BAKHTIN AND CARNIVAL


In order to become autonomous Art excluded not only 'function' but also popular culture. But how did this happen and what is popular culture anyway ?

To begin with popular culture is not amateur Art, folk Art or the Art of the masses.
Neither is it the hypnotic hegemonic drug of capitalism as denounced most influentially by Adorno and Horkheimer in the mid 1940s, 1 a concept still clung to by the most humourless factions of the left/anarchist movement. 2 And popular culture is not the simulcral and ecstatic realm of the Postmodernists.

In 'Rabelais and His World'
,3 the indomitable Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin identifies European mediaeval popular culture as an unofficial culture of carnival which had developed out of thousands of years of ancient folk ritual.
In ancient European cultures, before the development of social class and state structure, comic/ festive ritual was an integral element of the unified culture of the people. As class and state developed so the comic/ festive elements of culture were excluded from the official culture and became the alternative folk culture of carnival. 4 Carnival was above all a culture of comedy, festival and the marketplace, it opposed the official serious culture of the church and feudal court with a culture of feasts, fairs, pageants, clowns, fools, jugglers, profanity, trained animals, monsters, laughter and parody.5 Sharing the feast days and Holy days of the mediaeval year , carnival mimicked and mocked sacred feudal rituals and protocols with comic carnival ritual, it was a second world, a second life which existed outside official life, and for its duration it was a different way of living, a realm of community, freedom, equality and abundance:

'As opposed to the official feast, one might say that carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms and prohibitions. Carnival was the true feast of time , the feast of becoming, change, and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalized and completed.
The suspension of all hierarchical precedence during carnival time was of particular significance. Rank was especially evident during official feasts; everyone was expected to appear in the full regalia of his calling, rank, and merits and to take the place corresponding to his position. It was a consecration of inequality. On the contrary, all were considered equal during carnival. Here, in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age. The hierarchical background and the extreme corporative and caste divisions of the mediaeval social order were exceptionally strong. Therefore such free, familiar contacts were deeply felt and formed an essential element of the carnival spirit. People were, so to speak, reborn for new, purely human relations. These truly human relations were not only a fruit of imagination or abstract thought; they were experienced. The Utopian ideal and the realistic merged in this carnival experience, unique of its kind. This temporary suspension, both ideal and real, of hierarchical rank created during carnival a special type of communication impossible in everyday life.'
6

Everyday mediaeval life for the common people was short and brutal but during the carnival misery became laughter, hunger became feast, the fool became wise, the beggar became a king , the world was turned upside down and inside out. This overturning and transposition was celebrated in The Feast of Fools, the choosing of the carnival King and Queen and the election of Boy Bishops.
The laughter of the carnival is ambivalent, nothing is sacred, no one is exempt, the boundaries of life are transgressed:

'....... carnival does not know footlights, in the sense that it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators. Footlights would destroy a carnival, as the absence of footlights would destroy a theatrical performance. Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it , and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. It has universal spirit; it is a special condition of the entire world, the world's revival and renewal, in which all take part.' 7

The carnival produced three main cultural forms: ritual spectacles , comic verbal compositions and various forms of billingsgate or oaths and curses. These forms are characterised by their grotesque realism 8, the folk humour which degrades all that is high, spiritual, ideal and abstract, which brings life back to the material, to the people and to the body. The grotesque bodily principle of the carnival is both positive and negative, it is the womb and the grave, shit and birth, piss and wine, the corpse and the seed, the old and the young. It is the abundance and fertility of the body even in the grotesque degradation of death and deformity, it is the body of the people, of all the people. According to Bakhtin the popular/folk carnival culture was an essential element in the life of mediaeval Europe, it involved citizens of every rank both clerical and secular and in the major mediaeval cities the citizens devoted an average of three months a year to carnival celebrations. 9

Bakhtin celebrates the mediaeval culture of the carnival, but he does this in the context of its relevance to the development of the classic literature of the Renaissance ; Rabelais, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dante and Boccaccio etc. Moreover, Bakhtin asserts that the Renaissance would not have happened without the carnival , for in the carnival tradition the key figures of the Renaissance found the freedom to escape the rigid orthodoxy of feudal Christianity and so to re-interpret the ancient humanist classics.10 In this context Bakhtin outlines a broad periodisation of carnival history which returns us to Debord and the end of cyclical time. 11
For Bakhtin, although grotesque realism and the carnival tradition continue after the Renaissance they are suppressed, transformed and narrowed to the extent that the Renaissance effectively begins the end of the mediaeval carnival.

The carnival was structured by the feasts and festivals of the church calender; Mardi Gras, Corpus Christi, Easter, Christmas and others, but these Christian festivals were structured by the syncretic legacy of thousands of years of pagan ritual and festival celebrating the turning of the seasonal agrarian cyclical year. The carnival of death and rebirth was the carnival of the soil and the harvest, of the lambing and the slaughter, of the bleak winter and the green shoots of spring. The end of feudalism, the Renaissance, the initiation of capitalism, marks the decline of the cyclical time of carnival and the beginning of irreversible historical time.
Although the carnival is vital to the development of the culture of the Renaissance , it is in the Renaissance that a new Classical culture develops with a new conception of the individual which eventually finds expression in bourgeois Art:

'The Renaissance saw the body in quite a different light than the Middle Ages, in a different aspect of its life, and a different relation to the exterior nonbodily world. As conceived by these canons, the body was first of all a strictly completed, finished product. Furthermore, it was isolated, alone, fenced off from all other bodies. All signs of its unfinished character, of its growth and proliferation were eliminated; its protuberances and offshoots were removed, its convexities (signs of new sprouts and buds) smoothed out, its apertures closed. The ever unfinished nature of the body was hidden, kept secret; conception, pregnancy, childbirth, death throes, were almost never shown. The age represented was as far removed from the mother's womb as from the grave, the age most distant from either threshold of individual life. The accent was placed on the completed, self-sufficient individuality of the given body. Corporal acts were shown only when the borderlines dividing the body from the outside world were sharply defined. The inner processes of absorbing and ejecting were not revealed. The individual body was presented apart from its relation to the ancestral body of the people.' 12

For Bahktin,the Renaissance marks the beginning of the end for the unifying collective carnival, and the birth of the private and domestic individual of capitalism. To the culture of the late 17th and 18th century the carnival was formless and hideous, it was the low spectacle of the market place, and it was suppressed and excluded from Classicism.

' During this period (actually starting in the seventeenth century) we observe a process of gradual narrowing down of the ritual, spectacle, and carnival forms of folk culture which became small and trivial. On the one hand the state encroached upon festive life and turned it into a parade; on the other hand these festivities were brought into the home and became part of the family's private life. The privileges which were formerly allowed the marketplace were more and more restricted. The carnival spirit with its freedom, its utopian character oriented toward the future, was gradually formed into a mere holiday mood. The feast ceased almost entirely to be the people's second life, their temporary renascence and renewal. We have stressed the word almost because the popular festive carnival principle is indestructible.' 13

Bakhtin traces the survival of the indestructible carnival principle into formalised cultural genres such as the Commedia Dell'arte, and into certain writings of the Enlightenment .... Moliere, Swift, Diderot and Voltaire. Most critically Bakhtin identifies the re-emergence of the grotesque in Romanticism, but in Romanticism the grotesque is transformed: whereas the carnival grotesque was a culture of public joy, light, hope and hilarity, the Romantic grotesque was an expression of private terror, darkness, irony and madness.

To summarise Bahktin: the European mediaeval culture of carnival developed from the exclusion of ancient and pagan festive folk culture from the official culture of the Church and state, it reached its pinnacle in the Renaissance but the Renaissance in turn marks its decline. After the Renaissance the carnival is suppressed and domesticated, but the tradition survives in a residual form and grotesque carnival imagery reappears transformed in Romanticism. Throughout the 19th century the carnival is suppressed and misunderstood.

The carnival is alternative , it lies outside and opposes the official and serious culture of both the Church and the nobility.

It is participatory , there is no border between the audience and the performance, everyone and anyone can be the carnival.

It is ambivalent , it contains both the positive and the negative, a diversity of elements in combination but it does not end this diversity by imposing authority, it celebrates ambivalence, it mutates and transforms.

It is material , it degrades the abstract and the ideal and celebrates the body and the life of the people.

It is utopian , the carnival liberates the imagination and experience from the orthodox and the conventional and reveals the possibility of change and the relativity of existence.

It is anarchic, there can be no central or single control over the carnival since it is the sum and diversity of its participants.

It is transgressive, it transposes, inverts and subverts.

It is unfinished , the carnival is always in process.