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Carnivalesque is a literary mode that subverts and liberates the assumptions of the dominant style or atmosphere through humor and chaos. It originated as "carnival" in Mikhail Bakhtin's Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics and was further developed in Rabelais and His World. Bakhtin traces the origins of the carnivalesque to the concept of carnival, itself related to the Feast of Fools. This was a medieval festival held originally by the sub-deacons of the cathedral, at about the time of the Feast of the Circumcision (1 January). The humbler cathedral officials performed burlesques of the sacred ceremonies, releasing "the natural lout beneath the cassock."[1]

Bakhtin derives carnival and its influence in literature from the reign of the “Serio-comical,” with the examples of Socratic dialogue and Menippean satire.

The Feast of Fools[edit]

The Feast of Fools had its chief vogue in the French cathedrals, but it was also recorded a few times in England, notably in Lincoln Cathedral and Beverley Minster. In the early 20th century, Bakhtin argues in Rabelais and His World that we should not compare modern Mardi Gras with his Medieval Carnival. He argues that the latter was a powerful creative event, whereas the former is only a spectacle. Bakhtin suggests that the separation of participants and spectators has been detrimental to the potency of Carnival.

In his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929) and Rabelais and His World (1965), Bakhtin likens the "carnivalesque" in literature to the character of activity typical of the carnivals of popular culture. In the carnival, social hierarchies of everyday life—their solemnities, pieties and etiquettes, as well as all ready-made truths—are profaned and overturned by normally suppressed voices and energies. Thus, fools become wise, kings become beggars; opposites are mingled (fact and fantasy, heaven and hell). He did not believe that liberation from all authority and sacred symbols was desirable as an ideology. Because Carnival extracts all individuals from non-carnival life, and because there are no hierarchical positions during carnival, ideologies which manifest the mind of individuals cannot exist.

Bakhtin's four categories[edit]

Mikhail Bakhtin's four categories of the carnivalesque sense of the world:

  1. Familiar and free interaction between people: carnival often brought the unlikeliest of people together and encouraged the interaction and free expression of themselves in unity.
  2. Eccentric behaviour: unacceptable behaviour is welcomed and accepted in carnival, and one's natural behaviour can be revealed without the consequences.
  3. Carnivalistic mésalliances: familiar and free format of carnival allows everything that may normally be separated to reunite — Heaven and Hell, the young and the old, etc.
  4. Profanation: in carnival, the strict rules of piety and respect for official notions of the 'sacred' are stripped of their power— blasphemy, obscenity, debasings, 'bringings down to earth', celebration rather than condemnation of the earthly and body-based.[2]

Through carnival and carnivalesque literature, a world upside-down[3] is created, ideas and truths are endlessly tested and contested, and all demand equal dialogic status. The “jolly relativity” of all things is proclaimed by alternative voices within the carnivalized literary text that de-privileged the authoritative voice of the hegemony through their mingling of “high culture” with the profane. For Bakhtin it is within literary forms like the novel that one finds the site of resistance to authority and the place where cultural, and potentially political, change can take place.

For Bakhtin, carnivalization has a long and rich historical foundation in the genre of the ancient Menippean satire. In Menippean satire, the three planes of Heaven (Olympus), the Underworld (Hades), and Earth are all treated with the logic and activity of Carnival. For example, in the underworld, earthly inequalities are dissolved; emperors lose their crowns and meet on equal terms with beggars. This intentional ambiguity allows for the seeds of the “polyphonic” novel, in which narratologic and character voices are set free to speak subversively or shockingly, but without the writer of the text stepping between character and reader.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tuchman, Barbara. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
  2. ^ Bakhtin, Mikhail (1984). Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 122–23, 130.
  3. ^ Stallybrass, P. & White, A. (1986). The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, London: Methuen.