With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Who Still Needs the Carnivalesque?

FOLLOWING SEVERAL DECADES OF REFORMATION, with the Church of England emerging from the schism of Henry VIII and then onto the various religious settlements of his children—the austere Protestantism of the reign of his son Edward VI, the Inquisition-friendly Catholicism of his daughter Mary I, and the via media realpolitik Protestantism of his other daughter Elizabeth I—the Lord of Misrule was endangered. The Lord of Misrule, known by the similarly evocative title of “Abbot of Unreason” in Scotland, is one of those totemistic archetypes of the Middle Ages, a fragment of halcyon Merry Old England, along with maypoles and Morris dancing. During the Christmastide season, a layperson would be chosen or elected as a kind of jester-ruler over the festive and feasting commonfolk, a motley fool who mocked piety, subverted hierarchies, and challenged faith and state in a barely-approved anarchic display of pent-up antinomian energies. Similar to the court fool, Malcolm Jones describes the Lord of Misrule in The Secret Middle Ages: Discovering the Real Medieval World as among the “most important cultural figures of the late Middle Ages . . . a paradoxical figure who, at his most servile, merely entertains the society which patronizes him with empty, puerile buffoonery, but who, at his most heroic, challenges the very assumptions on which that society is founded.” He is, then, a dancing, farting, squawking, drinking, blaspheming challenge to the status quo, who the Medieval Church begrudgingly turned a blind eye to, but with scholars long arguing about just how radical the position actually was; whether the Lord of Misrule promised something that was revolutionary, or was mere pressure gauge. By the Elizabethan Age, an increasing Puritanism throughout the Church made the vaguely-pagan ritual even more suspect, so that the polemicist Philip Stubbes would rail in his 1583 Anatomy of Abuses against this “heathen company” with their “pipers piping, their drummers thundering, their stumps dancing, their bells jingling, their handkerchiefs swinging about their heads like madmen, their hobby horses, and other monsters skirmishing.” What Stubbs objected to, with this panegyric, was the carnivalesque.

Everybody who spends the better part of a decade in a graduate humanities program has the mental fingerprint of their own favored critical theory terms firmly embedded and frequently regurgitated, shibboleth to the initiated and annoyance to everybody else. Those lacquered rebels with their leather jackets have Lauren Berlant’s “cruel optimism,” the serious young women and men who smoked American Spirits have Deleuze and Guattari’s “rhizomes,” the cultural study theory-heads in black turtlenecks retain Pierre Bourdieu’s “habitus,” and the Ren-Faire Crew of Comus are burdened with Mikhail Bakhtin’s “carnivalesque.” I didn’t go to Ren Faires, but I still fell in love with a critical term that evoked roasted chestnuts and stewed lamb, belled hats and checkered pants, warm ale, and spiced wine. If not invaluable, certainly romantic. A term that’s both noun and adjective, that can describe how in the seventeenth century a man like the noble Richard Evelyn’s retainer Owen Flood could be invested with “full power and authority . . . to break up all locks, bolts, bars, doors and latches, and to fling up all doors out of hinges.”

Bakhtin is a theorist who has had a succession of afterlives, a figure much like Walter Benjamin who is forever germane, in part because he combines erudition with the aphoristic, a mystic more than a critic. The Russian Bakhtin was the sort of scholar who turned the manuscript of his lost history of the bildungsroman into rolling papers for his tobacco as the Nazis blockaded Moscow. Associated with the quasi-scientific linguistic movement known as the Russian Formalists, Bakhtin’s innovative, unconventional, eccentric, and often useful literary scholarship animates works such as Toward a Philosophy of the Act and The Dialogic Imagination, which went untranslated into English until the 1980s and 90s, by Vadim Liapunov and the team of Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, respectively. Working at the same time as the Anglophone New Critics, Bakhtin far surpassed them in coining critical neologisms. From his pen came such terms as “chronotope,” “heteroglossia,” and “polyphony,” but no concept derived from Bakhtin has been quite as evocative and contested as “carnivalesque,” from his study Rabelais and his World, completed in 1940 and published in 1965, his dissertation on the seminal French Renaissance writera consideration of grotesque Medieval subversions at the dawn of modernity. What Bakhtin defined as the “principle of laughter and the carnival spirit . . . [which] destroys this limited seriousness and all pretense of an extratemporal meaning and unconditional value of necessity. It frees human consciousness, thought, and imagination for new potentialities.”

For Bakhtin, living under the at-best drab uniformity of Soviet bureaucracy and at worst the totalitarian nightmares of Stalinism, the carnivalesque was simultaneously a way of describing the ribald, lusty, and earthy rituals coming to an end in Rabelais’ century as well as identifying a mode of critique that could serve to challenge the conventions of authoritarian social structures, both in the Middle Ages and his own day. His was a methodology of collective joy and mocking humor, of promiscuous pleasures and wanton excess intended to turn the world upside down, what Terry Eagleton described in The Ideology of the Aesthetic as a “cackle of obscene laughter, as a vulgar, shameless materialism of the body—belly, anus, genitals—[which] rides roughshod over ruling-class civilities.” Part of the brilliance of Rabelais and his World was that Bakhtin was purposefully agnostic on whether or not the carnivalesque was revolutionary or not; if when somebody like Richard Evelyn allowed his servant to knock the door off its hinges, did that gesture towards genuine utopian possibility, or was it simply a way of letting the lumpenproletariat blow off some steam so that the aristocrats didn’t end up underneath an ax-blade? The other possibility, as Bakhtin considers, is that the carnivalesque allows for both. Nor were questions of cultural subversion and appropriation unique to Bakhtin’s purview. It’s not dissimilar to how Royal Caribbean cruise line licensing Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” in a television ad is both a neutering of proto-punk power and the smuggling of a song about heroin addiction onto primetime television. Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, among Bakhtin’s greatest readers, argue in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression that it “actually makes little sense to fight out the issue of whether or not carnivals are intrinsically radical or conservative, for to do so automatically involves the false essentializing of carnivalesque transgression.” At the risk of misinterpreting Stallybrass and White, there is no definite tiebreaker in the carnivalesque’s stalemate between heavenly revolt and mere bread-and-circuses, for the simple reason that sometimes it’s one and sometimes it’s the other, though which is which can often be hard to discern.

Read entire article at The Baffler