Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Loser Like Jane Austen

Many times over the years as I’ve taught parts of Tristan und Isolde, I’ve told students that only two love plots exist. When you go to see a show with a title in the form Boy’s-name and Girl’s-name, there are only two possibilities: either boy and girl will despise each other at first and end up married, or boy and girl will love each other at first and end up dead. I offer that oversimplification as an attention grabber, but it helps a lot when I play the first ten seconds of the Prelude and ask the class, “So, how do Tristan and Isolde end up?” And the two-part division holds true for the most part. All’s Well that Ends Well and Romeo and Juliet offer quintessential examples of the two plots.

But in the last few years, I’ve had to change my theory. I’ve noticed a variation on plot no. 1 that’s both more appealing and more common. In the new model I have in mind, boy and girl don’t have to overcome hatred for each other but the stigma of marrying someone society deems odd. Girl especially has to look odd in the eyes of the world for this plot to work. And no one makes it work better than Jane Austen. First of all, her heroines aren’t generally known for either their beauty or their wealth, so of course society won’t view them as marriageable material. Darcy, for example, makes it explicit at first that Elizabeth isn’t pretty enough for him. More importantly, all Austen’s heroines are intelligent, or “clever” as she usually puts it. Catherine and Fanny even read books! What in the world is a girl supposed to do with an education, society asks? She’s a funny girl, that Belle.

Of course this plot appeals to people. Ironically, people love losers. Calling someone a loser often comes only as a defense against admiring someone we can’t be. But in a book or a show, we can drop our guard and love the lovable loser freely. Who wouldn’t want to know Norm Peterson or even be Norm Peterson? He may be overweight. He may not be happy in his marriage. But every night he goes to a place where “everybody knows his name.” The “kids” on Glee call themselves “Lima Losers.” They may get slushees in the face, but the insight they set to music near the end of season 2 runs deep: “Hit me with the worst you got and knock me down. Soon enough you’ll figure out you want to be a loser like me.”

(OK, prepare for understatement.) Jane Austen knows what to do with the lovable loser better than Ryan Murphy – even better than James Burrows and the Charles brothers. Making her girls intelligent means that the reader, who must be intelligent to read the books, automatically identifies with the heroines. Austen even explicitly makes avid reading a part of the oddness of Catherine (Northanger Abbey) and Fanny (Mansfield Park). How clever is that? Readers of both genders will immediately see themselves in these adventurers on the sea of paper and ink, no matter what the other characters think, and they will love them.

But here’s where Jane Austen gets really smart. Not every character in a Jane Austen novel sees the heroine as a social misfit; one fellow has to figure it out, or there’s no ending to the book. And that means that every reader of either gender, having seen the appeal of the heroine from the beginning, will identify with the hero as well.

Jane’s girls are all special in a good way, and every reader needs assurance that he, too, is special in a good way and not just a weirdo. He gets that assurance from seeing a young person of underappreciated intelligence painted in a favorable light. He gets that assurance from the appreciation the heroine receives from one other special character by the end of the book. He gets that assurance from the happiness that the perceptive hero finds in the intelligent girl. And he gets that assurance from the knowledge that enough other readers have seen the point to keep these books in print for two-hundred years. Thanks, Jane Austen, for letting me be a loser like you.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Golden Mouth

John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople in the late fourth century, left behind a huge collection of sermons – more than six hundred of them. Exegetical in nature, each sermon proceeds verse by verse, sometimes phrase by phrase, through a passage of Scripture and explains its meaning while revealing nuances, implications, attitudes, and excluded alternatives. Like many pastors today influenced by Chrysostom’s tradition, he seemed to preach long series of sermons, each systematically covering all the material in a given book of the Bible. And they must have had enormous effect at the time: John’s contemporaries praised his eloquence by calling him “Chrysostom,” the “Golden Mouth.”

This month I read the first thirteen of his sermons on the letter of Paul to the Romans. I learned several things about the letter, about the historical situations at Paul’s time and at Chrysostom’s time, and about Byzantine theology of the fourth century (which is remarkably similar to mine). I kept wondering if John delivered these sermons one per week – in which case, it would have taken him seven months to finish the series on Romans and over a year to finish his sermon series on the book of the Acts of the Apostles – and who and how many came to hear him. Chrysostom demanded a lot of his congregation, whoever they were. It seems he expected the listeners to be very familiar with the texts; he even starts the series on Romans by saying that Christians have an obligation to read the words of Paul themselves and to understand them. He certainly expected the congregation to have the patience and intelligence to sit (or stand?) through long, detailed arguments and explanations.

Here are some of the specific points that stood out to me:

• After Paul has described God’s judgment on the foolishness of the world, he says that the Creator is blessed forever (1:25). Chrysostom says the phrase indicates that God is not injured at all by either the world’s sin or the insults directed at Him. We, too, should let insults roll off our backs and remember that they hurt the insulter more than they do the insulted. You wouldn’t feel hurt by the insult of a child, he says; threat your adult acquaintances the same way. I need this advice, but the first argument, that the insulter hurts himself more than he hurts me, makes more sense to me. Unfortunately, I can be hurt by the insults of a child.

• Forget punishment and reward, Chrysostom says. Make the state of your soul and your relationship with God its own punishment or reward.

• We should treat all suffering the same as a voluntary sacrifice. Bearing it nobly strengthens our soul more than our laxity in good circumstances. So be thankful for both good and bad.

• Voluntary virginity, voluntary poverty, and contempt of death (as in the martyrs) were rarely seen among those under the Law; their prevalence among Christians show the power of the Spirit that has set us free from the law of sin and death.

John’s sermons are clear, instructive, and powerful. His careful readings and explanations show that the “I” in the second half of chapter 7 does not stand for Paul but for any human before and during the time of Moses, that “flesh” doesn’t always mean the body, and that “death” means at least four different things in this letter. And the  exhortation at the end of each sermon appealing to his hearers to live a life worthy of the grace God has given them moved and inspired me halfway around the globe after 1600 years and at least one translation. Whoever his original listeners were, I agree with them in ascribing to John a Golden Mouth.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Words and Action

A nineteenth-century poem of uncertain authorship tells of a centipede whose excessive thought paralyzed her:
A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, "Pray, which leg moves after which?"
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.
I thought of this centipede recently while reading Religious Affections, in which Jonathan Edwards points out that the most important, reliable sign of grace is action. I don’t want to say that Edwards counseled the Christian not to think, especially in light of what I posted at the end of last month. And Edwards’s own lengthy analysis of Christian life in this very book shows his belief in the benefits of analytical thought. But he had just been through the First Great Awakening and had heard many people professing to be true converts who had no proof other than their assurance that they had undergone marvelous mystical experiences. So, he says, act and let your good works shine before men. The proof of Christianity is not in self-inspection but in righteous deeds.

Edwards walks a tightrope, though, balancing his injunction to act with all his analysis of what a true conversion experience entails, and all that analysis calls for self-inspection. I found the book instructive and inspiring, but I often fell off the rope as I tried to follow Edwards across. The difficulty was especially clear in the section on humility. Do I have humility? If I’m truly a Christian, I must be able to discern humility in my life. But then as soon as I find it, I wonder if I’m not too pleased with myself; Edwards might say that I’m taking pride in my humility. It is only the great man doing a humble service that thinks about his humility, he says; the slave does humble work while never thinking of his humility as a virtue.

Two interesting details stood out to me while reading Edwards’s description of the features of true religion. First, his explanation of Jesus’ curious statement that the Kingdom of Heaven is taken by violence satisfied me more than any that I had ever heard. The key to it had been before my eyes for quite a while, but Edwards had to point it out to me. I think of violence as an attack, but in ancient philosophy, “violence” means a force applied against an object’s natural tendency. Aristotle’s frequent example involves tossing a rock in the air. Toss it as gently as you like, and you’re still committing a violent act, because the rock’s natural tendency is to go down. So, Edwards explains, those who enter the Kingdom of Heaven have to press vigilantly against their first natures.

Second, Edwards divides God’s attributes into natural excellencies and moral excellencies. God’s natural attributes all involve his superiority in things that humans might have naturally. A human might of her own nature have strength or longevity; so God’s omnipotence and eternity are natural excellencies. But no human can of her own nature be holy; thus, God’s holiness is a moral excellency. One of the marks of true religion, Edwards claims, is a love for God’s moral excellency. Unbelievers and demons tremble at his surpassing strength, but they don’t see his holiness as beautiful. The whole idea surprised me at first. No proportion holds between even the longest human life and God’s eternal being, so I would never have thought to call his eternity “natural.” But the distinction makes some sense as Edwards explains it.

As I read the book, I kept thinking how much good this wonderful  summary of Christian life would do for new or young Christians. Besides reaching his immediate goal of sifting through the debris of the Great Awakening, Edwards succeeds in exhorting the reader to a life of “earnest” Christian action and in teaching an overview of basic doctrine. The plethora of Bible quotations alone, from numerous parts of the Old and New Testaments, would help the young believer inexperienced with the Scriptures. The problem is the book’s eighteenth-century language and style. I hate “modern” renditions of classic novels, but I wish someone would revise Religious Affections for the twenty-first century young reader: condense it slightly, add lots of chapter breaks (the placement would be obvious from the originally clear organization), break up some of the sentences, and update the language. Anyone? Anyone?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Complete and Incomplete Systems

In Wilkie Collins’s seminal mystery, The Moonstone, a character named Gabriel Betteredge uses Robinson Crusoe as his guide to life. In looking up that character’s name just now, I found a source suggesting that Betteredge uses Defoe’s novel in a superstitious way, finding passages at random and taking them as oracles for his present situation. If he does this, I don’t remember it. I just remember Betteredge finding Robinson Crusoe a compendium of sage advice for every situation. The castaway has to learn how to live, eat, sleep, defend himself, build shelter, keep records, make friends, worship God, and stay sane, and his first-person narrative spells out his reasoning on all these topics. He also recalls and analyzes, from his earlier life, practices of commerce, industry, the military, and career searches. So it’s no surprise that a person could find in it a nearly complete guide to life.

This month, as I reread The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith, it struck me as in very much the same line. Of course, it was the age of the Encyclopédie, and people were fond of thorough catalogs of knowledge and wisdom. And one could expect Goldsmith, a frequent dining companion of Dr. Johnson, to write a book of moralizing analyses of life in the form of a story. Here are some samples of the life lessons the Vicar offers:

Is your friend suffering a loss? Remember to weep with those who weep, and don’t be too quick to cheer up your friend, because “premature consolation is but the remembrancer of sorrow.”

Are you wondering why your recent accomplishment or fortune has you itching for more before you can enjoy resting on your laurels? Remember the joy of the hunt: “It has been a thousand times observed, and I must observe it once more, that the hours we pass with happy prospects in view, are more pleasing than those crowned with fruition. In the first case we cook the dish to our own appetite; in the latter nature cooks it for us.”

What should you do when you find that breaking a pledge of silence on an acquaintance’s dark secret could help someone else? “Even tho' it may benefit the public, you must not inform against him. In all human institutions a smaller evil is allowed to procure a greater good; as in politics, a province may be given away to secure a kingdom; in medicine, a limb may be lopt off, to preserve the body. But in religion the law is written, and inflexible, never to do evil. And this law, my child, is right: for otherwise, if we commit a smaller evil, to procure a greater good, certain guilt would be thus incurred, in expectation of contingent advantage.”

In the best chapter, Goldsmith’s vicar defends the monarchy as the champion of freedom. As he explains it, society divides itself naturally into four strata: the poor, who spend all their time working to satisfy needs; the middle class, whose career success affords time for politics; the aristocracy, who have no need of work and can spend all their time seeking the gratification of their own desires; and the monarchy. The aristocracy, he says, is the enemy of freedom, not the king. The privileged class must closely guard the power they have wrested from the monarchy so they can continue to wield it over the middle and lower classes. The king and middle class, then, make natural allies against the usurpers of power.

Last month, my family visited Salisbury cathedral, and we were very happily surprised to find there an original copy of the Magna Carta. Both the explanatory plaques and the very kind retired gentleman who kept watch over the room told us the familiar story of the importance of the document in the history of human liberty. The barons, the story goes, stopped the tyrant, King John, at Runnymede and forced him to sign a document limiting his power over the people. John was indeed a tyrant, although there’s some doubt whether the Magna Carta actually succeeded in limiting his or any other king’s power. But the events of 1215 didn’t confer any power or liberty on “the people,” if by that phrase is meant the peasants, farmers, minor clerics, merchants, and artisans of England. John’s father, Henry II, empowered the people of the land more by granting the right to redress in a court of law. The king is the most likely defender of the rights of the people, not the barons. As Dr. Johnson would put it:
Anyone who thinks himself in servitude because subject to a prince errs egregiously; liberty nowhere extends itself more graciously than under a pious king.
The United States has its own class of barons. Rich people and lifetime politicians come to mind. But it seems to me the greatest power lies with the corporations, structures with the legal status, rights, and protections of “persons,” even though they have not been with born or naturalized in the United States. (Someone is confused about the Fourteenth Amendment. It could be the courts, but it’s more probably me.) The United States, of course, will never have a king. But who can play the role of the monarchy in allying with the people to protect us against the tyranny of the barons?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Signs that Are No Signs

Jonathan Edwards begins his Religious Affections by stating that he wants to distinguish the saving, gracious operations of the Holy Spirit from the common workings of the Spirit or any other operations in the human mind that do nothing to effect salvation. In other words, his goal is to show “wherein true religion does exist.” Soon afterwards, he presents his general thesis: “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” From there, his plan falls into three parts: defining affections (a section I posted about last week), pointing out features of the affections that indicate neither the presence nor the absence of the Holy Spirit’s gracious operation, and pointing out features that do indicate the Spirit’s grace.

Part II of the book presents a series of attributes of religious affections and arguments for each one – arguments both from reason and from Scripture – showing that the affections of both the saved and the unsaved can display these attributes. To begin with, the great intensity of religious affections is no sign of either true belief or mistaken belief. And sure enough, we’ve all witnessed or taken part in religious arguments between people of contrary views (at least one of which logically must be wrong) in which both parties displayed intense passion. Edwards goes on to speak of other attitudes and actions equally irrelevant to truth: the tendency to talk often of religious matters, the seemingly spontaneous appearance of religious experience, the appearance of love, the progression from sorrow to joy, zeal for worship rituals, confidence, and so on.

By detailing everything that doesn’t serve the main thesis, this section outlines the negative space that surrounds the subject, and as it goes on and on, it eventually appears that the canvas has very little room left for its central picture. But this empty passage does deliver a positive message: all these things we treat as solid actually have no depth. Reading through the litany of signs that are no signs has the same effect as walking on to a stage in the middle of the day with all the lights on and a theater full of empty seats: all the sets that last night seemed three dimensional and rich with history now prove flat and hastily constructed. But every attribute Edwards discusses reminds me of someone I have known (sometimes of myself), usually someone who comes off as trying too hard. Ah, we all mean very well, don’t we.

At the end of this section and the beginning of part III, Edwards backs off some from his original goal by saying that the distinguishing marks of the affections wherein true religion does exist can only be described, not demonstrated. In fact, one of the ambiguous signs listed in part II is the acceptance of a person’s religious activity by a multitude of true believers. Well, Edwards can’t very well explain how to discern the real thing when one of his tenets is that not even the experts can discern the real thing. At first, this reneging seems disappointing. But he can’t possibly have an ultimate answer, because if he did, humans would have the ability to judge the eternal state of other humans. So I’m actually relieved to have been disappointed.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Things I Like about Goldsmith

Having a blog to write can do very strange things to my reading. Sometimes I read with the blog in mind, perhaps looking for something to write about. Sometimes three or four things to write about pop into my mind effortlessly within just a couple of days, and then I try to hang on to the thoughts long enough to write all the posts. Travel causes even more problems in the timing. We traveled to London near the end of our European sojourn, and now I’m dealing with jet lag after our return to the States. I started The Vicar of Wakefield several days ago, but I’m only today getting a chance to write about it. So now I’m the position of trying to remember what I was thinking six or seven exhausting days ago.

I’m reading Goldsmith’s classic novel for the second time. I didn’t remember much from the first expereince except it being surprisingly entertaining. As a man of his times, Goldsmith wrote in the matter-of-fact, prosy style typical of the eighteenth century. And yet he finds a way to draw smiles, tears, and laughter from his reader. Part of his formula for success, I think, is writing a story that the average person can relate to. Who needs romantic adventure when every day shows us the drama inherent in a mundane life? The story of Dr. Primrose deals with money, children, marriage, fame, art, shopping, swindlers, conversations on religion and politics, and personal disaster. True to the spirit of the Age of Reason, the characters, good and bad, talk their way through these scenarios and analyze the best ways to deal with them. As a result, the reader, who already identifies with the vicar because his familiar life, thinks through the reasoning not just to follow the plot, but from personal interest as well.

None of this review of life would work, though, if the vicar were self centered or cowardly or foolish. Fortunately, Dr. Primrose is the opposite: thoughtful, determined, and wise. Granted, for all his wisdom, he does seem to get duped  by a new con every other chapter. But he’s a lovable dupe whose readiness to hope for the best leads him to persevere, for instance, in preaching to his miserable fellow inmates in debtor’s prison, even when they don’t act as if they want to hear. Good advice, Dr. Primrose says, only bounces back from deaf ears and benefits the speaker, so speak anyway. (Aggh! Martina McBride’s in my head now!) But of course he does eventually earn the respect of his poor companions and finds in the end, like George Bailey, that no man is truly poor who has made friends, and that a life of open-hearted cheer really is a wonderful life.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Affections and Emotions

I just finished grading finals, and on one of them, I was delighted to see every student correctly answer a question on one of my favorite topics in music history: the historically changing theories of feeling. As I put it in class, composers of the Baroque period generally saw music as causing feelings in the audience, those of the Classical period as portraying the feelings of characters, and those of the Romantic era as expressing the feelings of the composer. Those holding to the first theory usually called feelings “affects” or “affections,” since they see them as caused or affected from without.

In Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards seeks to pinpoint the signs of true religion. He basically concludes that true believers should have the proper felt responses to God, righteousness, sin, heaven, our neighbor, etc. Since these feelings all come in reaction to external prompts, he identifies himself firmly with theory no. 1 and calls them “affections.” And he describes the affections in a very rational way, one of the interesting marks of Enlightenment thinking: we can and should understand everything dispassionately, even passion. The soul has two faculties: intellect and will. The will has two possible orientations: attraction to something and repulsion from something. Attraction-or-repulsion + property = affection. Thus, attraction to something not present is desire. Attraction to something in the future is hope. Repulsion with regard to something present is anger or disgust. Repulsion with regard to something in the future constitutes fear. And so on. It all sounds strangely cold in an era that seeks to embrace feelings rather than understanding them, but after the enthusiasms of the First Great Awakening, the American Church probably needed a rational, distanced account.

Throughout the eighteenth century, various philosophers proposed all three of the theories I outlined at the top of the post, even though different periods of music history tended to favor one over the others. I once published an article on many of the competing views. I love it that I was able to entitle the article “I Second that Emotion.” But that title really only represents some of the theories. As opposed to “affections,” the word “emotions” represents the view that feelings move out from inside us. I don’t think Jonathan Edwards was concerned much about that.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

With the Kindle in Italy

My time in Italy draws to a close. I’ll miss the views, the people, the cities, the art, the gelato, the train, the pizza, the history. And I wish I could take all the students, faculty, and staff back home with me. When I recall our sojourn here after Nancy and I get back to the States, these wonderful parts of the adventure will all form pleasant memories. But fighting for attention among them will be memories of my reading.

My reading plan worked far better than I had expected here. Most of the success is due to the Kindle. I simply couldn’t have kept up if I were depending on hard copies of all the books on the schedule. But the Kindle allowed me to bring novels, plays, poetry, and philosophical treatises all in one light box, and then made it easy to read while walking. I’ve read while walking down streets, along city walls, through parks, and around fortresses. I’ve also read a lot on the train, as well as on the plane and in hotel rooms. The Kindle has accompanied me to Florence, Cortona, Assisi, Siena, Pisa, Paris, Switzerland, Venice, Ferrara, London, and Salisbury.

The reading has all been surprisingly pleasant. Plato, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Trollope always come through. I introduced myself to Sun Tzu, Dionysius, and Confucius, and deepened my relationship with Byron, Ibsen, and Hardy. I thought Byron and Ibsen would make prickly acquaintances, but they proved to be quite congenial companions. One year ago, Thackeray and Hegel tried my patience. Had they come up one year later in the plan, would the Tuscan hills have brought out their best qualities and made them more congenial? OK, no. Hegel would have been just as difficult.

Norman, Oklahoma. It doesn’t have such a romantic ring to it as Arezzo, Italia. But soon I’ll be back in Norman, walking around our neighborhood lakes and reading in Wendy’s on campus. And I’ll enjoy those times because I’ll be making new friends such as Jonathan Edwards, Alvin Plantinga, and Suetonius, and meeting up with some old friends including Aquinas, Oliver Goldsmith, and Patrick O’Brian. Excelsior!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Latin and Vocabulary in Framley Parsonage

Playing on sporcle has me thinking in terms of speed quizzes. So here’s my quiz for the day. Numbers 1-10 each represent a word or Latin phrase found in Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage. Match each with a letter a-j that describes the circumstance in which you’d most likely use the word or phrase.

1. Et tu, Brute!
2. et vera incessu patuit Dea
3. sine die
4. duc ad me
5. locus penitentiae
6. appanage
7. tarradiddle
8. besom
9. badinage
10. vaticinations

a. while sweeping a rustic cottage
b. while telling vassals to capture an enemy and bring him to you
c. while being stabbed in the Roman Senate house
d. while listening to a fortune teller or market analyst
e. when adjourning a meeting
f. during a witty conversation with a clever friend
g. while listening to a prententious bag of wind
h. when regretting a missed opportunity to get out of a bad deal
i. upon seeing a graceful woman
j. when a vassal comes to court making a claim on an estate


1. The easiest one! According to Shakespeare, Julius Caesar said “Et tu, Brute!” on the Idea of March, 44 B.C., when he saw Brutus with a knife.

2. “Et vera incessu patuit Dea,” a phrase from Virgil’s Aeneid, means “and the true goddess was revealed by her step.” So use this when a woman walks gracefully.

3. To adjourn a meeting “sine die” means to end one meeting without having set a date for the next.

4. “Duc ad me” seems to be an abridgement of “duc graecum ad me, et deabus gratias agam,” translating to “lead the Greek to me, and I will thank the goddesses.” So say this to your servants when you want them to capture a Greek, or when you ask someone to go to the store for you.

5. A “locus penitentiae” is an opportunity for repentance, a moment when you can back out of a bad deal or step away from a proposed crime.

6. An “appanage” is a legal claim on a royal privilege.

7. A “tarradiddle” is a lie or a bit of pretentious nonsense. Don’t speak taradiddles when you go to court with an appanage.

8. A “besom” is a broom made of a bundle of sticks.

9. “Badinage” refers to playful repartee.

10.  One makes “vaticinations” when predicting the future. I vaticinate that you will use one of today’s phrases in badinage very soon.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Be, be, be, bou, bous

The original ten-year reading plan that came with my set of Britannica Great Books assigned books I and II of Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel during one of the first years, and books III and IV near the end of the ten years. I reveled in the silliness of the first two books; I loved  the bizarre sign language used by the protagonists, and the ridiculous lists of food, of hobbies, of studies, of the inhabitants of Gargantua’s mouth, and so on. I even mentioned G & P last month as among the books I think about most often. But I made that comment based only on the first two parts. As much as I looked forward to finishing the series at the end of the first reading plan, I found it rough going and gave up after book III, one of only three assignments I left incomplete in the first decade.

Last week, I finally read book IV. I’m glad that I made myself come back to Rabelais and finish what I had started, but the task reminded me why I put the project on hold a few years ago. When Rabelais is at his most Rabelaisian, I can’t understand what he says. On the other hand, the parts that I do understand seem like more straightforward stories that could have been written by any satirist. For instance, the characters of book IV debate the wisdom of writing wills during a storm at sea: any such will comes into effect only if the storm takes down the ship, presumably destroying the will as well. It’s funny, but I can convey the humor through a description.

By contrast, no description can convey the effect of he more characteristic passages of Rabelias; they have to be read. But what am I supposed to make of a sentence like this one?
Wisely, brother Timothy, quoth Panurge, did am, did am; he says blew; but, for my part, I believe as little of it as I can.
Or this one?
Gaillard (by syncope) born near Rambouillet. The said culinary doctor’s name was Gaillardlard, in the same manner as you use to say idolatrous for idololatrous.
But this sample from during the storm gives me a glimpse of what’s going on.
I am a dead man, my friend; your cutting hanger cannot save me from this; alas! alas! we are above ela. Above the pitch, out of tune, and off the hinges. Be, be, be, bou, bous. Alas! we are now above g sol re ut.
For a lot of readers, “ela” and “g sol re ut” might just seem like more guttural drowning sounds to go along with “be, be, be, bou, bous.” But these two little phrases come from the great music theorist and teacher Guido of Arezzo. Guido invented singing syllables, although he didn’t use seven different syllables, and his scale didn’t begin with Do. Guido’s six syllables were ut, re, mi, fa, sol, and la. To accommodate singing all the pitches necessary for chant, Guido placed ut on three different starting places: C, F, and G. In this way, E can be sung as la if G is sung as ut; thus its name, “ela.” And a higher G can be sung as either sol (if C is ut), re (if  F is ut), or ut, so Guido and Rabelais call it “g sol re ut.” (The mellifluous “alamire” from this system of naming pitches probably sounds too lovely for a shipwreck scenario.) So if my special knowledge helps me with one passage, maybe other inscrutable sentences have explanations in fields of study once common in higher education but now relegated to esoteria.

In any case, even if I had as much trouble getting through Gargantua and Pantagruel as Panurge had sailing through the hurricane, I’m happy to have read it. The very idea of offering a humiliating view of human nature by viewing giants works brilliantly, two centuries before Gulliver's visit to Brobdingnag. (Rabelais’s connection with giants survives in our common use of the word “gargantuan,” while most people know Swift’s Gulliver only as a character who visits an island of tiny people.) And if nothing else, I’m glad I read the episode in book IV involving a menace from giant chitterlings and a counterattack by cooks who hide in a Trojan sow. If a certain English satirical comedy troupe didn’t know all about that bit of Rabelaisian nonsense, I’ll eat a gargantuan dinner.