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An interpretation of Mikhail Bakhtin’s ‘Rabelais and his World’

Passages from Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World.

According to Mikhail, he states carnival is not a mere holiday or “self serving festival”, he argues it pre exists the power of priests and kings etc. and didn’t derive from a calendar prescribed by the church or state.

In the introduction he refers quite a bit to the culture folk humour claiming it is not typical humour; it’s formed but the bourgeois modern culture. Mikhail goes into detail of the festivities of the carnival stating the spectacles and festivities had an important place in the lives of the medieval people. There were some festivities , which repeated every year such as the festa stultorum (feast of fools) and risus Paschalis (Easter laughter) he says carnivals pervaded agricultural feasts like the harvesting of grapes also known as vendange, which was celebrated in the city. All rituals took on a comic aspect with fools and clowns mimicking serious rituals such as the election of king and queen. According to Bakhtin, these occasions built a “second world and second life outside officialdom”; in this second world and life everyone was able to participate no matter their social status.

For the period of the carnival, it is not a mere spectacle seen by people but they live in it, everybody participates and it does not differentiate between spectators and actors; they all become one. All the people in the city take part as the idea of the Carnival is to embrace everybody as one. There was only one law during the time of the carnival, and Bakhtin states it’s the law of freedom- from social class and status.

Though the carnival was about creating a second life for everybody, the official feasts did no such thing. The official feasts reinforced the existing patterns; the official feast looked back at the past to consecrate the present. Unlike the previous feast (feast of fools) this feast reinforces religion, hierarchy, status; everything that was stable and unchanging in society.

Hierarchy was suspended during the carnival and everybody was considered equal. However, in the official feasts everyone was expected to come dressed to their status with all their finery. They also have to sit at a place according to their position in society. In the streets, people were free to be themselves when usually they’d be divided based on age, gender, class, caste, property, religion etc. As hierarchy was particularly strong during the medieval era, the sense of equality and the short period where everybody was ‘free’ was an essential part of the carnival spirit.

“In grotesque realism…the bodily element is deeply positive.” According to Bakhtin it’s presented as “something universal” which represents all the people.

The masks worn during the carnival are all connected to the joy of change and reincarnation.


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