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Frozen Words and Discourse

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: July 6, 1998, November 19, 2004
Latest update: August 10, 2005
E-Mail Icon jeannecurran@habermas.org
takata@uwp.edu

Pantagruel and Panurge in Rabelais' Storm of Frozen Words

Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words return to haunt me.

Rabelais, A Monk, A Doctor, A Satirist in Search of Liberty
Rabelais' Story of the Frozen Words
Forgiveness and Frozen Words



Rabelais, A Monk, A Doctor, A Satirist in Search of Liberty

Rabelais was a 16th Century monk, doctor, storyteller, author of Gargantua and Pantagruel. Rabelais was a monk of the Franciscan order, who followed the unusual course of switching to the more disciplined, more scholarly Benedictine order. But he eventually left the monastery, studied medicine, and was appointed physician at the Hotel-Dieu in Lyons. The Pope ultimately granted him a dispensation which permitted him to re-enter the Benedictine monastery and practice medicine. Meanwhile the Sorbonne continued to censure Pantagruel, though the Fourth Book, from which comes our excerpt, was printed in Lyons, and granted a rare copyright by Henry II.

Rabelais is a good source for our discussions of public discourse and all that it entails. LeClercq says of him: "The man . . . was religious in the high sense of the term. But, since he believed in instinct and since 'laughter is the essence of mankind,' he abandoned himself prodigiously to it, and, mirthfully engaged in a satire which can be qualified only by applying to it a word coined from his own gigantic character, Gargantua. This satire was, ever reasonably, directed against anything that could offend or hinder Rabelais' philosophic conception of liberty." (Jacques LeClercq, Introduction to Gargantua and Pantagruel, Modern Library Edition, translation by LeClercq, Copyright 1936.)

A tidbit, just to remind you why we read so much:

Jacques LeClercq, at the beginning of his introduction to the Modern Library Edition of Rabelais, tells this canard: "there is the tale of Gargantua's creator, penniless in Lyons, having himself transported gratuituously to Paris by pretending to have plotted to have poisoned the king. 'Le quart d'heure de Rabelais' has passed into the language to designate the moment of paying one's score, or, by extension, any difficult situation." Or maybe one's fifteen minutes of fame? (quart d'heure = a quarter of an hour)



Rabelais' Story of the Frozen Words

Pantagruel was traveling as a means to learning, to becoming the "abyss of knowledge" Rabelais wanted for him. (LeClercq's introduction, p. xxx) On one of his journeys he was at sea with Panurge, his companion, when they heard sounds faint upon the air. As they listened carefully, the sounds grew louder. They could distinguish voices: "It was terrible to see nothing, yet to hear voices of men, women, children, and horsess." (at p. 647)

Panurge hid, terrifed of the battle he heard, Pantagruel questioned the Captain, for he could see no signs of battle. That is when the Captain told him that the ship had passed through this same space the previous winter, where a terrible battle had ensued. They were lucky to have escaped with their lives. But now, all they were hearing was the sounds that had frozen in the winter battle, melting now in the Spring.

The moral to the story is that some things we do or say come back later to haunt us.



Forgiveness and Frozen Words

As in Rabelais' story, words come back, when least expected, to haunt us. To remind us that we said something before our brains meshed in gear, something that had we reflected, we would never have said. DELETE. Just erase it. Never done. Never said. But life, once lived, does not delete so easily. For words especially are said to someone. And there is, as yet, no software for deleting from the brain of another, who has heard your words.

Rabelais's story makes the situation even more frought with dread, for he does not even require that the hearer be there. The words and sounds come back to haunt us, as though they had been frozen in place, waiting for the warm sun to thaw them. What an interesting concept for a storyteller of the 16th Century. Words carried over time to an unseen, unknown audience, heard without the volition of those who originally uttered the sounds. Sounds a lot like the end of the Twentieth Century, doesn't it?

Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words return to haunt me.

Herbartian apperceptive mass. What goes in, no mechanism for its coming out. Those frozen words are there, to return in fine weather, and no warning, melting upon the scene with all the affect they originally held.