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Panurge, Perplexity, and the Ironic Design of Rabelais's Tiers Livre

  • Edwin M. Duval (a1)


Despite a good deal of excellent work on Rabelais's Tiers Livre in the last thirty years, some of the most fundamental issues of the book have not yet been satisfactorily resolved. The character of Panurge, for example, has been explained in a variety of mutually exclusive ways, all of which are plausible but none of them absolutely compelling. Panurge has been understood as a positive character whose noble quest for an absolute Answer serves to reveal the limits of existing human knowledge, and to expose the vain pretensions of the learned. He has also been understood as precisely the opposite: a negative character whose self-love blinds him to the Evangelical wisdom of characters like Pantagruel and Hippothadée. And most recently he has been understood as neither of these, but rather as a pretext for, and an agent of, Rabelais's own verbal virtuosity, or of a ludic inquiry into the nature of language.



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1 This is most notably the view of Saulnier, V.-L., Le dessein de Rabelais (Paris, 1957).

2 This is the prevailing view, argued most convincingly and consistently by Screech, M. A., from The Rabelaisian Marriage: Aspects of Rabelais's Religion, Ethics and Comic Philosophy (London, 1958) to his monumental Rabelais (Ithaca, 1979).

3 Gray, Floyd, “Structure and Meaning in the Prologue to the Tiers Livre ,” L'Esprit createur, 3 (1963), 5762 , Glauser, Alfred, Rabelais créateur (Paris, 1966), and Rigolot, François, Les langages de Rabelais, Etudes Rabelaisiennes, 10 (Geneva, 1972) are perhaps the most important and influential works in this tradition.

4 Among the many recent studies devoted exclusively to the character of Panurge the most probing and insightful are those of Gérard Defaux. See “De Pantagruel au Tiers Livre: Panurgeet le pouvoir,” Etudes Rabelaisiennes, 13 (1976), 163-80, and “Rhétorique humaniste et sceptique chrétienne dans la première moitié du XVIe siècle: Empédocle, Panurge, et la ‘vana gloria’,” Revue d'Histoire Littéraire de la France, 82 (1982), 3-22.

5 The extent of Rabelais's irony has often been underestimated by scholars who attempt to pin him down by separating the “serious” passages, in which he says straight out what a really means, from the “comic” passages, in which he is only fooling. But of course none of the greatest and most characteristic works of the Renaissance functions this way. From the simple irony of the Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum to the vertiginous multivalence of Stultitia in the Encomium Moriae, the Renaissance offers countless indications that its most serious messages are committed to, and are in fact inseparable from, the most ironic expression. Recent studies have been more sensitive to the nature of Rabelais's text, pointing to the inseparableness of thought and the language that conveys it. (In addition to the works cited in note 3 above, see Cave, Terence, The Cornucopian Text: Problems of Writing in the French Renaissance [Oxford, 1979], pp. 183222). Frequently, however, these studies tend to concern themselves primarily with thought about language, so that the consubstantiality of form and meaning becomes ultimately a question of self-reflexiveness or of écriture. But Rabelais's book contains thoughts about religion, politics, and moral philosophy too, and it is the relation between this order of “thought” and literary form that will be of primary interest to us here.

6 The text adopted in all quotations from the Tiers Livre is that of the critical edition by M. A. Screech, Textes Littéraires Français (Geneva, 1964). The numbers between parentheses refer to chapter and page numbers in this edition.

7 This is in fact a wide-spread view, espoused most vigorously perhaps by Dorothy Coleman, who considers the Tiers Livre to be simply a Menippean satire. See Rabelais: A Critical Study in Prose Fiction (Cambridge, 1971), pp. 110-40. A more interesting approach to the sequence of consultations is taken by Saulnier in Le dessein de Rabelais, and by Kaiser, Walter in Praisers of Folly: Erasmus, Rabelais, Shakespeare (Cambridge [Mass.], 1963), both of whom observe a linear progression in these episodes.

8 Even Epistemon's diction recalls Pantagruel's: “C'est (respondit Epistemon) abus trop evident et fable trop fabuleuse. Je ne iray pas… . Voyezcy (dist Epistemon continuant) toutesfoys que ferez, avant que retournons vers nostre Roy, si me croyez” (TL 24-25, 175-76). In uttering these words Epistemon is merely parroting his absent master's remarks preceding the first consultation of the series: “Non, respondit Pantagruel. Ce sort est abusif, illicite et grandement scandaleux. Jamais ne vous y fiez… . Pour toutesfoys vous satisfaire, bien suys d'advis que jectez troys dez sus ceste table” (TL ii, 87-88).

9 The introduction to the Tiers Livre consists of a closely linked pair of chapters whose function is double: (i) to provide a narrative bridge between the epic battle of Pantagruel and the peace-time perplexity of a tired veteran in the Tiers Livre, and (2) to establish, in a political and economic context, a diametrical opposition between the two principal characters of this new sequel—chapter 1 describes the Good Government of Pantagruel in managing his colony of Utopians in Dipsodie, while chapter 2 describes the corresponding Bad Government of Panurge in mismanaging his castellany of Salmiguondin. This double introductory function of chapters 1 and 2 suffices to set them off from the rest of the book, and to justify their non-participation in its symmetry.

10 In the first edition of the Tiers Livre published in 1546 this absolute symmetry was reflected even in the numbering of its chapters. The total of forty-seven chapters was divided in such a way that, after the first two introductory chapters, the central chapter was both preceded and followed by exactly twenty-two chapters:

By subdividing some of the later chapters in his definitive 1552 edition, bringing the total number of chapters to fifty-two (possibly in order to reflect the year of publication), Rabelais destroyed the numerical balance without, however, altering in any way the substantive symmetries based on the content of the episodes themselves.

11 The rough grouping of four oracles against four learned specialists is the only approximation in what is otherwise a point-for-point symmetrical ordering of every individual episode. But even within the corresponding quartets there are some specific correspondences, the most obvious of which is the question of the legitimacy of dice which is raised in both the sortes and the Bridoye episodes. In the former, Pantagruel exclaims of dice: “Ce sort estabusif, illicite et grandement scandaleux. Jamais ne vous y fiez. Le mauldict livre du passe temps des dez feut, long temps a, inventé par le calumniateur ennemyen Achaïe près Boure” (TL II, 87). In the latter, Epistemon (or Pantagruel, according to the edition) hypothesizes that Bridoye, fearing the “fraulde du Calumniateur infernal,” may have had legitimate recourse to dice, “commedisent les Talmudistes en sort n'estre mal aulcun contenu, seulement par sort estre, en anxieté et doubte des humains, manifestée la volunté divine” (TL 44, 299 and 300).

12 Many of the smaller details of this central triptych serve to reinforce its symmetry. One striking example is a reference to the advent of Christ by the classical scholar Epistemon in chapter 24 (“Mais vous sçavez que tous [les oracles] sont de venuz plus mutz que poissons, depuys la venue de celluy Roy servateur on quel ont prins fin tous oracles et toutes propheties, comme, advenente la lumiere du clair soleil, disparent tous lutins, lamies, lemures, guarous, farfadetz et tenebrions,” pp. 173-74), to which corresponds a reference to the second coming of Christ by the Christian monk Frère Jan in chapter 26 (“Vouldrois tu bien qu'on te trouvast les couilles pleines au jugement, dum venerit judicare?” p. 190). Framed by the two advents is a reference in chapter 25 by the demonic Panurge to the Devil and the Antichrist: “A trente Diables soit le coqu, cornu, marrane, sorrier au Diable, enchanteur de l'Antichrist!” (p. 186).

13 For a concise treatment of symmetrical composition in both Classical and Renaissance literature, see Fowler, Alastair, Triumphal Forms: Structural Patterns in Elizabethan Poetry (Cambridge, 1970), especially chapters 4 (“Numerology of the Centre”) and 5 (“Styles of Symmetry”). Fowler recapitulates the demonstration of symmetrical composition in the Iliad by Cedric Whitman, in Vergil's Eclogues by Paul Maury, in the Aeneid by Brooks Otis, and discusses the symmetry of numerous poems of the English Renaissance—most notably Spenser's Epithalamion and Faerie Queen. For similar patterns in the design of Shakespeare's plays, see Rose, Mark, Shakespearean Design (Cambridge [Mass.], 1972).

14 See Fowler, , Triumphal Forms, pp. 9199 and following. To cite just two of the best known examples of works that highlight a center, Dante sets the crucial discourse on Love at the very center of his Commedia (Purgatorio XVII), and Montaigne explicitly designates the numerical center of his first book of Essais as a place of honor in which to display a “tableau riche, poly et formé selon l'art”—that is, Etienne de la Boétie's Servitude volontaire (see the beginning of “De l'amitié,” Essais I, 28). François Rigolot has recently discussed the importance of the central chapter of Pantagruel in the context of this tradition. See “La ‘conjointure’ du ‘Pantagruel’: Rabelais et la tradition médiévale,” Littérature, 41 (1981), “Intertextualités médiévales,” pp. 93-103.

15 “Retournons vers nostre Roy. Je suys asceuré que de nous content ne sera, s'il entend une foys que soyons icy venuz en la tesniere de ce diable engiponné. Je me repens d'y estre venu” (TL 25, 186).

16 Twenty-nine in the 1546 edition, where the two parts of Her Trippa's diatribe appeared to be more nearly balanced in terms of length.

17 M. A. Screech has pointed out that this speech is made up entirely of adages and similes drawn from a short sequence in Erasmus’ Adagia having to do with the themes of modesty and self-examination (Adagia I. vi. 83-95). The framework of the speech is provided by portions of Erasmus’ commentary on “Aedibus in nostris quae prava aut recta geruntur” (, but into this matrix Rabelais has inserted bits of commentary on neighboring proverbs in the same series. (See Screech's notes to this passage in TL 25, 180-81, and his excellent explication de texte in The Art of Criticism: Essays in French Literary Analysis, ed. Peter H. Nurse [Edinburgh, 1969], pp. 27-39.) The essential point to be noted here is not so much the fact of Rabelais's borrowing but his choice and especially his arrangement of fragments from the Adagia, reorganized in such a way as to extend the book's perfect symmetry to its very center. All quotations from the Adagia are from volume II of Desiderii Erasmi Opera Omnia, ed. J. LeClerc, 10 vols. (Leyden, 1703-6; rpt. Hildesheim, 1961-62).

18 “… Quo festiviter Martialis Ollum quendam notat, qui malorum alienorum erat observator curiosissimus, et taxator acerrimus, cum ipse uxorem haberet adulteram … ” (Adagia

19 That is, an “ostentator divitiarum” in whom is found “fastum cum paupertate conjunctum,” according to Erasmus (Adagia

20 “Plutarchus, πoλυπραγμoσύvηv definit, , i.e. Curiositatem, studium aliena mala cognoscendi. Atque id hominum genus lamiis similes ait, quae domi oculos reconditos habent, foras egressurae reponunt. Atque ita fit, ut domi caecutiant, foris sint oculatissimae” (Adagia

21 Panurge thus appears, like Her Trippa, to be a kind of anti-Socrates. His quest for an Answer indeed bears a striking external resemblance to the “pilgrimage” described by Socrates in the Apology. But whereas Socrates began by inquiring into the knowledge of others and eventually arrived at a higher form of wisdom consisting of a knowledge of himself, Panurge begins by consulting others about himself (“Me doibs je marier? Ne seray je point cocu?”), only to discover the inadequacies in the wisdom of others. Socrates’ wisdom consists in learning his own ignorance from the disguised folly of others; Panurge's folly consists in seeking his own knowledge from the apparent wisdom of others.

22 In his commentary on the adage “Festucam ex alterius oculo eiicere” (Adagia Erasmus refers his reader to Matthew 7:1—5, and paraphrases the parable thus: “aliorum vel minimis vitiis offenduntur, suis et maximis blandiuntur.” I quote here from the corresponding passage in Luke because the implications of the parable are more clearly spelled out in that version. The Latin translation quoted here is that of Erasmus’ own Testamentum Novum(Paris: Simon de Colines, 1532), which I have been able to consult in the Special Collections department of the library of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

23 I do not wish to suggest of course that this crucial issue is the only issue of the Tiers Livre, or even that it is necessarily the most important one. There is clearly more to Panurge's perplexity than self-love/self-knowledge, more to the consultations than Panurge's perplexity, and much more to the Tiers Livre than the consultations. It would be absurd to claim that the meaning of such a rich and varied book might be reduced to a single revelation at its center. The conclusion to which we have been led here should perhaps be considered not as a keystone but a cornerstone, less the “mot” to the Tiers Livre itself than a fixed point from which to approach other problems in the book, some of which might well prove to be of more far-reaching significance than this one.

Panurge, Perplexity, and the Ironic Design of Rabelais's Tiers Livre

  • Edwin M. Duval (a1)


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