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Robert ([personal profile] frarjohn) wrote2010-10-27 05:13 pm

You Mad!

Finishing up "The Praise of Folly," I have to say that I've read better satires (Swift's "A Modest Proposal" comes to my mind). Now, one or two of you might be saying "But Robert! don't you love everything from this time? How could you dislike something so illustrious from the period? It's Erasmus, for crying out loud!" Well, to you I say THIS: I have two major problems with the work, and I think both have a common ancestor.

First, there are times, mostly in the second half or so of the piece, where Erasmus (as Folly) will get so wrapped up in attacking something that he (Erasmus) disapproves of, that as I was reading it, I was wondering if he had forgotten why he was talking about it in the first place, and kept going just because he was so mad at the topic. I'm thinking primarily of the entire section from pg. 57 onwards, when Folly first begins speaking on theological matters.
Compare the tone of voice near the beginning: "One thing is for sure, without a dash of folly there'd be no fun in it at all. If there's nothing to raise a laugh, in the form of real or simulated foolishness, the revellers will send out to hire a 'comedian' or call for some ridiculous buffoon who by cracking a few jokes and tickling a few funnybones will lift the company out of their morose and dumpish silence."(p. 20)
to her diatribe against professed religious:
"What can be funnier than their habit of doing everything by the book, as if following mathematical rules that it would be a sin to break? ... The greater number of them insist so vehemently on their own ceremonies and petty traditions that they think a single heaven will hardly be adequate reward for such outstanding merit - never imagining that Christ, despising all these observances, will judge by his own standard, which is that of charity."(pp. 62-63)
Where in the beginning Folly is playful, laughingly pointing out our foibles, once she gets into the religious sphere she gets mean, and fast. Which makes sense, because Erasmus was a putative reformer, who did not like monks. As quoted in the Roper essay in the Norton edition, “Monachatus non est pietas” - Monkery is not piety.(p. 274)

Secondly – and this is an issue I have with another satirist, Voltaire – is the fact that Erasmus will sometimes just make stuff up, that I'm pretty sure don't correspond to reality. The first that struck me was the assertion Erasmus makes, speaking for Christ, that he “[spoke] openly and using no intricate parables”.(p. 63) Now correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't the parables one of the defining features of Jesus' ministry in the Gospels? And that even the disciples were confused as to the meaning of them at some points? There was another near the end, but it relies on how people in the Middle Ages interpreted the Mass, so I won't go into it here. But if you're interested, I can find you the article on JSTOR!

What connects these I think is Erasmus' ardor. On these religious topics he's so invested that the referential and playful style of the first half seems to go out the window, replaced with Erasmus wagging his finger at the people he didn't like. And it's that disconnect between the two that I found disappointing.