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Carnivalesque is a term used in the English translations of works written by the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, which refers to a literary mode that subverts and liberates the assumptions of the dominant style or atmosphere through humor and chaos. Bakhtin traces the origins of the carnivalesque to the concept of carnival, itself related to the Feast of Fools, a medieval festival originally of the sub-deacons of the cathedral, held about the time of the Feast of the Circumcision (1 January), in which the humbler cathedral officials burlesqued the sacred ceremonies, releasing "the natural lout beneath the cassock." Also Bakhtin derives carnival and the carnivalization of literature from the reign of the “Serio-comical” with the examples of Socratic dialogues and Menippean satire. Within the Socratic dialogue carnival affects all people into the behavior and rituals in to the carnivalistic life, as in every individual is affected by carnival, meaning everyone is a constant participant of carnival. In the base of examples from the Menippean satire, the relativity of joy that subverts and creates a syncretic pageant that with humor and grotesque it weds and combines the sacred with the profane.
The Feast of Fools
The Feast of Fools had its chief vogue in the French cathedrals, but there are a few English records of it, notably in Lincoln Cathedral and Beverley Minster. Today in the USA, carnival is primarily associated with Mardi Gras, a time of revelry that immediately precedes the Christian celebration of Lent; during the modern Mardi Gras, ordinary life and its rules and regulations are temporarily suspended and reversed, such that the riot of Carnival is juxtaposed with the control of the Lenten season, although Bakhtin argues in Rabelais and His World that we should not compare modern Mardi Gras with his Medieval Carnival. He argues that the latter is a powerful creative event, whereas the former is only a spectacle. Bakhtin goes on to suggest that the separation of participants and spectators was 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 type of activity that often takes place in the carnivals of popular culture. In the carnival, as we have seen, social hierarchies of everyday life—their solemnities and 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). It is not to be construed that the liberation from all authority and sacred symbols is an ideology to be believed and held as a creed. Carnival extracts all individuals from noncarnival life, noncarnival states and because there are no hierarchical positions during carnival, ideologies which manifest the mind of individuals cannot exist.
Bakhtin's Four Categories
Mikhail Bakhtin's four categories of the carnivalistic sense of the world:
- Familiar and free interaction between people: carnival often brought the unlikely of people together and encouraged the interaction and free expression of themselves in unity.
- Eccentric behaviour: unacceptable behaviour is welcomed and accepted in carnival, and one's natural behaviour can be revealed without the consequences.
- Carnivalistic misalliances: familiar and free format of carnival allows everything that may normally be separated to reunite — Heaven and Hell, the young and the old, etc.
- Sacrilegious: Bakhtin believed that carnival allowed for Sacrilegious events to occur without the need for punishment. Bakhtin believed that these kinds of categories are creative theatrical expressions of manifested life experiences in the form of sensual ritualistic performances.
Through the carnival and carnivalesque literature, a world upside-down 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, 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.
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- Bakhtin, Mikhail (1941). Rabelais and his world. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Sheinberg, Esti (2000-12-29). Irony, satire, parody and the grotesque in the music of Shostakovich. UK: Ashgate. p. 378. ISBN 0-7546-0226-5.
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