Literature Review: Mikhail Bakhtin - Rabelais and His World

As I am beginning to write the first tentative words of my Masters’ Dissertation, I am leaning heavily on my core source text, Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World;[1] a literary critique of much earlier work by François Rabelais, a French Renaissance writer


The text, despite being weighty and seemingly rather niche, has lent us phrases and ideas which exist today, such as the terms ‘Rabelaisian’ and ‘Bakhtinian’; and an analysis of the political potential of the carnivalesque.

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Michael Holquist in his prologue to the edition writes that ‘carnival was a kind of safety valve for passions the common people might otherwise direct to revolution […] Bakhtin’s carnival […] is not only not an impediment to revolutionary change, it is revolution itself.’[2] This is one of the main underlying ideas that I am choosing to explore through my own research, and one that I find fascinating.

The foreword, written by Krystyna Pomorska, also provides one of the interesting links between this work, several of my additional resources, and the route down which I see my own work progressing by writing  ‘The prohibition of laughter and the comical in the epoch prior to the Renaissance parallels the rejection of “subcultures” in the years prior to the Second World War.’[3]

She goes on to write that ‘any official culture that considers itself the only respectable model dismisses all other cultural strata as invalid or harmful.’[4] For the purposes of my research, this recalled an assertion that surfaced during one of the first seminars of the degree course,[5] in which we discussed the work of the ethnographer Dwight Conquergood, who wrote that ‘Life on the margins can be a source of creativity as well as constraint’.[6] As I continued to read Rabelais, I reflected upon the ways in which culture is stratified into a high/low binary, and found it very interesting that Bakhtin asserts that the ‘low’ in culture represents the lower bodily stratum, which is the genesis and generator of life and renewal.

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent - Pieter Bruegel the Elder
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There are several strands to the arguments I am intending to put forward in my Dissertation, and one of them hangs upon Bakhtin’s observation:
the contents of the carnival-grotesque element, its artistic, heuristic, and unifying forces were preserved in all essential manifestations during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: in the commedia dell’arte (which kept a close link with its carnival origin) [7]

I am also indebted to Bakhtin’s observations of ‘the relation of laughter […] to the freedom of the spirit, and to the freedom of speech.’[8] The sense of freedom and regeneration which runs through the utopian ideal of carnival is also an important component in the justification of the right to protest. Freedom of spirit, by extension, implies the freedom of the body in space, the right to an embodied action through a performance of protest, and the right to the individual spirit’s control over the individual’s body. Bakhtin further explicates his link between carnival and protest by writing that ‘For thousands of years the people have used these festive comic images to express their criticism, their deep distrust of official truth, and their highest hopes and aspirations.’[9]

I am, obviously, also reading sources which critique Bakhtin's notion of the carnival as related to expressions of freedom, and Bakhtin himself notes that the carnival was formalised by authorities and those in power. But, again, this is something that I actually find exceptionally useful and interesting for the purposes of my own argument.

Protest in Trafalgar Square

I am only just beginning to navigate the threads running through my research, and I actually stumbled across this resource while reading something completely unrelated; it goes to show how research may sometimes lead you down a rabbit hole, but may also provide you with the looking glass which both reflects and illuminates the path.

[1] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. by Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1984).
[2] Michael Holquist, in Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, p. xviii.
[3] Krystyna Pomorska, in Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, p.ix.
[4] Pomorska, in Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, p.x.
[5] Dani Tougher, ‘Why Performance Studies?’, More Than Nothing, 29 September 2017 <> [accessed 4 May 2018].
[6] Dwight Conquergood, ‘Of Caravans and Carnivals: Performance Studies in Motion’, TDR, 39:4 (1995) pp.137-141 (p.137).
[7] Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, p.34.
[8] Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, p.70.
[9] Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, p.269.


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