Bakhtin’s account of the grotesque body

Bakhtin’s account of the grotesque body

Mikhail Bakhtin is a Russian literary critic who studied Francois Rabeilas’ work and came up with the concept of the grotesque body. He divides his work into two main categories which are the carnival and the grotesque realism. He describes the carnival as a social institution and the grotesque realism as a literary mode. In his work, Bakhtin studies the interaction between the literary and social in an attempt to explain the meaning of the human body. Rabelais uses the human anatomy as a figure that depicts social and unruly biological exchange as he relates political conflicts to the human anatomy. Bakhtin uses the grotesque body to explain how it is a figure that depicts the celebration of the cycle of life as being a comic figure with profound ambivalence. The positive side of the grotesque body being related to birth and renewal while the negative part of it being related to death and decay. In Rabelais work, he uses dung and urine to ridicule the king and clergy. According to Bakhtin, this was not just to mock but also to unleash the people’s power with an aim of renewing and regenerating the entire social system. The people’s festive carnival was used as a means of turning the official spectacle upside down and inside out to make an impression, long enough, on the participating official stratum.
There exists an image of reversal in many folklore traditions that celebrate the poor fool who eventually becomes king while in the process condemning the powerful to ruin. Mikhail Bakhtin uses such reversals in creating energy that he refers to as “a carnival sense of the world.” The hierarchies and seriousness of the official life are pushed aside by the laughter and abundance found in carnival. Carnival performs the function of shaking up the authoritative version brought about by values and languages and replacing it with the multiplicity of voices and meanings. From this space of multiplicity, Bakhtin creates theories of language. He shows how dialogic language is used to disrupt uniformity of thought as he discerns through the different modes of discourse. Bakhtin symbolizes intellectual ideal of rethinking when he uses the image of reversal in his work. He finds multiple levels of meanings in tones, images, and words. (Shanti, 1999, pg 130).
The ability to rethink is required as one tries to explain the contradictory and outrageous images that are the basis of carnival ambivalence. Folklorists are able to discern the multiple semantic levels in philosophical and social interactions by understanding the theories of discourse and carnival. Many traditions have song, ritual, and narrative that create a realm of meaning which a transformative potential in the society. As soon as Bakhtin’s philosophy of carnival became known in the West, it was embraced by a number of folklorists who found it useful in their quest to understand the power relations and the structure of carnival in many traditions.
Bakhtin writes on how the spirit of carnival defies systematic explanation. In the philosophy of carnival, he uses his key terms with even and unexpected shifting with intertwining meanings. There is a dynamic movement that lies in unofficial language when you look at the laughter, subversion, becoming, and ambivalence that are most commonly found in unofficial language (Bakhtin, 1994, pg 280). Rabelais novel Gargantua and Pantagruel describes elaborately the aesthetics of medieval culture practiced by peasants. Bakhtin argues that this argument can only be understood by the popular festive forms of late medieval-early renaissance using phrases like “the folk”, “the people”, “the unofficial world”, “the second world” and “the popular festive culture” to try to explain the culture practiced by the peasants. Bakhtin compares the unofficial world with the official world of religious and civil authority insisting that as a reader, you can only understand Rabelais work by using the eyes of the 16th century which in those times were finely tuned to the aesthetics of the grotesque. Grotesque images of lower bodily stratum and feasting violence cannot in any way be understood using the limited scope of convention. The grotesque images represent a reversal of logical expectations and morals. There is a closure to the view of constant possibility and principles of stability when the carnival reversal is taken into account (Rabelais and Screech, 2006, pg 15).
Dialogism in itself contains a model of the world that puts emphasis on relationality, inter-connectedness, continual interaction and the permeability of physical and symbolic boundaries that if explored divulge insights into our cognitive, ethical and practical treatment of the non-human world (Fingesten, 1984, pg 430). Bakhtin explicitly indulges us in human-nature relations as he makes key comments about nature and human who have over time been developed by feminists, critical theorists, and ecologists (Gardner, 1993, pg 801). Francois Rabelais epitomizes Renaissance spirit and this is brought out in his medieval style of writing. Bakhtin has used the figure of Rabelais to explain the collapse of medievalism to pave way for the emergence of a more humanistic secularized society. The archaic rituals depicted in the cultures of the peasants who lived in the 16th century are well explained by Bakhtin as he looks at the various carnal excesses that largely constituted an alternative abundance, social space, and equality giving a utopian promise of redemption and plenitude.
Bakhtin in his book Rabelais and His World examines the concept of the grotesque realism. He stresses on the special character of laughter that is philosophical and the utopian in relation to the highest spheres. Ancient rituals of mocking at kings and clergies have survived in the modern times and acquired a new important meaning. The cultic concept has faded away in the modern times while utopian, universal, all-human element has been retained. The basic character of will and power is demonstrated and is supposed to remove the lies in our experience with beings and in their interpretation. It also grounds the principle from which the valuation springs and remains rooted. Will to power is in itself a valuing and estimating principle. The will to power is already in itself a valuing and estimating principle. If beings are grasped as will to power, the ‘should’ supposed to hang above them becomes superfluous. This is the ‘should’ against which beings are measured. If life is taken to be the will to power, then it becomes the ground principium of valuation. This implies that a “should” does not determine a being but the being determines the ‘should.’ Life demands us to create values as it also values through us whenever we post values (Heidegger and Krell, 1991, pg 89).
There is the need to destroy that lies in creation. In this destruction, the evil, ugly and the contrary are posited. These are of proper necessity to creation that is to the will to power and the Being itself. Nullity belongs to the being not as vacuous nothingness but purely as the empowering ‘NO’. This is clearly depicted in Bakhtin’s grotesque realism in his work Rabelais and His World. The important principle of grotesque realism illustrates the act of lowering all that is spiritual, high, and ideal in the end causing degradation. This transfer is viewed as one to the material level, the body in its indissoluble unity and the sphere of the earth. The various grotesque realism types degrade, lower to earth, and turn their subject into flesh. Laughter in itself materializes and degrades. To degrade is the simultaneous killing, sowing and burying with an aim of bringing forth something better. The earth depicts an element that swallows and later gives birth (Harpham, 1976, pg 6). These two elements combined give the view that degradation digs up a bodily grave that later brings forth a new birth. This shows that it not only possesses a negative, destructive effect but also a regenerating one. Degrading an object means hurling it down into the reproductive system in the lower stratum, the same place where the acts of conception and also new birth take place.
Grotesque realism recognizes no other lower level: it represents the womb and also the fruitful earth with the idea that it is always conceiving (Ellison, 2009, Pr 3). Bodies were not considered for themselves but represented a materially bodily whole and hence transgressed their isolation. The universal and private were all blended in a contradictory unity. The grotesque body referred to a phenomenon in transformation that viewed it as metamorphosis of birth together with death, becoming, and growth which is yet to be finished. The character trait of the grotesque body is determined in relation with time. The other trait that is indispensable is the ambivalence. Both poles of transformation are found in this image. Also the grotesque image provides old as well as the new, the start and end, the procreation and the death of the metamorphosis. These forms were bound to change as they developed thousands of years later in relation to time, experience, and perception. During the early stages of the archaic grotesque body, time is viewed as two parallel phases in development, the final, and the initial, spring and winter seasons, being born and dying. There are figurines contained in the famous Kerch terracotta collection of senile pregnant hags. In addition, these hags are laughing. This is very strongly and typically expressed as grotesque showing that it is ambivalent. It represents pregnant death, a death that also gives birth. The bodies of these hags do posses nothing calm, stable, or completed. Flesh that is decaying, senile, and deformed was combined with the flesh of new life which has been conceived but is yet to be formed. The two contradictory forms of life are shown here to signify the epitome of incompleteness. And as such that can be termed as the grotesque nature of the body, it is unfinished, transgresses itself and outgrows its own limits with more emphasizing on those body parts which are open to the outside world. These are the body parts having the world emerging from or entering into or those that the body uses to go out and meet the world.
The body exceeds its own limit and discloses the essence of the principle of growth in pregnancy, copulation, childbirth, and death, drinking, food consumption and defecation throes (Steig, 1970, pg 256). This brings out the body as the ever-creating, ever unfinished and yet the dying that illustrates the connection between the crib and the grave. This can be used in studying the contemporary body as the open and unfinished body which signifies bringing forth, being born and dying as not having clearly defined boundaries separating it from the world. On the contrary it is blended with the objects in the world and the world itself. The ever unfinished body is the incarnation of this world as the lower stratum, as the generating principle and also the swallowing principle, as the grave of the body and bosom (Bakhtin, 1984, pg 10).
This concept is very useful in analyzing the contemporary body as it is clear that thorough analysis of the grotesque body is done from conception to death. This can help us understand the contemporary body in detail including its functions. The grotesque image brings out the concepts of conception, pregnancy, childbirth, life, defecation, drinking, eating, and also death (Stoddart, 2007, pg 133). All this function are found in the contemporary human body and as such the comparison between the two will only bring us closer to understanding the contemporary body even more. The actions performed by the contemporary body such as laughter and seriousness are also brought out in the grotesque body and from this we learn about the various limits that are experienced by the human body from time to time.
In conclusion, the works of Bakhtin clearly bring out the relation of the grotesque body to the political environment of the modern times. They show a great resemblance between the grotesque bodies only this time going deeper in an archaic way in our quest to study the contemporary body. He takes back in time making us see with the eyes of medieval peasants who lived in the 16th century the nature of the contemporary body when compared to the grotesque image of the body that is depicted by these peasants as they mock the clergies and the Kings who ruled them.
The dark nature of the image created by the grotesque image is imprinted in our minds helping us understand clearly what was happening in the medieval times. The writer brings the events closer to us as if they are happening at present. This still happens in the modern civilized world as people still mock their rulers but in a more civilized way than it used to happen back then. The contemporary body is also studied in a more reserved way than it used to be. The grotesque body was turned inside out and upside down back then and this could really be useful in understanding the contemporary body in detail.

Reference List
Bakhtin, M. M. 1984. Rabelais and his world. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
Elisson, G. 2009. Grotesque Physicality: Female Excess in Angela Carter’s “Nights at the Circus.” Retrieved November 20, 2011 from: http://hdl.handle.net/1946/3529
Fingesten, P. 1984. “Delimitating the Concept of the Grotesque” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art History, Vol. 42, No. 4: 419-426.
Gardiner, M. 1993. “Ecology and Carnival: Traces of a ‘Green’ Social Theory In the Writings of M. Bakhtin.” Theory and Society. 22, 765-812.
Harpham, G. 1976. “The Grotesque: First Principles” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 34, No. 4
Heidegger, M. and Krell, D. F. 1991. Nietzsche: Vols. 3 and 4 (Vol. 3: The Will to Power as Knowledge and as Metaphysics; Vol. 4: Nihilism). San Francisco: HarperOne.
Screech, M. A. and Rabelais F. (2006). Gargantua and Pantagruel. London: Penguin classics.
Shanti, E. (1999). “Carnival and Dialogue in Bakhtin’s Poetics of Folklore.” Folklore Forum 30(1/2):129-139.
Steig, M. (1970). “Defining the Grotesque: An Attempt at Synthesis” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 29, No. 2: 253-260.
Stoddart H. (2007). Angela Carter’s Nights at the circus. London: Routeledge.

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