Wednesday, February 23, 2011

We sometimes forget, Rabelais and Castiglione were contemporaries

I can safely say, I wouldn't give up the experience of growing up in the ostensibly free gender in a time of transformation, for any privilege ever indulged by Mrs Winston Guest - merely to pluck from the air another adherent of dogs. At a very early age, my generation had the bracing experience of being dipped, as mellifluously as could be done, into the mind of George Bernard Shaw. To this day, alumni remark on this rite as their discovery of My Fair Lady (1956), a musical adaptation of Pygmalion (1912, 1916), which had already been very gainfully filmed by Tony Asquith (1938).

Not to put too fine a point on this scintillating immersion, it was as if one had been held at the font by Pantagruel and the Courtier, fused in the singular mind of the great Irish genius of the skewer, Mr Shaw. But this is a nice description of the immediate families into which my playmates and I were born. The timing of My Fair Lady's emergence on the stage - scarcely more than a decade after the War, which had amalgamated society in a permanently but undefined new way - gave its satire the fairest form that mode can take, consolation. But to the ribald stratum of that family, the tenants of the garçonnier, the endless revolutions of the Long Playing record lent the encouragement of seeing impeccable figures in transit of mirth. Nothing one can see, can serve so well to hold the mind together.

Shaw's antecedents never met but were very close contemporaries. You may pick a favourite between them, but you'd be mistaken to ignore the other. François Rabelais (1494-1553) grew up in the Loire and is beloved by me for at least one of the right reasons: for growing Cole Porter's grapes, Cabernet Franc, and naming them aptly, his little raspberries. The blogger at Style et matière will guide you through a visit to one of its monuments in Saumur; the night when Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger signed an armistice in Paris (1974), called for a Château Ausone '61 at Ernie's, which you may visit still in Vertigo. Rabelais gave his name, as Shaw did, to a disposition of positive irreverence, which is absolutely central to the Hasty Pudding provenance of Alan Lerner's lyric tone in MFL. But the bard of the Loire was no buffoon; his work is the quest of learning's adaptation to a radically changing world.

Baldessare Castiglione (1478-1529) will appeal to many for the wrong reasons. Raphael painted his portrait, after all, which is aspic enough for any terrine of taste. His Book of the Courtier (1528) is not, however, an enforcement of morals, but a chart for navigating their shifting currents. The courtier is as aware as Rabelais of internal dissonance, and survives by means of agile adjustment, which looks remarkably like grace.

The French don't care what you do, actually, as long as you pronounce it properly. My mother was educated at an impressionable age by a governess-tutor in the Luxembourg gardens, from whom she acquired a quick reflex against a poor accent. My father was educated half on horseback at a boys' lyceum in Montecito, and kept an earthy side. More than the Episcopal Church I believe My Fair Lady kept them together. Rabelais and Castiglione agree, laughter emerges from pressure, its puncture is irresistible. Only its timing will vary.

Here you will sometimes read at length, through pacings of a chuckle; at other times, a guffaw will burst, unprepared. But I was flung into Shaw that way, and can't help it if it shows.

François Rabelais
Gargantua et Pantagruel
1532 et seq.

Baldessare Castiglione
The Courtier

George Bernard Shaw
1912 staged, 1916 published

Alan Jay Lerner
Frederick Loewe
My Fair Lady


  1. What a nugget: Your paragraph on Castiglione.

  2. Kind of you to say. Advantage of the short form, no doubt. :)

  3. it is as it should be- and best that it show whatever the title-score or play it appears as. pgt

  4. I'm afraid we can't afford to have so much wisdom exhibited at our page as a general rule. You're perfectly welcome to come here, and indeed invited to do so, on the understanding that you won't slash away so mercilessly at the padding of our tiresome labour. :)

  5. Grace, honour, praise, delight,
    Here sojourn day and night.

    Sound bodies lined
    With a good mind,

    Do here pursue with might
    Grace, honour, praise, delight.

  6. We're all his remaindermen. "I owe a great deal, and leave the rest to the poor."