Rabelaisian Dialectic and the Platonic-Hermetic Tradition

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Rabelaisian Dialectic and the Platonic-Hermetic Tradition by G Mallary Masters.

Masters Rabelaisian Dialectic and the Platonic-Hermetic Tradition

This fairly modest monograph occasionally references the excellent study on similar lines by Florence Weinberg, The Wine and the Will, which was at that time still an unpublished dissertation. Masters is a little less provocative than Weinberg, and his routine habit of quoting brief phrases from Rabelais in the original French certainly slowed me down. He is principally concerned to identify the ways in which Platonic and Hermetic themes inform the five books of Rabelais, and to situate those themes as elements of a dialectic for which the basic design is the unification of opposites. While admitting that the distinction is somewhat artificial, Masters divides the analysis between Platonic and Hermetic themes. He construes these as having complementary concerns: “Platonic idealism vs. Hermetic naturalism, or intuitive reason vs. empiricism,” the latter pairing of which fits into his enantiodromian scheme. (8)

Masters makes much of the reference to Plato’s Symposium in the description of Gargantua’s jewel (Gargantua, ch. VIII)—without actually mentioning that it is explicit in Rabelais’ text! (17-20) He also works to connect the concept of pantagruelisme to a Platonic sense of cosmic harmony, in which symbols mediate between noumena and phenomena. With some difficulty, Masters tries to demonstrate the “Platonic” character of Rabelais by emphasizing the use of allegory and poetry to convey truths that transcend rational discourse. While it is true that Plato himself used myths to crucial effect in various dialogues, it is also notoriously the case that he argued in the Republic (X, 595-607) for the abolition of poetry and suppression of poets. Inasmuch as Plato claimed a method for the approach to truth, it was that of philosophical dialectic. The examination of extraordinary states of consciousness (frenzies or furores) in the Phaedrus seems to suggest other avenues to truth, but Masters reserves discussion of those for the next part of his study.

The pivotal section of Rabelaisian Dialectic is the one that is the most coherent and effectively argued. In it, he begins with the convivial aspect of drinking, by which voluntary socialization manifests a refined society. From there, he progresses to the imbibing of the colloquium, through which discourse is decanted. He concludes with the Dionysiac frenzy, a divine light dawning by means of initiatory inebriation. This chapter is intended to bridge between the mystical business of “Rabelais Platonicus” and the magical matters of “Rabelais Hermeticus.” 

In the chapter on Hermetic themes Masters acknowledges Rabelais’ borrowings from Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, but these are in fact underestimated, probably because Masters did not have the advantage of the excellent and comprehensive 1999 Godwin translation of the Hypnerotomachia. This chapter also includes reflection on Rabelais’ attitudes toward the “black arts” and the empirical sciences. Masters suggests that the principal characters Pantagruel, Friar John, and Panurge could be an allegory for the psychic anatomy, in which Pantagruel represents the transcendent intuition, Friar John the discursive reason, and Panurge the appetitive passions. Accordingly, he understands the culmination of the Cinquiesme Livre to represent the redemption of the base appetites, and the reintegration of the soul through initiatory frenzy.

Like Weinberg, Masters is anxious to keep Rabelais as the proper author of the Cinquiesme Livre, with its overtly Hermetic conclusion; and Masters dedicates an appendix to this purpose. His evidence, however, is limited to demonstrations of thematic unity between the books, which could still result from the efforts of an able posthumous ghostwriter or redactor. In fact, one point that Masters cites as supporting his case seems to damage it: he writes of “Rabelais’ acceptance of woman as the means of salvation of man and the cosmos.” (104) While he alleges that the exaltation of feminine figures in the final chapters of the Cinquiesme Livre is prefigured by the role of women in the Abbey of Theleme in Gargantua, I’m far from persuaded. In fact the very different treatment of femininity and feminine figures seems to set the last book apart from its predecessors.

In any case, I enjoyed Rabelaisian Dialectic. In many instances, I thought the author could have pursued his points further. But for those interested in Rabelais as an esoteric author in his own right, or as a resource for later esoteric thinkers, the study is worth a read. [via]