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Bakhtin and Powys ‘en dialogue’: Two Contemporary Views on Rabelais

Mikhaïl Bakhtine et John Cowper Powys en dialogue: deux ouvrages contemporains sur Rabelais.
Florence Marie-Laverrou


Cet article s’intéresse à deux ouvrages consacrés à François Rabelais et écrits sensiblement à la même époque par le philosophe et théoricien du texte Mikhaïll Bakhtine et le romancier et essayiste John Cowper Powys. Dans un premier temps, la comparaison de ces deux textes permet de souligner leurs similitudes; par la suite, leur mise en dialogue, au sens où l’entend Bakhtine, met à jour leurs failles et leurs atouts respectifs et dégage ce faisant la conception très personnelle que se faisait Powys de la critique littéraire. Il ne s’agissait pas tant pour lui de disserter sur Rabelais et ses œuvres, mais bien plus de se faire poreux au style de l’écrivain français. Son propre ouvrage critique se fait miroir de l’esthétique de ce dernier et la place accordée au lecteur montre combien cette esthétique est, dans les deux cas, porteuse d’une éthique.

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  • 1 Powys’s Rabelais was published in 1948; Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World was to be rediscovered in (...)

1In a letter to a friend written in 1944, John Cowper Powys stated: ‘I have got (and I believe nobody else has got as much dope and data at this moment on Rabelais as I’ve got around me) all that has been discovered about him and all that has been translated from him and most that . . . well, MUCH that has been written on him’ (quoted in Peltier 1). He probably said so because he had been asked to write a critical book on Rabelais in 1942 and had been working hard on it. At the same time, he was wide off the mark, unaware as he wasand quite logically so1that in the depths of Russia another man, Mikhaïl Bakhtin, had just spent several years writing a doctoral dissertation on that very same Renaissance French writer. Surprisingly enough, the only other critical books on a single author written by the two men were both on Dostoievsky. This coincidence whetted my appetite for the discovery of a yet very much uncharted territory—that of Powys’s literary essays and it has enabled me to compare a well-known and widely acclaimed scholar’s approach, that of Bakhtin, to Powys’s more idiosyncratic one, that of a poet.

Comparing Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World and Powys’s Rabelais

2The amount of noticeable similarities between the two books is striking as the two writers’ opinions on the other contemporary views on Rabelais converge. They had read the same works written by some eminent French critics and they both refer to Voltaire and his opinion on Rabelais but also to Professor Lefranc, to Professor Plattard and to the Société des Études Rabelaisiennes. Although they praise the contemporary French critics for having worked so hard on Rabelais, they both express their disagreement with some of the most noteworthy conclusions that had been reached. Contrary to Lefranc’s view, they refuse to consider Rabelais as an atheist. They also rule out the possibility that he might have been a satirist and their digressions on the nature of satire make it clear that they do so on the same grounds. Bakhtin states that ‘[Rabelais] is not a satirist [. . .]. His laughter is by no means directed at the distinct, purely negative aspects of reality’ (Bakhtin 141), an idea Powys agrees with: ‘[Rabelais] was no more a Satirist than James Joyce was a clown. Rabelais was a life-worshipper, a life-analyser, a life-apotheosizer’ (Powys 302). All this may seem obvious to us now but it was not at the time. In fact the two men shared the idea that Rabelais had been completely misunderstood on account of the change in people’s way of thinking.

3It follows that their approaches to Rabelais’ works have a lot in common. They compare Rabelais to the same authors (Shakespeare and Cervantes) and rely on identical binary notions (death/birth; above/below; destruction/creation). Moreover, their visions of Rabelais’ philosophical ideal are similar even though they are not phrased in the same way. Bakhtin bases his demonstration on two main concepts, the carnivalesque and the grotesque body. For his part, Powys proposes a run-of-the-mill notion—that of childhood, whose lexical field is to be found everywhere in his essay (‘childhood’, ‘childishness’, ‘childish’, ‘children’, ‘babyhood’, ‘babyishness’, ‘babe’, etc.)—and a rather vague phrase—‘the transference of reverence from ritual to life’. It seems to me that Powys’s two notions are encompassed in the concept of the carnivalesque (which suggests that Powys may have missed the notion of the grotesque body altogether). Logically enough, they both comment on the struggle in Rabelais’ text between the ‘authorities’ and the ‘common people’ and on the ‘topsy-turvy’ world this strife triggers off. Powys also concurs with Bakhtin’s idea that the key word of Rabelais’ world is ‘laughter’. Far from belittling Rabelais as a mere comic writer, they insist on the link between laughter and freedom once laughter has overcome fear. They both suggest that laughter is part and parcel of Rabelais’ artistic vision and that as such it has a philosophical meaning, conveying as it does the French writer’s opposition to all that is finished—for fear that it might lead to any kind of dogmatism—and his ensuing celebration of relativity.

  • 2 ‘Aesopian language’: ‘Designed to work under combat conditions, Aesopianism assumes that the world (...)

4Rabelais’ rejection of any ultimate Truth (‘[He believed] that Nature speaks in multitudinous voices’ [Powys 286]) is palatable to both Bakhtin and Powys: they see it as the logical outcome of the period of transition (the early Renaissance) the French writer lived in and they consider that they themselves are living in such a period of transition, a period where destruction and creation are intimately linked. Powys explicitly says so in the text each time he refers to the Second World War: ‘[Rabelais] should be regarded as the Messiah of the new era under the Zodiacal Sign of Aquarius into which our bleeding and distracted world, notwithstanding all the horrors of this unimaginable war, has begun to move’ (Powys 374). On account of the situation he found himself in, Bakhtin could not be so explicit about the comparison. Nevertheless, it has been suggested by Holquist in his introduction to Rabelais and His World that ‘he was deeply responsive to the Renaissance because he saw in it an age similar to his own in its revolutionary consequences and its acute sense of one world’s death and another world’s being born’ (xv). In fact political history is present in these two critical works: it is overtly the case in Powys’s essay and indirectly the case, namely thanks to Aesopian language,2 in Bakhtin’s. Powys sometimes transforms his critical writing into a political pamphlet, launching himself into scathing attacks on all governments, and on Catholics and Communists (Powys 309, 333). For his part, Bakhtin uses ‘the catchphrases of Stalinism’—as if he was paying his tribute to Stalinism—so as to show their hollowness all the better (Clark and Holquist 314). In spite of these differences, Powys and Bakhtin both agree that Rabelais’ art is clearly the antidote to any absolute idea. Thus, the appeal his works have for them is not simply political but also ethical: ‘we all need to be saved by poets and humorists from the toils and tortures of some totemistic taboo’ (Powys 377). What is at stake is a certain attitude towards man and life, an attitude which cannot be subsumed under a series of rules, and which, however elusive it may seem (‘Rabelais never exhausts his resources in direct statements’ [Bakhtin 454]), was something that Rabelais, Bakhtin and Powys all had in common and believed in. It is striking to see that the last chapters of the two books are full of words such as ‘progress’ and ‘the future’, although neither Bakhtin nor Powys could be said to be naïve people (‘[Rabelais] teaches us to navigate by all the stars of life, [. . .] and to steer straight for Utopia even though its shores recede as we advance’ [Powys 415]).

Bakhtin and Powys ‘en dialogue’

  • 3 As summed up by one of his critics: ‘to read with a text, rather than against it [is] to grant it, (...)

5It is now time to instigate a kind of dialogue—in the Bakhtinian sense of the term—between the two writers. The Bakhtinian concept of ‘dialogue’ encourages each and everyone to look at all that is written or said from another perspective. This notion has incited me to view Powys from Bakhtin’s perspective and vice versa (as if Powys’s ‘specific utterance [had] engender[ed] a specific response’ [Morson and Emerson 441] on the part of Bakhtin and vice versa). It has also deterred me from treating Bakhtin’s text as a monologic text or, to use another Bakhtinian term, as an ‘authoritative text’—that is to say a text ‘commanding unconditional allegiance’ (Bakhtin quoted in Farmer 57). Indeed the ‘dialogue’ between the two writers, even though at face value it is often detrimental to Powys, accentuates some of Bakhtin’s ambiguities in Rabelais and His World and proves the reverse of inhibiting. It has helped me read not simply ‘with’ Bakhtin’s text but also ‘against’ itthus doing exactly what Bakhtin would like every reader to do.3

  • 4 His statements on Rabelais should be qualified. Although they are not numerous, there are some epis (...)

6What this dialogue lays emphasis on in the first place is the absence of women’s voices in Bakhtin’s work, an absence which is all the more blatant as Powys overtly tackles the problem of gender in his essay. Bakhtin not only fails to consider ‘gender’ when defining the concept of ‘heteroglossia’, but he is also often deaf to women’s voices in the works he comments on. On the contrary, Powys devotes one chapter to this question (‘Rabelais and Women’ Powys 316–331). He reproaches Rabelais with his lack of interest in women and his misogyny; he compares him with Shakespeare and concludes that the French writer fares poorly (‘But Rabelais fails us completely here. There is no such woman in all his Four Books!’ [Powys 330]). He considers that Rabelais was prey to the ideology of the language of his time: ‘Rabelais represents in a supreme degree the world-old cerebral free-masonry of men; of men who have temporarily escaped from the realism of life, that is to say, from the vision of things that dominates their home’ (Powys 360). Thus, he ends his chapter with a devastating and definite remark: ‘Rabelais out-Platonizes Plato where women are concerned’ (Powys 331). Admittedly, Powys’s attitude is not without its own limits.4

7Bakhtin’s lack of interest in gender can be—at least in Rabelais and His Worldpartly explained by the second main concept developed in the book besides the carnivalesque, namely ‘the grotesque body’: ‘the artistic logic of the grotesque image ignores the closed, smooth, and impenetrable surface of the body and retains only its / excrescences and orifices; [. . .]. Actually, if we consider the grotesque image in its extreme aspect, it never presents an individual body; [. . .]. Finally, let us point out that the grotesque body is cosmic and universal’ (Bakhtin 317-318). For all his talk about ‘the common herd’ and ‘the common people’ and although he is aware of the timelessness and immortality of laughter (Powys 305, 369) and of the deadening effect of Rabelais’ ‘childlike rusticity’ on sex-difference (Powys 327), Powys fails to consider ‘the collective body’ because, probably, unlike Bakhtin, he did not have a good grasp of folk culture. Therefore, he insists on the notion of the individual soul, a notion he himself valued so much (‘the unfathomable and unconquerable energy of the individual soul’ [Powys 384]). It follows that Powys has difficulty in making sense of some recurring features in Rabelais’ writings: for instance, the brutalities which are described with such relish, as well as the way pain and individual deaths are treated lightly (Powys 399). Bakhtin, on the contrary, can account for them through the concept of the grotesque body, which enables him to see the regenerative aspect of such manifestations (‘In the grotesque body, on the contrary, death brings nothing to an end, [. . .] the ancestral body [. . .] is renewed in the next generation’ [Bakhtin 322]). Thus compared to Bakhtin’s, Powys’s understanding of Rabelais can be said to be only partial, and the potency of Bakhtin’s arguments is all the more obvious because of Powys’s deficiencies.

8Conversely, we could wonder whether Powys’s failure to consider what Bakhtin calls ‘the collective element’ of the celebration does not point out the problematic nature of the concept of the grotesque body within the general framework of Bakhtin’s philosophical thought, a paradox the critics are still grappling with: ‘Even for a committed and disciplined Bakhtinian critic, however, the idea of carnival presents a dilemma. It both fits, and radically does not fit, the other god-term in Bakhtin’s cosmos, which is dialogue. [. . .] Dialogue individuates, carnival absorbs and effaces; the speaking person is mortal, the grotesque body immortal’ (Emerson 167. See Morton and Emerson 435-443). In this particular case, Powys’s shortcomings, which are the logical outcome both of his lack of knowledge and his own consistent emphasis on individualised language and the individualised body, call attention to some of Bakhtin’s paradoxes.

  • 5 We know how successful the concept of carnival has been, sometimes erroneously so: ‘th[e] ready tra (...)

9Speaking in a more general way, the limits of Powys’s work become patent when you realize that what Powys says is not likely to be used by other critics to analyse other works, even if Powys mentions all sorts of writers—for example he makes a detailed comparison of Rabelais and Walt Whitman (Powys 370–383). Unlike Bakhtin’s,5 his essay falls short of creating concepts. On the other hand, Powys was not a literary critic; he considered himself as a simple reader, who ventured ‘an interpretation’. His position may have been, to a certain extent, an asset in so far as he did not try to demonstrate something. That is precisely what Bakhtin was aiming at in Rabelais and His World, where he turns out to be less cautious than in his previous works and to rely, as he does not do elsewhere, on ‘binariness of thought’ and ‘dualistic formulations’ (Morson and Emerson 445, 446). As for Powys, he seems to be wary of the pitfalls of any excessive polarization. He is not always consistent but he does his utmost to steer clear of those pitfalls in the end so as to remain faithful to Rabelais’ spirit: ‘Where then does it land us, this peripatetic, periphrastic patter [. . .] I will reply with another question. Why should it land us anywhere? All final ‘Landings’, all final Millenniums, all Last Apocalypses and Last Judgments are wearisome to think of’ (Powys 354); ‘But the Rabelaisian transvaluation does not confine itself to ‘putting down the mighty from their seats and exalting the humble and meek’, for, as alas! we all know well, this Christian revolution, reversion, and heads-for-tails tohu-bohu, too often merely replaces the satanic enemies of the All-Powerful by the humble and meek sycophants of the All-Powerful, leaving the Power-Politics of the Cosmos unchanged. But the persons Epistemon saw uplifted were persons like Villon, Patelin and the incorrigible Songe-Creux. They were the clowns and jesters and scamps and scaramouches of the earth, the defiant misfits in fact, together with all the unworldly, unpractical, incapable, but incurably impious ‘Have-nots’ ‘ (Powys 389). It transpires that Powys values subversion for its own sake and considers that the role of those he calls the ‘entertainers’ (Powys 389) is neither to replace the norm by another one nor to strengthen it by a temporary inversion but to transcend all theories, thanks to fiction.

John Cowper Powys’s Rabelais as a Work of Fiction

10Some commentators of Bakhtin’s work have suggested that among all his books, and despite its binary pairs, Rabelais and His World is probably the most open text written by Bakhtin. It is a text in which his criticism of Stalinism is the most scathing (Clark and Holquist 298) and whose Russian version is full of ‘imagery, reiterated puns, phonetic play, and hyperbole’ (Emerson, 168–169). Having only read the English translation, I am in no position to study this aspect of the text in detail. It seems to me, however, that on the whole, the openness of Powys’s text is even more striking than that of Bakhtin’s.

11Powys believed—and so did Bakhtin—that an inherent link between a writer’s ideas and his style was inevitable. As a result, he starts by commenting on Rabelais’ style and ends his study by referring to his own ‘individual porousness to the overtones of Rabelais’ style’ (Powys 414). In other words, Powys’s approach to Rabelais’ text is pragmatic; the question he asks himself is: ‘what is the effect of Rabelais’ text on the reader or rather on myself as a reader?’ Thus, he could not but be aware of the ‘overtones’ of his own text. Using one of Bakhtin’s ideas, it could be argued that the less a text relies on concepts, the more it is likely to find aesthetic solutions to get its meaning through. Emerson sums this up when he says: ‘[Bakhtin] insists that techniques of art, to be aesthetically legitimate, must be capable of extending and refining philosophical problems that cannot be resolved—that cannot even be conceptualised—in any other way’ (Emerson, 81). As said earlier on, Powys had difficulty in encapsulating in concepts what was at stake in Rabelais’ books, ‘for all great imponderables are difficult to express’ (Powys 310). Therefore, his text not only assesses Rabelais’ ideas on freedom but also puts them into practice in so far as its language and style are saturated by the same ideas. The reader is made not simply to understand but also to feel and experience what Powys is talking about. This corresponds to Bakhtin’s ideas once again, as summed up by Clark and Holquist, ‘[the] style [of this work] is a means not only for enhancing but also for adjusting and registering relations between the speaker or writer, their subject, and their audience’ (Clark and Holquist 210). Hence the question: in what ways is Powys’s text a dialogic one?

  • 6 No wonder he sometimes had reservations about the previous translations of Rabelais’ books; he says(...)

12Like Rabelais, Powys stresses the relativity of all languages and the fact that each language or form of speech is a verbal ideological point of view. In Bakhtin’s text—and here obviously I am referring to its standard English translation—the quotations in French and Latin are few and far between whereas Powys’s essay is a real patchwork of languages. Almost each time Powys refers to Rabelais the text includes both the original text and the translation into English; in other words, Powys ‘let[s] Rabelais speak’ (Powys 351). Here is one particularly telling example: ‘ ‘Quant est de leur étude’, ‘as to their study, ‘elle est toute consummée à la lecture de livres Pantagruelicques’, ‘it is entirely confined to reading Pantagruelian books, ‘non tant pour passer temps joyeusement’, ‘not so much to pass the time joyously, ‘que pour nuyre à quec’un meschantement’, ‘as to do someone a mischief’ (Powys 367). As Powys had experienced the problem of translation while translating some parts of Rabelais’ text into English (‘Selections Newly Translated’ Powys 133–282), he was alert to the pitfalls inherent in the process and he knew that a translation can often be a mere ‘representation’ (Powys 365) of the original text.6 Thus, he juxtaposes Rabelais’ words and his own, always giving the former precedence, and he also intersperses his own text with words in French, Italian and Latin, which he does not translate but whose meaning is always transparent.

13This mixing of different languages is one of the forms ‘heteroglossia’—as it is defined by Bakhtin—can take (Vice 19). A stricter definition of ‘heteroglossia’ is in keeping with the different social languages which can be found in Powys’s essay. There are passages in which the reader encounters high, middle and low styles: Powys’s and that of the ‘Pyrrhonian sages’ whom he mocks (Powys 298) or Powys’s and more vernacular language (‘the sort of thing that especially sticks in my gullet’ [Powys 380]; ‘Two things ‘got’, as the Americans say, Rabelais’ ‘goat’ ‘ [Powys 403]). As a result, the Queen’s English is not the sole language to be found in a text which is, nonetheless, an example of critical writing. In that respect also Powys’s practice probably owes as much to Rabelais as his style does.

14Powys analyses the French author’s style but above all his text is at times a pastiche and the reader is given the opportunity to experience Rabelais’ style by proxy. This may be considered as a good illustration of Bakhtin’s paradigm of communication. Whereas Aristotle speaks of ‘verbal and written communication as consisting of speaker-listener-subject’ (Schuster in Farmer 2) and conceives the ‘subject’ as a passive object, Bakhtin puts a concept known (‘at least in translation’) as the ‘hero’ in place of the ‘subject’ and redefines the triangle: ‘ ‘speaker’ and ‘listener’ engage in an act of communication which includes the ‘hero’ as a genuine rhetorical force’ (Schuster in Farmer 2). In other words, Rabelais and his style, the ‘hero’ of the rhetorical triangle whose ‘speaker’ is Powys and whose ‘listener’ is the reader, can be seen as having deeply influenced the rhetoric of the ‘speaker’, which testifies once again to the dialogic nature of the essay and the dialogic interaction at work. Doesn’t Powys refer to himself as ‘a born medium for Rabelais’ (Powys 305)?

  • 7 ‘The parodied word cannot escape being the ‘doubled’ word, a word inhabited by two voices which ‘co (...)
  • 8 The same remark could be made about the use of oxymoron (‘the wisdom of nonsense’; ‘celestial nonse (...)

15Although Powys admits he sometimes has difficulty in coming to terms with some of Rabelais’ parodies (for instance when Rabelais parodies ‘the words of Jesus on the Cross’ [Powys 380]), the influence of the ‘rhetorical force’ of the French writer is conspicuous when Powys parodies Communion and the Bible. He does so in some of the titles of the chapters of his interpretation (the first chapter is entitled ‘As little children’, a phrase which is both a paradoxical reference to Rabelais’ giants and an echo of Jesus’ words) or when he writes a sentence such as the following one: ‘In the genius of Rabelais, Erasmus-worshipper though he was, the Privileged and the Academic received a jolt from which they still stagger. In him, by him, and through him the common herd became audible’ (Powys 295). The sentence mirrors Rabelais’ parodying style and attitude towards the Church and we can hear Powys’s laughter as he provocatively compares Rabelais to Christ. Parody has been defined as ‘the chief mode of resistance to power [ . . . as it] flouts the master’s language by exaggerating its gesturesor, in Bakhtin’s terms, by inhabiting the language of the lords with the intentions of the peasants’ (Klancher in Farmer 27). Thus, it is ‘the most obvious example of double-voicing’ (Farmer xviii),7 or in this particular case ‘triple-voicing’, since it is as if what Rabelais keeps on doing throughout his textparodying official languagehas worked its way into Powys’s.8

16Oral speech also tends to appear in the essay and to conflict with written speech as it does in Rabelais’ work. Bakhtin draws a comparison between Rabelais’ huge lists of words and the ‘cris de Paris’ (Bakhtin 153); similarly, Powys refers to Rabelais’ enumerations, which he views as ‘heraldic lists’ (Powys, 319). And interestingly, he calls himself ‘an announcer’ (Powys 301) and at times he launches himself into long lists, which although shorter than Rabelais’, have a distinct Rabelaisian flavour (‘[. . .] the most crude, vulgar, hard, raw, drab, gaudy, garish, commonplace, disgusting, aggressive, assertive, grinding, grating, scraping, dazzling, shocking, eye-hurting, psilanthropic, pseudomorphic objects and things’ [Powys 348]. See pages 283, 285, 290, 291, 295, 308, 312, 347, 350, 373, 410). Powys also uses a lot of superlatives and hyperbole just like a hawker (according to Bakhtin, ‘the superlative is the prevailing tone [of] the announcements at the fair’ [Bakhtin 160]). Furthermore, there are paragraphs in which Powys piles up short sentences rich in repetition, anaphora and rhetorical questions (Powys 286, 409) and full of italics, capital letters and exclamation marks, which convey either his indignation or his enthusiasm. What is also striking is a marked tendency to use and invent compound adjectives based on concrete things. These adjectives illustrate the vitality of oral speech and together with the capital letters used in the following example they participate in the ironic tone of the sentence, ‘these jesuitical and obey-without-a-word Gladiators of Expediency, these sit-on-your-conscience Opportunists, these all-is-permitted-and-nothing-is-forbidden Machiavels of state policy, these do-evil-that-good-may-come Grand Inquisitors of the Logical Right and the logical Left’ (Powys 309). Quite clearly, there is a feeling of immediacy in Powys’s text, which is characteristic of oral speech and rather out of place in a critical essay, though it is totally in keeping with Rabelais’ writing.

  • 9 Dan Leno was a star of the music-halls in the 1880s. Pontalais is the name sometimes given to Songe (...)

17In fact Powys was a talented lecturer who spent thirty years of his life going from one place to another in the United States and speaking of the authors he liked best. No wonder he was careful to write a text which aims at conveying not simply a message but also the tone and mood of the speaker. Thus, his essay on Rabelais can, at least to a certain extent, not simply be read but also listened to. It becomes almost audible, as if Powys was ‘an announcer’ or an actor on stage, able to mix oral and written speech in the same way as he is keen to mix high and low culture. For example, he jumps from Plato, Homer, Erasmus, Goethe, Shakespeare, Proust, Joyce and the like to ‘the Ballad-Singers of all the taverns of all the local harbours and havens’ (Powys 409) and to Patelin and Dan Leno:9 ‘But let us return à la Patelin and Pontalais and Dan Leno and Chaplin to the Pythagorean symbols of Suckfist’s defence’ (Powys 301). In the same vein, the emphasis laid on assonance, alliteration and rhymes (‘the taboo-troubled, totem-tortured human race’ [Powys 305]; ‘Prophets, Poets, Popes, Presbyters, Pontiffs, Preachers, Presidents, Procurators, and Propagandists’ [Powys 312]. See pages 299, 302, 373, 377, 393, etc . . .) testifies to the influence of Rabelais—Powys comments on the ‘onomatopoeic sounds’ of Rabelais’ lists (Powys 320)—but it also has a lot to do with his own awareness as a novelist, a lecturer and a translator of the materiality of language and of the ‘musical lilt’ of all literary texts (Powys 382).

18Indeed, all this should not be considered as mere ventriloquism. Admittedly, Powys acknowledges his own porousness (‘my individual porousness to the overtones of Rabelais’ style’ [Powys 414]) and one of the main achievements of his essay on Rabelais is that his interpretation, even though it is not a translation, is in a way ‘a real initiation into the actual psychic smell [. . .] and intimate physical taste’ of Rabelais’ text (Powys 16). On the other hand, there is no doubt that the reader also listens to a voice—that of Powys himself, who says ‘I’, speaks in his own name and whose own likes and dislikes can be found anywhere in the text by those who already know his other fictional and non-fictional works (Powys 375). His voice, nonetheless, is only presented as one voice among others (a doubled voice at that), not as the voice.

  • 10 In that sense, I would venture to say that Powys probably goes further than Bakhtin concerning his (...)

19Powys engages in a constant dialogue with Rabelais but also with the other critics of Rabelais’ works, whose ideas he keeps referring to without, it is true, always quoting extensively from their texts—there are some exceptions though (Powys 381, 405, 406). Even if he tends to paraphrase their ideas instead of quoting their words, he gives the reader the opportunity to have access to other points of view. Moreover, instead of asserting things bluntly, he reaches conclusions in a progressive way. For instance, he sums up Lefranc’s opinion concerning Bakhtin’s supposed atheism for the first time on page 355 and little by little he expresses his disagreement with him (Powys 371, 373) before concluding: ‘But why is it that I feel such reluctance to agree with the opinion of the French scholar who knows more about Rabelais than anyone else in the world?’ (Powys 393). In this way, he never seems to impose his opinion on the reader. His writing is repeatedly full of caution (‘Well, in these things it is hard to be absolutely certain, but I do not think so’; ‘Personally I think he a little over-stresses it’ [Powys 354, 371]). On the other hand, the fact that Powys goes as far as to stress his own limits when he compares his ideas to those of ‘the supreme authorit[ies] upon Rabelais’ (Powys 355) and considers himself as ‘an irresponsible thinker’ (Powys 364, 370) does not prevent him from deflating their theories—which can be seen as another instance of debasement, of the lowering of the Great by the Clowns, that is to say another way of making the reader experience what Rabelais’ text is about. After all, John Cowper Powys goes as far as to refer to himself as ‘Friar John’, one of the main humorous characters in Rabelais’ books (‘You will perhaps say to me: ‘Ho! Ho! Friar John, you are hoist with your own petard!’ [Powys 310]). He also belittles himself when he refers to himself as ‘a milk-drinking individual’ and ‘a neurotic and cowardly person’, ‘by nature fussy, fastidious, finical, and old-maidish’ (Powys 287, 341, 305) or as one of ‘the Old Boys with green Umbrellas’ held up to ridicule by another critic (Powys 367). He even ends up by reducing to naught his enterprise as a commentator: ‘I am quite ready to admit that to try and reduce [Rabelais’ ideal] to any clear-cut ideal is the enterprise of a fool’ (Powys 413). He thus avoids personal aggrandisement, an attitude which would be likely to trigger off a backlash (on the part of somebody like Rabelais for instance) and would replace the norm by another one.10

  • 11 This idea, which is based on the performative value of all literary texts, gives me the opportunity(...)

20While Powys undermines ‘the supreme authorit[ies] upon Rabelais’ and his own authority at that, he never forgets the readers. Throughout the essay he addresses them directly (Powys 298), asks them to follow him (‘let us’, ‘Try the experiment for yourself, indulgent reader’ [Powys 375]), imagines their remarks and in the end leaves them free to judge by themselves (‘But my readers shall judge for themselves on this crucial point’; ‘Well, that’s a point that only a reader’s verdict can decide’ [Powys 381, 413]). Therefore, in spite of the prescriptive character of some of Powys’s remarks, the reader, whose presence is always acknowledged and whose opinion is asked for, can feel pleasure while reading this piece of literary criticism as he/she is truly invited to converse and interact with the writer, who does not impose his final word. The last sentence of the essay is particularly appropriate; it is a line from one of Walt Whitman’s poems, which reads as follows, ‘Depart upon thy endless cruise, Old Sailor!’. Indeed, the reader’s position keeps changing in the course of the book as his/her assumptions are shaken several times by the very structure of the text. The book is a hybrid text made of five distinct parts: a long preface (7–28), a biography (29–92), a summary of Rabelais’ four books (93–132), a series of translated passages (133–282) and an interpretation (283–416). This last part is itself a real patchwork, not only of languages but of genres: there is a letter from Rabelais, which is translated in extenso, and quotations from verse by Shakespeare, Dryden and Villon (in French) and even longer ones from Leaves of Grass (Powys 373, 375, 416). At times the literary essay becomes, as we have seen, a political pamphlet. In other words, the commentary on Rabelais’ works keeps exceeding its ‘proper textual limits’ and is just like Gargantua itself ‘a happy Frankenstein’s laboratory’ (Clark and Holquist 297), an open text, which constantly thwarts the strategies the reader may elaborate when reading the first page of the essay and deciding what kind of genre it belongs to. All this underlines the freedom of the writer and that of the reader—as their relationship is never static—but also that of the text itself. It also means that at the core of Powys’s book, which deals with the idea of freedom in Rabelais, the same notion of freedom is at work—thanks to the style of the essay. It transpires that together with Bakhtin, Powys believes that ‘[A]esthetics [. . .] constitutes a version of liberty’ (Clark and Holquist 211).11

21Since Powys makes it clear that what is fundamental in Rabelais’ text is the style as it is a vehicle for Rabelais’ ethical position, it would be most unfair not to see that Powys’s text elicits the same kind of reaction for exactly the same reasons. This way of renewing the discourse on fiction could well be the main asset of his text as it is not simply a discourse on fiction; it is a discourse on fiction through fiction which urges each and everyone to ‘depart upon [his or her] endless cruise!’

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Bakhtin, Mikhaïl, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, Austin: Texas UP, 1981.

Bakhtin, Mikhaïl, Rabelais and His World (1965), trans. Hélène Iswolsky, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

Clark, Katherina & Michael Holquist, Mikhaïl Bakhtin, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1984.

Emerson, Caryl, The First Hundred Years of Mikhaïl Bakhtin, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1997.

Farmer, Frank, ed., Landmark Essays on Bakhtin, Rhetoric and Writing, Florence, Kentucky: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998.

Holquist, Michael, Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World, London/New York: Routledge, 1990.

Morson, Gary Saul & Caryl Emerson, Mikhaïl Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics, Stanford, CA.: Stanford UP, 1990.

Peltier, Jacqueline, ed., La Lettre powysienne 7 (printemps 2004).

POWYS, John Cowper, Rabelais, New York: Philosophical Library, 1948.

Vice, Sue, Introducing Bakhtin, Manchester: Manchester UP, 1997.

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1 Powys’s Rabelais was published in 1948; Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World was to be rediscovered in the mid-sixties only.

2 ‘Aesopian language’: ‘Designed to work under combat conditions, Aesopianism assumes that the world is allegory, that no one speaks or writes straight, and that every officially public or published text (by definition, censored) has a more ‘honest’, multilayered, hidden subtext that only insiders can decode’ (Emerson 8).

3 As summed up by one of his critics: ‘to read with a text, rather than against it [is] to grant it, in Bakhtin’s terms, ‘authority’ ‘ (Farmer 58).

4 His statements on Rabelais should be qualified. Although they are not numerous, there are some episodes in Rabelais which testify to women’s skills at handling language. What is more, aware as Powys is that gender is a construct (Powys 359), he does not necessarily discard his own belief in essentialism (Powys 360); besides, even though he mentions the progress accomplished by women (Powys 361), he never refers to any female author.

5 We know how successful the concept of carnival has been, sometimes erroneously so: ‘th[e] ready translatability [of ‘the problem of carnival’] has been both a handicap and a boon’ (Emerson 162).

6 No wonder he sometimes had reservations about the previous translations of Rabelais’ books; he says as much in his preface: ‘What we want therefore from a translation is not a display of a fellow-countryman’s gifts for turning foreign classics into English classics, but a real initiation, at any cost to our comfort in reading, into the actual psychic smell, if I may say so, and the intimate physical taste, of a new and foreign approach to the universally human’ (Powys 16).

7 ‘The parodied word cannot escape being the ‘doubled’ word, a word inhabited by two voices which ‘come together and to a certain extent are crossed with each other’. The language parodied and the parodying language exist, as it were, side by side, juxtaposed simultaneously and in dialogic relation with each other. Parody, then, is the most obvious example of double-voicing’ (Farmer xviii).

8 The same remark could be made about the use of oxymoron (‘the wisdom of nonsense’; ‘celestial nonsense’; ‘the wisdom of blasphemy’ [Powys 295, 300, 384]).

9 Dan Leno was a star of the music-halls in the 1880s. Pontalais is the name sometimes given to Songecreux.

10 In that sense, I would venture to say that Powys probably goes further than Bakhtin concerning his position as the writer of this essay in so far as he debunks his own status all the time (but of course it must not be forgotten that Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World was first written as an academic dissertation).

11 This idea, which is based on the performative value of all literary texts, gives me the opportunity to pay a final tribute to one of Bakhtin’s main conceptsthat of ‘utterance’: ‘in so far as an utterance is not merely what is said, [. . .] the utterance is a deed, it is active, productive’ (Holquist 63).

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Florence Marie-Laverrou, « Bakhtin and Powys ‘en dialogue’: Two Contemporary Views on Rabelais »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 33 | 2008, mis en ligne le 21 juillet 2020, consulté le 15 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Florence Marie-Laverrou

Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour

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