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Carnivalization of Literature and Transgression

"Carnivalization" is the term used by Mikhail Bakhtin in his works Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (1929) and Rabelais and his World (1965) to describe the shaping effect on literary genres. Synonym of Carnivalesque, it is a literary mode that subverts and liberates the assumptions of the dominant style or atmosphere through humor and chaos. The idea of carnivalism is the discourse of structuralism. Carnivalism is the opposite of everything deemed "normal". Now in this post, I would like to find the connection between Carnivalesque and Transgressive Fiction as I feel my writings can include both elements and it may be true in yours as well.

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Why Carnival?

Carnival roots in mid 16th century: from Italian carnevale, carnovale, from medieval Latin carnelevamen, carnelevarium ‘Shrovetide’, from Latin caro, carn- ‘flesh’ + levare ‘put away’. It was a carnival was a feast observed by Roman Catholics before the Lenten fast began (source). The word carnival derives, apparently, from the Latin carnem levare, ‘to put away flesh’. Traditionally, meat was not eaten during the Lenten fast: thus, a carnival would be the last occasion on which meat was permissible before Easter.

In the past, there were carnivals that were symbolic of the disruption and subversion of authority and a way of turning upside down of the hierarchical scale such as the Feast of Fools, the Abbot of Misrule, the Boy Bishop. So, the carnival permitted "the eccentric, the inappropriate, the sensuous." Bakhtin points out that the totality of popular festivities, rituals, and other carnival forms is deeply rooted in the human psyche on both the collective and individual levels. This means that "an entire language of symbolic concretely sensuous forms" which express a unified "carnival sense of the world, permeating all its forms".

Carnival in Fiction

Bakhtin analyzes the composition of Dostoevsky’s novels using this term. Introduced in his novel, Rabelais and His World, he defines the carnival as an opportunity to “consecrate inventive freedom, to permit the combination of a variety of different elements and their rapprochement, to liberate from the prevailing point of view of the world, from conventions and established truths, from clichés, from all that is humdrum and universally accepted” by creating a fantastic atmosphere that subverts social and hierarchical conventions(source). Each person in the carnival space is an active participant, so Dostoevsky’s use of carnivalization presents opportunities to catalyze the polyphony. In realizing the relativity of all things, the carnival also affirms the unfinalizability of the characters’ sense of self (source). These two characteristics are very similar to Transgressive writing.

Carnivalization and Transgression

Bakhtin's four categories of the carnival sense of the world are where I can connect these two terms with each other. Both Carnivalesque and Transgressive Fiction include:

  1. Familiar and free interaction between people: carnival often brought the unlikeliest of people together and encouraged the interaction and free expression of themselves in unity. In transgressive fiction, the characters are mostly the outcasts and unwanted by society as well.

  2. Eccentric behavior: unacceptable behavior is welcomed and accepted in both, and one's natural behavior can be revealed without consequences.

  3. Carnivalistic mésalliances: the familiar and free format of carnival allows everything that may normally be separated to reunite such as Heaven and Hell, the young and the old, etc. In Transgressive fiction, we may look at a situation or a character in both sides of Good and Evil.

  4. Profanation: in the carnival, the strict rules of piety and respect for official notions of the 'sacred' are stripped of their power — blasphemy, obscenity, debasings, bringings down to earth, a celebration rather than condemnation of the earthly and body-based. This is clearly one element in Transgressive fiction.

Critic and Conclusion

So, I believe that Carnivalesque has elements similar to Transgressive fiction but I argue that carnivalization carries a negative weight looking at today's culture becoming ubiquitous as we advance into the 21st century. The elements of shock value in Transgressive fiction and the freedom the Carnivalesque gives an artist is not equivalent to fetishized violence, often sexual violence like that found in YOU series on Netflix or Fifty Shades of Gray or when Eminem rapped about disemboweling his former wife and record sales boomed.

For me, using these two in writing is a powerful tool to raise awareness toward topics that are not open to talking. A book like Fifty Shades of Gray that turns into a bestseller and series of movies clarifies that there is a confusion between creating art and criticizing society through the perspective of taboo matters with what we see on media as trends. This is true that given the state of contemporary culture, it has become increasingly difficult to articulate distinctions between the transgressive and the non-transgressive; at a certain level arguing about that which is beyond the pale is ultimately a subjective judgment. What we see in media is not equal to the primary goal of transgressive or carnivalesque literature but is using such ideas to simply outstrips a culture's tolerance for extremity, monstrosity, and perversion not for breaking norms that question being human.

As Foucault says, "Profanation in a world which no longer recognizes any positive meaning in the sacred is this not more or less what we may call transgression? In that zone which our culture affords for our gestures and speech, transgression prescribes not only the sole manner of discovering the sacred in its unmediated substance but also a way of recomposing its empty form, its absence." But I do agree that transgressive literature ceases to be transgressive once its excess has been constrained by rational appreciation.

Therefore, while it may be a comforting thought that if we can intellectualize the transgressive, we can place ourselves beyond its dark appeal, yet still when we are drawn to write works that violate tolerable bounds, we recognize sooner or later that the same desire that animated us to write serious fiction like Blood Meridian or Dennis Cooper's sadomasochistic novel Frisk could be disarmed by the same spirit that animates the TikTok followers of random influencers who strip-down for no clear reason or making a book like Fifty Shades a best seller, fetishizing a stalker and serial killer like the character in Series You on Netflix and popularity of songs such as Lennon Stella, "BITCH" or Wheeler Walker, Jr., "Eatin' Pussy / Kickin' Ass" and yet banning the arts that criticize such behaviors.

The society that bans the truth and sets the shallow free is a circus. Don't be its clown!

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