This post was originally published at digitalovertone.com, my now-defunct old site, in 2007.
“History acts fundamentally and goes through many phases when it carries obsolete forms of life into the grave. The last phase of the universal historic form is its comedy. Why such a march of history? This is necessary in order that mankind could say a gay farewell to its past.”
In Rabelais and His World1, Mikhail Bakhtin tackles what he considers shortcomings in early 20th-century scholarship on 16th-century French author François Rabelais. The particular value of this book, though, lies not in his reflections on Rabelais per se, but on his lucid consideration of the generative function of the grotesque, the history of laughter, and their encounter in the popular context of the marketplace, reflections that remain remarkably relevant to literary and cultural criticism today.
Despite its first publication in 1965 (in English in 1968), Rabelais and His World was submitted as a thesis to the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow in 1940, thought the text was a compilation of its author’s reflections on the 16th-century French writer made during the 1930s. While Bakhtin’s formation is largely formalist, in Rabelais and His World he demonstrates a particular consideration for historical context and development as well as content over form as such.
In the extensive introduction, Bakhtin lays out, defines and defends his context and terminology. Rabelais must be understood, he posits, in terms of folk culture, carnival, and the public marketplace, all spaces in which laughter–qualified as festive, universal and profoundly ambivalent–is consecrated. Laughter in Rabelais, he argues, is festive because it belongs to everyone; universal because it is directed at everyone, including–perhaps especially–inward at those who laugh; and ambivalent because it crowns and triumphs at the same time as it uncrowns and degrades. Linked intimately to folk culture and folk language is the centrality of the material bodily principle, focused primarily on the bodily lower stratum via scatological (and eschatological) and other imagery associated with the bodily midsection: degrading images of devouring, defecation, urination, and sexual intercourse but also productive images of eating, drinking (merry-making), gestation and birth. The material bodily principle and the bodily lower stratum are the two remaining principle components of what Bakhtin calls grotesque realism, in which the grotesque body projects the same ambivalence central to folk humor: it degrades, but by degrading it “digs a bodily grave for a new birth; it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one” (21).
The first chapter of Rabelais and His World, “Rabelais and the History of Laughter”, is a solidly historically situated consideration of the use, meaning, and interpretation of laughter from the Late Middle Ages to the 1930s, characterizing Renaissance laughter as universal (having grown out of collective, popular festive culture), noting its “indissoluble and essential relationship to freedom” (existing outside of the legal system), and its relation to the people’s unofficial truth:
The Renaissance conception of laughter can be roughly described as follows: Laughter has a deep philosophical meaning, it is one of the essential forms of the truth concerning the world as a whole, concerning history and man; it is a peculiar point of view relative to the world; the world is seen anew, no less (and perhaps more) profoundly than when seen from the serious standpoint. Therefore, laughter is just as admissible in great literature, posing universal problems, as seriousness. Certain essential aspects of the universe are accessible only to laughter. (66)
Later, laughter begins a process of degradation: it is systematized, politicized and rationalized, as was truth, by the emergent European absolute monarchies; the parallel, inverted (i.e. grotesque) world created by laughter was subordinated to a new order. Parody and satire no longer degraded to regenerate, but merely mocked; laughter was reduced to its negative aspect, and the positive discarded. Through his historical discourse, Bakhtin posits his discussion of laughter in Rabelais not only as a critical reading of a 16th-century author, but also as a an appeal for the recuperation of the essential universality, freedom, and unofficial character of laughter in the 20th century.
Through the rest of the book Bakhtin explores different concrete manifestations of the marketplace and the carnivalesque. He traces their appearance in Rabelais’ employment of billingsgate language, insisting always in the ambivalence of such language and the mockery and parody it implies; in popular festive forms, particularly those that parody the official institutions of the Late Middle Ages in ways unthinkable today; and in banquet imagery, particularly tied to aspects of grotesque realism and the grotesque image of the body, which devours the wor(l)d and in doing so renews it. All of these manifestations imply exaggeration and hyperbole. Hyperbole, he argues, moves images out of the realm of the particular and into the realm of the universal–”the grotesque body is cosmic and universal”–and, as such, consecrated to the populace, able to defeat fear, death, repression, and historical time in their name, and to replace them with cyclical time, renewal and fertility (pregnant death), and unconquerable gaiety. Connected intimately to hyperbole is, of course, laughter, under the dominion of which “[t]hings are tested and reevaluated”, and objects “liberated […] from the snares of false seriousness, from illusions and sublimations inspired by fear” (376).
The profound ambivalence of images such as these, in which every act of degradation is simultaneously an act of regeneration has obvious relevance to modernist literature, including a work already discussed here. In Rabelais and His World Bakhtin rediscovers the significance of the marketplace, the plaza pública, in 16th-century culture; modernists rediscovered the same vestiges of collectivity, relativity, social exchange and interaction, laughter, subversiveness and creativity in the city space, the street, the café, where normalization is–or has the power to be–subverted, debased and temporarily reformulated. This is a concept to keep in mind in the future, as is that of conquering laughter as a creative space able to depose official, closed language and fear and to replace it with a parallel unofficial, open, popular space. I have a feeling this is a book I will be returning to on numerous occasions in the future.
- Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984. ↩