Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Like a lot of literary theory, the concept of carnivalesque literature works on a number of levels. The first of these is pure inspiration; it’s a source of striking narratives and imagery that can spark ideas and add to your narrative. The second is as an observation of societal behavior – the carnivalesque describes a consistent model of cause, effect, and motivation that, if understood, allows authors to imbue fantastic events and settings with a feeling of deeper reality. Thirdly, the carnivalesque can be applied directly to the relationship between author and reader, allowing you to give your reader something they’re not even aware they want, as well as letting you steer their expectations so your narrative is as effective as possible.
In short, it’s another string to your writer’s bow, so in this article I’ll be exploring what the carnivalesque is, how you can employ it in your writing, and how even the limits of this fascinating concept can be used to your advantage.
What is the carnivalesque?
Carnivalesque literature challenges authority, traditions, and rules. This is often done by breaking down boundaries of class and position, celebrating the grotesque and forbidden, and reveling in that which is usually derided. It’s a big, debauched party – a carnival – during which the normal rules are flouted with glee.Carnivalesque fiction challenges established rules and boundaries.Click To Tweet
In carnivalesque logic, the rich serve the poor, the ugly are declared beautiful, and religious ceremonies are replaced by burlesque. The resultant environment is often described as ‘upside-down’, since the carnivalesque isn’t about ignoring rules, but rather deliberately breaking or reversing them. In this way, the carnivalesque is a reaction to the status quo, a quality that keeps it relevant even as society changes over time. A term coined by Mikhail Bakhtin, a linguist, critic, and author, the carnivalesque is seen as not just a conscious choice for artists, but a natural impulse that’s frequently present in art, whether the artist is aware of it or not.
Carnival (the period of time for which the carnivalesque endures) is usually understood as a period of celebration or transition. In this way, it’s inherently temporary, and that means that even as it pushes boundaries and celebrates the transgressive, the reader is offered a sense of comfort. Normality will resume, and this can make it easier to engage with the ideas that arise during carnival – however challenging they are or how uncomfortable they may make you, the carnival will soon end, so why not engage while it’s here?
Why does the carnivalesque matter to me?
Carnivalesque writing offers a proven model for matching trenchant social observation to striking settings and characters. For whatever reason (and there are different views, which I’ll touch on later), carnivalesque writing works on humans the way bright flowers do on bees; something deep within us is attracted to it, and we often know exactly how to approach it, even without conscious thought.
When fiction depicts carnivalesque events – such as in the Purge movie series or J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise – there’s a huge readership ready to embrace it. This takes a few forms, from those who just love seeing things go topsy-turvy to those who sense a deeper truth at work.
The carnivalesque is catnip to a lot of people, but it also operates according to a consistent system of logic that, when depicted accurately, lends a piece of writing a sense of keen psychological awareness and sociological verisimilitude. With a strong grasp of the carnivalesque, authors can depict ludicrous worlds – stories set in hells, asylums, apocalyptic wastelands – that still feel real to the reader. Not only that, but if the author can give the reader a carnivalesque experience – not just depicting a topsy-turvy world but offering a topsy-turvy experience – the result can be almost addictive.Carnivalesque fiction taps into a deep, dark part of the reader’s mind.Click To Tweet
I’ll move on to that idea shortly, but first let’s look at some of the defining features of the carnivalesque.
Hallmarks of the carnivalesque
Bakhtin suggest four categories of the carnivalesque sense of the world, so let’s start there.
1. Familiar and free interaction
The barriers between people are broken down, leading to unlikely interactions often predicated on a sense of unity and equality. The high are brought low and the low are raised high, but generally with the understanding that either state is unnatural.
This element of the carnivalesque is useful for creating unusual character relationships. This is part of what’s being expressed in ‘odd couple’ character pairings; the cop teaming up with the criminal, the boss becoming reliant on their subordinate, the princess under the tutelage of the street rat.
In Romeo and Juliet, the young lovers meet at a huge party that’s often depicted as a literal carnival. Part of the reason for this is that such a setting makes it feel more believable – more ‘true’ – that two members of warring families could meet and fall in love. Similarly, the carnivalesque elements of the moment suggest this suspension of social boundaries as natural. Once the rules are back in place, and their love threatens their lives, the reader pines for a world where their relationship felt simple and right; the real world, the one of social divisions, is made to feel unreasonable and unnatural.
This kind of transgressive reversal of status is fertile ground for stories, prompting characters to become aware of their previous status and that of others around them. It can also be used to make unlikely relationships feel justified; if you can create a carnivalesque atmosphere, it suddenly feels ‘right’ for characters to start swapping places.
2. Eccentric behavior
In a state of carnival, strange behavior is welcomed, especially when it’s the type of behavior that’s usually repressed by society. It’s because of this that writing examining the role of sexuality and gender often employs the carnivalesque, embracing a moment in which natural behaviors usually shunned by society can be revealed and celebrated.
It’s following a similar line of thinking that the movie Swiss Army Man has been read as utilizing transgender themes. Here, the puerile humor of the protagonist using a dead body as a tool allows the piece to address ideas of a person’s changing relationship with their own form – a difficult discussion that becomes accessibly comedic with a sense of the carnivalesque. This is the carnivalesque dealing with the truth of a character, but it can also be used to reveal the spirit of a work.
Animated comedy Sausage Party ends with a literally orgiastic scene between different types of food. It’s shock humor, but it also works as a finale because it’s an extreme expression of the sensibilities the writing has been built on from the start. By embracing carnival, the work ‘admits’ many of the ideas at its heart. These are things the audience has sensed, and in some ways seen, but having them revealed and celebrated creates a compelling moment of summary and truth – a celebration of the ideas that have always been at play. In stories that deal with transgressive or controversial ideas, carnivalesque writing could be the climax you’re looking for.
3. Carnivalistic misalliances
Not just social boundaries are brought down in the carnivalesque – worldly and supernatural rules tend to be reversed or suspended too. If there’s a time when supernatural and mundane worlds can touch, it’s carnival, and the same is true in reverse; if you can create a sense of carnival, the reader will be far more open to the idea of opposing spheres intersecting.
Coupled with the idea that carnival doesn’t last for long, carnivalesque writing can justify leaps of logic and an incredibly effective suspension of disbelief.
During carnival, the dead can walk the earth, heaven and hell can intermingle, and monsters can find love. All of this can happen without the sense that the world being depicted works by different rules; in fact, it can be our world, it’s just that the rules are suspended.Carnivalesque themes make for strange bedfellows.Click To Tweet
Alan Moore’s ‘Rite of Spring’ depicts a semi-sexual encounter between a beautiful woman and a swamp monster, with the two sharing a hallucinatory, metaphysical journey in an act of carnivalesque communion. It’s an idea that Moore returns to frequently in his work – an encounter between naïve beauty and ugly experience that allows each to borrow the perspective of the other. Often, this forms the volta of the story – a period of transgression that allows the protagonist to quickly but believably change their perspective on the world.
4. Sanctioning of sacrilege
Perhaps the most objectionable aspect of the carnivalesque is the sanctioning of sacrilege via a process called ‘profanation’ – the bringing down of anything sacred to an everyday, ‘earthy’ level through blasphemy, obscenity, and debasement.
As pleasant an example as can be given is Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which Quasimodo is crowned the king of fools, partially because of how grotesque he is considered. While the scene takes a turn for the worse, it’s a moment that awakens Quasimodo to new possibilities and gives him a unique experience of being celebrated where before he has been punished and shunned.
A more extreme example is John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, a transgressive comedy famous for its extensive profanation as characters pursue the title of ‘filthiest person alive’. Profanation has a lot of potential uses in fiction; breaking down barriers, critiquing existing standards, offering the audience a reprieve from the strictures of civilized life, honestly depicting those who exist outside of the mainstream, and establishing a setting or world in which extreme events are normalized.
The limits of the carnivalesque
Those are the defining traits of the carnivalesque according to Bakhtin, but opinions vary. Critic and theorist Terry Eagleton argues that carnival is a form of transgression approved by existing authority, offering a sense of change that’s ultimately an illusion.Is carnivalesque writing a form of genuine resistance or just a holiday from obedience?Click To Tweet
In fact, some argue that the carnivalesque doesn’t just fail to promote lasting change but is a tool used to maintain the status quo. The term ‘bread and circuses’ refers to the concept that a populace can be more easily controlled when they’re given superficial distractions. To some, expressions of the carnivalesque are this kind of ‘circus’ – the rare occasions where the rules are turned upside down only serve to dissipate the sentiment that they should be abolished.
The events of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are notably carnivalesque – rules of class and status are suspended, the supernatural intersects with the mundane, and characters are transformed both literally and figuratively. The image of the queen of the fairies fawning over a low-status mortal with the head of an ass is as close to a definitive image of familiar and free interaction as you’re likely to get. Still, the story resolves with the world snapping back to its status quo; none of the carnivalesque changes stick, and while the story has consequences, it’s only in the sense that disagreements are smoothed out and relationships stabilized.
In this way, carnivalesque themes and techniques don’t actually have to be revolutionary. It’s possible to critique existing rules through carnival in a way that ultimately affirms them or promotes a middle ground. Similarly, if you’re just trying to give your reader a carnivalesque experience, it can help to affirm a status quo before and after – that kind of exploration isn’t necessarily undercut by a little comfort at either end.
Join the carnival
Carnivalesque fiction isn’t exactly easy, but it does tap into something deep within the human condition. Readers can be titillated, disturbed, moved, and even have their worldview shaken, often in the context of creative settings, plots, and characterization.
Do you employ the carnivalesque in your writing, or do you have plans to try? Let me know in the comments, and check out What Authors Need To Know About Commedia Dell’arte and Your Book Is Crying Out For A Volta – Here’s How To Deliver for more great advice.