Excerpt: 'The Book of Genesis: A Biography' by Ronald Hendel


Noah’s Offering, Francesco Castiglione, 17th C

From The Comedy of the Real:

One honest response to the lunacy of the world is to laugh. Laughter relieves anxiety and fear, and it pokes holes in the pretensions of the powerful. In medieval times, humor was often coarse and obscene, and the more effective because of it. Luther’s rough handling of his opponents is rooted in this medieval tradition. During the heyday of the Reformation, with social upheaval, religious conflict, and the devil on the loose, François Rabelais wrote the first volume of his comic novel, Gargantua and Pantagruel. As Mikhail Bakhtin observes, “Medieval laughter found its highest expression in Rabelais’ novel.” It was an immediate best-seller.

“Rabelaisian laughter,” M. A. Screech writes, “is both a complement to Luther’s scornful vehemence and an antidote to it.”Rabelais was a doctor and former Benedictine monk who satirized the theological and scholastic learning of his time. He took great delight in parodying the Bible and contemporary religious disputes. John Calvin and the Catholic censors agreed on one thing: Rabelais was a heretic. (But he wasn’t—he was a Catholic Humanist who was mercilessly funny.) Calvin decried Rabelais as “a rustic who makes vile jokes at the expense of Holy Writ.” And the first edition of the Catholic Index of Prohibited Books in 1564 placed Rabelais at the head of “heretics of the first class.”

The book of Genesis plays an important comic role in the first volume, The Horrifying and Dreadful Deeds and Prowesses of the Most Famous Pantagruel, King of the Dipsodes, Son of the Great Giant Gargantua (1532). The hero, Pantagruel, is descended from the biblical giants, who were the offspring of the Sons of God and the daughters of men in Genesis 6:1-4 (these children are called gigantes, “giants,” in the Septuagint). The narrator begins the book in good biblical fashion with Pantagruel’s genealogy, but first with a nod to the great benefactor of mankind, Noah:

Noah—that sainted man to whom we are all beholden and indebted since it was he who planted the vine from which comes to us that nectar-like, precious, heavenly, joyful and deifying liquor that we call wine.

To Rabelais (and doubtless many others), Noah was a saint because of his “nectar-like” invention, wine. The Reformers, in contrast, deplored drunkenness. Luther wrote: “If anyone wishes to imitate Noah and get drunk, he deserves to go to hell.” Rabelais turns upside-down this dour sensibility (although Luther, in real life, appreciated good beer and wine).

In good biblical fashion, the narrator relates Pantagruel’s genealogy, which includes many illustrious giant ancestors:

The first of whom was Charlbroth,

Who begat Sarabroth,

Who begat Faribroth,

Who begat Hurtaly, who was a good eater of sops and ruled from the time of the Flood…

Who begat Eryx, who invented the game of thimblerig…

Who begat Etion who … was the first to catch the pox through not having drunk his wine cool in summer…

Who begat Gabbara, who first invented matching drink for drink…

Who begat Offot, who developed an awesomely fine nose from drinking straight from the wine-cask…

Who begat Gemmagog, who invented long-toed Crakow shoes…

Who begat Morgan, who was the first in the world ever to play dice wearing glasses…

Who begat Gob-fly, who was the first to invent the smoking of ox-tongues in the chimney: before him they were salted like hams…

Who begat Gayoffe, whose bollocks were of poplar and whose cock was of mountain-ash…

Who begat Galahad, who was the inventor of flagons…

Who begat Garnet-cock,

Who begat Grand-gullet,

Who begat Gargantua,

Who begat the noble Pantagruel, my master.

This extravagant and hilarious genealogy is an parody of the (usually tedious) biblical genealogies, which include a few ancient inventors:

Ada gave birth to Jabal, who was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal, who was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. Zillah bore Tubal-Cain, who (was the father of those who) made all kinds of metal tools.

(Genesis 4:20-22)

Genesis neglects to tell us who invented thimblerig, long-toed shoes, flagons, drinking games, and the smoking of ox-tongues, so Rabelais’ narrator helpfully fills in these gaps in his comic expansion of Genesis.

The narrator then turns to a difficult interpretive problem—how did the giant Hurtaly survive the Flood, since he is not listed in Genesis as having been in the Ark? As a good Renaissance exegete, the narrator finds a solution from Jewish tradition:

I was not there at the time to tell you about it as I would like to, so I will cite the authority of the Massoretes, those fine, well-hung and beautiful Hebrew windbags who affirm that Hurtaly was in truth never actually inside Noah’s Ark—he could never have got in: he was too big—but that he did sit astride it with a leg on either side like little children on their hobby-horses… In that way Hurtaly saved the aforesaid Ark from foundering, for he propelled it with his legs, turning it with his foot whichever way he would as one does with the rudder of a boat.

This interpretation is adapted from a Jewish legend about the giant Og’s journey on the Ark. The narrator then mocks his own erudite but far-fetched interpretation:

Did you understand all that? Then down a good swig without water! For if you believe it or not, “Neither do I,” said she.

The unidentified woman (“she”) who interrupts the narrator seems not to believe it, and neither does the narrator, who recommends a swig of drink. Having parodied the Flood story and its contemporary interpretation, the narrator returns to the genealogy of his mock-biblical hero: “Gargantua, at the age of four hundred and four score four and forty, begat Pantagruel.”

Genesis is the object of parody here, as is the contemporary manner of handling interpretive problems in the Flood story. Rabelais knew his Bible well, as did his Renaissance audience. A good comic pokes fun at the familiar and the sacrosanct, and the stories of Genesis were both. Although Calvin fumed against Rabelais as a “condemner of God,” Rabelais was really criticizing the pretentious piety of his time. His laughter unmasked foolish prattling about the Bible and everything else. His comic iconoclastic style and his fondness for sensual pleasure struck a responsive chord in his readers and patrons, among whom were Catholic bishops and royalty.

Although his heroes and their adventures are fantastic and larger than life, Rabelais’ book is one of the first modern works of fiction, whose hallmark is realism. Pantagruel and his bawdy friends are not symbols of something else, but revel in earthy reality. There are no Platonic worlds here. The world is strictly material, and populated by sensible—and sexual—bodies.

Excerpt from The Book of Genesis: A Biography, by Ronald Hendel. Copyright © 2012 Ronald Hendel and Princeton University Press.