After surviving hanging, rape, the Inquisition, penury, an earthquake, a shipwreck, savages’ arrows, cannibalism, Pangloss proclaims to Candide that without this “concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds” they wouldn’t be now in a garden “eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts.” Candide acquiesces, because it’s useless to argue with him, but bids him they “cultivate our garden.” That’s good advice; while they do it Pangloss can’t philosophize. Perhaps it worked, perhaps Candide finally found some respite from his teacher’s claptrap.
It has to work. Voltaire was a moralist and there’s no such thing as a moralist who doesn’t believe in his own solutions for mankind’s ills. The desolation ingrained in his conte philosophique is a heavy contraption to justify this little aphorism. Aphorisms and maxims were by 1759 crucial components of culture, the mind’s most sophisticated product, learned men and women amused themselves with salon competitions to see who delivered the pithiest sentence. Voltaire was probably proud of it, even if its implicit wisdom is taken from ancient Greek philosophy, but his forte was passing other people’s ideas for his own. Once the reader closes the book, then, he can imagine Candide spending the rest of a very happy life cultivating his garden, all his problems gone overnight, and the enigma of happiness finally solved for him.
Cultivating a garden, however, doesn’t work at all for Bouvard and Pécuchet. They lose money on it, they alienate the only experienced farmer in their pay, they get in trouble with the locals, tools beguile them, crops produce below expectation, when at all. What has happened between 1759 and 1881 for panacea to turn into poison? Nothing’s changed, substantially; the difference lies in the two different ways Menippea sneers and snarls at the world.
Voltaire didn’t produce ideas, but he promoted them whenever he picked up his prolific quill. He diffused in France Newton’s scientific ideas and Locke’s political ideas, each of which could get you in trouble for very similar reasons actually: Locke’s politics threatened royal authority; Newton’s new cosmology threatened divine authority. A skeptic, a rationalist, a deist, part of his duties as cheerleader of modern ideas consisted in showing how very few ideas existed on the enemy’s side, namely the church. By then he was not alone savaging the old world of spirit, superstition, and scholasticism; what had timidly begun in the 16th century as newfound admiration for the natural world, had by Voltaire’s time turned into a trenchant crusade for science.
Matter mattered more than ever, Hobbes had come close to professing atheism and survived, deism was a compromise for those who were finding it hard to believe in Catholicism but still needed a god, a very dangerous compromise because authorities knew where that led, soul was not compatible with microscopes, poetry was out, prose was in. The revolution would not be undertook by verse but by Descartes’ very plain Discourse on the Method. Voltaire had practical reasons to believe in the power of science: he accumulated a vast wealth by pairing up in 1729 with mathematician Charles Marie de La Condamine and exploiting a flaw in the French national lottery. Where in the Bible do you learn to do that? A cultivated person by his time could be forgiven for thinking that the world was being born anew, and it would be, provided cogitation got cleaned up of some cobwebs. That meant reforming, along with everything else, education; bad education had done the past a bad turn; a new curriculum, new teaching methods, could usher in new principles, make a new world.
Candide’s ordeals stem from defective education, starting with Preceptor Pangloss, protector of classroom cant and rubbish. Candide’s disadvantage is not that he has “been educated never to judge for himself,” for that would not have been damning had he been educated to think for Descartes or, say, Voltaire himself; no, his disadvantage is that he’s been educated by a loon, a loon the reader has no alternative but to laugh at. And we are talking about loons, so transparently insane even cannibals gape at the mental rot back in Europe:
Candide having a curiosity to see the priests asked where they were. The good old man smiled.
"My friend," said he, "we are all priests. The King and all the heads of families sing solemn canticles of thanksgiving every morning, accompanied by five or six thousand musicians."
"What! have you no monks who teach, who dispute, who govern, who cabal, and who burn people that are not of their opinion?"
"We must be mad, indeed, if that were the case," said the old man; "here we are all of one opinion, and we know not what you mean by monks."
Europeans, savages with funny-sounding names knew that much at least, shouldn’t be mixing religion with education. And here was Pangloss, ‘professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology,’ ruining brains with gibberish. Pangloss, if not a stand-in for him, was modelled after Gottfried Leibniz, whose philosophy is more interesting when discussed in books on the history of religion than in proper philosophy books. One such book, for instance, is Georges Minois’ Histoire des Enfers (History of Hells). Voltaire milked the famous “best of all possible worlds” line for all it was worth, but the lynchpin of Leibniz’ Optimism involves a craziness that goes far beyond anything Voltaire came up with.
Leibniz wrote the sentence in his desperate effort to justify the existence of Hell. Hell by the 17th century was hanging in the balance, skepticism was creeping in and pushing it along with mythology to the backroom of poetic fancy. It would be precipitous to say that mentalities then had grounded explanation of phenomena on natural laws; this period also witnessed an increase in witch-hunting and -burning. Belief in witches, in their sabbaths, in their pacts with the Devil, in their well-deserved punishment in Hell, kept safe what kept all those concepts in place: God. If you lost Hell, Heaven was next. Disproving the existence of Hell was not a victory for reason; it was a defeat for religion. Leibniz was one of many philosophers anxious to understand why God had made Hell. It seemed like a flaw in God’s perfection, a needless detail in Creation. He came up with a remarkable theory.
Hell did not threaten universal harmony, for even though there were more men sentenced to hellfire, the few chosen for happiness far outweighed them. Happiness, defined as the soul’s salvation, at the scale the universe operated, was always a larger quantity than doom because a saved soul is an immeasurable good. But even if mankind’s doomed outnumber the elect, there was a myriad of inhabited worlds in which the extra-terrestrial elect outnumbered the doomed. And this, added to the human drop in the universe, restored its harmony and made seeming inescapable evil a mere speck of nothingness. “It may be that all the suns are inhabited only by happy creatures and nothing obliges us to believe that many doomed ones live there, for few examples and few models suffice for the utility that good extracts from evil,” wrote Leibniz. The “nothing obliges us” bit sounds like Leibniz auditioning for Pangloss. Atavism is a man-made decision, it runs contrary to the universe, to sense data, it requires creating vast cosmogonies and infinite worlds to ground it. * Leibniz, with his non-crisis on infinite earths, wanted to bail God out of any responsibility: nothing was horrible, nothing was evil, because Creation was too big and unfathomable, and we can’t understand His reasons and designs; we must accept that everything that happens, happens for harmony and happiness and good. What looks like tragedy may be just a boon down the road, who knows? So, this is the best of all possible worlds, since in the end any part of God’s creation is the best possible world, for it’s unthinkable that God would make something not best possible.
However, by 1710 when he published Essays on the Goodness of God a growing number of “natural philosophers” were no longer sure that Creation was that big. Bacon, after all, had likened Creation to Scripture, it was God’s “second book”, and even the Bible, long as it is, has an ending. He announced with gaiety that the Universe could be read and understood and studied and divested of its secrets; infinite worlds were too metaphysical to look at from Newton’s telescope, and was it really real what didn’t register in telescopes? Instruments became the new truth-makers, far more so than philosophers, henceforth their lackeys.
Candide is the type of Menippean satire that shows up when an age goes through intellectual turbulence, uncertainty about values, and a transition between a dying worldview and a nascent one. Leibniz’ pious efforts to save Hell and God with it, half a century later, were not pious or respectable, but material for an extended joke. The urgency and fear that underpinned his belief in the best of possible worlds aren’t even perceptible in its pages; Voltaire simplified it to silliness. Such Menippean satires thrive on ridiculing outdated mentalities, exaggerating its follies, being downright mean to them, to shoo them away. If they succeed, they clear up the conceptual ground for new follies to foul modern mentalities.
By the time Flaubert passed away in 1880, leaving Bouvard and Pécuchet unfinished, no new transition was taking place. Enlightenment had triumphed and the century had stagnated in a smug hurrah! for science. What bespoke of it better than the fact that he passed away on the same year Jules Verne published a novel about a steam-powered mechanical elephant? The materialistic, scientific outlook was such an ordinary thing, it was packaged as escapism the same way sermons had been mass entertainment two centuries earlier. And yet man did not seem more rational than before. The world was no longer haunted by superstition, but by opposing scientific systems. An author who read 1500 books to write a novel that’s barely 300 pages, would know that nobody knows anything with any certainty anymore. The beautiful dream of the 17th century, obtaining the Truth that religion couldn’t manage anymore, was slipping away to the sound of typographies printing new science books and magazines each day. This is the other way Menippean satire has of looking at the world: life as a jumble of disparate ideas vying for truth, creating havoc and leading to despair an ordinary bourgeois who decides to take up gardening.
Candide helped, we’ll assume, to obliterate the old world. Voltaire was in a milieu receptive to it, even if he had to publish pseudonymously; indeed, Candide emerged from its milieu. But the world Flaubert was castigating had to wait until 1918, perhaps a few more years afterwards, to be done away with. (W. B. Yeats rejoiced at the end of the “three provincial centuries” of materialism.) To this category belong most Menippean satires, smiling at stupidity they can’t stop. To it belongs Tristram Shandy, The Satyricon, Nightmare Abbey, The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cuba. When trendy French literary theory was derided by Malcolm Bradbury in Mensonges, it must have seemed to him that with a mouthful of chuckles Derrida and Foucault would slither from colleges back to their caves. Alas, would it were true!
Candide and Gargantua and Pantagruel, different as they are, don’t belong to this misanthropic strain. Rabelais was in the right place at the right time too, in the transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance outlook, just before the Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent brought scholasticism back for that last gasp that gave us Leibniz. As Voltaire championed Locke and Newton, Rabelais championed Erasmus of Rotterdam, father of textual criticism and author of Praise to Folly, humanist, tolerant, open-minded, intellectually curious. As you read Gargantua, you get a sense that a new conception of life is emerging. The optimism and relative freedom the Renaissance enjoyed imbued Rabelais’ work with a mirthful identity that celebrated the world in all its physicality, a world of men who relieved their bladder and bowels as much as they relieved themselves of the doctrine of guilt and shame. Rabelais is telling us a new bright world is waiting right in front of us. In a way, Voltaire alludes to the same rejuvenation with the final image of the garden.
Menippea does not cope well with optimism. Breaking up the chain linking Rabelais to Voltaire is Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the first novel to attack rationalism and science. He’s the model for Flaubert. Misanthropy is as old as Petronius, but Swift was its foremost literary irradiator. Bouvard and Pécuchet have none of Rabelais’ carnivalesque generosity and tolerance. They have a fortune, which is what allows them to dismiss the one farmer who can get things done in their property. They yearn for culture, which is one way of setting yourself apart from others. Worst, they yearn to implement fashionable ideas culled from fashionable books, which implies elitism. “Fashionable” is a key-word in Menippea. It’s in Nightmare Abbey:
“Studious! You are pleased to be facetious, Mr Larynx. I hope you do not suspect me of being studious. I have finished my education. But there are some fashionable books that one must read, because they are ingredients of the talk of the day; otherwise, I am no fonder of books than I dare say you yourself are, Mr Larynx.”
-and in Sartor Resartus (“Loving my own life and senses as I do, no power shall induce me, as a private individual, to open another Fashionable Novel.”), and Almeida Garret, author of Travels in my Homeland, even introduced the adjective “fashionável” in the Portuguese language (it didn’t stick). Laurence Sterne used “fashionable” and “fashion”, as synonyms of “new”. Few things are as deplored by Menippea as “new books”:
Tell me, ye learned, shall we for ever be adding so much to the bulk—so little to the stock?
Shall we for ever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another?
Are we for ever to be twisting, and untwisting the same rope? for ever in the same track—for ever at the same pace?
-asks the narrator of Tristram Shandy. New books, and thus fashionable, are also targeted by Candide:
The supper passed at first like most Parisian suppers, in silence, followed by a noise of words which could not be distinguished, then with pleasantries of which most were insipid, with false news, with bad reasoning, a little politics, and much evil speaking; they also discussed new books.
"Yes," answered one of the guests, "but I have not been able to finish it. We have a crowd of silly writings, but all together do not approach the impertinence of 'Gauchat, Doctor of Divinity.' I am so satiated with the great number of detestable books with which we are inundated that I am reduced to punting at faro."
The finest use of “fashion”, though, is in Swift, who puts in Aristotle’s mouth the genre’s main complaint against intellectual vanity; the Greek philosopher lets us know that “new systems of nature were but new fashions, which would vary in every age; and even those, who pretend to demonstrate them from mathematical principles, would flourish but a short period of time, and be out of vogue when that was determined.” What seems true now, will be disproved eventually. Just don’t tell that to Voltaire.
Although Bouvard and Pécuchet do comment “on the fashionable plays of the moment”, the fashions that matter the most are scientific fashions. “Since they knew how to garden [they don’t], they could easily succeed in agriculture; and they were seized by the ambition of cultivating their farm. With common sense and a little study, they couldn’t fail, no question about it.” Deprived of experience in farming, they resort to bookmen. “That very evening, they pulled from their library the four volumes of The Country Home, sent away for Gasparin’s course, and took out a subscription to a farming journal.” They decide not to renew their land lease to Farmer Gouy, who’s the only one who knows about farming. Why trust experience when you can trust books? Books used to be burnt for their knowledge, burnt by the ancestors of the Jesuits constantly derided throughout the novel. So they had to have something good about them. The book was the great instrument, the reformer, the receptacle of knowledge, mankind’s savior. Our duo soaks up theories, implements plans, does things on its own, fails, tries again, fails better. One year the “yield was pitiful.” Next year then? No, no. “The following year, they sowed very densely. The storms came. The seedlings washed away.” They don’t give up; they’re no less optimistic than Pangloss; they don’t learn so much as move on; moving on to another subject is a way of not thinking, of keeping the mind disengaged. What had seemed to Bacon a miracle, the opulence of Nature, worthy of study, has become a mind-numbing pastime.
Bacon had no patience for the “philosophy we principally received from the Greeks”; on top of being “puerile” it was “rather talkative than generative – as being fruitful in controversies, but barren of facts.” Vide Leibniz’ many-worlds theory. The new philosopher, then, had to go and “dissect the nature of this real world, must consult only things themselves.” Such a thing was so novel in his century as to preclude any worrying. Centuries later, however, whole libraries had filled up with books containing the findings of scientists who’d gone and consulted only things themselves and then written down their findings between covers. And right in time, because Pécuchet misses his garden flowers and has taken to growing vegetables, and he needs guidance. He first manages to grow one cabbage. “It blossomed, grew, ended up being huge and absolutely inedible. No matter: Péuchet was glad to have produced a monster.” Fruit is just as untenable. Flowers are the next victims of his attention. Quick, to the library! “They consulted each other, opened one book after another, and didn’t know what to think faced with all conflicting opinions.” No Dedalus for this labyrinth:
When it came to marl, for instance, Puvis recommended it, the Roret manual was steadfastly against it. As for gypsum, despite Franklin’s example, Rieffel and Mr. Rigaud seemed less than enthusiastic.
Letting parcels lie fallow, according to Bouvard, was a gothic prejudice. Nevertheless, Leclerc noted cases in which this was all but indispensable. Gasparin cited a man from Lyons who, for half a century, grew cereals in the same field: so much for the theory of crop rotation. Tull preferred plowing to fertilizers, but then there was Major Beatson, who did away with fertilizers and plowing!
To familiarize themselves with weather signs, they studied the clouds, following Luke Howard’s classifications. They contemplated the ones that stretched out like plumes, the ones that looked like islands, and the ones you could mistake for snowcapped mountains; endeavored to distinguish nimbus from cirrus, stratus from cumulus. The shapes changed before they could remember the names.
The barometer misled them, the thermometer told them nothing. They resorted to the expedient dreamed up by a priest from Touraine under Louis XV: a flea in a jar should climb up the sides in case of rains, stay at the bottom in fair weather, and hop around if storms were threatening. But the atmosphere almost always contradicted the flea. They put three more fleas in with it. Each one behaved differently.
Books no longer have truths, they espouse theories. Our baffled duo’s enemies are all the things that in Voltaire’s time seemed so triumphant: scientific jargon (cirrus, nimbus, cumulus), instruments (barometer, thermometer), fripperies that made the world look so solid, reachable, concrete. Jargon inundates this novel, our heroes jump from field to field assimilating its language. But there’s an important word that’s repeated: system. If you read 1500 books, and each book preaches a different system, the world will hardly seem solid. They adopt systems, abandon them, try them out, and live in confusion because Truth doesn’t dwell in any of them. The fall of religion gave way to the optimism that Truth was finally at hand. What happened is that Truth was shown to be a figment: there are opinions, and just as well the 17th century also popularized the newspaper and created a market – the press – for opinions. Books abounded. How does one get a good education out of this? How does one define a paideia this way? Is it even tenable as it seemed to Socrates?
Conflicting systems are the humus of Menippean satire. Thomas Love Peacock was a master at rendering them, he pared down his novels to talking heads. Nightmare Abbey is chaotic with its motley of character entrenched in their one inflexible world system, making the dinner table a no-man’s land. They don’t listen, they stand vigilant lest their commensals utter an heterodoxy disagreeable to their worldview. Mr Flosky will suffice as an example:
He had been in his youth an enthusiast for liberty, and had hailed the dawn of the French Revolution as the promise of a day that was to banish war and slavery, and every form of vice and misery, from the face of the earth. Because all this was not done, he deduced that nothing was done; and from this deduction, according to his system of logic, he drew a conclusion that worse than nothing was done; that the overthrow of the feudal fortresses of tyranny and superstition was the greatest calamity that had ever befallen mankind; and that their only hope now was to rake the rubbish together, and rebuild it without any of those loopholes by which the light had originally crept in. To qualify himself for a coadjutor in this laudable task, he plunged into the central opacity of Kantian metaphysics, and lay perdu several years in transcendental darkness, till the common daylight of common sense became intolerable to his eyes.
Now put many fanatics like him together.
Menippea concerns itself with deficient education. It is Candide’s flaw, as we’ve seen. Scythrop has also been let down by his teachers: “When Scythrop grew up, he was sent, as usual, to a public school, where a little learning was painfully beaten into him, and from thence to the university, where it was carefully taken out of him; and he was sent home like a well-threshed ear of corn, with nothing in his head,” sign that he “finished his education to the high satisfaction of the master and fellows of his college, who had, in testimony of their approbation, presented him with a silver fish-slice, on which his name figured at the head of a laudatory inscription in some semi-barbarous dialect of Anglo-Saxonised Latin.” Such an upbringing can only make him fall prey to Romantic fiction, something new and fashionable enough to be worthy only of scorn:
He began to devour romances and German tragedies, and, by the recommendation of Mr Flosky, to pore over ponderous tomes of transcendental philosophy, which reconciled him to the labour of studying them by their mystical jargon and necromantic imagery. In the congenial solitude of Nightmare Abbey, the distempered ideas of metaphysical romance and romantic metaphysics had ample time and space to germinate into a fertile crop of chimeras, which rapidly shot up into vigorous and abundant vegetation.
The theme of education also runs through Tristram Shandy, wherein we read by way of compliment that “you are a person free from as many narrow prejudices of education as most men,” which is the reason why Tristram’s father, “after the example of Xenophon,” writes a “Tristra-paedia, or system of education for” his son, “collecting first for that purpose his own scattered thoughts, counsels, and notions; and binding them together, so as to form an Institute for the government of my childhood and adolescence.”
Garrett went a step further than Mr. Shandy and actually wrote a treatise on education. Garrett fretted about education in a country that had only years before interrupted the Jesuits’ monopoly on it, one of the alleged causes of its decadence. Flaubert brings our attention to it early on in the novel: “They praised the advances of science: so many things to know, so much research – if only one had the time!” Bouvard and Pécuchet have only just met for the first time. Bouvard is terribly conscious of it. “He deplored his ignorance, and regretted not having gone to the Polytechnic Institute in his youth.”
Bad education also afflicts Gargantua, who’s schooled by a “sophister”, a word which is an obsolete synonym for “sophist” but also means “a specious, unsound, or fallacious reasoner,” which in pop culture is what a sophist is anyway. It should be noted that “sophist” originally meant “teacher”; Socrates was certainly called a sophist in his lifetime; the word didn’t get a pejorative sense until the 5th century BCE when Plato wrote his dialogues attacking the likes of Hippias (first to make anthologies of poets), Gorgias (father of poetic prose), Protagoras (the Constitution he wrote for Thurii provided young people with state-paid education), a remarkable bunch of progressive thinkers whose feats include atheism, social mobility, xenophilia, and our current judicial system.
Gargantua’s sophistic education is cured by Ponocrates after he requests “a learned physician of that time, called Master Theodorus, seriously to perpend, if it were possible, how to bring Gargantua into a better course.” The “physician purged him canonically with Anticyrian hellebore, by which medicine he cleansed all the alteration and perverse habitude of his brain. By this means also Ponocrates made him forget all that he had learned under his ancient preceptors.” A century later Descartes would do the same. Sophistry is equated here with madness, not the last time Menippea will make that comparison.
Teachers of rhetoric have a noble place in Menippean history: they were the first professionals to be belittled by ireful Petronius. Let us open The Satyricon:
Our professors of rhetoric are hag-ridden in the same way, surely, when they shout “I got these wounds fighting for your freedom! This eye I lost for you. Give me a hand to lead me to my children. I am hamstrung, my legs can’t support me.” We could put up with even this stuff if it were a royal road to eloquence. But the only result of these pompous subjects and this empty thunder of platitudes, is that when young speakers first enter public life they think they have been landed on another planet. I’m sure the reason such young nitwits are produced in our schools is because they have no contact with anything of any use in everyday life. All they get is pirates standing on the beach, dangling manacles, tyrants writing orders for sons to cut off their fathers’ heads, oracles advising the sacrifice of three or more virgins during a plague – a mass of cloying verbiage; every word, every move just so much poppycock.
It’s obvious that “people fed on this kind of thing have as much chance of learning sense as dishwashers have of smelling clean.” These are the first surviving lines; it’s not a statement to the genre’s limitations to say that it has hardly changed up to and including Bradbury. The challenge has always to make variations on this paragraph. It’s an amazing exercise in style: to rewrite Petronius in as different ways as possible. Menippean satire’s villains, if it has villains, have been “academic pedants” since Petronius’s time without a break in the long, precarious chain of transmission.
Things haven’t improved much since Bacon urged philosophers to dissect nature. Flaubert’s heroes lack a practical aptitude to life; worst, they have a positively medieval respect for book-bound authority, only it’s no longer Aristotle they worship; Descartes put an end to that. For guidance they look into books, and books are one way of not looking at things, much as scholars looked at Physics but not at the actual physical world to see if the two coincided. Ignoring reality is one sort of madness, as sophister-trained Gargantua will remind you; it’s the malady affecting Candide, Bouvard and Pécuchet, glum Scythrop. If you live inside books, the world is kept shut out. Menippean satire is the best anti-book propaganda in the world: torrents of erudition funneled into books, some of the best fiction in fiction’s history, the funniest by any measurement, and they’re all about how bad books are for your health.
Menippean satire thrives on data overload. It needs freedom, books, opinions. They happen in concert with data growths. Correct yourself if you think nothing exciting was going on in Petronius’ 1st century CE besides Nero burning Christians and murdering relatives. Rome was in fact enjoying a revival of Sophism, commonly called the Second Sophistics. I’ll let Laurent Pernot explain it:
The sophists of the Second Sophistic formed a professional, social, and cultural network. Teaching rhetoric, public speaking, political influence, fame, wealth, and globe-trotting typified their lives. Professors and lecturers, they were connected to the Roman government and the civic aristocracies. Despite its geographical extension, the sophistic milieu was culturally isomorphic. The Second Sophistic benefitted from the coherence of the Greco-Roman world during this period. This coherence was increased by the personal relationships which often united the sophists. They knew each other, directly, or through mutual contact, listened to each other, and read each other’s work. (Epideictic Rhetoric, page 10)
Public discussion was blooming, writing circulating. It lasted until the end of the 3rd century. Petronius was active at the beginning of this movement; the other ancient Menippean author, Lucian of Samosata, was writing his mocking dialogues one century later, pitting philosophers against one other, when it was still going strong. After him no relevant Menippean satires are known for more than a thousand years.
Then Gutenberg’s printing machine ruined everything: suddenly you had more books than ever (and “book” was a recent technology too), more data that needed cataloguing, edited, processed; new standards of textual criticism were being developed, antique texts discovered; and the humanist and the scholar were reaching professionalization and specialization. Now this posed two problems. Professionalization, that is, living by their knowledge, for a community that would soon rediscover Plato (Marsilio Ficino’s Latin translation of the complete works was published in 1484) and his invectives against Sophists who took money for teaching, obliged them to develop a sense of self-irony about themselves, which found optimal relief through satire of their own class of scholars. Specialization suggested that knowledge had grown too big for men to possibly presume they could know everything; how pitiful Pliny’s books now seemed; even as curiosity swelled like never before in history, it was accompanied by awareness that their ultimate goal was impractical, even ridiculous and vane, which once again made Menippean satire an appetizing occupation. These two factors converged with a third one, the rediscovery of the genre.
Petronius was discovered in 1482, but was never as popular as Lucian. The 16th century was the golden age of Menippean thanks to him: his complete works were available in Greek by 1496, which was a bummer since Greek-speaking scholars were scarce (Rabelais knew it and never let his readers forget it). Fortunately 2 years earlier a portion of his work had become available in the lingua franca, Latin. Lucian was about to become the most influential Roman writer of the Renaissance; he was never that relevant again, but it was enough to influence Erasmus, and he Rabelais, and he everything that matters.
As we move on, we find freedom and the growth of available reading material intimately connected with Menippea. Robert Tristram Shandy, Alter points out in Partial Magic, is a novel conscious of existing in a post-print world. Sterne’s book benefitted from a boom in the printing industry and exploited typographical possibilities like the blank page or punctuation that would have been inconceivable without Gutenberg’s invention; it also depended on readers knowing what a novel was, how it should be read, what it should include, in order to subvert expectations with awkward placing of chapter orders and prefaces. Sterne was a novelist conscious of the novel already as a historical artefact. His coevals, Fielding and Richardson, could let the reader forget that he was holding and manipulating a man-made object. Sterne lacked the naivete to do that.
Voltaire’s Candide arrived at the time of the salon, when philosophes got together, when David Hume could be welcomed in Paris as a celebrity and then make a fool of himself for not knowing French (during playacting he only managed to utter one sentence), when Diderot and D’Alambert (from the Dictionary of Accepted Ideas: “DIDEROT: always followed by ‘and d’Alambert’”) were planning the Encyclopedia, when theology was thinking itself into a crazy corner to stay safe as science tore away its foundations one nonsense at the time. The desperate justifications of Leibniz were hardly an exception; countless other loons were going far into the deep ends of science fiction to keep God real, but they lacked the advertising Voltaire got him. France was by no means a haven for thinkers, Diderot had been arrested after the Letter on the Blind scandal (10 years before Candide); and Voltaire lived in Switzerland to avoid being arrested again. When Candide came out, he used a pseudonym. Still, France was far freer than, say, Portugal, where the book stops by to pick up the Inquisition as a plot device. The Inquisition in Portugal finally ended in 1821, and Garrett, one of the revolutionaries responsible for it, began publishing Travels in My Homeland in 1843, after a civil war ended and the nation was relatively stable, newspapers an ordinary thing and freedom of the press a constitutional right. (Travels was first serialized in a newspaper, which is a telling detail.)
And so we return to Bouvard and Pécuchet, high times in France: Comte! Taine! Littré! Renan! Zola sucking up to science in “The Experimental Novel”, in which essay he modelled the modern novelist on the scientist; the novelist henceforth, he preached, would be “equally an observer and an experimentalist”:
Doubtless we are still far from certainties in chemistry and even physiology. Nor do we know any more the reagents which decompose the passions, rendering them susceptible of analysis. Often, in this essay, I shall recall in similar fashion this fact, that the experimental novel is still younger than experimental medicine, and the latter is but just born. But I do not intend to exhibit the acquired results, I simply desire to clearly expose a method. If the experimental novelist is still groping in the most obscure and complex of all the sciences, this does not prevent this science from existing. It is undeniable that the naturalistic novel, such as we understand it to-day, is a real experiment that a novelist makes on man by the help of observation.
If you have freedom, next you have freedom of the press; you have that, you have editors anxious to fill up newspapers; likewise, you have people anxious to emit opinions; there’s no easier way to fill up newspapers than filling it up with opinions. You publish enough opinions, all hell breaks loose since nobody makes sense of anything; when you reach chaos, the Menippean satirist rubs his hands and goes to work happy as a shark in a shipwreck.
Menippean satire take on the ruling ideology of its time, the fashionable ideas (that word again), the trends, the transient with delusions of eternal. Love Peacock and Garrett took on Kant and got it wrong, Bradbury’s delightful Mensonges, alas, has not lasted outlived the Derridas, Barthes, Foucaults trounced in it, which is an indicator of our time’s madness. It’s irrelevant what they got wrong; they got the books right. Voltaire, or Candide anyway, is far more famous than Leibniz, and he’s mostly famous thanks to Candide. And you need footnotes, lots of footnotes, to understand what Rabelais was satirizing in the 16th century.
Sorbonne never forgave Erasmus for portraying its theologians In Praise of Folly as “surprisingly supercilious and insufferable species of individuals.” Sorbonne, to Rabelais, and to Erasmus (“his father”, so we read in the one letter Rabelais addressed to him), was the nexus of fossilized thought, the purveyor of Aristotelian physics, in denial of experience and observation as preached by Bacon. In Book V, Panurge meets Queen Entelechy, whose menu includes the jargon taught at Sorbonne; she “never ate anything at dinner but some categories, jecabots, emnins, dimions, abstractions, harborins, chelemins, second intentions, carradoths, antitheses, metempsychoses, transcendent prolepsies, and such other light food.” Scholasticism is discussion about words, not about reality: it defines, sub-defines, fusses about etymology. We also notice in this jargon some of the ways it operated: second intentions, antitheses. As Basil Willey explains in The Seventeenth Century Background, scholasticism “normally ‘explains’ a physical event by describing it in terms of imputed human reactions – antipathy, sympathy, fuga vacui, or the operation of some innate ‘quality’ or ‘spirit’.” Light food because it lacks substance.
(Observe that in Glubbdubdrib Gulliver “[calls] up Descartes and Gassendi, with whom I prevailed to explain their systems to Aristotle. This great philosopher freely acknowledged his own mistakes in natural philosophy, because he proceeded in many things upon conjecture, as all men must do.” Armchair conjecture is the way of scholasticism; Leibniz’ many-worlds theory is not preposterous because it’s untrue; it’s preposterous because it requires not one residue of evidence, just cold cogitation based on accepted premises: “God must have had a reason to make Hell”, etc. It’s justification of dogma, not enunciation of facts.)
Positivism was the dominant ideology in Flaubert’s Paris. It was the background philosophy of the realistic/naturalist novel, so it’s no wonder that it was spared by contemporary novelists. In Brazil, where the thinking class lapped it up, an unaligned novelist like Machado de Assis made a hilarious critique in the form of the mad philosopher Quincas Borba and his Humanitism. (In Portuguese the words “humanity” and “mankind” are expressed by the same word: “humanidade”. The same happens with French. Comte invented in the 1850s “la religion de l'humanité”, the religion of mankind, which proposed to replace Christianity. It’s also called the “Positivist church”. The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cuba, in which Humantisim first shows up, came out in book form in 1881, the same year the Positivist Church of Brazil was founded. Its Temple of Humanity was opened on May 11, in Rua Benjamin Constant 74, Rio de Janeiro. It’s still open. Brás Cuba had started serialization a year before. It’s a weird coincidence.) Bouvard and Pécuchet, to some degree, follow Comte’s arc from scientism to religion. Comte in his final years was convinced that mankind needed a simulacrum of worship to instill social cohesion and foreground moral values, since God’s traditional authority was gone. Comte didn’t renege science, he thought a science-based religion without metaphysics was possible. Even so, it’s telling that he recognized that people needed to worship something. Metaphysics has always been the deterrent of every engineer of human souls: it can be ignored, hidden, denied, but it always comes back. It’s no wonder that in Flaubert’s novel our heroes dabble in the supernatural after science has dissatisfied them; isn’t that what French novelists, what Huysmans, were doing in the last decade of the century?
It would be a mistake to say Positivism was a gang of buffoons or that it was usefulness. The fault lies not in the ideas mocked by this genre, but in the genre itself. Menippea suspects scholars of being silly. This is something that’s paradoxical about it: it’s formally innovative; it’s very hard to pin down its features because it’s always changing. Defining it is impossible. Flaubert’s plans were to tack on the Dictionary of Accepted Idea and a Catalogue of Fashionable Ideas (that word again) at the end of the novel, to imply that they were written by our heroes. He had in fact written the Dictionary years before the novel was even mentioned in his correspondence. But it makes sense that his mind would think of this occasion for it. Menippea is multifarious, it has been mashing genres, flouting styles and subverting rules ever since the obscure Menippus remembered to compose satires mixing prose and verse. Such humble origins gave us some of fiction’s loosest forms: Sartor Resartus reads like an introduction to a philosophy book; Travels is a travelogue with a novella inside it; Nightmare Abbey is so concerned with the spouting of opinions, it sometimes turns into a play to emphasize the role of dialogue, to detach speech from plot; Mensonges comes with an Index and Bibliography, which is more than you’ll find in Baudrillard’s books.
But Menippea, for all its formal daring, is intellectually conservative. It’s suspicious of ideas, always thinks scholars and intellectuals are fools and pedants tricking you. (Garrett, this is important, introduced in Travels the adjective pretencioso, pretentious, in the Portuguese language. That one stuck all right, oh yes.) Opinion is the worst vice. We’ve seen that opinion does not exist in Voltaire’s savages; notice also the “extreme difficulty” Gulliver has in bringing his Houyhnhnm master “to understand the meaning of the word opinion.” For the “noble Houyhnhnms” reason is not a “point problematical, as with us, where men can argue with plausibility on both sides of the question,” a technique Protagoras is to be praised for (if you believe a defendant has a right to his version in court) or blamed for (if you’re Plato), because their maxim is “to cultivate reason, and to be wholly governed by it,” something Littré could have written – and certainly believed in – in 1880. It goes without saying, the world was lucky these fine writers were never allowed to yield political power.
Menippean satire seems often to be the same book; observe how Love Peacock’s quip about the “opacity of Kantian metaphysics” is taken up by Bradbury into ironic digs at Structuralism and Deconstruction: “What we have to remember is that, in the sphere of philosophy, as of everything else, obscurity is there for a purpose, and not to confuse us. As Immanuel Kant observed, it is the nature of man as thinking animal that he be constantly up the creek of being and knowing without any certainty of the existence of even the simplest paddle.” Nowhere else in literature do so many progressive formalists moonlight as intellectual reactionaries. As W. Scott Blanchard remarked in Scholar’s Bedlam, the genre “is an immensely learned form that is at the same time paradoxically anti-intellectual.” He’s quite correct in saying that if Menippea has a motto, it’s Acts: 26:24: “At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. ‘You are out of your mind, Paul!’ he shouted. ‘Your great learning is driving you insane.’” Menippea trusts too much on common sense, which scientists will point out is a danger to science. Common sense tells you that the Earth is flat and that the Sun moves.
Misanthropy and misoneism go hand in hand, except in rare ages of boundless optimism like the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, in which Rabelais and Voltaire play true neophiles. Voltaire could believe that he was witnessing a new age because Descartes had destroyed every system prior to him with his method of absolute skepticism. After that, you could only rebuild. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment are the same age, in a sense, because both took on classic Greece as the model and demonized the Middle Ages (Vasari coined both “Renaissance” and “goth”, a pejorative term in his time to designate medieval architecture, ugly to him because it deviated from classic Greek models of beauty and harmony. In the 18th century neoclassicists were using ‘goth’ as an insult against 17th century artists.)
Flaubert could be an innovator of literary forms, but was a conservative, as was Love Peacock, Machado, and Petronius. Garrett, 22 years after a liberal revolution and 9 years after a civil war whose outcome was his cherished constitutional monarchy, was already bemoaning the regime he had risked his life for and thinking that maybe the ancient regime wasn’t wholly bad. Novelty itself became his target, encompassing Kant, Bentham, Hegel. “Bad education” is a big category that can include anything that has entered the sphere of intellect since 1500. No wonder that the genre is inherently nostalgic of an ideal past of clarity and order.
When Bouvard and Pécuchet become copyists at the end of the novel, they’re not taking up their old jobs, nor returning to the starting point. Comedy often uses this circular structure, but it’s too simplistic to read the novel as making a point out of homespun wisdom: truth was in your back yard all along, etc. They are in fact rejecting history and getting out of the typographical trap they built for themselves. Their foil was the printing industry that allowed libraries to grow like weeds. In pre-Gutenberg times, copyists were monks tucked away in monasteries; they preserved instead of adding. The two withdraw into a final act of passivity; their goal henceforth is to copy what has been written down, to make a summa of mankind’s knowledge, without changing or questioning it, circumventing Bacon’s aggressive language of dissection. They truly take to tending the garden of Creation.
The novel was left unfinished, as it had to be, for it’s impossible to imagine how Flaubert could have given a conclusion to the quest of two men to record the totality of knowledge. Totality, Menippea never ceases to remind us, is a myth, and even as its practitioners strive to be encyclopedic, they know that man can never know everything, indeed knows very little, and true wisdom is to know that little is needed to know happiness. Until a Menippean satirist mocks that bit of wisdom too.
*By the way, science is catching up with Leibniz: according to Austin L. Hughes, the currently fashionable theory of the multiverse came out of a necessity to countermand the Anthropic Principle. The Anthropic Principle says that the universe seems fine-tuned to allow for the emergence of conscious life, us. Minor changes to the physics of the universe would have precluded the existence of life. This worries scientists because it comes very close to proving Intelligent Design; the implicit suggestion is that something must have engineered the universe to create us. Scientists are so scared of this that they’ve ventured into so far unprovable theories of multiple dimensions; the reason is simple: if our dimension is just one amongst infinite ones, there’s no reason why there can’t be a dimension that plays by different laws of physics; if that turns out to be so, ours is just a fluke, our existence again a random thing. As Austin notes, there’s no scientific evidence to pursue the theory of the multiverse; it’s just idle speculation based on prejudice, or rather faith in the randomness of a multiverse. Armchair conjecture is alive and kicking. Which begs the important question: where are the big Menippean satirists of our century? Why is nobody making fun of this stuff?)