Detail from The Fight between the Carnival and Lent (1559) by Peter Bruegel the Elder. Courtesy Kunstshistoriches Museum, Vienna/Wikipedia
The postmodern carnival has arrived, and there are good reasons to prefer François Rabelais’s version
In early 16th-century France, François Rabelais, who had already made his reputation as a doctor of theology and of medicine, a scholar and a scallywag, turned his hand to novel-writing. Several years, and several hundred pages later, he loosed Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-64) on the world. Driven by an insatiable hunger for both food and knowledge, endowed with great intellectual as well as physical brawn, and prone to laughter as seismic as an earthquake, the eponymous father-and-son duo overwhelm. No matter how you approach them, they are volcanic and titanic, immense and elemental.
In a word, they’re … well, grotesque.
And this is how Rabelais wanted it. For the good doctor, grotesqueness was not an insult, but instead an insight into the human condition. More than half a millennium later, in a world dominated by indignation and outrage, and largely abandoned by laughter, a dose of the grotesque might help to better digest events, if only by having a good – and right kind of – laugh.
Fifty years ago, the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin presented Gargantua and Pantagruel as a unique and foreign world, at once beautiful and repulsive. In his landmark Rabelais and His World (1965), Bakhtin suggested that the laughter resounding through Rabelais’s work was particular, and practised at specific moments. It is a kind of laughter that, like any of the countless dialects or languages over the millennia, withered and died. The possibility of reviving Rabelaisian laughter is as daunting as, say, reviving the Livonian language.
Laughter is no different than political systems, commercial relations or artistic practices: it evolves over time, the result and cause of material and social transformations. For medieval man, laughter was the great leveller. Preceding Martin Luther’s priesthood of all believers was Rabelais’s priesthood of all belly-laughers. Inclusive and communal, laughter left no one untouched; no less universal than faith, it was a bit more subversive. In fact, as Bakhtin notes, late-medieval laughter marked a victory, albeit temporary, not just over the sacred and even over death; it also signalled ‘the defeat of power, of earthly kings, of the earthly upper classes, of all that represses and restricts’. For medieval man, laugh and the whole world laughs with you – or else.
Commercial interests and political institutions have, in our own age, hijacked carnivalesque events such as Mardi Gras, flattening them into carefully policed occasions marked by bar-crawling and souvenir-hawking. In Rabelais’s age, however, carnivals were simply subversive, turning upside down the official feasts and pageants regularly staged by throne and altar. Laughter laced these festivals that larded the medieval calendar. Under the walls of castles, crowds would crown jesters as kings, while in churches the junior clergy would mock pontiffs. Lords of misrule would make a mockery of royal pronouncements and practices, while monks would subvert sacred rituals into scatological riffs. During these great pauses, the institutional machinery of feudal society shuddered to a halt, enabling the vast majority of men and women, their lives shackled to scarcity and submission, to revel in the taste of abundance and lack of inhibition.
What better reason for laughter? Not only did it defeat despair, but it also overturned the symbols of state power and violence – a dizzying liberation from time and place. The laughter provoked by carnival, Bakhtin announced, consecrates the profane and ‘celebrates temporary liberation from prevailing truth’. In this monde à l’envers, he concludes, all that is ‘terrifying becomes grotesque’.
Is it possible, though, that in our own time, the grotesque has become the terrifying?
While the grotesque is difficult to define, we know it when we see it. When white- and blue-collar workers joined student activists to protest the dehumanising values embodied by Wall Street, many of them donned the sinister mask of the anonymous anarchist hero of the film V for Vendetta (2005). The mask not only shielded their identities, it also signalled that, though these men and women hailed from different backgrounds, they shared all-too-human common concerns…