The first offender

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“The first offender” appeared in the PEN / Penguin anthology Free Expression Is No Offence, a collection of articles dedicated to the threatened cause of freedom of expression, in December 2005


Humanism, the individual’s claim to liberty, the primacy of private enterprise and private conscience in a context of shared human rights — the great surge of new ideas that 500 years ago became the common stock of European values began with the learning of a new language. To be more specific, the revival of an old language. The acquisition of classical Greek, moribund till the late fifteenth century, was the key to the Renaissance. The Christian Church understood this power of language well enough to interdict it (as it was soon to interdict the Bible in the vernacular). In France, alarmed by the appearance of Erasmus’s commentary on St Luke and by the idea of independent scholars who would read the New Testament in Greek and offer their own interpretations, the Faculty of Theology at the Sorbonne forbade the study of Greek across the country. One of those to fall foul of the decree was a young, highly schooled Franciscan from Indre-et-Loire named François Rabelais — Rabelais, whose wit and incendiary satire on the Church would rapidly see him marked down as the first great offender.

Already respected for his studies in Latin, astronomy, philology and law, around 1520 Rabelais, ignoring the decree from Paris, discreetly found himself a Greek teacher. His superiors found out and confiscated his books. It was the future novelist’s first confrontation with a Church he honoured but failed, throughout his life, to agree with. What was at stake? By 1528, when Rabelais finally reached Paris, the Church was confronting the Protestant heresy, with which he sympathised; but the roots of his critique lay deeper, in a boyhood drenched in the natural pleasures of the vineyards and orchards of the Vienne, near Chinon. It had bequeathed to him a paradoxical temperament: spiritually drawn to the Church, intellectually drawn to argument, he was a scholar devoted to scholarship and to laughter. In his personality lies all the coincidence of opposites: the highest meets the lowest, scholarship meets drunkenness, the religious impulse meets the sexual and excretory. And his toy, his supreme pleasure, is language. As the novelist Anatole France writes, “Rabelais plays with words as children do with pebbles; he piles them up into heaps.”

Why does Rabelais remain significant? Why return to him and not to Erasmus, Ulrich von Hutten, or Martin Luther? Because, beginning with the publication of Pantagruel in 1532, he not only willingly exposed himself to mortal risks that more recent writers have been forced to take, but won a first victory for the principle that thought and expression may not be limited by Church or state. Let us not slip into hero-worship: Rabelais was hardly a model of a Renaissance man. He is barely concerned with individuals at all, apart from himself, and he is not, except in the broadest sense, a philosopher. Yet his satirical bandwagon, driven at full tilt at the edifice of religious orthodoxy, is powered by curiosity as much as mischief. He wants to discover for himself humankind’s place in the world, and find out what a portrait of his age resembles. In the four books of Gargantua and Pantagruel (he almost certainly didn’t compose the Fifth) his exploration is as erudite as it is riotous: we are witness to the scholastic education of the time, the controversies of Paris, the idiocies of students and larcenies of lawyers, the arrogance of militarists and the foolishness of theologians. We are invited to share what would now be the author’s misogyny, but which yields an image of relations between the sexes that is sufficiently accurate and funny to be appreciated by Marguerite of Navarre. (And if we believe the Rabelais scholar Madeleine Lazard, women in the sixteenth century were as lascivious, if not more so, than men.) All this we see from the perspective of giants, whose laughter is the indulgent bellow of complicated recognition, of men who have explored the breadth of life’s contradictions.

Retribution was swift. In October 1533 the Sorbonne condemned the bestselling Pantagruel on the grounds of obscenity. Rabelais found it prudent to leave for several months for Rome, as physician to his protector Jean du Bellay, then Bishop of Paris. Returning at first cautiously to practise medicine in Lyons, he retaliated with Gargantua. Laughter became perilous: the book’s systematic satire on the priesthood and monasticism so outraged theologians that Rabelais had to go into hiding. Du Bellay, now Cardinal, took him back to Rome, and probably only powerful patronage and well timed exile saved him from the stake. Accommodation with the king led to his being forced to make his peace with the Sorbonne, though it refused to lift its ban and when in 1546 Rabelais published the Third Book — miscellaneous in its scholarship and generally blandly avoiding clerical subjects — it was also banned. The story of his disfavour went on: his Fourth Book was also condemned and its author named as a heretic first-class for his send-up of the Papacy. There were rumours that he was in prison; then, a year later, in April 1553 he died in his early sixties in Paris. “Tirez le rideau, la farce est jouée” were the dying man’s last words. (“Bring down the curtain, the comedy’s done.”)

Today, in the twenty-first century, Rabelais’ work remains intestate but essential. All efforts to rival the scale of his comedy or the exuberance of his language, except, just possibly, those of Laurence Sterne or James Joyce, have failed. The essayist and moralist Jean de la Bruyère notes that “His book is a riddle which may be considered inexplicable. Where it is bad, it is beyond the worst; it has the charm of the rabble; where it is good it is excellent and exquisite; it may be the daintiest of dishes.” The Catholic Encyclopaedia continues to declare that “As a whole it exercises a baneful influence.” To which one might reply, the Church rightly notes a continuity of influence. This creator of giants still influences us, because his work is ingrained with authenticity. What he gives to his first readers as comic speculations turns out to be absolutely true: the first to give us descriptions of physical functions as integral to human beings, rather than the lower half of a vertical dichotomy, he is also the first to give us satires on self-serving priests as the truth of an abusive Church. Birth, copulation, death, soul, mind, body, aspiration, anxiety, physical pleasure: he gives us all these together, for the first time offering us the whole human.

Rabelais was the author of a moment that will not return (he was also the first to demonstrate what modern novelists like to call the novel’s possibilities, that it can and will do anything its author wants). In social terms, he demonstrated that the novel could reach people with truths that could hardly be conveyed any other way. Most fundamentally of all, perhaps, he showed how, in fiction, there is enshrined a principle (and one that was not enshrined politically for another 150 years): the right to speak without fear of reprisal. In Mme Lazard’s words, “Rabelais’ work is an act of confidence in the individual. He has contributed to the emergence of a new idea of what humankind is, of ‘modern man and woman’, [liberating] them from the effects of a paralysing determinism, restoring to them all their human force.”

It was not a foregone conclusion that the Renaissance should turn into a flight from the authority of the Church. To Renaissance thinkers, seeing no contradiction between their humanism and their faith, it did not seem that it should. In the Church’s eyes however the reformers could not be allowed to come within striking distance of its vast political influence. There is of course a parallel here. It is political power not private faith which is the motor of religious conflict and intolerance in Iraq and Northern Ireland, in Afghanistan and the USA, exactly as in 16th-century France. There is always potential conflict between religious hierarchies whose strategies are expansionist but conservative, and individuals whose faith is potentially subversive. (In case it is of interest, I write here as an Orthodox Christian.) The historian Norman Davies notes that even 500 years later, Catholic theologians are still prone to view the Renaissance not as “the Middle Ages plus Man, but the Middle Ages minus God”, and that American Protestants are no less forgiving: “The Renaissance is the real cradle of that very un-Christian concept: the autonomous individual.”

Yet the West’s belief in the individual has survived. Not without some bruising along the way: in the 1890s Oscar Wilde in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, hailed the connection between art and individualism, but the following century’s mass movements, hailed in their own beginnings, were supremely contemptuous. Like my fellow writers I suspect I seek balance here — the distance between a cult of the mass and the Eighties individual who asserts that “There is no such thing as society” is very short  — so it seems to me that we must take care.

We must take care to defend individuals, and to defend the threads by which we consider ourselves societies. Democracy may suffice, though not a democracy with a swollen bureaucracy and a feverish legislative gleam in its eye, or one with contempt or ignorance for the necessary balance between humanity’s private sphere — personality, sexuality, faith — and its public — welfare, plurality, tolerance. Freedom of expression that begins in the private sphere emerges into the public via whatever medium is chosen, and is balanced by the right to peaceful protest. As individuals we too must take care of the balance between the place where we keep to ourselves and the place where we come together and where our greatest liberties operate. We must take care that religious groups, for their reasons, do not try to abolish the public / private distinction to create, like the 16th-century Church, the world in the image of their laws; and we must take care that governments, for theirs, do not turn the public space into their private arena where policy and expediency congregate, rather than principles. We must take care that, having acquired the language to state our priorities, as Renaissance scholars their Greek, no one is ever forbidden to express his or her opinions about the prevailing structures of power.

At this point, surely, we need a few jokes. Find them in the pages of Rabelais, great offender, draughtsman of the Renaissance, who did not laugh at trivia; you will see that this discontinuous, untrustworthy world is marvellous in its comedy. For Rabelais it is the agelastoi, the “grave, gloomy, sullen”, those who do not laugh at the world’s badness and madness, who are the unhealthy tendency. “Le rire est le propre de l’homme”. His words still hold true. “Laughter is humanity’s special attribute.” And five hundred years later the agelastoi are still with us. They are the fundamentalists, the bombers and beheaders, but they are no less legion in our political, intellectual, and religious circles. We must take care to laugh, and to defend the right to laughter.


© Julian Evans 2005

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