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Carnival – Umberto Eco (key points, quotes)

“The idea of carnival has something to do with comic. So, to clarify the definition of carnival it would suffice to provide a clear definition of comic. Unfortunately, we lack such definition. From antiquity to Freud every attempt to define comic seems to be jeopardized by the fact that this is an umbrella term that gathers together a disturbing ensemble of diverse and not completely homogenous phenomena, such as humour, comedy, grotesque, parody, satire, wit and so on.” – (1984; p.1)

However, there are several basic differences between tragedy and comedy. The tragic effect is realised when a rule is broken (or code, law, social frame, etc.) which is committed by a likeable character, since he is a character of a noble condition, not so bad as to be repulsive, not so good as to escape identification. We agree that it was bad, we suffer with the hero because we understand and share his remorse.

“On the other hand, comic effect is realised when there’s a violation of a rule, where the violation is committed by someone with whom we do not sympathise, because he is an ignoble, inferior, and repulsive (animal-like) character, therefore we feel superior to his misbehaviour […].” (1984; p.2)

“Our pleasure is a mixed one because we enjoy not only the breaking of the rule but also the disgrace of an animal-like individual; at the same time we are neither concerned with the defence of the rule, nor compelled toward compassion for such an inferior being.” (1984; p.2) In a way, comic is always racist: only the Barbarians are supposed to pay, never the good character.

“This definition of comic leads us to the idea of carnival. How do we succeed in finding situations in which we are not concerned by the rules? Naturally enough, by establishing an upside-down world in which fish fly and birds swim, rabbits chase hunters and fools are crowned. At this point we feel free, first for sadistic reasons, second by because we are liberated from the fear imposed by the existence of the rule. Comic pleasure means enjoying the murder of the father, provided that others, less human than ourselves, commit the crime.” (1984; p2.)

“We feel relieved from our own sorrow concerning Snow White’s fate precisely because of the laughable pain of the dwarves. Our tension for the tragedy is mitigated by the ridiculization of the majesty of sorrow through the ridiculization of the zoomorphic little men. They are the mask through which we can pass over in laughter the difficulty of living.” (1984; p.2) Similarly, carnival is that mask.

“By assuming a mask, everyone can behave like the animal-like characters of comedy. We can commit any sin while remaining innocent: and we are indeed innocent because we laugh. […] Carnival is the natural theatre in which animals and animal-like beings take over the power and become the masters. In carnival, even the kings act like populace. […] The upside-down world has become the norm.” (1984; p.3)

There is a difference in describing the rule in tragic versus comic setting. “In terms of textual semiotics, one should say that tragic texts are first of all supposed to establish both the common and the intertextual frames whose violation produced the so-called tragic situation. On the contrary, in comedy the broken frame must be presupposed but never spelled out.” (1984; p.4)

“Carnival, in order to be enjoyed, requires that rules and rituals be parodied and that these rules and rituals already be recognised and respected. One must know to what degree certain behaviours are forbidden and must feel the majesty of the forbidding norm, to appreciate their transgression. Without a valid law to break, carnival is impossible.” (1984; p.6)

“The prerequisites of a “good” carnival are: 1.The law must be so pervasively and profoundly introjected as to be overwhelmingly present at the moment of its violation; 2. The moment of carnivalisation must be very short and allowed only once a year. An everlasting carnival does not work, an entire year of ritual observance is needed in order to make transgression enjoyable.” (1984; p.6)

“Carnival can exist only as an authorised transgression. […] It is reserved for certain places or streets. In this sense, comedy and carnival are not instances of real transgression: they represent the paramount examples of law enforcement. They remind us of the existence of the rule.” (1984; p.6)

Source: Carnival! by Umberto Eco



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