A passage from Gabriel Josipovici‘s elegant novel Everything Passes gave me pause on the train yesterday morning. Here, Josipovici’s protagonist argues for reading Rabelais as the first modern writer:
—Rabelais, he says, is the first writer of the age of print. Just as Luther is the last writer of the manuscript age. Of course, he says, without print Luther would have remained a simple heretical monk. Print, he says, scooping up the froth in his cup, made Luther the power he became, but essentially he was a preacher, not a writer. He knew his audience and wrote for it. Rabelais, though, he says, sucking his spoon, understood what this new miracle of print meant for the writer. It meant you had gained the world and lost your audience. You no longer knew who was reading you or why. You no longer knew who you were writing for or even why you were writing. Rabelais, he says, raged at this and laughed at it and relished it, all at the same time.
[ . . . . ]
—Rabelais, he says, is the first author in history to find the idea of authority ridiculous.
She looks at him over her coffee-cup. —Ridiculous? she says.
—Of course, he says. For one thing he no longer felt he belonged to any tradition that could support or guide him. He could admire Virgil and Homer, but what had they to do with him? Homer was the bard of the community. He sang about the past and made it present to those who listened. Virgil, to the satisfaction of the Emperor Augustus, made himself the bard of the new Roman Empire. He wove its myths about the past together in heart-stopping verse and so gave legitimacy to the colonisation and subjugation of a large part of the peninsula. But Rabelais? If enough people bought his books, he could make a living out of writing. But he was the spokesman of no one but himself. And that meant that his role was inherently absurd. No one had called him. Not God. Not the Muses. Not the monarch. Not the local community. He was alone in his room, scribbling away, and then these scribbles were transformed into print and read by thousands of people whom he’d never set eyes on and who had never set eyes on him, people in all walks of life, reading him in the solitude of their rooms.
( pp. 17–19.) It’s worth quoting at length because Josipovici’s prose opens so many questions: today, we potentially find ourselves in a situation where authority and the audience could potentially be radically rearranged, maybe as much so as when Rabelais was writing.