A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Category: literature

Gargantua on Drinking

Doré's Gargantua

Gargantua, by Gustave Doré

Today is Whanne that Aprille Day on Twitter, when we celebrate old languages.

Here’s my contribution, from Gargantua, Book 1, Chapter 5, by François Rabelais.

An almost-Socratic dialogue on drinking, law, mortality, and sports physiology.  Or maybe it’s more of a symposium.


— Qui feut premier, soif ou beuverye?
— Soif. Car qui eust beu sans soif durant le temps d’innocence?
— Beuverye. Car privatio praesupponit habitum. Je suis Clerc. Foecundi calices quem non fecere disertum!
— Nous aultres innocens ne beuvons que trop sans soif.
— Non moy, pecheur, sans soif. Et si non presente, pour le moins future, la prevenent comme entendez. Je boy pour la soif advenir. Je boy eternellemeut, ce m’est eternité de beuverye, et beuverye de éternité.
— Chantons, beuvons un motet.
— Entonnons!
— Où est mon entonnoir?
— Quoy ! Je ne boy que par procuration !
— Mouillez-vous pour seicher, ou vous seichez pour mouiller?
— Je n’entens poinct la theoricque; de la praticque je me ayde quelque peu.
— Haste!
— Je mouille, je humecte, je boy. Et tout de peur de mourir.
— Beuvez toujours, vous ne mourrez jamais.
— Si je ne boy, je suys à sec. Me voylà mort.

I own a strange old volume of Rabelais in English translation, which seems to be samizdat to get around the old Comstock laws. It translates that passage this way:

Which was first, thirst or drinking?  Thirst, for who in the time of innocence would have drunk without being athirst?  Nay, sir, it was drinking, for privatio presupponit habitum. I am learned, you see. Foecundi calices quem non fecere disertum! We poor innocents* drink but too much without thirst. Not I, truly, who am a sinner, for I never drink without thirst, either present of future, to prevent it (as you know) I drink for the thirst to come; I drink eternally, this is to me an eternity of drinking and drinking of an eternity. Let us sing, let us drink, now for a catch, dust it away, where is my nogging? What, it seems I do not drink but by proxy. Do you wet yourself to dry, or do you dry to wet yourself? Pish, I understand not the rhetoric, (the theoric I should say), but I help my self somewhat by the practice.
Enough! I sup, I wet, I humect, I moisten my gullet, I drink and all for fear of dying. Drink always, and you shall never die. If I drink not, I run aground, and I die.

* These words bear allusion to what is said of some innocent people who are tortured with water forced down their throats to make them confess.

Here is my translation:
— Which came first, drinking or thirst?
— Thirst, for back in the days of innocence, who’d have drunk without being thirsty?
— Drinking, because privatio presupponit habitum. Arguments in Latin always win. Foecundi calices quem non fecere disertum!
— We innocents never drink too much, unless we are thirsty.
— Not me either, and I’m a sinner. Maybe I don’t have a thirst right now, but I drink as a preventative. I drink against the thirst to come. I drink eternally, because through an eternity of drinking, I drink in all eternity.
— Let’s sing and drink a motet!
— Let’s intone in tons!
— Where’s my ton-kard?
— What are you talking about? I only drink by proxy.
— Do you wet yourself to dry out, or dry yourself out to get wet?
— I don’t understand anything about theory, and I don’t have much use for practice.
— Enough!
— I wet, I humidify, I drink, and all from fear of dying.
— Well, keep drinking forever, and you’ll never die.
— If I stop drinking, I’ll be all tapped out.* And that’s as good as dead.

creepy figure

Why sports physiology?  Because the sinner’s philosophy is what all coaches say now – start drinking before you get thirsty.  Renaissance French rules, avant la lettre, if you will.

* A regret: English doesn’t have a slang term for “broke” that overlaps with slang for “sober”, so I couldn’t translate that last pun correctly.  This is a shameful lacuna in my mother tongue.

Works Cited

Rabelais, F., La vie treshorrificque du grand Gargantua. Françoise Joukovsky, ed.  Paris, Flammarion, 1993.

Rabelais, F.,  The Works of Rabelais, faithfully translated from the French, with variorum notes, and numerous illustrations. Privately printed, who knows when or where.

This will not faze them

The book I’m reading right now has three levels of authorship.  (Searching the Web for the phrase “levels of authorship” leads you to a maze of twisty passages, all alike, most leading to swamps of tedium and despond.  This link doesn’t.)

The book is The Chemical Wedding by Christian Rosencreutz, by Johann Valentin Andreae, by John Crowley. Or is it The Chemical Wedding by Christian Rosencreutz, by Johann Valentin Andreae, by John Crowley?  Or is it one of the other possibilities?

One reason I love librarians is that they can catalogue this book “by author”, file it on a shelf, and then find it again later.  Librarians can handle anything.

Historical note:  When I first read this book (after a reference in Foucault’s Pendulum), it was in German. I mentally translated “Die chymische Hochzeit von Christian Rosencreutz” as the “Chemical Wedding of” C.R., not the “Chemical Wedding by“.  That was only the first of many bruises I got from attempting to read a book in renaissance German (in Fraktur!) after learning modern Hochdeutsch in high school. I knew I was going to like Crowley’s version when correcting that mistake was the first sentence in his Introduction.

Modern note: It never ceases to delight me that I can just pull up 400-year-old texts from my dining-room table.  Living in the future is in many ways awesome.

Canons and Chains

In which your Idiosopher considers how to measure an author’s cultural depth.

Brenton has a quotation from a letter by C.S. Lewis that seems to say nice things about the way I’ve been approaching literature. Lewis doesn’t like the idea of canonical lists of books that youngsters should read. I don’t like canonical lists either, unless I’ve read everything on it and can feel smug therefore.  The only time I’ve ever gone and read books because they were part of a canon, it was Michael Dirda’s list of the “100 Best Humorous Novels.” (Alas, no link. It was in the Washington Post, long ago.)

Un jour viendra où l’on montrera un canon dans les musées comme on y montre aujourd’hui un instrument de torture, en s’étonnant que cela ait pu être!
(Someday we’ll exhibit canons in museums, as we do now with instruments of torture, amazed that such things could ever have existed!)

Victor Hugo

What Lewis prefers is a sort of terrain-following model, as one work you love leads to other writers, in a long chain of culture.  It’s not linear, of course. It’s more like following a river through its delta.  Some streams split and merge, some flow straight to the sea, some spin around in eddies and backwaters.

For me, on the science fiction/fact side, one chain was Asimov → Clarke → Niven → Dyson → Feynman → Dirac  → Einstein. [1] On the fantasy side, there’s a chain that goes Tolkien → Ursula LeGuin → Mervyn Peake → E.R. Eddison → Lord Dunsany → Thomas Malory → Medieval romances. [2] To be absolutely accurate, the latter chain should start with Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs, the libretto of which I read before Lord of the Rings. The chain has a kind of “V” shape in time, bouncing off World War II.

There’s a nice idiosophical vein here.  Lots of people measure the cultural significance of a work by how many arrows lead from it.  LotR, by this measure, might be the most culturally-significant work of the twentieth century, since arrows lead from it to a large section of modern bookstores and the entire art of fantasy role-playing games.[3]  That’s the azimuthal direction, if you will. But maybe there’s another dimension:  Might it be of interest how long the chains are, as well how many chains originate there?  The depth to which authors connect into existing cultural structures seems orthogonal to their azimuthal impact, and might yield interesting insights.  The fact that the metric will be biased towards books enjoyed by teenagers may be entertaining, as well.

Quantitative data to rank various authors by chain-length can be obtained from elderly scholars.  They’ll have to be elderly, because these chains are only visible in hindsight. It seems easily parallelizable, hence ideal for the Web.  The job could be a lot of work, but if you like talking to classicists and medievalists anyway, it wouldn’t be much of a chore.

[1] The linked pages were for fun; they’re unrelated to my own research.
[2] The lectures of Corey Olsen are in there at the last step.
[3] The Tenth Art, I think.

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