Blog Piece: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World

By Mosarrap H. Khan

Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World (1968) traces the history of the grotesque in European culture and literature with particular focus on Rabelais’ writing. The very purpose of the study is to showcase the positive aspects of the art of the grotesque that has hitherto been treated as an aberration from the norm and as an expression of gross materiality. In contrast, through a study of Rabelais’ aesthetics, Bakhtin theorizes the redemptive feature of the grotesque, which is not merely an expression of an aberrant worldview. Rather, the grotesque proposes an alternate

Prologue way of becoming, one in which the communal spirit of carnival and folk culture contribute to evoke uncorrupted humor. Bakhtin coins the term “grotesque realism” to denote a particular temporality and social milieu in the Medieval and Renaissance period in which the spirit of folk culture and carnival spirit produced images that blurred the “boundaries between bodies and objects” (53). Humor and not satire sustained its spirit of regeneration. Even the monster was never a threatening figure that it came to be in the Romantic and Modern period. The carnival celebrated a spirit of community and an alternative worldview different from the one prescribed by various social and political institutions such as the church and the state. In the Romantic period, the communal mode of being was turned into individual man’s quest for interiority and complexity in order to liberate man from “dogmatism, completeness, and limitation” (44). The grotesque realism seeks to grasp the continuous act of becoming and growth, “the eternal incomplete unfinished nature of being. Its images present simultaneously the two poles of becoming: that which is receding and dying, and that which is being born…” (52). In Rabelais’ work, Bakhtin finds the finest manifestation of medieval folk humor that can be understood within its own social and cultural milieu.

In locating Rabelais’ work in the context of medieval folk humor and the spirit of carnival, Bakhtin explores the history and philosophy of laughter since the Greek period. He finds that Rabelais draws on three important sources of laughter in ancient philosophy – Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Lucien. In all three, laughter, considered to be an essentially unique attribute in human beings, is invested with a positive, regenerative energy. The official ideology of medieval church and the state relegated laughter outside the pale of everyday life. However, even the church had to make concessions during the period of “feasts of fools and asses”, when people indulged in carnivalesque laughter and spectacle: “…the medieval feast had, as it were, the two faces of Janus. Its official, ecclesiastical face was turned to the past and sanctioned the existing order, but the face of the people of the marketplace looked into the future and laughed, attending the funeral of the past and present” (81).

The marketplace carnival and spectacle inspired a great body of parodic literature that laughed at most of the sacred texts. An important element of the folk humor and carnival spirit appears to be its secularizing spirit. The church and the state, the producer and disseminator of official ideology, were ridiculed because of their obsession with stability and order, because they drew a boundary between birth and death. In contrast, medieval spirit of folk humor rejected any notion of closure and emphasized the wholeness of life as the real and ideal merged in the carnival experience. Moreover, medieval laughter was not a subjective, individual consciousness of one person but a collective social consciousness. The regenerative power of festive laughter denoted not only a triumph over death but a “defeat of power, of earthly kings, of the earthly upper classes, of all that oppresses and restricts” (92).

The medieval festive laughter was inextricably connected with material bodily principles. In addition to depicting unrestricted gluttony and drinking that were characteristic of the carnival spirit, Rabelais spent a great deal of energy in describing gross bodily acts such as copulating, defecating etc. Analyzing the example of swab in Book 5 of Rabelais’ Pantagruel, Bakhtin demonstrates how Rabelais’ cataloguing of material objects used as swab, which were actually meant for upper part of the body, inverts the order of things or ‘uncrowns’ them in order to produce liberating laughter: “Things are tested and reevaluated in the dimensions of laughter…for it gaily and simultaneously materializes and unburdens. It liberates objects from the snares of false seriousness, from illusions and sublimations inspired by fear” (376). Throughout chapter six, Bakhtin explores Rabelais’ fascination with material objects and the movement of such things to the lower stratum of the world. The downward movement of things is related to the idea that everything descends to the bodily grave in order to be reborn. Regeneration is at the heart of downward movement as the disintegration of the material body also signals its renewal.

Bakhtin’s formulation of folk humor and carnival spirit helps us understand the unofficial ideology of lived experience in the marketplace. The festive laughter appears to have both regenerated people’s mind and body as it subverted the sacred and temporal authorities. However, in Bakhtin’s theory, the everyday seems to be the one that lends itself to the official ideology of control and completeness. In contrast, the carnival spirit of folk humor appears to challenge the quotidian, everyday experiences. If the festive laughter occurred only at certain times (as it did not occur throughout the year) of the year, one wonders if everyday life was devoid of any transformative potential. Did the everyday lived experience completely submit itself to official ideology? Were there no moments of resistance in everyday life (as de Certeau seems to suggest) except for periods specifically designated for festive laughter?

Bakhtin’s theory of the grotesque bodily form makes an important contribution toward formulating the everyday lived experience as lived reality is conceptualized as sensory and affective. The focus is shifted from the Kantian high-life of reason to the low-life of feeling that could be apprehended through the materiality of the body. The phenomenological perspective is given precedence over epistemological abstraction. Bakhtin’s theorization of the bodily reminds one of Heideggerian notion of dasein that denotes a relational way of being-in-the-world. The materiality of things becomes evident in terms of their use as tools, seen in the case of different things/objects being used as swabs.

However, I am left wondering if Bakhtin’s theory of the grotesque, like other modernist aesthetic forms such as decadence and surrealism, turns to the study of Rabelais’ work to foreground limitations in realist modes of expression. If that is the case, can the ‘grotesque realism’ of carnival spirit and folk humor be of any use for understanding contemporary quotidian experiences?


Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1968. Print.

Pic credit: here

[Mosarrap H. Khan is a doctoral candidate in the dept. of English, New York University. He researches in the area of Muslim everyday life in South Asia.]


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