“Gutenberg-punk?” you ask. It’s not a well known genre category—I Googled it and got precisely nothing. Perhaps that’s because, to the best of my knowledge, only one work in all of literature fits it. I’ll get to it shortly
In my post of December 10, 2012, I mentioned certain historical catastrophes that heralded the end of civilization, including poetry slams, back-of-the-book indexes, the death of Levon Helm, the Internet, and even writing itself. I conspicuously didn’t bring up the introduction of the printing press to Europe by Johannes Gutenberg in the fifteenth century, which was perhaps the most notorious catastrophe of all.
By spreading literacy and information indiscriminately among the formerly ignorant, Gutenberg’s machine spurred the Reformation, unleashed the ideas of Copernicus, encouraged vernacular literature, and in myriad other ways provoked universal social chaos. The religious and political powers-that-were weren’t the only folks who were terrified. Philosophers also raised cries of alarm, among them the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) who fretted over the “confusing and harmful abundance of books” that Gutenberg’s gadget had turned loose.
But getting back to the title of this post …
Gargantua and Pantagruel, by the humanist priest/physician François Rabelais (1494-1553), seems to be the world’s sole example of Gutenberg-punk. Now Rabelais was no technophobe, and he had no fear of the printing press. I would even say that his entire encyclopedic novel—carnal, spiritual, cruel, compassionate, heroic, cowardly, vulgar, and sublime as it is—is really a celebration of the unfettered intellectual liberty and evolutionary potential let loose by Gutenberg. As one of his title characters puts it,
The elegant and accurate art of printing, which is now in use, was invented in my time, by divine inspiration; as, by contrast, artillery was inspired by diabolical suggestion.… I find robbers, hangmen, freebooters, and grooms nowadays more learned than the doctors and preachers were in my time.
Indeed, far from fearing technology, Rabelais seems to have had no fear of anything. For as the Russian critic Mikhail Baktin (1895-1975) put it in his own wondrous book Rabelais and His World,
this is a work in which fear is destroyed at its very origin and everything is turned into gaiety. It the most fearless book in world literature.
Not surprisingly, Rabelais found that timid humans wouldn’t do for his cast of characters. His protagonists had to be giants, preposterously huge in their appetites and curiosities, their very bodies containing vast and unexplored worlds and civilizations. Concerning a young giant’s education, Rabelais tells us,
As you may well suppose, Pantagruel studied very hard. For he had a double-sized intelligence and a memory equal in capacity to the measure of twelve skins and twelve casks of oil.
And then there’s the mysterious wonder-substance called Pantagruelion (a fanciful word for good old-fashioned hemp—make of that what you will!), so emblematic of the printing press in its capacity to unleash transhuman possibilities:
In a … fright the gods of Olympus cried: “By the power and uses of this herb of his, Pantagruel has given us something new to think about.… Perhaps his children will discover a plant of equal power, by whose aid mortals will be able to visit the sources of the hail, the flood-gates of the rain, and the smithy of the thunder; will be able to invade the regions of the moon, enter the territory of the celestial signs, and there take lodging, some at the Golden Eagle, others at the Ram, others at the Crown, others at the Harp, others at the Silver Lion; and sit down with us at table there, and marry our goddesses: which is their one means of rising to be gods.”
Arrogant and obnoxious? Certainly. Hubristic and profane? Without a doubt. Gross and scatological? Unless you’ve read it, you have no idea. But above all else, Gargantua and Pantagruel paints a picture of world overcome by a tsunami of pure Story, and it’s a genre unto itself—a Gutenberg-punk masterpiece. It evokes a crazed giddiness that many of us feel in the infoworld, that unchartable terrain that Pat and I once described as
an infinite ocean of uncut metaphor, a neuroelectric realm containing the absolute essence of literally everything.
And oh, for an equivalent cast of outsized monster-heroes to lead us into the dizzying evolutionary heights of our information age!