Rabelais and His World
Rabelais and His World is a scholarly work which is considered one of Mikhail Bakhtin's most important texts and a now a classic of Renaissance studies. In the work Bakhtin explores Gargantua and Pantagruel by the French Renaissance writer François Rabelais.
Bakhtin declares that, for centuries, Rabelais’s book had been misunderstood, and claimed that Rabelais and His World clarified Rabelais’s intentions. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin concerns himself with the openness of Gargantua and Pantagruel, however, the book itself also serves as an example of such openness.
Bakhtin attempts two things: he seeks to recover sections of Gargantua and Pantagruel that, in the past, were either ignored or suppressed, and he conducts an analysis of the Renaissance social system in order to discover the balance between language that was permitted and language that was not. It is by means of this analysis that Bakhtin pinpoints two important subtexts: the first is carnival (carnivalesque) which Bakhtin describes as a social institution, and the second is grotesque realism which is defined as a literary mode. Thus, in Rabelais and His World Bakhtin studies the interaction between the social and the literary, as well as the meaning of the body.
History of the text
Bakhtin completed his book on Rabelais (titled Rabelais in the History of Realism) in 1940. After several attempts to get the book published fell through, it was submitted as a dissertation for the Candidate of Sciences degree at the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow. At the dissertation's defense in 1946, all three official opponents were in favor of awarding Bakhtin a higher degree: the Doctor of Sciences, and their motion was accepted with a narrow majority vote. However, following an assault on the institute published in the press at the time, and after six years of repeated revisions and deliberations, USSR's VAK decided Bakhtin would only receive the Candidate of Sciences degree. The book was eventually published in Russian in 1965, under the title Rabelais and Folk Culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Its 1968 English translation by Hélène Iswolsky was given the title, Rabelais and His World.
For Bakhtin, carnival is associated with the collectivity. Those attending a carnival do not merely constitute a crowd; rather the people are seen as a whole, organized in a way that defies socioeconomic and political organization. According to Bakhtin, “[A]ll were considered equal during carnival. Here, in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age”. The carnival atmosphere holds the lower strata of life most important, as opposed to higher functions (thought, speech, soul) which were usually held dear in the signifying order. At carnival time, the unique sense of time and space causes individuals to feel they are a part of the collectivity, at which point they cease to be themselves. It is at this point that, through costume and mask, an individual exchanges bodies and is renewed. At the same time there arises a heightened awareness of one’s sensual, material, bodily unity and community.
Bakhtin’s notion of carnival is connected with that of the grotesque. In the carnival, usual social hierarchies and proprieties are upended; emphasis is placed on the body in its open dimension, in its connection to the life of the community. This emphasis on the material dimension which links humans, rather than on the differences and separations between them, allows for the consciousness of the historical dimension of human life: for every death, there is a birth, a renewal of the human spirit. This process allows for progress.
In the grotesque body, emphasis is placed on the open, the penetrative, and the "lower stratum." The open (the mouth, the anus, the vagina, etc.) and the penetrative (the nose, the penis, etc.) allow exchange between the body and the world (mostly through sex, eating, and drinking), but also to produce degrading material (curses, urine, feces, etc.). The lower stratum (belly, womb, etc.) is the place where renewal happens, where new life is forged, thus connecting degradation to renewal. The grotesque body is one of excess, rebellious to authority and austerity.
Due to its inscription in time and its emphasis on bodily changes (through eating, evacuation, and sex), the grotesque has been interpreted by some critics as a dimension of the body that permits to perceive the historicity of man: it is in this reading used as a measuring device.
History of laughter
One of the primary expressions of the ancient world's conceptions of laughter is the novella that survives in the form of apocryphal letters of Hippocrates about Democritus (Hippocratic Corpus, Epistles 10-21). The laughter of Democritus had a philosophical character, being directed at the life of man and at all the vain fears and hopes related to the gods and to life after death. Democritus here made of his laughter a complete conception of the world, a certain spiritual premise of the man who has attained maturity and has awakened. Hippocrates finally perfectly agreed with him.
- Clark and Holquist 295
- Clark and Holquist 297-299
- See commentary to vol. 4 of Bakhtin's Collected Writings (Sobranie sochinenii, Moscow: Russkie Slovari, 2008–2010)
- Clark and Holquist 302
- Bakhtin 10
- Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. pp. 303–436. ISBN 9780253348302.
- Clark and Holquist 303
- chap.1, p. 59