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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. For Bakhtin, "carnival" (the totality of popular festivities, rituals and other carnival forms) is deeply rooted in the human psyche on both the collective and individual level. Though historically complex and varied, it has over time worked out "an entire language of symbolic concretely sensuous forms" which express a unified "carnival sense of the world, permeating all its forms"; this language, Bakhtin argues, cannot be adequately verbalized or translated into abstract concepts, but it is amenable to a transposition into an artistic language that resonates with its essential qualities: it can, in other words, be "transposed into the language of literature." Bakhtin calls this transposition the carnivalization of literature.[1] Although he considers a number of literary forms and individual writers, it is Francois Rabelais, the French Renaissance author of Gargantua and Pantagruel, and the 19th century Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, that he considers the primary exemplars of carnivalization in literature.

The Carnival sense of the world[edit]

Bakhtin's four categories of the carnival 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 consequences.
  3. Carnivalistic mésalliances: the 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]

The primary act of carnival is the mock crowning and subsequent de-crowning of a carnival king, it is a "dualistic ambivalent ritual" that typifies the inside-out world of carnival and the "joyful relativity of all structure and order".[3] The act sanctifies ambivalence toward that which is normally considered absolute, single, monolithic. Carnivalistic symbols always include their opposite within themselves: "Birth is fraught with death, and death with new birth."[4] The crowning implies the de-crowning, and the de-crowning implies a new crowning, it is thus the process of change itself that is celebrated, not that which is changed.

The carnival sense of the world "is opposed to that one-sided and gloomy official seriousness which is dogmatic and hostile to evolution and change, which seeks to absolutize a given condition of existence or a given social order."[5] This is not to say that liberation from all authority and sacred symbols was desirable as an ideology; because participation in Carnival extracts all individuals from non-carnival life, nihilistic and individualistic ideologies are just as impotent and just as subject to the radical humour of carnival as any form of official seriousness.[6] The spirit of carnival grows out of a "culture of laughter"; because it is based in the physiological realities of the lower bodily stratum (birth, death, renewal, sexuality, ingestion, evacuation etc.), it is inherently anti-elitist: its objects and functions are necessarily common to all humans—"identical, involuntary and non-negotiable".[7]

Bakhtin argues that we should not compare the "narrow theatrical pageantry" and "vulgar Bohemian understanding of carnival" characteristic of modern times with his Medieval Carnival.[8] Carnival was a powerful creative event, not merely a spectacle. Bakhtin suggests that the separation of participants and spectators has been detrimental to the potency of Carnival, its power lay in there being no "outside": everyone participated, and everyone was subject to its lived transcendence of social and individual norms: "carnival travesties: it crowns and uncrowns, inverts rank, exchanges roles, makes sense from nonsense and nonsense of sense."[9]

Carnivalization, Menippean satire and Polyphony[edit]

In 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). In carnival, "opposites come together, look at one another, are reflected in one another, know and understand one another."[10] In carnivalized literature such as that of Dostoevsky, free dialogue between apparent opposites is a basic principle. Love and hate, faith and atheism, loftiness and degradation, love of life and self-destruction, purity and vice, etc: "everything in his world lives on the very border of its opposite."[11] Bakhtin emphasizes that the carnival mode of being and thinking is not based in abstraction, but in an artistic and creative participation in the intensities of real life. Like the medieval carnival which is not merely a spectacle to be passively experienced, the carnivalized literary text implies the participation of the reader in the great dialogue.[12] Carnivalistic categories are not "abstract thoughts about equality and freedom, the interrelatedness of all things or the unity of opposites... they are concretely sensuous ritual-pageant "thoughts" experienced and played out in the form of life itself, "thoughts" that had coalesced and survived for thousands of years among the broadest masses of European mankind",[13] and therein lies the source of their power in literary forms.

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. Through carnival and carnivalesque literature, a world upside-down[14] is created, ideas and truths are endlessly tested and contested, and all demand equal dialogic status.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bakhtin, Mikhail (1984). Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. p. 122.
  2. ^ Bakhtin, Mikhail (1984). Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 122–23, 130.
  3. ^ Bakhtin (1984). p. 124
  4. ^ Bakhtin (1984). p. 125
  5. ^ Bakhtin (1984). p. 160
  6. ^ Bakhtin, Mikhail (1984). Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 122, 160.
  7. ^ Emerson, Caryl (2011). All the Same the Words Don't Go Away. Academic Studies Press. p. 32-33.
  8. ^ Bakhtin, Mikhail (1984). Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. p. 160.
  9. ^ Morson, Gary Saul (1986). Essays and Dialogues on His Work. University of Chicago Press. p. 12.
  10. ^ Bakhtin (1984). p. 176
  11. ^ Bakhtin (1984). p. 176
  12. ^ Morson, Gary Saul; Emerson, Caryl (1990). Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford University Press. p. 459-60.
  13. ^ Bakhtin (1984). p. 123
  14. ^ Stallybrass, P. & White, A. (1986). The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, London: Methuen.