I was doing with the dice.  “Divination,” I said.

On the train coming home from San Francisco yesterday I read the portion of Rabelais’ third book in which Panurge begins to wonder if he should marry.  Pantagruel suggests he test his fortune by the Virgilian Lots.  “Bring me the works of Virgil,” he says. “If you open it three times at random, and on the page that your finger strikes read the lines whose number we have agreed on, then we can explore your future as a husband.”

Having already given my soul to the devil by playing with a Ouija board (age eight) and chanting “I believe in Bloody Mary” before a mirror in a dark room (age nine), I thought I might as well try the Virgilian Lots.  I had no specific question to pose.  It’s been eleven years since the wedding bells rang for me, so Panurge’s problem isn’t mine.  But I thought I might simply present myself, in the form of a question mark, for the general sentence of the oracle.

Following the example of Pantagruel and Panurge, I took my copy of the Aeneid from the shelf, the Robert Fitzgerald translation.  I ransacked the game closet and found some dice.  I saw there were about thirty lines on each page of my copy of the Aeneid, so I rolled five times and added up the results: 14.  In order to avoid garbled prophecies, I decided that if the fourteenth line on the page weren’t a complete sentence I would instead take the whole sentence of which it was a part for my answer.

I opened the book at random.  My first trial landed me on the following lines from Book IV:

Why will he not allow my prayers to fall
On his unpitying ears?

I’m not sure what to do with this.  The words are Dido’s.  Should I put myself in her place?  Am I the one whose prayers go unanswered?  Or am I playing Aeneas to someone else’s Dido and being pitiless and unsympathetic?  Maybe, I thought, my second trial will help clarify things.  I found myself, then, in Book X, with these lines:

Either you stay here for the carrion birds
Or the sea takes you under, hungry fishes
Nibble your wounds.

A dilemma.  I think that, given the choice, I would rather be nibbled by fishes.  Prometheus is famously pecked at by birds, but I imagine he’s bad company.  Under the waves I could hobnob with Milton’s school pal, Edward ‘Lycidas’ King.  He’s sure to have some dish on the old poet.  How any of this relates to falling prayers and unpitying ears, I don’t know. But my last trial brought me the following lines from Book II:

………………And out we go in joy
To see the Dorian campsites, all deserted,
The beach they left behind.

This sounds more encouraging.  My enemies have decamped.  I am alive, though Troy is fallen.  Were my prayers finally answered?  Will I pass unscathed through the jaws of Dilemma like Odysseus through the monstery Strait of Messina?  Encouraging, maybe, but still unsatisfying.

As a child I knew people who used the Bible for divination.  Peter De Vries describes the phenomenon in The Blood of the Lamb.  You start by holding the book up with its spine resting on the table.  Then you quickly remove your hands and let it fall open and with eyes closed point a finger randomly at the page.  Whatever question you had put to God, the answer was in that verse.  (“Moab is my washpot” was the omniscient reply in the De Vries book.)  I wonder how long people have been using books this way, whether the Bible or Virgil or the I Ching, or whatever?

So much for my experiment with the Virgilian Lots.  As one comes to expect with oracles, the answers I was given were as doubtful as the question I had posed, which was myself.  Perhaps I’ll try it again in the future with something other than the Aeneid, something more playful.  Maybe Breakfast of Champions or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

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Marginalia, no.107

This wine is so good and delicious, that the more I drink thereof the more I am athirst.

~ Rabelais, Pantagruel

The line is spoken by Panurge but the sentiment is echoed in the ‘Hagarene’ etymology Rabelais offers for his hero’s name, which he renders “all-thirsty.”  Mynheer Peeperkorn, resident of Mann’s Magic Mountain, had the same complaint.  He was perpetually parched but wouldn’t touch water; he only drank wine.  Insatiability is both burden and joy in our Dionysian mode: the best things never satisfy.

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