Welcome to the postmodern carnival

Borrowing from the literary world, the idea of Bakhtin’s carnival existed not in space, but in time. In the duality of mind and body, it is in the mind of the “tired, huddled masses”. It is only the body that goes about the run-of-the-mill, dead-end routine, typically characteristic of a commoner in medieval Europe. The other side of the binary is that of the mind: where the carnival finds sustenance. It feeds on the outrageous and the incredible. To say that the carnivalesque exists as an appendage is incomplete; it exists as a parallel dimension, a foggier parody of reality.

At a risk of assuming the obvious, it should be known that the carnival is not a forbidden fruit; it’s not a guilty pleasure. Instead it’s a release; it’s signified by pure excess or abundance, where everything is acceptable. Despite the relativity of social relations, there is a semblance of social equality. At a time when medieval European society was rife with an imbalance of power due to hierarchies, the carnival provided a haven for the demimonde. It is not characterized by anarchy and chaos alone, but is the wilder underbelly of a normal existence – the damned to its beautiful, and a celebration of life via a grotesque pastiche.

These ideas heavily depend on the What If aspect though. What if there exists a utopian unity at the correct intersection of space and time? Is it enough to subvert dominant traditions and social strata? The carnival seeks to do away with the superficial equality offered by consensual hegemony and the assigned social roles that come with it. Living the carnival affords the ones on the fringes of society a definite inclusion due to an inversion of roles. For example, Andrew Robinson in Carnival and Carnivalesque says, “A jester might be crowned in place of a king. The authoritative voice of the dominant discourse loses its privilege. Humour is counterposed to the seriousness of officialdom in such a way as to subvert it.” This was considered absolutely sacrilegious: an inversion of the ordinary, but not its bastardization.

Postmodern styles of writing are often equated to the carnivalesque. It somehow sought to depict a celebration of the lonesome and boring reality without dramatizing it; it is the poetically mundane and the mundanely poetic. Take the example of postmodernist writer David Foster Wallace, who aimed to create fiction that was “morally passionate, (and) passionately moral” as he succinctly stated in a 1996 essay about Dostoyevsky. Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System (1987), is about a woman who fears that her being does not exist beyond a character in a story. Although the novel was never critically acclaimed, it seems to be an apt depiction of the carnival in the postmodern world.

It questions the prosaic and the pedestrian not by trivializing or undervaluing it, but through its celebration. The carnival, via Wallace’s novel for instance, accepts the diversity of voices that exist; the voices expressing everyday concerns. In a world that sought to put canonical literature on a pedestal, with popular literature and by extension popular culture below the pedestal, the carnival attempted to achieve the Bakhtinian idea of polyphony – literally meaning an existence of varying viewpoints and voices.

The carnival is the other to reality, characterized by a cathartic grotesqueness. When the freak show attractions are backstage, when the carousel spins out of control, when the Ferris wheel slows down to an ultimate halt – it is the after-hours that make the carnival. The ringmaster, without his shiny black top hat and whip after the show, questions the boundaries of his power. The freak show attractions are the demimonde the carnival seeks to celebrate not by a charitable upliftment, but by a destabilization of the culture that has awarded inordinate power to the ringmasters donning the top-hats.

As stated earlier, the carnival created a space of constant disorientation for the dominant or “high” culture. It enabled the destabilization of privileged rigid structures and allowed for the What If aspect of popular culture, specifically literature, to grow. Due to a capitalistic environment and the commodification of culture, the idea of the carnival was corroded, but it seems to be reviving with the diversification in the literary world of today. With the rise of outrageous and yet completely acceptable genres and sub-genres within popular fiction that create inconceivable universes with nothing but profound imagination, one can only safely assume this phenomenon to be nothing but the answer to the question ‘What if anything could happen?’

Words: Saniya Rohida

Art: Nandita Ratan

Edits: Shweta Swaminathan

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