Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Carnival and the Grotesque: Some Words on Humor

The Russian Formalists working in the early years of last century and, thus, about a hundred years ago, were seeking a way to investigate and interpret poetic language, placing more of a premium on it than, say, the language of psychology. Such critical thinkers as my own favorite,Mikhail Bakhtin (November 17, 1895 – March 7, 1975), were looking for a means of removing the inconsequential and mundane from those very aspects of life, the inconsequential and mundane. They were looking, in other words and, of course in simplistic apercu for the miraculous and extraordinary embedded in the quotidian. These critics in Russia pushed the world of literature into the twentieth century, into modernism, into an investigation of the connection between the writer and the text.

Bakhtin's major work was an explication of Rabelais, a writer misunderstood and denied validity in a manner similar to the very misunderstanding and denial associated with Bakhtin. By dealing with what he called the carnival and the grotesque, and by studiously analyzing portions of Rabelais that had been excised in the interests of good taste, Bakhtin demonstrated how crowds, social classes, and uses of language demonstrated a workable metaphor for The Body Politic, which is to say for the entire range of social classes, where each strata emerged in Rabelais' writings as embodiments of society.

Such musings, beyond the confines of the academy and the peer review help us see how our own work may reflect the very spark, the lightning in a bottle we seek to make it ours and to give it the life of what I will call reflective entertainment, which is to say those things that make us think even while we are enjoying ourselves.

Although I much admire most of the work and purpose of Carl Hiaasen, and have read in him at some length, his novels are not my emotional favorites even though some of his characters have taken up residence in my own imaginative reflections, my own casting of landscape and dramatic terrain. Hiaasen's work approximates the tone and intent of Rabelais.

The grotesque is the term used by Bakhtin to describe the emphasis on bodily changes through eating, evacuation, and sex: it is used as a measuring device for the body politic. The carnival, that glorious pre-Lenten eruption of convivial behavior, represents the activity of the group. As seen by Rabelais and, later, by Hiaasen, these activities give us something to measure. Most of us who read Rabelais or Hiaasen measure them by laughter, which is another subject dear to the literary hard of this amazing critic, so long forgotten, just now beginning to reemerge from the shadows with a focus we can use as we sweep the night skies, looking for our own pole star by which to orient ourselves.

If we chose what seems funny to us, we have begun looking for the miracle of explosiveness in the illusion of the ordinary.


R.L. Bourges said...

Bakhtin says the Baba Yaga was Pantagruel's mother.
Hiaassen is mum of the subject.

Lori Witzel said...

Thanks for helping a teeny bit on my art history paper. And any reminder of Skink is always welcome.

One of the folks I'm citing quite a lot, Michael Camille, derives much goodness from Bakhtin -- but I've been wrestling with whether these perspectives "fit" the intent of those who created the wild carnival imagery often found in medieval marginalia. So far, seems to me like they "fit" our particular perspectives...not quite the same, as contrasted with the folks of the time who wrote about the manuscripts and imagery in their time.

BTW, my next course up? The only arts-and-letters offering this Fall -- "The Nature of Comedy." :-)