Monday, January 23, 2012

The Carnival Sense of the World

The dearth of posts on this blog in the recent past doesn’t indicate that I haven’t been thinking or writing. Partly I’ve just been spending too much of my spare time writing stories to make intelligent remarks here. But I also keep making false starts on posts and then abandoning them. So, enough of that. Here is a post.

I mentioned a while ago that I had checked out a copy of Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader courtesy of my county library’s participation in the state ILL program. The book in question contains a lengthy excerpt from Mikhail Bakhtin’s Characteristics of Genre and Plot Composition on Dostoevsky’s Works, and it is on this that I wish to comment today, as it has some bearing on my own work. Indeed, strangely enough, it has helped me to understand it better. (Do real authors have to check out critical readers to understand their own work, I wonder??) In this post I’ll mainly paraphrase the points that stood out to me; perhaps in a subsequent one I’ll try to explain how it applies to my writing and to fantastic literature in general.

The piece concerns what Bakhtin labels as Menippaean satire, a generic offshoot of the Socratic dialogue with numerous descendants in European literature, from The Golden Ass of Apuleius to The Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius and The Brothers Karamazov of Dostoevsky. He enumerates some fourteen characteristics of menippea:

1. The comic or carnival element is more prevalent in menippea than in the Socratic dialogue.

2. Menippea is free from the limitations of history and memoir—it possesses freedom of plot and invention and is not bound by the need for verisimilitude.

3. In menippea, bold and unrestrained use of the fantastic and adventure is ordered to an ideational end. The creation of extraordinary situations aims at the provoking and testing of an idea. The fantastic serves not for the positive embodiment of truth but rather as a mode for searching after truth, provoking truth, testing truth.

4. Menippea organically combines the free fantastic, the symbolic, and the mystical-religious with an extreme and crude slum naturalism. It takes place on the high road and in brothels, dens of thieves, taverns, marketplaces, prisons, the orgies of secret cults. Menippea is not afraid of life’s filth.

5. In menippea, invention and fantasy are combined with a philosophical universalism and a capacity to contemplate the world on the broadest possible scale. It is a genre of ultimate, not academic, questions.

6. Many Menippaean satires exhibit a three-planed construction: hell, earth, and heaven. This structure found its way into the medieval mystery play.

7. Menippea employs an experimental fantasticality opposed to the classical tragic or epic viewpoint, e.g., observation from an unusual perspective (as in Gulliver’s Travels).

8. Menippea is characterized by moral-psychological experimentation: a representation of the unusual, abnormal moral and psychic states of man—insanity, split personality, unrestrained daydreaming, unusual dreams, passions bordering on madness, suicides, and so forth.  The protagonist ceases to coincide with himself. Bakhtin cites Ivan Karamazov’s delirium-induced conversation with the devil in this connection.

9. Menippea abounds in scandal scenes, eccentric behavior, inappropriate speeches and performances. These are sharply distinguished from epic events and tragic catastrophes, but also from comic brawls and exposes. This entails a destruction of the epic and tragic wholeness of the world, a breach in the stable, normal course of human affairs and events.

10. Menippea also abounds in sharp contrasts and oxymoronic combinations, e.g., the wise man in a servile position, luxury and poverty, the noble bandit. It loves to play with abrupt transitions and shifts and mésalliances of all sorts.

11. Menippea frequently contains elements of social utopia.

12. Menippea makes wide use of inserted genres (novellas, letters, speeches, poems, &c.) and (13) thus possesses a multi-styled and multi-toned nature.

14. Menippea is concerned with current and topical issues and everyday life.

The hidden link that Bakhtin sees as binding all these disparate elements together is what he calls the carnival sense of life. Carnival, of course, refers to something in real life, not literature. It is a kind of ritualistic pageantry, a pageant without footlights and without division into performers and spectators, drawing life out of its usual rut, making the spectator-participant see and step into the reverse side of the world. Bakhtin enumerates four general categories of carnivalization:

1. Suspension of the hierarchical structure of ordinary life, free and familiar contact among all sorts of people, a working-out of a new mode of interrelationship between individuals. Eccentricity Bakhtin identifies as a special category of the carnival sense of the world, organically connected with this familiar contact, permitting the latent sides of human nature to express themselves in concrete and sensuous form.

2. Carnivalistic mésalliances. Carnival brings together, unites, weds, combines the sacred with the profane, the lofty with the low, the great with the insignificant, the wise with the stupid.

3. Profanation. Carnival abounds in profanations, debasings, bringings down to earth, parodies of the sacred, obscenities linked with reproductive powers.

4. Sensuality. Carnival plays itself out not in abstract thoughts but in pageant rituals.

The primary carnivalistic act is the mock crowning and subsequent decrowning of the carnival king. Carnival makes use of eccentric dualistic images (e.g., the giant and the dwarf) and bizarre “wrong” utilizations of ordinary things (e.g., putting clothes on backwards or fighting with kitchen tools).

Menippaean satire is a carnival branch of literature; carnivalization distinguishes it and reaches to its very core.

Thus Mikhail Bakhtin. More thoughts to come.

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