How Useful is Bakhtin’s Concept of Carnival?

Bakhtin Mikhail Mikhailovich (1895-1975) was Russian philosophist, literary critic and the theorist of art. He is a representative of Russian Structuralism and his historical and theoretical researches on epic and novel literature are important for understanding of the cultural development. Mikhail Bakhtin was one of the first theorists who investigated the polyphonic form of the novel («Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics», 1929) and folk “laughing” culture of the Medieval Ages («Rabelais and his World, 1965).

He is also an author of the essays «The issues of literature and esthetics» (1975) and “On the philosophy of the act” (1986). He was the first who use the concepts of dialogism (The Dialogic Imagination) and heteroglossia, the carnivalesque and chronotope in the literary critique. Bakhtin’s concepts are very useful for explanation of the nature of the genre of the novel. The “dialogism” and “heteroglossia” involve a special “multivoiced use of language”. The concept of the novelistic “chronotope” describes historical aspects of literary sources; it uses specified and differentiated time and space for the plot.

The present essay is devoted to the concept of “the carnivalesque”. Bakhtin considers that novels “can be described as inspired by a laughing truth, indebted to parodic genres and to the spirit of carnival”. Bakhtin was interesting in Rabelaisian work since 1930s. His first work about this Renaissance writer was «Francois Rabelais in the history of the realism» (1940). This work appeared in the time when Soviet ideology admitted concepts of the realism and the national character. Bakhtin adopted these categories and proposed the concept of carnivalesque.

He suggested that low humor culture of Medieval Ages and Renaissance was a power folk opposition to the official values and government. The characteristic of folk low humor, the “life of the belly” was accepted as the main source of Rabelais book and became a discovery in the critique on medieval literature and, particularly, Rabelais creative work. It was the first publication about the philosophy of laugh. The theory of carnivalesque was developed not only for the explanation of local historical fact but as a universal phenomenon of the world culture.

Bakhtin’s idea about «carnivalization» of literature was developed in other works, but the first record of this theory appeared in the second edition of the monograph on Dostoyevsky. After the Second World War, in 1946 Bakhtin tried to defend theses in the Institute of World Literature (Moscow). The subject of his theses was the creative work of Rabelais. But in Stalin epoch his dissertation was rejected (Bakhtin received the degree of candidate of science (the lowest scientific degree in Russia) only in 1952) and they prohibited publishing the text of the dissertation about Rabelais.

Mikhail Bakhtin published the book “Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable i narodnaya kul’tura srednevekovia i Renessansa” (The creative work of Francois Rabelais and the popular culture of the Medieval Ages and the Renaissance more known as Rabelais and his World) only in 1965. In the next couple years this book was translated in foreign languages (English translation by Helene Iswolsky was published in Cambridge, MA: M. I. T. Press, in 1968) and it opened the epoch of Bakhtin’s influence on the Russian and world humanistic thought.

The central esthetic idea of Rabelais and his World is “grotesque realism”. Rabelais created images of the grotesque body; he emphasized the features of “lower bodily strata”. The grotesque body is opened to the world, his physiology is not hidden, and this body degrades and regenerates actively. “In grotesque realism… the bodily element is deeply positive. It is presented not in a private, egoistic form, severed from other spheres of life, but as something universal, representing all the people.

As such it is opposed to severance from the material and bodily roots of the world; it makes no pretense to renunciation of the earthy, or independence of the earth and the body. We repeat: the body and bodily life have here a cosmic and at the same time an all-people’s character; this is not the body and its physiology in the modern sense of these words, because it is not individualized. The material bodily principle is contained not in the biological individual, not in the bourgeois ego, but in the people, a people who are continually growing and renewed….

This exaggeration has a positive, assertive character. The leading themes of these images of bodily life are fertility, growth, and a brimming-over abundance. Manifestations of this life refer not to the isolated biological individual, not to the private, egotistic ‘economic man,’ but to the collective ancestral body of all the people” (Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, p. 19). Bakhtin found the Renaissance was a period of the benign balance between destructive and regenerative features of grotesque realism. He wrote:

“The essence of the grotesque is precisely to present a contradictory and double-faced fullness of life. Negation and destruction (death of the old) are included as an essential phase, inseparable from affirmation, from the birth of something new and better. The very material bodily lower stratum of the grotesque image (food, wine, the genital force, the organs of the body) bears a deeply positive character. This principle is victorious, for the final result is always abundance, increase” (Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, chapter 1, p. 62).

Mikhail Bakhtin emphasized an opposition between the low popular culture and the official culture of the later middle Ages and early Renaissance. The official culture use static stratified model of the world. Unofficial culture is a culture of Carnival. The etymology of the word “Carnival” is enough sophisticated. The word is derivated from Italian carnevale, alteration of earlier carnelevare, literally, removal of meat, from carne flesh (from Latin carn-, caro) + levare (from Latin to remove, to raise). Another explanation finds roots of the Carnival in Ancient mysteries.

They derivate word “Carnival” from “carrus-navalis” (the chariot-ship) of Roman religious ceremonies. Carnival concentrates the contrasts of folk culture and shows the chaotic and imperfect nature of the world. An individual of the middle Ages lived two lives: one that was the official life (church, social duties etc), another was the carnival life filled in with burlesque and low humor. The novel of Rabelais shows how the popular culture liberated the society and how the conventionalities were destroyed in the contact with the reality of the modern era.

Bakhtin sees Rabelais not only as a novelist but “his work embodies a whole new philosophy of history, in which the world is viewed in the process of becoming” (Bakhtin’s cycle, 2004). In the Prologue to Rabelais and His World Michael Holquist wrote: “Bakhtin’s carnival, surely the most productive concept in this book, is not only not an impediment to revolutionary change, it is revolution itself. Carnival must not be confused with mere holiday or, least of all, with self-serving festivals fostered by governments, secular or theocratic.

The sanction for carnival derives ultimately not from a calendar prescribed by church or state, but from a force that preexists priests and kings and to whose superior power they are actually deferring when they appear to be licensing carnival. ” (Michael Holquist, “Prologue,” Rabelais and His World) The carnival of the adventures of Pantagruel is not similar to the modern carnival. The Renaissance cultures understand the carnival as the “temporary suspension of all hierarchic distinctions and barriers among men … and of the prohibitions of usual life.”

(Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World p. 15). The Renaissance Carnival is unusual world where festive pleasure and philosophy exists contemporarily. It is topsyturvy world, the world of the primary chaos. Bakhtin proposed the semiotic theory of the carnival, the theory of the carnivalizing of quotidian life. The central idea of the concept of carnivalizing or carnivalesque is an “inversion of binary contraposition” – replacing official values with low folk culture. When people came to the carnival square than all routine ideas and their oppositions of Christianity change each other.

The King of Carnival is a pauper or fool (trickster). Everybody does honor to him. There is a Carnival bishop and Christianic sanctuaries could be desecrated. The top became the bottom, the head – the genitals (low body). Females and males switch their places. Billingsgate and devout phrases change each other. Everything was subject of top down imposition. Why? Bakhtin found roots of the carnival in the agrarian cults of pre-Christianic culture. Carnivalizing “makes it possible to extend the narrow sense of life” (Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World p. 177).

The aspiration of carnival is to uncover, undermine – even destroy, the hegemony of any ideology that seeks to have the final word about the world, and also to renew, to shed light upon life, the meanings it harbours, to elucidate potentials; projecting, as it does an alternate conceptualisation of reality. Dialogism is a fundamental aspect of the carnival – a plurality of ‘fully valid consciousnesses’ (Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, p. 9), Baktin used the concept of the dialogism as a necessary condition of the understanding: “Two voices is the minimum for life, the minimum for existence” (Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, p. 252).

The carnival papered over the differences between the social strata. “Carnival is the place for working out a new mode of interrelationship between individuals . . . People who in life are separated by impenetrable hierarchical barriers enter into free and familiar contact on the carnival square” (Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, p. 123). Today the elements of carnivalesque are inherent for some ethnic groups, e. g. Bantu tribe. Traditions of European carnival culture flourish in Latin America, in particular in Brazil. (It’s interesting, that so popular in the Brazilian carnivals “samba” came from the Bantu word “semba”).

In the modern culture the carnivalesque is actual as never before – but it is another carnivalesque. Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnivalesque has four main themes: the tumultuous crowd, the world turned upside-down, the comic masks and the grotesque body. Bakhtin also categorizes the carnivalesque into three basic forms: ritual spectacles (such as fairs, feasts, wakes, processions, mummery, dancing and open-air amusements with costumes, masks, giants, dwarfs etc), comic verbal compositions and various genres of billingsgate or abusive language.

“… we are especially interested in the language which mocks and insults the deity and which was part of the ancient comic cults” (Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, p. 16). But some authors found limitations in the theory of the carnivalesque. Richard Berrong wrote that Bakhtin‘s theory had some weaknesses. Bakhtin emphasized the role of laughter culture but do not take in the account the historical context of Rabelais’s changing attitude (R. M. Berrong, Rabelais and Bakhtin… , p. 15, 19-51).

The concept of the carnivalesque helps us to identify an atmosphere of festivities, disdain of authority and material anti-intellectualism in literature. It could be applicable to certain genres carousals in Flemish painting and to the social criticism of postmodern art. Bakhtin’s concept of carnivalesque could be useful way for the analysis processes connecting the comic and the serious issues of routine life. Medieval carnival players went to the streets in masks and costumes, their ritual spectacles (e. g. the Feast of Fools or the Feast of the Innocents) were full with the topsyturvy.

The citizens were admitted to “occupy” the cathedral and turn it upside down and inside out. They could tell everything and do everything. They were equal and close in this moment. They were very much like Americans today. Where is American carnivalesque? You could find in the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras or in the New York during Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. If can find it in the bad blocks and slums. Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the “carnivalesque” can be applied to ethnical studies of African American or Latin American culture.

Today we can use the concept of the carnivalesque when we analyze issues of satire and parody in the festival performance of the globalization. We can see the elements of carnivalizing in the pubs, in political actions, advertising and media, in the street theater etc. We see grotesque body of the modern civilization and the modern art. For example if we apply Bakhtin’s idea of the carnivalesque to the comedies and romantic movies we can easily find accordance to Bakhtin’s description of the world turned upside down in the interests of liberating laughter.

In Bakhtin’s view, comedy relocates the spiritual from the top (a head and the face) to the bottom (the belly, the bowels and the genitals): “The essential principle of grotesque realism is degradation, that is, the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract” (Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, p. 19). Another modern arena of the contemporary carnivalesque is advertising. Carnivalesque PR stunts are used to attract attention of the potential customer. Otherwise, traditions of the carnival could constitute a strategy of resistance to the abusing advertising.

I found very interesting material about rave music and use of Bakhtin’s concept of carnivalesque. Rave is out of the mainstream. Like medieval carnival the rave has capacity to disrupt and remake official public norms, both they lead people into the “symbolic sphere of utopian freedom”. Rave realizes its carnivalesque features in several ways. There are no exclusions to participate in the medieval carnival or rave party and there is no hierarchy between people in the time of festivity or the party. There are oppositions between official and non-official life etc (Rave as Carnival, 2004).

But I think that Mikhail Bakhtin never think we will use his concepts to argue our non-trivial ideas about music, movies, public relations – about everything. He was a literary critic and proposed the concept of the carnivalesque to explain dynamics of social changes in the late Medieval Ages and early Renaissance. He uses Rabelais’ work because he was the most typical writer for this period and the elements of carnival grotesque were shown in Gargantua and Pantagruel very clearly. Mikhail Bakhtin died in 1975. He made an important contribution to science. But his concept is not universal.

Nothing is perfect.


  1. Bakhtin and Medieval Voices. (1995) University Press of Florida. Gainesville.

  2. Carnival, History And Popular Culture: Rabelais, Goethe And Dostoevskii As Philosophers (2004) The Internet encyclopedia of philosophy http://www. iep. utm. edu/b/bakhtin. htm.

  3. Rabelais and Bakhtin Popular Culture in “Gargantua and Pantagruel” by Richard M. Berrong (1986) University of Nebraska Press, 180 p..

  4. Rabelais and His World by Mikhail Bakhtin (1984) Indiana University Press 510 p..

  5. Rave as a carnival (2004) http://www. odevarsivi. com/12/50972. htm.


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