Lavatori, Gerard Ponziano, 1996

Language and Money in Rabelais

(Renaissance and Baroque Studies and Texts, 18)
New York, Berne, Frankfurt am Main: Lang. Pp. 208.
ISBN 0-8204-2734-9, £31.

reviewed by

Ian Morrison

Department of French Studies

University of Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU


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First published in Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics in association with the publishers (to be announced). © 1997 Ian Morrison.

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This work 'investigates images of linguistic and monetary exchanges in Rabelais's books in order to view the contradictions within the episteme of early modern Europe' (p. 1). Dr Lavatori is particularly interested in parallels between language and trade. As for language, he is concerned partly with speech acts in Rabelais, but more so with semantics and principally with the question whether Rabelais and his contemporaries thought words had natural or conventional meaning. Regarding trade, he refers mainly to three sorts: (1) barter; (2) monetary systems in which any coin's exchange-value depends on its bullion value; (3) 'true' monetary systems, in which a coin's exchange-value is independent of bullion value. Trade systems (1) and (2) he associates with belief in natural meaning, and system (3) with belief in conventional meaning. However, he also maintains that the 'mixed nature of the economy of the Renaissance [...] created a proliferation of systems of symbolization and interpretation' (p. 17).

In his opening economic and intellectual survey of the age, Dr Lavatori draws, rather uncritically, and not always coherently, on a limited number of secondary sources. The survey is cursory: Abelard and Aquinas are dispatched in one paragraph each (pp. 14-15); 600 years of economic history are envisaged as one period (p. 14). So crucial a term as 'capitalism' is defined only in fragmentary ways. The question-marks over this survey make one wary of Dr Lavatori's views about 'the episteme of early modern Europe' and of his initial assumption that Rabelais fairly represents that 'episteme' (p. 1).

Dr Lavatori's contribution predominantly concerns the texts themselves, and here the linguistic interest is obviously greater. He claims that 'what strikes a reader most about patterns of communication in Rabelais is their repeated deviance' (p. 23). By 'deviance', he often means non-conformity with the 'principles of good communication' enunciated by Grice or Habermas (p. 26). Dr Lavatori's initial observation is debatable. Certainly, there are 'deviant' passages, but in many others characters communicate adequately. In practice, Dr Lavatori concentrates on the former category, e.g. the verbiage of the case between Baisecul and Humevesne (Pantagruel, Chapters 11-13); a practical consequence is that his analyses too often highlight the obvious.

However, a prior question, which is largely ignored, concerns the principle of applying, say, Grice's maxims to Rabelais. According to Dr Lavatori, 'Grice's stated intention is to place talking in a general sphere of rational, purposive behavior' (p. 25). Can this approach elucidate literary dialogues which need not be predominantly 'rational', but are often oblique, ambiguous and apt to produce comic or poetic effects? The answer is probably 'Yes', but that is not self-evident, and Dr Lavatori ought surely to have considered the question. At a more mundane level, fuller exposition of the views of Grice, Habermas and others would also have helped -- especially because the book's readers will not all be linguists.

Dr Lavatori's examination of signs covers language, but also money and other spheres. As regards words, he underlines the presence in the Tiers and Quart Livre of the question whether meaning is natural or arises from convention. He maintains that the 'two poles' of the Tiers Livre are 'arbitrary versus motivated signs' (p. 59) and also that 'no system of signification [...] is unconditionally defended in the book' (p. 99). But the Quart Livre, he argues, usually suggests that signs are motivated (p. 155); certainly, proper names bestowed upon fictitious islands and characters do tend to reflect their 'real' nature in this book. It is unfortunate that, having detected these shifting views in Rabelais, Dr Lavatori makes little effort to reconcile the divergences, but simply asserts that 'Rabelais's thought reflects the pivotal nature of his society' (p. 183).

The author's analyses are frequently blighted by imprecise use of the term 'sign' itself, which is nowhere defined. Thus, he can regard Diogenes (Tiers Livre, Prologue) as producing 'mere signs of activity' (p. 61). But Diogenes, who is furiously pushing a tub around, really is active; what he is producing is not signs but mere physical acts. Another example concerns words and money. Having noted that the Prologue to the Tiers Livre promises to make something from nothing, i.e. an imaginary world created unendingly out of words, Dr Lavatori comments that 'praising the generative power of signs was a radical gesture. Scholastic economists believed the fruition of money to be immoral [...]' (p. 66). Such radical assimilation of words and money seems fallacious: a word is a sign and has no value in itself; a coin is a token, certainly, but -- as is obvious in case of loss -- it is also an object with inherent value.

Coverage of Rabelais's works is somewhat unreliable on details. Passages from Gargantua and the Quart Livre are conflated (p. 135); Panurge and Frère Jean are confused (pp. 141-42). French expressions are sometimes mistranslated, e.g. the pair bonne mine - mauvais jeu as 'Good Looks' and 'Foul Play' (p. 137).

In summary, this work is probably more interesting for literary specialists than linguists. Dr Lavatori has intriguing ideas, but his treatment of them disappoints, perhaps because he tries to cover too much.

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