The International Journal of the Book, Volume 7, Issue 1, January 1, 2009, pages 103-114.
Copyright © 2009 Brett Bodemer.
Readers must contact Common Ground Publishing for permission to reproduce.
In the seventh chapter of Pantagruel, written in 1532, François Rabelais seized on the relationship between titles and books to pose a serious linguistic challenge to the stability of the book and its tenuous role in supporting an architectonic system of knowledge. The chapter consists primarily of a disordered catalog of invented titles, and the author assures us elsewhere that if we wish to grasp his deeper meaning we should examine these titles closely. A first look shows us that he is mocking particular authors and titling conventions, while further exploration reveals the catalog as a whole to serve as a macro-critique of scholastic attempts to order and regiment knowledge. But his critique also operates on the micro-level of the title as a function of naming. A close examination of the titles suggests a disturbing continuum between instable names and stable things, and impugns the integrity of the system’s basic unit: the book. Attempts to make sense of Rabelais’ book-less titles impose the recognition that these titles only “parse” if we make conjectures about the alleged books. Books and titles are co-texts. Reflecting his partiality for linguistic views found in Plato’s Cratylus, Rabelais deploys his titles as models of the regressively self-referential nature of language. In the context of this chapter, focused on an ancient Parisian library, the inference is clear: books are not solid, static monuments, but porous and contingent entities subject to the vagaries of language.
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