Building Resemblance: Analogical Imagery in the Early French Renaissance.
Michael Randall's fine study of the early French Renaissance authors Jean Molinet, Jean Lemaire de Beiges, and Rabelais combines various interpretive strands, usually left separate by scholars of the period: an attention to the theology of the late Middle Ages, an awareness of philosophical debates surrounding the status of the sign, and a consideration of modern debates centering on the "epistemology" of the Renaissance. So we find references to Jean Gerson, to William of Ockham, to Michel Foucault, and to Jean Paris used to elucidate literary material steeped in a rhetorical-encomiastic tradition of the Middle Ages. Placed alongside recent publications dealing with these authors or similar issues (Francois Cornilliat's Or ne mens [Champion, 1994], on the rhetoric of praise among the 'Grands Rhetoriqueurs'; Marie-Luce Demonet's Les Voix du signe [Champion, 1992], on theories of the sign in the sixteenth century; Jan Miernowski's Signes dissimilaires [Droz, 1997], on negative theology and literature), Randall's book is more "eclectic" in its approach, inflecting its perspective as it moves from Molinet and Jean Lemaire to Rabelais.
This openness also prevents the sort of "total" approach identified with Foucault's early work, yet it does not mean that Randall shies away from generalization. He is concerned with the paradigms of resemblance and difference in the Renaissance, that is, on the one hand, the faith in the likeness of God and man, of the contingent and the absolute or necessary, of the referent and the sign, etc., and on the other, the conviction that no representation can allow passage from the singular to the universal, from the imperfect to the perfect. By examining imagery intended to present analogies between the secular and the divine, Randall finds a desire for resemblance in all the writers studied, and, paradoxically, that it is Jean Molinet who appears most skeptical of the powers of analogical representation, although Rabelais in the Quart livre comes close. He refutes a simplistic chronological view, the progression of medieval faith to Renaissance skepticism: Jean Lemaire, the most optimistic of the three, follows the most skeptical, Molinet, and Rabelais's position changes over time.
Before concentrating on Molinet, Randall introduces us to the writings of Jean Gerson, whose nominalistic epistemology goes hand in hand with a moderate mysticism, an emphasis on affective contemplation as a means by which the will can approach the divine. Contemplation of the divine is, however, beyond the expressive power of images, which, Randall argues, proliferate and turn in on themselves. This is what happens in the Roman de la rose moralise, where the allegorical apparatus becomes overly intricate and inconsistent, and more specifically in Molinet's Chappellet des dames, in which the divine is used to illustrate the secular, not the other way around. The same qualities can be predicated of the Virgin Mary and Mary of Burgundy, so the Virgin can be used to describe the secular Mary. In Molinet's Chroniques the comparison of the divine to the history of the House of Burgundy comes to rely not on participation of the imperfect in the perfect, but on a conventional prefiguring of the secular by the divine. Thus the Trinity prefigures Frederick, Maximilian, and Philip: "God the Father becomes the earthly equivalent of the emperor Frederick, Jesus Christ becomes the equivalent of Maximilian, and the Holy Spirit becomes the equivalent of Archduke Philip" (55). The willfulness of these comparisons is in direct proportion to their abundance. Randall's discussion of the etymological theories surrounding the name Maria underlines the degree to which etymology and allegory rely in fact on conventional associations, rather than on resemblance of word and thing.
Jean Lemaire de Beiges' Couronne margaritique and his Concorde du genre humain, however, seem to present the possibility of a higher truth revealed through the interpretation of the secular. Lemaire's philosophers possess an insight into universal truth that allows them to bring images into line with that truth; mythological figures intervene in the lives of mortal figures in a way that suggests participatory harmony, not conventional association.
The two chapters on Rabelais present two phases: early optimism in Pantagruel and Gargantua, then growing skepticism and an abandonment of earlier hopes, in the Quart livre. For Randall, the critique of empty scholastic debates (Baisecul and Humevesne, Thaumaste and Panurge) is not based on the realization that no universal truths can be attained through linguistic and non-linguistic representation; instead, patient investigation of what unites conventional languages beyond their differences might reveal something like a natural language or law. This is shown in the chapters on emblem interpretation (Gargantua, 8 and 9), where the ius gentium is used by Rabelais to justify, for example, the fact that black naturally signifies sadness. Randall connects this semiological optimism with the insistence on faith as opposed to works in evangelical and Lutheran theology. When Rabelais writes his Quart livre, however, it is human works that have taken over, but not in any Pelagian sense: human efforts cannot connect naturally with anything divine, but at the same time humble effort is all that is left. Randall interprets the storm episode as a demonstration of the limited effectiveness of action (Pantagruel's and Frere Jean's) and the total ineffectiveness of Panurge's inaction, his reliance on saints, and his (dysfunctional) language. This "epistemological humility" (122) characterizes the Quart livre as a whole.
Rabelais criticism has been over similar ground, which Randall acknowledges, but what is fresh about his book is the perspective gained on Rabelais by the careful readings of Molinet and Lemaire, set in their intellectual context. These chapters are also useful in their mise au point of important facets of Rabelais studies, from Bakhtin to the present.
The early chapters are on the whole the most rewarding, even if one disagrees with some of the interpretations: Randall is dealing with material often ignored by literary historians, and he is able to demonstrate its importance in any global understanding of a Renaissance "episteme." With the exception of some minor typographical errors the volume is well produced and the writing admirably clear. The Johns Hopkins University Press should be congratulated for taking on this project, and Michael Randall for his intellectual courage.
ULLRICH LANGER University of Wisconsin, Madison
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1998|
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