Rabelais and his World [Book Review]

Review of Metaphysics 23 (4):737-738 (1970)

This powerful, original, and tendentious book was written in 1940, published in Russia in 1965, and is now available in English. It suffers from many shortcomings--repetitiousness, oversimplification, the exclusion of material which fails to fit the author's thesis. It also inevitably reflects ignorance of scholarship since the thirties, which has tended to deny Rabelais' alleged agnosticism and nudged him closer to orthodoxy. But it represents nonetheless an important advance in the understanding of Rabelais' book, and defends provocatively an unfashionable theory of the Renaissance. Bakhtin lays heaviest stress on his author's freedom to play with authorized symbols and solemn institutions in the spirit of the carnival, a spirit deriving from folk humor. The common folk of town and country delighted in improprieties, turned all serious values and structures upside down, dwelt subversively and coarsely on the "bodily lower stratum." Just as food enters the body and is eliminated, so all authorized solemnity enters Pantagruel and is turned into fun. This peasant laughter remains unafraid before age and death because it recognizes the simultaneous destruction and creation in all experience. The medieval hierarchical conception of the universe is replaced in Rabelais and in the entire Renaissance by a new horizontal perspective upon the individual in history. This new perspective fastens particularly upon the body and renders it good-humoredly grotesque. Bakhtin seriously underestimates the breadth of both Renaissance religious feeling and neo-Platonic speculation as well as the strength of medieval survivals. But specific readings of Rabelais' text are genuinely enlightening even when they distort or simplify his meaning.--T. M. G.
Keywords Catholic Tradition  Contemporary Philosophy  General Interest
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ISBN(s) 0034-6632
DOI revmetaph197023470
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