Josipovici, Rabelais and the Little Room

June 3, 2009

picture-1For a while now, I’ve been slowly reading my way through the works of Gabriel Josipovici, one of our more interesting contemporary authors, but one little known outside lit crit circles. If you haven’t had the pleasure, go pick up Moo Pak or Goldberg: Variations for a taste. His most recent book, Everything Passes (Carcanet, 2006) is perhaps his most beautiful and mysterious work to date, a short novel which affected me profoundly. Written in Josipovici’s signature spare and compressed style, it deals with life, death, and art – particularly the intentions and what the publisher calls the “ambiguous comforts” of art: why the writer writes, and who it benefits. It seemed booktwo-relevant, particularly when he writes about Rabelais.

What Josipovici says about Rabelais is that he was the first print writer, just as Luther was the last manuscript writer. Homer was a bard of the people, and Virgil wrote to please the Emperor, knowing his writings would be read to the people and become their myths. Dante’s poetry was written to be read aloud – and in the Purgatorio, read back to him. And Shakespeare wrote for the masses, knowing them as neighbours and knowing they’d pay cash at the door rather than sit by the roadside and wait for the carts to pass. But Rabelais sat writing alone in his room, not knowing his audience, who sat also in their rooms, alone, reading him. What he did was unknowable: the first prose fiction.

“He was the spokesman of no one but himself. And that meant that his role was inherently absurd. No one had called him. Not God. Not the Muses. Not the monarch. Not the local community. He was alone in his room, scribbling away, and then these scribbles were transformed into print and read by thousands of people whom he’d never set eyes on and who had never set eyes on him, people in all walks of life, reading him in the solitude of their rooms.” [Everything Passes, p19]

What he did remained unknown for 400 years. Josipovici cites Sterne, and Woolf’s parentheses, as touching on the same thing: an unknowable literature that passes us by, renouncing authority. And so it seems to me with our new currents of conversation and literature online: they scare the old guard in the same way, they are Rabelaisian, they appear pointless to the uninitiated, they renounce authority.

What then, are we to do with the new literature, and the new print? We are all alone in our rooms, but we are all connected. Where is our literature? Can we, as Chester does, as Rabelais did, “see ourselves silhouetted against entirety, and still produce a shadow?”

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