11.11.2011 The exposing power of Bakhtinan Carnival

The carnival Bakhtin transposes into a literary concept does not have much in common with
the carnival of our days. The Bakhtinian “carnival” is a festivity enrooted in medieval times.
Key carnivalesque topoi closely connected and constantly referred to are banquet imagery,
marketplace speeches, the lower bodily stratum, the grotesque body and gay relativity, or to
put it more blatant: “carnival involves the ‘material bodily stratum’, those ‘organic’ aspects of
human life that involve fucking, gorging, pissing, shitting, puking, menstruating and all the
other ways in which the body can act in what [white] high cultural norms define as
‘disgusting’ fashions” (Inglis 106). By deploying these disgusting fashions in narrative forms
“social hierarchies and power structures oriented around positions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ are
temporarily inverted, often through forms of parody, in order to destabilise and to make comic
that which is taken seriously in social orders” (Wolfreys 20). Exemplary for the carnivalesque
inversion of hierarchical structures in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is the Golden Day episode.

In order to get an alcoholic “stimulant” for a dangerously upset benefactor (Mr.
Norton) of his all-black state college, the narrator has to stop at a bar and whorehouse called
the Golden Day. Together with Mr. Norton the narrator enters the bar at a rather inconvenient
time. “As I drew nearer I recognized the loose gray shirts and pants worn by the veterans.
Damn! […] the disabled veterans visited the whores, hobbling down the tracks on crutches
and canes; sometimes pushing the legless, thighless one in a red wheelchair” (IM 35, 71). And
it is not too long before the narrator finds himself and Mr. Norton (now unconscious) being
overmastered by degenerated bodies (and minds) brimming with anarchic mirth. When things
are getting wilder Supercargo, the white-uniformed attendant who is in charge of the veterans
and the mental incompetents, enters the scene.
„I want order down there,“ Supercargo boomed, „and if there’s white folks down there,
I wan’s double order.“
Suddenly there was an angry roar from the men back near the bar and I saw them rush
the stairs.
„Get him!“
„Let’s give him some order!“
Five men charged the stairs. I saw the giant bend and clutch the posts at the top of the
stairs with both hands, bracing himself, his body gleaming bare in his white shorts.
[…] It was a narrow stair and only one man could get up at a time. As fast as they
rushed up, the giant kicked them back. He swung his leg, kicking them down like a
fungo-hitter batting out flies. The Golden Day was in an uproar. Half-dressed women
appeared from the rooms off the balcony. Men hooted and yelled as at a football game.
„I WANT ORDER!“ the giant shouted as he sent a man flying
down the flight of stairs.
„That’s a order he don’t want,“ someone said.
(IM 82-83)
The carnival crowd in the Golden Day enforces the debasement of the “king” – one of the key
features of Bakhtinian carnival. Supercargo, king of a somewhat deranged clientele, is
brought down from his throne and has to face “a order he don’t want”. Within carnival, all
hierarchical distinctions, all barriers, all norms and prohibitions, are temporarily suspended,
while a qualitatively different kind of communication, based on free and familiar contact, is
established. The absence of formerly existing hierarchical distinctions is very vividly
illustrated by Supercargo’s wearing only white shorts. “I hardly recognized him without his
hard-starched white uniform. Usually he walked around threatening the men with a strait
jacket which he always carried over his arm […]” (IM 82). Without the uniform his gleaming
body is derived of all officialdom, thus equal and vulnerable. The narrator notes that the
Supercargo’s patients were “usually quiet and submissive in his presence. But now they
seemed not to recognize him and began shouting curses” (ibid.). Supercargo has changed
from king to “peasant” and as such his threatening attitude is exposed as pompous and out of
proportion. Now, that Supercargo is one of their own, the veterans and traumatized no longer
passively accept the ideas and values Supercargo stands for (repression, fear, violent authority
etc.). Supercargo’s oppressive system relies on the Machiavellian principle that power has to
be sustained at all costs. The liquor is a symbol for Supercargo’s strategy to stay in power by
providing “his people” with “bread and circuses” and “opium of the people”. Now it is thrown
back at him. The bottles become actual objective correlatives, freeing critical consciousnesses
that mock dogmatism and fanaticism. The moment the veterans bring down Supercargo, they
also regain their freedom of speech. Now in contrast to, “You can’t speak your mind when
he’s on duty!”, they are releasing decentralizing energies by holding what Bakhtin refers to as
marketplace speeches: “Bakhtin’s valorization of anarchizing vitality of parole against the
ossified rigidities of langue” (Stam 85).
“With Supercargo lying helpless upon the bar, the men whirled about like maniacs.
The excitement seemed to have tilted some of the more delicately balanced ones too
far. Some made hostile speeches at the top of their voices against the hospital, the state
and the universe. (IM 85)
In this scene the hugeness of the decentralizing (dethroning) energies of carnival is revealed
as they are directly opposed to the suffocating decorum of Supercargo’s official life and style.
Everything that was awe-inspiring outside the golden day now turns into “bugbearing”. Inside
the Golden Day the carnivalesque mode, the debilitating sobriety of fear succumbs to the
happy madness of the oppressed.
The carnivalesque introduces the possibility of a different world, i.e. a new world
order, a new life. The upside down world easily transgresses the borders of the outside world
and shakes its imperturbability to the very foundations. “Der volkstümliche Karneval stellt
immer die Rückkehr des Goldenen Zeitalters dar, er spielt die lebendige Möglichkeit dieser
Wiederkehr vor.” (Bachtin 1969, 27). The following passage from Invisible Man may seem
crude or cynical but it well illustrates how one Golden Day may trigger the dawn of a Golden
Age for the oppressed.
Somehow I got pushed away from Mr. Norton and found myself beside the man called
Sylvester. „Watch this, school-boy,“ he said. „See there, where his ribs are bleeding?“
I nodded my head. „Now don’t move your eyes.“ I watched the spot as though
compelled, just beneath the lower rib and above the hip-bone, as Sylvester measured
carefully with his toe and kicked as though he were punting a football. Supercargo let
out a groan like an injured horse. „Try it, school-boy, it feels so good. It gives you
relief,“ Sylvester said. „Sometimes I get so afraid of him I feel that he’s inside my head.
There!“ he said, giving Supercargo another kick. (IM 64)
In the opening passage of The Birth of Tragedy Friedrich Nietzsche offers an account
Dionysian festivity, which applies well to the Golden Day scenery, while once again it
condenses the idea of Bakhtinian carnival. “Now the slave is a free man; now all the rigid,
hostile barriers that necessity, caprice or ‘impudent convention’ have fixed between man and
man are broken” (37). The long custom of crowning and de-crowning is a defining
characteristic of the carnivalesque world-order: Change and alteration, birth, rebirth and death,
the levelling of social classes and the abolishing of skin color related hierarchies are part of
that jolly, sometimes crude, relativity that is Bakhtinian carnival.
In the following chapter I will turn to observing the narrator’s appearance and his key
role in the upside down world. In preparation of the argument to come, it will be helpful to
trace more of Bakhtin’s thoughts on the protagonist of carnival – the fool and his grotesque
appearance, i.e. masking and physical characteristics.

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