Carnivalesque: This term coined by the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin refers to a literary mode that subverts and liberates the assumptions of the hegemony though humor and chaos.

The origins of the carnivalesque is the concept of carnival. The carnival can be traced 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.

In her book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, Barbara Tuchman writes of the Feast of Fools:

As an integral part of life, religion was both subjected to burlesque and unharmed by it. In the annual Feast of Fools at Christmastime, every rite and article of the Church no matter how sacred was celebrated in mockery. A dominus festi, or lord of the revels, was elected from the inferior clergy—the curés, subdeacons, vicars, and choir clerks, mostly ill-educated, ill-paid, and ill-disciplined—whose day it was to turn everything topsy-turvy. They installed their lord as Pope or Bishop or Abbot of Fools in a ceremony of head-shaving accompanied by bawdy talk and lewd acts; dressed him in vestments turned inside out; played dice on the altar and ate black puddings and sausages while mass was celebrated in nonsensical gibberish; swung censers made of old shoes emitting “stinking smoke”; officiated in the various offices of the priest wearing beast masks and dressed as women or minstrels; sang obscene songs in the choir; howled and hooted and jangled bells while the “Pope” recited a doggerel benediction. At his call to follow him on pain of having their breeches split, all rush violently from the church to parade through town, drawing the dominus in a cart from which he issues mock indulgences while his followers hiss, cackle, jeer, and gesticulate. They rouse the bystanders to laughter with “infamous performances” and parody preachers in scurrilous sermons. Naked men haul carts of manure which they throw at the populace. Drinking bouts and dances accompany the procession. The whole was a burlesque of the too-familiar, tedious, and often meaningless rituals; a release of “the natural lout beneath the cassock.”

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, the 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.

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).

Through the carnival and carnivalesque literature the world is turned-upside-down (W.U.D.), 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 to the logic and activity of Carnival. For example, in the underworld earthly inequalites 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.

Consequently, what is the result of carnivalization? Carnivalization leaves the writer of the text in a much less dominant position in relation to his/her writings.

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