Carnivalesque is a term coined by the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, which refers to a literary mode that subverts and liberates the assumptions of the dominant style or atmosphere through humor and chaos.
Bakhtin traces the origins of the carnivalesque to the concept of carnival, itself related to the Feast of Fools, a medieval festival originally of the sub-deacons of the cathedral, held about the time of the Feast of the Circumcision (1 January), in which the humbler cathedral officials burlesqued the sacred ceremonies, releasing “the natural lout beneath the cassock.”
The Feast of Fools had its chief vogue in the French cathedrals, but there are a few English records of it, notably in Lincoln Cathedral and Beverley Minster. Today in the USA, carnival is primarily associated with Mardi Gras, a time of revelry that immediately precedes the Christian celebration of Lent; during the modern Mardi Gras, ordinary life and its rules and regulations are temporarily suspended and reversed, such that the riot of Carnival is juxtaposed with the control of the Lenten season, although Bakhtin argues in Rabelais and His World that we should not compare modern Mardi Gras with his Medieval Carnival. He argues that the latter is a powerful creative event, whereas the former is only a spectacle. Bakhtin goes on to suggest that the separation of participants and spectators was detrimental to the potency of Carnival.
In his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929) and Rabelais and His World (1965), Bakhtin likens the carnivalesque in literature to the type of activity that often takes place in the carnivals of popular culture. In the carnival, as we have seen, social hierarchies of everyday life—their solemnities and pieties and etiquettes, as well as all ready-made truths—are profaned and overturned by normally suppressed voices and energies. Thus, fools become wise, kings become beggars; opposites are mingled (fact and fantasy, heaven and hell).
Through the carnival and carnivalesque literature the world is turned-upside-down (W.U.D.), ideas and truths are endlessly tested and contested, and all demand equal dialogic status. The “jolly relativity” of all things is proclaimed by alternative voices within the carnivalized literary text that de-privileged the authoritative voice of the hegemony through their mingling of “high culture” with the profane. For Bakhtin it is within literary forms like the novel that one finds the site of resistance to authority and the place where cultural, and potentially political, change can take place.
For Bakhtin, carnivalization has a long and rich historical foundation in the genre of the ancient Menippean satire. In Menippean satire, the three planes of Heaven (Olympus), the Underworld, and Earth are all treated to the logic and activity of Carnival. For example, in the underworld earthly inequalites are dissolved; emperors lose their crowns and meet on equal terms with beggars. This intentional ambiguity allows for the seeds of the “polyphonic” novel, in which narratologic and character voices are set free to speak subversively or shockingly, but without the writer of the text stepping between character and reader.
One of the earliest films to employ the carnivalesque was the 1970 film Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest), directed by Satyajit Ray. Carnivalesque is also a prevailing theme in Angela Carter’s last novel Wise Children.