Re: Carnival, Carnivalesque, Carnivalisation

I’ve got a couple of posts I’m working on that deal with this subject, so I feel it’s probably a good idea to provide a reference point from which to begin the discussion of Bakhtin’s theory of carnival.

Carnival, Carnivalesque, Carnivalisation
Article contributed by
Simon Dentith, University of Reading
(307 words)
The term carnival came to have particular prominence for literary criticism after the publication of Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and his World (1965; translated by Helene Iswolsky [Indiana University Press, 1984]). In this book, Rabelais’ writing is seen as drawing its energies from the historic practices of carnival which preceded and surrounded it in Renaissance Europe. Bakhtin gives an especially benign account of carnival rituals, in which the time of carnival features as an utopian irruption into the workaday world, a time of feasting when normally dominant constraints and hierarchies are temporarily lifted. The subversive and anti-authoritarian aspects of carnival are here emphasised – authority figures are mocked, the joyless routines of everyday life are abrogated, the lower bodily strata are allowed both to degrade and to regenerate those conceptions of the world which seek to exclude them. Rabelais’ writings, and those of his near contemporaries Cervantes and Shakespeare, are seen as drawing their energies from these carnival practices, and from the epochally established view of the world which they embody. In this specific sense, in which there is a direct connection between historically-existing carnival practices and artistic forms which reproduce them, their writing can be described as “carnivalesque”.
Bakhtin extends the idea very significantly, however, in the notion of “carnivalised” writing which succeeds these Renaissance models and thus long outlives the actual historical location of the practices from which such writing takes it name. Carnivalised writing is that writing which mobilises one form of discourse against another, especially popular against elite forms. In this usage, “carnival” tends to lose its historical specificity and comes to resemble a transhistorical generic principle which can be actualised in widely differing periods; it is present in the Menippean satires of the ancient world and also in the novels of Dostoevsky, written in a society having little contact with historic Renaissance carnivals.
Published 18 July 2001
Citation: Dentith, Simon. “Carnival, Carnivalesque, Carnivalisation”. The Literary Encyclopedia. 18 July 2001.
[http://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=160, accessed 24 February 2009.]
This entry was posted in Bakhtin, Carnival, Critical Theory, Essay, Literature, Politics, Religion.

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