Mikhail Bakhtin

Rabelais and His World

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Rabelais and His World Summary

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Rabelais and His World is a 1965 work of literary criticism by Russian academic Mikhail Bakhtin, first published in English in 1968. The book centers on a close reading of the novels of sixteenth-century French author François Rabelais, particularly the sequence of novels known as Gargantua and Pantagruel. According to Bakhtin, despite Rabelais’s central place in the history of French and European literature, the novelist’s work has been substantially misunderstood in the centuries since his death. Bakhtin foregrounds sections of Rabelais’s novels previously suppressed or ignored, subjecting the novelist’s entire oeuvre to an encyclopedic close reading. Through this reading, Bakhtin develops several concepts, which are now regarded as essential to the study of Rabelais, and to the study of Renaissance social and literary contexts more broadly. The most important of these concepts are “carnival” (or “the carnivalesque”), which is a social mode of being grounded in folk tradition, and “grotesque realism,” a literary style that explores the meaning of the body in literature and society.

Bakhtin begins his study by noting the confusion and mystery that surrounds Rabelais in the existing criticism of his work: Rabelais is seen as an outsider, an enigma. Bakhtin suggests that this confusion stems from critics’ insistence on seeing the author as part of the mainstream tradition of French literature. According to Bakhtin, Rabelais is better understood as a writer grounded in a different tradition, one increasingly lost and alien to modern readers: the tradition of European folk humor. It is from this source, Bakhtin argues, that Rabelais drew his imagery and narrative approaches. Not only is this tradition separate from the literary tradition (which is essentially derived from the culture of the ruling classes), it is in every way and at every stage opposed to it. For Bakhtin, Rabelais was a radical innovator, with no interest in reproducing the literary and cultural standards of his day. Instead, the writer was “opposed to all that is finished and polished, to all pomposity, to every ready-made solution.”

Bakhtin proceeds to read Rabelais in the light of oral and popular traditions of storytelling and humor. He argues that to understand Rabelais, we must “hear the chorus of laughing people” in medieval and Renaissance culture. He examines three main forms of “folk laughter”: ritual spectacles, comic verbal compositions, and “billingsgate.” Comic compositions are primarily folk parodies of ecclesiastical ritual and other official verbal forms, while billingsgate is the knowingly “coarse” language of the marketplace, the “cesspool” of language excluded from official life. However, the most important form of “folk laughter” is ritual spectacle.

Ritual spectacles include carnivals and public feasts. Bakhtin argues that these events represent the remnants of folk traditions with roots in prehistory. Bakhtin offers a brief history of the development of carnival from the Roman feast of “Saturnalia” to the present. The status of carnival was once both official and non-comic, but it has become strictly comic and popular over time, partly due to the intervention of the Church. While the Church co-opted some aspects of the carnival tradition for its own celebrations, others—especially the humorous aspects and the space to improvise and innovate around the existing traditions—were discarded. These discarded elements did not cease to exist. Instead, they became the nucleus of a new tradition, laughing and creative, centered on the non-official space of the “marketplace.”

Next, Bakhtin examines some of the core features of carnival. He suggests that it is participatory, autonomous, and universalizing. Carnival is a second world, where people can for a certain time live a second life. The spirit of carnival is embodied in the clown or the licensed fool. Above all, carnivals satirize social hierarchy, by mocking or inverting it. This satire lasts beyond the day of the carnival by creating a language which does not respect rank. However, the laughter of carnival is not exclusively directed up the social scale: on the contrary, the laughter of carnival is “universal,” self-deprecating on the part of folk participants as well as mocking the participants’ social betters.

Bakhtin turns next to Rabelais’s “grotesque realism,” his use of extreme and often disgusting bodily imagery to create humorous and shocking effects. For Bahktin, this style is inherited from an approach to the body unique to folk humor. He argues that grotesque imagery degrades the body in order to regenerate it, to make something new of it. This reflects the “material bodily principle” of folk culture in which death is seen as an essential part of the cycle of rebirth or regeneration, embodied, for example, in feasting at a funeral.

Bakhtin argues that Rabelais’s language draws on the idioms and dialects of different folk groups. He points out that much of this language had never been used in literature before. Just as grotesque imagery expands the limits of the body and “degrades” it in order to renew it, Rabelais’s willingness to use folk language expands the limits of literary language, “degrades” it, and renews it.

As well as a seminal study of Rabelais, Bakhtin’s book is considered a masterpiece of critical theory. His reading of folk culture has been applied not only to other artifacts from European history but to the study of folk traditions everywhere.