Mikhail Bakhtin: Philosopher of Carnival

I find it existentially wonderful that I discovered the work of one of my biggest influences, Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) in a manner illustrative of his concepts. One of my first day jobs when I first moved to New York City was as a painter of apartments for an Upper West Side real estate agency. Someone would move out, then myself and a crew would go in and coat the place in flat white for the new renters. Sometimes it was clear that the previous occupants had skipped out without warning, and on some occasions they left stuff behind, and it was usually put on the curb for the trash collectors. But one time I hit what was for me the mother lode. The person who’d left was clearly a film or theatre professional, and they left behind boxes of stuff in which only I (among the painting crew) would be interested: scoop lights, gels, a strobe, a fog machine, and dozens and dozens of books related to theatre, film and criticism. Later, I would get additional exposure to Bakhtin’s ideas (and his legacy) in NYU’s Cinema Studies Department, but I had a jump on everybody else by already being familiar with him. But a random encounter between a house painter (the ultimate Laurel & Hardy/ Three Stooges occupation) and an obscure book of literary criticism — that is very Bakhtin.

How fitting that Bakhtin’s birthday (November 16) falls on UNESCO’s annual International Day for Tolerance. His concepts and the aims of the day allign nicely. The main one, the one that initially pulled me in, and to which you may noticed I refer constantly in all my writing is that of Carnival or the Carnivalesque (see this recent post). Bakhtin spent a good part of his youth in the multiethnic port city and resort center of Odessa, home of Humorina (a huge April Fool’s Day celebration), as well as many other festivals. It had to have been a major influence on his thinking. Such festivals and related rituals are characterized by several unique, interlocking qualities: 1) A subversion of authority and the usual order, and temporary liberation from same, often resulting in expressions typically thought to be anti-social, improper, grotesque, eccentric or profane : 2) a thrusting together of diverse people, things and ideas, creating a plural consciousness that is temporarily joined, rubbing off on each other, so to speak, without being merged. The coming together of high and low culture is a major offspring of such events. The folkish engages with the “official”, resulting in the seriocomic.

I hope you can see immediately where these concepts apply immediately to vaudeville, with its uncountable permutations of combinations of different kinds of people (ethnically, racially, sexually, economically etc) with different types of performances (acrobatics vs. elocution vs, prestidigitation, etc). But Bakhtin didn’t write about theatre. His main interest was the novel, and his categories of specialty above all were Rabelais and Dostoyevsky. This has always struck me as a crazy pairing (I’d have thought Hugo more relatable to Rabelais), but with increasing familiarity with Bakhtin’s writings, and naturally the writing of both authors, it begins to make more sense. To my mind, The Idiot, with its Holy Fool hero, is most relatable to Carnival, at any rate.

A major influence on Bakhtin was Plato, whose Socratic Dialogues are characterized by an unfinished, open-ended quality. Every facile answer by a pupil is rewarded with a new challenge by the interrogator. (I read all the Dialogues when I was around 19 years old. The principle takeaway that sticks to your ribs, more than any specific topic of conversation, is the method itself, a kind of humility before the truth). God, how, I love this quote from Bakhtin: ” [The Dialogues] did not permit thought to stop and congeal in one-sided seriousness or in a stupid fetish for definition or singleness of meaning.” The struggle against the stupid fetish for definition or singleness of meaning sometimes feels like the central battle of my existence.

The other major influence on Bakhtin is the Mennipean Satire, a form of picaresque prose that typically attacks human foibles rather than specific individuals, and is also often characterized by references to bodily function and restless, relentless shifts in tone, voice or style as the moment may require. Menippus was of the Greek School of Cynics, whose origins can also be traced back to Socrates, by way of Diogenes. His own works are now lost, but there are numerous well-known works that reflect his influence, such as Petronius’ Satyricon, The Golden Ass of Apuleius, Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, and the work of Swift, Voltaire, Sterne, Lewis Carroll, Alfred Jarry, James Joyce, Terry Gilliam, and others. Dan Aykroyd’s much-malligned Nothing But Trouble may also be redeemed in this context. (I also think the Ridiculous Theatres of both John Vaccaro and Charles Ludlam are relateable to Bakhtinian analysis, as are burlesque and nonsense).

So in addition to the Carnivalesque, Bakhtin contributed other useful concepts that have to do with the shifting of voice and point of view within a text, related and overlapping literary strategies that he attributes to these writers and finds (he believes) its apotheosis in Dostoyevsky: polyphony (borrowed from music), heteroglossia (many voices), and the dialogic. In this kind of writing, we often find a questioning or undermining of the authority of the author, a concept not unrelated to the popular concept of the “unreliable narrator”. (My wife, a big fan of Angela Carter, whose work has often been analyzed in a Bakhtinian context, is always expressing her enthusiasm for this literary strategy. These common predilections are the sorts of things that brought us together and make us largely unfit for other company).

Bakhtin came of intellectual age in the Soviet Union in the 1920s when freedom of thought hadn’t yet been completely stifled, though it was rapidly getting there. In the early days of the U.S.S.R., you could certainly relate Bakhtin’s ideas to a revolution still in motion, especially with the centrality of unseating the highborn and elevating the lower classes which lies at Carnival’s heart. But once the revolution had ossified into authoritarianism his ideas became potentially dangerous, and Bakhtin was mostly thwarted and repressed throughout his life, though towards his last decade he became more widely known. In translation in the 1980s and ’90s, his ideas began to make their way west…eventually to a box of books in an abandoned apartment for me to literally stumble upon.

One other Bakhtinian concept I haven’t yet mentioned: the chronotope, a notion that came to him by way of Albert Einstein. It has to with the unique ability that fiction has to relate space and time. Examples of fictional constructs that can be looked at through this lens include the Yellow Brick Road and Huck Finn’s Mississippi River. May your own journey expose you to many voices and points of view along the way; may you always be open to them; and may God grant you the freedom to laugh liberally at your rulers.

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