The Carnival and the Crucified

Light of Truth

Paul Thelakat

The word Carnival comes from Medieval Latin carne levare, which means “take away meat.” Traditionally, people did not eat meat during Lent. The duration of Carnival activities tends to vary from one country to another. Although today many communities still celebrate Carnival, people seem to practise Lent with much less rigid and severe forms of penance and fasting. The majority of people emphasise the fun of turning the world upside down in merry making and revelry. Masks and costumes play a central role in the Carnival and Mid-Lent merry-making. These festivities have similar components: food, music, song and dance. The popular tradition of carnival was believed by Mikhail Bakhtin(1895-1975) a Russian philosopher and literary critic of the Stalinist period (1895-1975) to carry a particular wisdom which can be traced back to the ancient world. For Bakhtin, carnival and carnivalesque create an alternative social space, characterised by freedom, equality and abundance.

1. The Body of the Carnival

Lenten Carnival is a celebration of the body. It is simply the body ugly and beautiful which is body of men and women and also the body of God and the Church. People were reborn into truly human relations, which were not simply imagined, but experienced. Life manifests itself not as isolated individuals but as a collective ancestral body. The self is also transgressed through practices such as masking. The essential goodness of the body stems from the Incarnation itself, from the Word becoming flesh and assuming a physical presence in the world. The event of the Incarnation means that matter matters; it also means that the deformed or grotesque body, in its resemblance to the broken body of Christ. Incarnation art insists on the broken and limited human body as its starting point—the acknowledgment of which is the only means to spiritual growth. It is believed that the only way to give that body a real presence is to make it grotesque. The crucified is the grotesque seen through the lens of faith. “In grotesque realism, the bodily element is deeply positive. It is not presented in a private, egotistic form, severed from the other spheres of life, but as something universal, representing all people. As such it is opposed to severance from the material and bodily roots of the world” “The body and bodily life have here a cosmic and at the same time an all-people’s character… The material bodily principle is contained not in the biological individual, not in the bourgeois ego, but in the people who are continually growing and renewed… The leading themes of these images of bodily life are fertility, growth, and a brimming-over abundance.”

“The figure of Christ is the ideal special satire – an ideal, however, that must be degraded as well as exalted if it is ever to be a living presence in the physical world.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s fiction contains an incarnational vision of art. The grotesque, especially Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the term, becomes essential in this context, because it enables the dialectic of the cross and suffering. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin defines the essential principle of grotesque realism as “degradation, that is, the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract; it is a transfer to the material level, to the sphere of earth and body in their indissoluble unity.” The grotesque allowed Dostoevsky to conflate the material and the ideal, the “high” and the “low.” This type of creative tension in mind is provocatively claimed by infusing “the whole soul of man with a materialistic detail.” The Parody of Christ, his riotous degradation of the divine, stamps an indelible mark on certain of criminal conscience of some of his characters. By taking on Christ’s words, he transforms the message from a solemn liturgy into his own milieu of destitute, humiliated people. This strategy is consonant with Dostoevsky’s poetics and his extraordinarily powerful feeling for the Incarnation and suffering of crucifixion. This carnivalised situation is in complete accord with the Christian spirit; Christ lived among the lowest classes, mingling with sinners, social outcasts, the poor, the downtrodden and humiliated.” The Word can be formed within degradation, laughter, and ignominy—even in the seedy corner of a Petersburg bar. His characters lower themselves in order to rise up, implicitly linking himself with Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Dostoevsky thus decentres, desecrates, and brings down to earth the ideal. The ideal is not destroyed but preserved. The ideal that is grotesquely degraded is not obliterated: the grotesque retains traces of the ideal. The retained connection between the ideal and the grotesque is a reformation of the ideal. The process does not end there, however, for when the grotesque re-establishes an ideal, the ideal must again be desecrated. Dostoevsky’s fiction is “religious,” or whether his fiction represents the church, is extremely vexed. One important reason for it is that the presence of the church in his fiction is either ambiguous or absent: “In Dostoevsky’s major novels, although Easter plays a recurrent symbolic role in characters’ memories, Church attendance, and therefore active participation in the Orthodox liturgy and sacraments by any of his characters… is extremely rare.” Dostoevsky uses characterization, visual space, and the city of Petersburg itself to create a substructure of religious iconic imagery that is “hidden” in plain sight: “The superficially visible world is the city environment of slums, dirty streets, prostitution—and murder. The invisible world accessed through iconic imagery—which the reader can sense beneath the surface—is the realm of belief, unseen yet palpably present in the form of symbols associated with the icon and iconic constructs” . This insight does not contradict, but supports his broader argument that Orthodoxy exists submerg-ed beneath the surface. “We may conclude,” he writes, “that it is not so much that Russian Orthodoxy bathes Dostoevsky’s imaginative fiction in its light as that it flickers fitfully from time to time in varying guises and contexts” . Thus Dostoevsky’s use of icons is largely symbolic, whereas O’Connor’s is strikingly literal. Both authors share the idea that, as living icons, an inarticulate prostitute or an aimless husband can serve as an impetus for renewal.

2. The Dialectics of Life

Dostoevsky places religious concerns squarely at the centre of his fiction; deals with extremes of belief and unbelief, the holy and the demonic, and the sacred and the profane–and employs a strikingly similar use of the grotesque that is at once affirmative, unsettling, and redemptive. The dialectics of life is played through. The live with their grotesque characters, far from standing exclusively as objects of disgust or repulsion, are often sources of renewal. What at first glance appears ugly, deformed, or worthless may, in fact, be redemptive. The Incarnation not only stressed the reality of human embodiment and limitation, it also justified the presence of the jarring, often extreme violence. It is that suffering is good, not evil, as long as that suffering is identified with the redemptive suffering of Christ. For some, Dostoevsky’s choice to “remain with Christ rather than with the truth” offers proof of a courageous faith; for others, it is sure-fire evidence of his unbelief. One thing that his ambiguous statement does make clear is the importance that Dostoevsky placed on Christ—not merely as an abstract ideal but, just the opposite, as the God-man who came into the physical world. Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, the Christ of Ivan’s ‘poem’ The Grand Inquisitor,” and the Marmeladovs in Crime and Punishment are only a few examples that reflect the centrality of the Incarnation and crucifixion in Dostoevsky’s fiction. The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor chapters—would be “refuted” by Zosima. Many readers sympathetic to Christianity, or to Orthodoxy in particular, have pointed to this and other examples as evidence that Dostoevsky’s fiction, for all its contradiction and intensity, ultimately bespeaks a Christian message. On the other hand, of course, the affirmations of faith in Dostoevsky’s fiction are challenged by a mutinous group of atheists, rebels, and sceptics who express radical doubt and even despair

3. The Play of Life and Death

The concept of carnival celebrates the two most significant stages of human existence, namely birth and death. It is a rejuvenating process where social order is forgotten or temporarily suspended and all participants are equal within its rituals. All are participants within the camivalesque theory and each has a role to play in determining the continuing social structure of their society. Bakhtin draws specific attention to the role of the body in camivalesque as well as the purposes of food and laughter. The usurping of authority is also discussed in relation to the subversion of norms or through parody. Laughter is an important feature of Bakhtinian theory and subsequently is dealt with on many levels. Concepts such as “the laughing truth” are discussed in the uses of language of oaths and curses for example and visual sources – all aimed at subverting normal social discourse. It not only makes one laugh but includes the monstrous and grotesque, the low and ignoble, the clownish and the foolish. One of the fundamental images of the grotesque image of the body is to show two bodies in one: the one giving birth and dying, the other conceived, generated and born. The functioning of the body in relation to fluid discharge and biological purpose is an ample source of inspiration and will be explored in relation to the contrast between design and function and the potential symbolic meaning of these acts. As Bakhtin states:”Carnival is not contemplated and, strictly speaking, not even performed; its participants live in it, they live by its laws as long as those laws are in effect; that is they live a camivalistic life.” The material bodily stratum is productive. “It gives birth, thus assuring mankind’s immortality. All obsolete and vain illusions die in it, and the real future comes to life”. The lower stratum is not only a bodily grave but also the area of the genital organs, the fertilizing and generating stratum. Therefore, in the images of urine and excrement is presented the essential link with birth, fertility, renewal, welfare. Such gestures and expressions not only point to “destruction” and “the grave,” but also through them to something more complicated. “The dialogic means of seeking truth is counterposed to official monologism, which pretends to possess a ready-made truth, and it is also counterposed to the naive self-confidence of those people who think that they know something, that is, who think that they possess certain truths. Bakhtin understands the rogue, clown, and fool to influence the novel in two ways: by providing a model for the authorial position, and by their appearance in a given work as its major protagonist. Clearly, Jesus is the fool-protagonist of the gospels and the physically absent yet all pervasive organizing idea of the Epistles that exercises an enormous influence over the Bible’s readership”

4. The Victory of Laughter

In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin asserts the following: “It was the victory of laughter over fear that most impressed medieval man. It was not only a victory over mystic terror of God, but also a victory over that awe inspired by the forces of nature, and most of all over the oppression and guilt related to all that was consecrated and forbidden(“mana” and “taboo”). It was the defeat of divine and human power, of authoritarian commandments and prohibitions, of death and punishment after death, hell and all that is more terrifying than the earth itself.” From a Bakhtinian perspective, whatever his conscious intention, is also an expression of “marketplace” styles of expression, which include the carnivalesque and grotesque realism. The only obligation of the carnival, as Bakhtin describes it, is to parody. The carnival is the people’s “second life,” organized “on the basis of laughter” According to Bakhtin, official feasts were “a consecration of inequality,” whereas during carnival all were considered equal: “Here, in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession and age… Such free, familiar contacts were deeply felt and formed an essential element of the carnival spirit. People were, so to speak, reborn for new, purely human relations. These truly human relations were not only a fruit of imagination or abstract thought; they were experienced.

5. To Laugh and To Renew

“Laughter has the remarkable power of making an object come up close, of drawing it into a zone of crude contact where one can finger it familiarly on all sides, turn it upside down, inside out, peer at it from above and below, break open its external shell, look into its centre, doubt it, take it apart, dismember it, lay it bare and expose it, examine it freely and experiment with it. Laughter demolishes fear and piety before an object, before a world, making of it an object of familiar contact and thus clearing the ground for an absolutely free investigation of it. Laughter is a vital factor in laying down that prerequisite for fearlessness without which it would be impossible to approach the world realistically,” wrote Bakhtin. It is the laugher that kills the citadel of power and establishment of logic. Hegel can only be defeated by the power of the satire. There were “several comedic responses to the Holocaust. Because (humour) provided an alternative way of internalizing abnormality. It was a defence mechanism and established a type of revolt. Laughter and humour were a way of staying human and outside the subjectivity of the oppressor. Hitler did not have a sense of humour, laughed only at the expense of others and, like all dictators, hated being laughed at. The Nazis did everything possible to stamp out political satire or jokes of every kind—except the ones aimed at the victims. Among other ‘grotsqueries’ laughter becomes part of the life-affirming, transgressive force. In Bakhtin’s delineation of ‘carnivalesque’ literature one can read as a powerful antidote to repressive power, a statement for change however transitory it may seem. The dystopian future envisaged by Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is particularly disturbing since it involves the complete destruction of those fundamental aspects that make an individual human. In the words of O’Brien, “In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy – everything… There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science… There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed… If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” To degrade is to bury, to sow, and to kill simultaneously, in order to bring forth something more and better… To degrade an object does not imply merely hurling it into the void of nonexistence, into absolute destruction, but to hurl it down to the reproductive lower stratum, the zone in which conception and a new birth take place.

“All of these explicit references to the Incarnation,”… “are part of Bakhtin’s larger crusade against negative attitudes to the body generally.” The references are also part of the insistence, within the church that matter—all matter—is potentially divine. The “incarnational motifs” that pervade his work offer another useful link between Dostoevsky, who wrote within the same church tradition, and whose sacramental vision likewise stressed the holiness of matter. Both traditions ultimately extend back to the medieval folk heritage of laughter, carnival, and corporeality. His insight about the role of Christ in fiction is equally applicable to Dostoevsky’s: “The figure of Christ is the ideal special satire—an ideal, however, that must be degraded as well as exalted if it is ever to be a living presence in the physical world.” If in the political trial of Jesus, Caesar was the external reason for his end on the cross, the risen Christ can become the internal reason for the end of Caesar.

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