The Laughing Philosopher

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Laughing Philosopher: Being a life of Francois Rabelais by M P Willcocks.

This biography of Rabelais is not scholarly. It lacks research citations, makes no new propositions, and appears to have been entirely based on a set of twenty-five published works listed in the appended bibliography. Even as a popularization, it has decided weaknesses.

Willcocks has a surprisingly dated prose style even for England in 1950, and she certainly assumes a lot of sympathy from her readers. The surfeit of architectural detail of the Temple of Bacbuc “strikes one as boring and out of place in a scene where the ultimate wisdom is to be expressed.” (192) She refers to the “simple folk” of 16th-century France as Rabelais’ intended audience (81, 83), a supposition which his texts undermine at every turn in ways that even she cannot help but remark. Perhaps she cannot conceive that Rabelais’ sensuous passages could appeal to an elite readership, or she has fallen for the flawed assumption that anything written in the vernacular must be addressed to commoners. Some of her historical background is muddled. For example, she offers a decidedly confused account of the Cathar heresy and its suppression in her account of the founding of the university at Toulouse. (51)

The entire eighth chapter is devoted to the life and work of Francois Villon as, inferrably but not demonstratedly, an inspiration to Rabelais. A similar but shorter digression regarding Nostradamus is even more off-putting, on account of her startlingly credulous regard for the French seer as interpreted by James Laver. (138-40)

Mostly, I was frustrated by what a great percentage of the book consists of quotes and paraphrases of the works, as if they were free-standing biographical data of their own. Several chapters are made up mostly of this sort of thing, which I prefer to see kept in greater check in a literary biography where the subject’s works are easily available. Willcocks may have supposed it justified, since “Rabelais is but little read even by Frenchmen;” (195) but wouldn’t it be just those who do read him that would most likely bother reading his biography?

In my current course of Rabelais study, I cannot declare this book to have been a complete waste of time. But I wouldn’t cite it to persuade anyone. Growing acquainted with the nature of the book, I read each successive chapter with increasing speed and scepticism. At most, this book is one to borrow briefly, not one to own. [via]

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