Gastronomique Comedia: Rabelais and Bataille – Anti-Philosophy of Laughter

“Seeing how sorrow eats you, defeats you.
I’d rather write about laughing than crying,
For laughter makes men human, and courageous.”

― François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel 

“The genius of love and the genius of hunger, those twin brothers, are the two moving forces behind all living things. All living things set themselves in motion to feed and to reproduce. Love and hunger share the same purpose. Life must never cease; life must be sustained and must create.”

– Turgenev, Little poems in prose, XXIII 

Gastronomique Comedia

François Rabelais was born at the end of the fifteenth century. A Franciscan monk turned Benedictine, he abandoned the cloister in 1530 and began to study medicine at Montpellier. Two years later he wrote his first work, Pantagruel, which revealed his genius as a storyteller, satirist, propagandist and creator of comic situations and characters. In 1534 he published Gargantua, a companion to Pantagruel, which contains some of his best work. It mocks old-fashioned theological education, and opposes the monastic ideal, contrasting it with a free society of noble Evangelicals. Following an outburst of repression in late 1534, Rabelais abandoned his post of doctor at the Hotel-Dieu at Lyons and despite Royal support his book Tiers Livre was condemned. His last work, and his boldest, Quart Livre was published in 1551 and he died two years later. For the last years of his life Rabelais was persecuted by both religious and civil authorities for his publications. His genius however was recognized in his own day and his influence was great.

In his comic masterpiece Rabelais tells the story of Pantagruel. It is the story of the birth and early life of this Giant, which was probably the most hilarious of the books. Gargantua is the story of the birth and life of Panagruel’s father Gargantua; this was also quite funny covering several topics. The 3rd book of Pantagruel contains two main themes; the first is a discussion between Pantagruel and Panurge on debtors and borrowers. Panurge gives the funniest discourse on the need for debtors I have ever seen. The rest of the book tells of Panurge consulting every imaginable method of seeing the future to see if he should marry. Rabelais gives us a description of how the Thelemites of the Abbey Thelema lived and the rules they lived by:

All their life was spent not in laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their own free will and pleasure. They rose out of their beds when they thought good; they did eat, drink, labour, sleep, when they had a mind to it and were disposed for it. None did awake them, none did offer to constrain them to eat, drink, nor to do any other thing; for so had Gargantua established it. In all their rule and strictest tie of their order there was but this one clause to be observed, Do What Thou Wilt; because men that are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them unto virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honour. Those same men, when by base subjection and constraint they are brought under and kept down, turn aside from that noble disposition by which they formerly were inclined to virtue, to shake off and break that bond of servitude wherein they are so tyrannously enslaved; for it is agreeable with the nature of man to long after things forbidden and to desire what is denied us. 1

François Rabelais couldn’t get enough of arseholes. When the giant Gargantua is born, the midwives can’t tell at first if his mother’s in labour, or merely evacuating her bowels of the 16 tuns, two gallons and two pints of tripe she’s been eating. Another curious meal includes “fine turds, tweak-nose style”, “Athenian rump”, “shitlets”, “collared bullfarts”, “stitched bum-stirrings”, “dirty-filths”, “puffs-up-my-bum” and, for dessert, “shit drench with blossoming turds”. Here are some books in a Rabelais library: On the Art of Discreetly Farting in Company, On How to Defecate, Fundamental Floggings, The Gut-cavities of the Mendicants, Spanish Pongs, Super-refined, The Backgammon of Belly-bumping Friars and Martingale Breeches with Back-flaps for Turd-droppers.

But the arse isn’t all that Rabelais is interested in. Why the sea is salty, how to cook pears in red wine, ironmongery, weaponry, war (he’s a little too interested in war), decapitation (ditto), the names of games (including “judge alive, judge dead” and “shitty yew-twigs”) and dances, glassware and grapes, history, mythology, archaeology, “foolosophy”, scholarship, medicine of course (as a doctor he risked his life to save victims of the plague), anatomy, botany, lechery, law, magic, superstition, religion, servants, aphrodisiacs, wines, astronomy, astrology, tourist sites, even sci-fi. He wants, like any real writer, to explain the whole world to us – comically, satirically, ethically and unethically. (see: Lucy Ellmann: 12/2006 Guardian Review of Books)

Shall we say it? Rabelais was moving toward that inhuman laughter of the monstrous alterity that risks the boundary zones between reason and unreason, knowledge and nonknowledge (Bataille). In laughter we find the key to unlock what Bataille would call the philosophy of non-savoir, where laughter – not the comedy of existence subordinated to reason and human identity – ruptures the abject and enters the regions of Nietzsche’s grand baroque, where the abyss of laughter reverberates in nonknowledge and excess.

Bataille believed that laughter is sovereign, and that comic literature had been suborned to its lowly position because it stepped outside reason and philosophy, that it dared to cause havoc in the House of Reason.  Rather than just attempting to philosophize comedy, Bataille treats philosophy as comedy. Like Rabelais he gave attentive lesion to an affinity with surrealism and celebration of cultural forms expressing the irrational, the unthinkable, and the impossible (such as death, ecstasy, ritual, sacrifice, the erotic, the comic, and the sacred) has been extended to theorizations that interrogate both the philosophical underpinning of his work and, indeed, its consequences for philosophical thinking.

Rabelais’s saying from Latin to ‘put its nose to her arse’ gives us that ribald and earthy humor that puts us back in touch with the base materialist world of the body: a well-known cause of laughter. To explain the elegant Latin word olfecit, used when a horse caused difficulties by ‘flairing’ (smelling) a mule, a medieval glossator of the Law Agaso (Ostler) notoriously explained it in basic Latin as ‘put its nose to her arse’.1 Rabelais would inform his future readers of laughter: “No other theme comes to my mind Seeing such gloom your joy doth ban. My pen’s to laughs not tears assigned. Laughter’s the property of Man.”

Even Bataille saw the benefit of laughter as communication. “When the need to communicate through loss of self is reduced to that of possessing more, then we realize that nothing sublime can exist in man without its necessarily evoking laughter. Now, of all the sorts of intense communication, none is more common than the laughter which stirs us in (each other’s) company. In our laughter, our lives are quite constantly released in a facile form of communication- and this despite the possibly isolating effect of our concern with sublime forms of communication.” (Bataille, Laughter: Writings of Laughter and Sacrifice)  As if commenting on the earthy humor of Rabelais – Bataille continues:

We laughed as one- a full, remorseless laughter- in which, together, we penetrated into the secret places of things. The joy of laughter became one with the joy of living. The spellbinding spark of roaring laughter came to mean, in a way that was crucial, a kind of dawn, a strange promise of glory. We must take care always to articulate the radiance discovered in laughter; that intoxication opens a window of light which gives onto a world of flagrant joy. Actually, the brilliance of this world is such that men swiftly avert their eyes. He who wishes to keep his attention focused upon this sliding, dizzying point needs great strength. In learned treatises, laughter is considered a mechanism. Tired scholars endlessly dismantle its minute gear system, as if laughter were really foreign to them; they avoid the immediate revelation of the nature of things and of their own lives in their own laughter. (ibid.)

Bataille’s philosophy of laughter awakens us from the gray men who shut down the world in a cage of reason and suborned meaning, who analyze the world into abstract categories, or synthesize it into realms of non-meaning and abstract ideas seeking some transcendence – all the while those like Rabelais and Bataille bring us back down to the base line, to the earthy shit and arse hole philosophies of reality – of laughter and the grotto, the grotesque antiques of the fool and merry pranksters who romp the vast comic literature of the eternal festival of cruelty and life going on within the cosmic landscape of history’s horror show, and that of our universe of transgressive and catastrophic play where amor fati and the Lord of Misrule dance in the eternity of night. Against the new crop of Neorationalists and their normative returns to regulation and enslavement of men in some new “give and take” of reasons and moral turpitude Rabelais and Bataille offer laughter and transgression, excess and a base materialism that keeps us in touch with matter, mater, goddess, earth, night, death and the ocean of endless being and becoming. As Bataille would remind us “Not only does each man participate in the limitless streaming of the universe but his laughter mixes with that of others, so that a room will contain not several laughs, but a single wave of hilarity. The icy solitude of each laughing individual is, as it were, refined; all lives are waters flowing into a torrent.” (ibid.)

In Rabelais and Bataille we discover a desubjectivized humanism that takes on the form of a seemingly more solidified cult of the generic Subject of the people, but even there it rests on an ever changing, protean, metamorphic and mutant existence of the human masses – a monstrous excess that transgresses the boundaries between bodies and style registers and refuses their members stable identifications – no identitarian politics here! – other than with the utopian body of the people and of humanity at large. This Renaissance brand of the decentred, indeed dislocated, humanism without subjectivity is his greatest discovery as a thinker and the source of his longevity on the intellectual scene where he ushers out vogue after vogue, staging for each new generation of readers the magic of witnessing the birth of proximity without empathy, of laughter without promise or closure. Rabelais is to laughter what Heraclitus is to tears, a mortal god among gargantuans; a panurge whose life abounds to all and sundry, and springs eternal in the reader’s mind like a promise of unbounded joy.

Bataille would provoke us to turn away from doom and gloom, from the Subject and Identity, from the isolated subjectivism of Idealist pretension and Hegelian dialectic of sublation and endless progress, objectivity of spirit, and transcendence. Instead he would provoke laughter and madness:

Laughter has the quality of provoking laughter. Hilarity discloses the fall-which has just occurred or some equivalent cause of joy, the certain presence of prospects of the spirit’s release. This invitation is difficult to resist. Isolation is always the effect of gloom, of fatigue, or heaviness; when invited to join in the “mad dance of release,” the spirit rushes in heedlessly. (Laughter: ibid.)

Only the cosmic comedy without end in a universe where nothing is assured, and everything is left to do; an incompleteness, a journey into ever more refined forms of formlessness and chaos, a spasmatic realm of catastrophe and impersonal numinous desire quickened only by the unknown laughter resounding in the abyss of impersonal night.

Or, instead let us come together for a drink, a little merriment and vibrant comradeship; and a night of ribald humor, letting our worries and the world – too long with us and hateful, fall away as the fires of conversation and bright laughter burst the halls with clanking ale and honored friendship:

‘I,’ said the steward, ‘would rather have a drink.’

And so saying they went into the lower hall; all their companions were there and when they told them this novella, they had them buzzing with laughter like a bevy of flies.

– Francois Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel 

The notes below are not pertinent to the fragment above… Just needed to gather them together for future reference… 🙂

Notes Toward A Short History of Gastronomy

Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière is known as the first public critic of cooking, the first reviewer of the ambitious restaurants that cropped up in Paris in the later eighteenth century and flowered under the Napoleonic regime, his name is a by-word on a par with Brillat-Savarin and an equally rich source of quotations in French gastronomic literature through the eight volumes of his annual L’Almanach des gourmands, which he edited and published from 1803 to 1812. Gourmand still retained its sense of “gluttony”, one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and Grimod’s choice of the word, when “friand” more usually connoted a connoisseur of fine food and wine, was a conscious one and wholly in character; gourmand and gourmet first achieved their pleasant modern connotations in Grimod’s Almanachs, which, among other innovations, were the first restaurant guides. The success of the Almanachs encouraged Grimod and his publishers to bring out the monthly Journal des Gourmandes et des Belles, which appeared for the first time in January 1806. Its editorial board consisted of the friends who met weekly for dinner at the Hôtel Grimod de La Reynière, those “Dîners du Vaudeville”, composed of dishes sent round by the premier restaurants of Paris for judgment, and Grimod as host and presiding genius. His Manuel des amphitryons (“hosts”) appeared in 1808. Sainte-Beuve called him the “Father of the table”.2

Wandering through my gastronomique collection it dawned on me how delightful it would be to read a great comic novel of a Chef. But not just any Chef, I was thinking back to Gunter Grass’s fabulous comic novel The Flounder, which had all the lovely asides of various gastronomique treats and binges as the women through the Flounder’s long rambling history cooked their way into his heart. One thinks of the Francois Villon (1431 – 1474) the great French poet whose earthy love of women, wine, and song. One of my favorites was his The Debate Between Villon And His Heart (only a snippet):

Who’s that I hear?—It’s me—Who?—Your heart
Hanging on by the thinnest thread
I lose all my strength, substance, and fluid
When I see you withdrawn this way all alone
Like a whipped cur sulking in the corner
Is it due to your mad hedonism?—
What’s it to you?—I have to suffer for it—
Leave me alone—Why?—I’ll think about it—
When will you do that?—When I’ve grown up—
I’ve nothing more to tell you—I’ll survive without it—

I can imagine a encyclopedic history in the comic vein of a Chef who has lived through time cooking at the great and small tables of historical and imaginary figures, interspersed with ribald poems, epithets, rancorous satire, jibes, and jubilant and festive culinary affairs of both the heart and mind… a cross between Don Juan and Julia Childe; or, Antoine Careme:

Known as the “King of Chefs and the Chef of Kings,” Antoine Careme went from being an abandoned child left at the door of a restaurateur in 18th century Paris, to become the father of “haute cuisine” – the high art of French cooking – in the early 19th century. Chef to then-world movers and shakers such as diplomat Talleyrand-Perigord, the future King George IV, Czar Alexander I, and the powerful banker James Rothschild, Careme is noted for his voluminous writings on cooking, including the famed L’Art de la Cuisine Francaise (The Art of French Cooking), a five-volume masterpiece on menu planning, table settings, hundreds of recipes, and a history of French cooking.

Another Frenchman, George Auguste Escoffier, bridged the 19th and 20th centuries with a modernization of Careme’s elaborate cuisine by ingenious simplification of it. Escoffier lent his talents as a chef to open the Ritz and Carlton hotels with partner Cesar Ritz, and then went on to wow such illustrious passengers as Kaiser William II of Germany on the German liner Imperator. Besides being known for such famous treats at Peach Melba, created for Australian singer Nellie Melba in 1893, Escoffier penned numerous volumes on cooking and was largely instrumental in the betterment of conditions within commercial kitchens. A stickler for cleanliness, he demanded the same from his workers and forbade swearing or any type of violence, which at the time, was common as apprentices and other help were routinely beaten by older staff.

Charles Ranhofer, the son of a restrauteur and the grandson of a chef, goes down in the annals of great chefs as the first French chef to bring the grandeur of his country’s cuisine to America. Noted primarily as the head chef of New York City’s famed Delmonico’s restaurant, Ranhofer ran its kitchens for nearly 34 years. Serving such luminaries as President Andrew Johnson, President U.S. Grant, Charles Dickens, and a host of foreign dignitaries, Ranhofer created such culinary distinctions as Lobster Newburg and Baked Alaska, among many others. He also wrote “one of the most complete treatises of its kind,” according to the New York Times in praise of his book, The Epicurean, published in 1894.3

  1. Gargantua and Pantagruel. François Rabelais, translated by MA Screech (Penguin)
  2. See: Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch’s Hiccup, and Other Gastronomic Interjections: Literature, Culture, and Food Among the Early Moderns by Robert Appelbaum. Excellent history!
  3.  Author Keith Londrie II. Famous Chefs in History.


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