How, then, can the creation of normalized texts and idolized authors be restrained, since it cannot be prevented? This is our problem with Rabelais's text: there may be many other places in it as misshapen by normalized commentary as the Carnival-Lent episode. It was also Rabelais's problem: his text was so misinterpreted in his own lifetime that it threatened, if not his bodily, then certainly his mental well-being.
Rabelais solved his problem first in one way and then in another, first with the interpretive system explained in the prologue to Gargantua and later with the countertextual techniques developed especially in the last books he published. The interpretive system supposed that even if particular readers, including the author as reader of his or her own text, may not grasp its meaning entirely, proper and full understanding of literary texts does potentially exist. In time our gnawing at its recalcitrant surfaces sucks out its marrow. Does it not follow that in time, too, misinterpretations contrary to the author's and his contemporaries' "usage of reason and common language" will fall away?
Rabelais does not say this. I read this idea into his text. It may be anachronistic, for, although Rabelais had a Renaissance humanist's sense of temporal change, of progress and decline, he also had a Platonic and Christian sense of timeless measures of truth. Dr. Rabelais-Alcofribas-Pantagruel nastily — and ironically — barks at Rabelais's detractors in the name of Truth. The Pantagruelians more amiably — and comically — agree that truth depends on group witnessing. I suspect that Rabelais did not know how time would deal with mistaken metatexts and thus he played ironically and comically with theories of interpretation. Certainly he did not develop what a later age would call a historicist sense of the way text is related to metatext.
If he had done so, he would have been as mistaken about the future of his books as he actually was with what seems to have been a Christian humanist idea of temporal change. Historicist theory, as developed by its chief exponents in the nineteenth century, postulates continuity among time's epochs and describes change as the gradual individuation of earlier generalized meanings. But understanding Rabelais's text has not been a matter of ever closer reading of ever more individuated and coordinated passages, such that we attain gradually fuller understanding of the whole. Metatextual history proceeds in jolts. When an author's context has been sufficiently obscured, recognition begins of meanings the author and contemporaries never knew were there. The normalized text no longer appears normal. Contextual catastrophe — not reason, common linguistic understanding, or the smooth unfolding of time — is the precondition for new critical insight. Understanding a texts larger meanings requires first losing its smaller ones.
Critics, reading the text with new eyes because of their context, appropriate it and misinterpret some of its parts due to insight into other parts. The new insight waits patiently for the contextual catastrophe that will expose it in turn. Each genuinely new metatext provides the impetus for its own destruction because it too is a distortion.
So the smashing of idols is inevitable? Of course, but this is little comfort to an author fried in fire because his message shakes the foundations of his age too profoundly. What can an author do to favor time's insights? What can critics do to guard against the narrowness of their metatextual partis pris? I have suggested four kinds of defensive action, four kinds of critical self-awareness, each of them forecast by Rabelais's own strategies.
First, because text and context are interwoven, let authors and critics alike embrace their inconclusive and ultimately indefinable relation instead of pretending to capture context in the text's mirror or to escape from it through definition of a textual construction of timeless artistry. (The gate of textual significance swings to and fro. Rabelais gives it a push instead of trying to lock it shut.)
Second, because idols are created not by the relation of context to text but by the relation of a metatext's context to metatextual propositions, authors should forestall and critics thwart unidimensional interpretations with irony. (The Rabelaisian countertext mockingly obliges the reader to reread.) The point needs elucidation. As long as the author's contextual assumptions match in large part those of readers, little metatext is produced except for expressions of admiration or disgust — that is, reactions so extreme that, however irritating or assuaging they may be, they simply confirm the author's conscious or unconscious provocations. But later on and elsewhere, when authorial and readerly assumptions no longer match, the alien context produces significant metatext. Only significant metatexts, congruent with an alien context's ideological apparatuses, eventuate in idols. Ideological apparatuses — for example, public education, the media, the churches, and governmental propaganda agencies to further the preservation and dissemination of a society's heritage — are not concerned directly with text but with the metatextual comments on it. Formed to regulate the social mind, ideological apparatuses are worried only by a text's referential power, its ability to provoke change in the mental climate. The apparatuses measure that ability by the amounts and kinds of metatextual commentary on a text. Hence, while metatexts work to adapt the text to their context, ideological apparatuses work away to trap and control, and if possible supervise, the metatextual shifts.
This three-way tugging about of the text by shifting contexts, ideo-
logical apparatuses, and metatexts was beyond the ability of Rabelais or others in his time to perceive. His canny strategies posed no effective defense against the tugging; irony is of no use when the texts of a "classic" prescribed for schoolroom use, for example, simply delete the irony.
Third, let authors develop and critics seek the polymorphic perversity of the text, by varying emphasis among the three angles of insight, the three opportunities for creation around which human language turns, literary, ideational, and pragmatic, allowing each to supplement and each to challenge the others. (Rabelais sought to affect his times with his pseudo-physical gestures toward readers and to probe his epoch's measures of truth, no less than to indulge his verbal virtuosity.)
Fourth and finally and especially, let critical authors and authorlike critics lace their language with sex and drink and dung and festive talk.
It sometimes seems as if Rabelais has only survived in snickers. He is still an author of mass appeal today, at least in bits and pieces, at least to the readers of Playboy . This is in part because seventeenth-century metatext, turning phallic and fecal exuberance into naughty scandal, still rhymes with certain politico-economic repressions of great profit to certain institutions. Even so, this moral barnacle clinging to Rabelais's ribald text carries the classic ever and again to those readers for whom it was made — not humanists, not academics, not elite well-wishers and not populists, either; not any social class or abstract totality, but that corner of everybody's mind which responds to hilariously freewheeling talk about natural functions, desires, and pleasures. (Rabelais's writing is not just well wrought and not just profound. It's funny enough to get you drunk.)