François Rabelais

Rabelai's fierce renaissance-filling, tall tales, earthiness and gargantua in space

There is a reason why the black hole in the film Interstellar is called Gargantua. And what is it about the Rabelaisian succulence that Thomas Wolfe uses as a metaphor? The French doctor, monk and Renaissance author is the answer.

All this led me miraculously to the 16th century French writer, churl and rogue François Rabelais. The concept of Rabelais' juiciness (in german translation) can also be traced back to him.

This is also the reason why I am interested in the author Rabelais and the term Rabelaisian juiciness (Original: Rabelaisian earthiness). Since the beginning of the year I have been on the trail of the book Look homewarts, angel! by the US-American author Thomas Wolfe. I examine all the phenomena, metaphors, authors and terms mentioned in the book that are unknown to me.

How did I come across Rabelais and Gargantua, how did I come across the Rabelais juiciness? It's about that quote in the german translation:

Schau heimwärts, Engel!

Er, der erdhafteste in der Familie, war voll von heftig-deftiger Vulgarität, hatte eine triebhaft-üppige, rabelais'sche Saftigkeit, äußerte sich spontan in gargantuanischen Bildern. Trotz Elizas Zeter und Mordio pißte er allnächtlich ins Bett. Das war gewissermaßen der letzte, abschließende Pinselstrich zum Bildnis seiner stotternden, pfeifenden, patzigen, sprudelnden, komischen Personalität. Er war Lukas der Einzige, Lukas der Unvergleichliche. Er war, trotz seiner zappelig-geschwätzigen Nervosität, ein gewinnender, liebenswerter Kerl. Der bodenlose Brunnen des Gefühls war tatsächlich in ihm. Er begehrte überschwengliches Lob für seine Guttaten, aber seine Menschenliebe und seine Zärtlichkeit waren tief und echt.

Im Original klingt der erste Satz etwas anders:

He was full of pungent and racy vulgarity: he had, more than any of the family, a Rabelaisian earthiness that surged in him with limitless energy, charging his tongue with unpremeditated comparisons, Gargantuan metaphors.

Source: Wolfe, Thomas: Schau heimwärts, Engel!, Rowohlt Verlag, Hamburg 1954 S. 93

Earthy, rough, direct

Rabelaisian earthiness

Mmm. Rabelaisian earthiness. The Cambridge Dictionary distinguishes two different meanings for earthiness: earthiness (directness) in the sense of being open and direct, often in a way that refers to sex and the human body. The second meaning of earthiness (food, pleasure), according to the dictionary, is in the sense of earth, the quality of being like earth or soil, usually in a more pleasurable way. 

The earthiness associated with the down-to-earthness of beets with fleshy lentils, the earthy taste of mushrooms. Wiktionary also calls the meanings earthiness and earthiness to earthiness, and with these terms one can perhaps come closer to the German translation.

Wolfe uses a verb - to surge - wogen in the English excerpt of the book above, which is connected with the sea, with waves, water and waves. Wolfe's translator Schiebelhuth, on the other hand, creates a more static image that is no longer driven by the same surging restlessness and energy, but is defined in a rather negative sense by instinct and vulgarity.

Wolfe conveys the image of a human being with an inherent undulating energy, with Rareaisian directness, that's how I would translate it, because the image of verbal, linguistic energy that burns, swells rapidly, rises steeply and strongly, piles up, floods, stuns, slays, crashes into, and then dies away again to be recharged, fits in with this.

In contrast to this is the translation by the German poet and writer Hans Schiebelhuth, who turns Rabelaisian earthy directness into an equally juicy one. 

Slaps, oranges, meadows


In the German language is juicy is a word with different meanings:

- juicy: in the sense of a juicy orange - full of juice,
- juicy: in the sense of a juicy meadow - radiant, saturated in colour
- juicy: in the sense of a juicy slap in the face, a juicy punishment - violent, strong

I do not know whether juicy in the English-speaking world also includes such a term space?

The Etymological dictionary of German by Wolfgang Pfeifer knows for the word saftig (juicy) its Middle High German origin *saffic, saffec, seffic* and the meaning was crude and dirty. I have an earthy term and understanding on it, but I'm wondering: why?

That's probably what the poet Schiebelhuth, deeply rooted in the German language and Southern German dialect, probably meant. Rabelaisian juiciness in the sense of a vulgar coarseness, a dirty and crude joking language in the sense and style of Rabelais. 

I would like to understand it like this, but who is the François Rabelais to whom all this seems to refer?

La Devinière, Watercolour by Louis Boudan, around 1700. Source: Wikipedia
La Devinière, Watercolour by Louis Boudan, around 1700. Source: Wikipedia
François Rabelais

Earthiness, juiciness and directness

Louis Boudan

For about twenty-two years, probably from 1687-1709, Louis Boudan worked for François Roger de Gaignières, a learned antiquarian and history lover who was looking for a draughtsman. He chose Boudan, and the duo was assisted by Barthélemy Remy, who is said to have been a valet and paleographer (scholar of ancient writings), during a tour of France to monuments and archives, during which more than 7,500 sites, tombs, bas-reliefs, objects and ancient documents were catalogued and drawings were made, most of which were engraved afterwards. The whole constitutes the "Gaignières Collection", which was offered to King Louis XIV and is now largely kept in the French National Library. The collection is considered particularly valuable among historians, as Boudan's drawings, paintings and etchings reproduce objects and landscapes, some of which have disappeared forever.

Source: Louis Boudan,

Rabelais and Gargantua are directly related, as Gargantua is a character in a novel by the Renaissance writer, monk and doctor François Rabelais

François Rabelais was born between 1483 and 1494 in La Devinière near Chinon/Touraine and probably died at the age of 70 in 1553 in Paris. There is a beautiful watercolour of the La Devinière estate by Louis Boudan, a draughtsman from the 17th and 18th century. (See above) As a child of the wealthy bourgeoisie, François Rabelais received classical medieval education:the trivium and the quadrivium. According to testimonies written in the 17th century, Rabelais began his life as a rope maker in the convent of La Baumette before joining the convent of Puy Saint-Martin in Fontenay-le-Comte. 

After joining the Franciscan order at a very early age, Rabelais later moved to the Benedictines with the permission of the Vatican and eventually became a world spiritual leader. He then studied medicine in Montpellier. (...) Rabelais corresponded among others with Erasmus of Rotterdam. He was a doctor, writer, world spiritual leader and humanist. He became famous as a jovial author of cynical and delightful stories about the two giants Pantagruel and Gargantua

The novels were written as a parody of the novels of chivalry, yet Rabelais emphasizes the ideals of Renaissance humanism, especially in the fields of education and politics. The first published book about the giant Pantagruel was given the considerable title:  Les horribles et épouvantables faits et prouesses du très renommé Pantagruel, Roi des Dipsodes, fils du grand géant Gargantua. Composés nouvellement par maître Alcofrybas Nasier und in der deutschen Übersetzung: Die schrecklichen und entsetzlichen Abenteuer und Heldentaten des hochberühmten Pantagruel, König der Dipsoden, Sohn des großen Riesen Gargantua. Newly compiled by Master Alcofrybas Nasier" - an anagram from Francoys Rabelais (source: Wikipedia). The stories have been constructed as tall tales, because, for example, the giants change their size once in a while during the course of a book, in one story they still fit into a courtroom, in another story the narrator lives in Pantagruel's mouth for six months and discovers a people living on its teeth. - Somebody has to think of that first!


Traces up to german Nobel Price Winner Günter Grass

Hanjo Kesting considers Gargantua and Pantagruel to be probably one of the greatest humorous novels in European cultural history. He writes Gargantua and Pantagruel...

Hanjo Kesting

published in five volumes around the middle of the sixteenth century, is the oldest novel in this series, the novel of great laughter and probably the greatest humorous novel in European literature, the most original, wildest, most maddening, most comical, most eloquent, but also the rudest of all books. In it, its author leads the satirist's endless battle against the omnipotence of stupidity and the omnipresence of prejudice. But it also includes a whole cosmos of spirit and erudition, inventiveness and lust for language, laughter and profundity. (...) It is orgies of language and deliriums of burlesque exaggeration that anticipate the puns of the Dadaists. They culminate in the description of physical functions, of food and drink, of sensual excesses and sexual fantasies.

Source: Kesting, Hanjo: François Rabelais, Gargantua und Pantagruel, Translation by me

French Romanticism later described Rabelais, alongside Homer, Dante and Shakespeare, as one of the great geniuses of mankind. If you don't like the work now, many authors were inspired by Rabelais, including Cervantes and Shakespeare, Laurence Sterne and Balzac, in Germany Goethe, Jean Paul and most recently Günter Grass with the Tin Drum.

Rabelais' heroes have achieved something that not every author succeeds in, they have made it into the everyday language of people. The term Pantagruelism is the philosophy of living in the way of Pantagruel, i.e. getting along with people and nature and gratefully enjoying everything that life brings good. They have been preserved in the French language until today by the adjectives pantagruélique (avoir un appétit pantagruélique - to have a pantagruelish appetite) and gargantuesque (un repas gargantuesque - a gargantuan feast).


Interstellar black hole

The movie Interstellar

Screenplay: Jonathan und Christopher Nolan
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Music: Hans Zimmer
2014, 169 minutes
With Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Matthew McConaughey, Michael Caine, Matt Damon and many more

The plot of the film roughly summarized: Due to climate change, overpopulation, pesticides, etc., humanity is pretty much in a mess, only corn (of all things) can still be grown as a forage plant. 48 years before the plot of the film begins, 12 scientists were sent through a wormhole to a distant galaxy to test the living conditions on planets in this system. A small crew now sets off, virtually at the last minute, on a secret journey through the wormhole with the spaceship Endurance, in order to reach for the last straw of humanity and guarantee the relocation of a selected minority from the human gene pool to another habitable planet. In addition to the survival of mankind, the journey serves another purpose: Wormhole and black hole are to be scientifically investigated to support research in quantum physics and gravitation.

Many problems in the film have to do exactly with gravity, time and space, with time dilation and quantum physics. Numerous articles and documentaries have illuminated this aspect of the film down to the smallest detail.

When I read the book for the first time at the end of 2019, something was already ringing in my head. But not Rabelais, but Gargantua. This is how the two screenwriters Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan had named a dominant black hole in their film. The name Gargantua goes back to the French writer François Rabelais. In addition to his writing, the Renaissance man Rabelais was a professed humanist, Roman Catholic friar (since 1511 the Franciscan, since 1524 the Benedictine) and practicing physician. Basically for his time what the astronauts in the film must be - universal geniuses.

Interstellar is a 169-minute science fiction film by the two brothers Jonathan and Christopher Nolan. It was filmed in 2014 under the direction of Christopher Nolan, with Hans Zimmer providing the remarkable film music. I have seen the film about five times in the meantime. Thanks to the perfect interplay of images and music, its gripping plot, it never gets boring for me. Quiet moments alternate with exciting action.

In Interstellar the secret journey of the Endurance leads to a huge black hole, Gargantua. In the film Gargantua is introduced with a dialogue between the astronauts of the Endurance: Gargantua is a very big black hole, so big and heavy that a one hour visit to the planet, which circles a hoop like a basketball, means 7 years of past time on earth. The dialogue is easy to read in the script.

Interstellar Screenplay

A very large black hole. Miller’s and Dr Mann’s planets orbit it. (...) A black hole that big has a huge gravitational pull. (...) That gravity will slow our clock compared to Earth’s. Drastically. (...) Every hour we spend on that planet will be maybe ... seven years back on Earth.

Source: INTERSTELLAR, Jonathan Nolan und Christopher Nolan

To sum up: The Endurance plans to travel to a star system where there is a planet where a single hour is as long as seven years on Earth.

Such a giant is Gargantua, that it can slow time down like this. The doctor, monk, prankster and humanist François Rabelais would have liked that!

tl, dr;

Language has always been the cement of human history. It manages to hold together so many different things - a black hole in a recent science fiction film, a metaphor in a 20th century novel, lush meadows, rough knocks and earthiness - with the wild and untamed monk, doctor, humanist and writer of the 15th and 16th centuries François Rabelais.

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