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.

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