Mikhail Bakhtin

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What is the concept of grotesque realism and the main theme of Rabelais and His World, by Bakhtin?

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Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the grotesque is a key element of the larger project of grotesque realism . Bakhtin insists on the importance of confronting and even emphasizing the material qualities of the body. In particular, writers such as François Rabelais who use the grotesque emphasize the unappealing qualities...

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of bodies—especially, but not exclusively, human bodies—to appraise natural functions with a harsh, unforgiving gaze. This approach not only differs from those that romanticize the body’s operations with flowery euphemisms but also explicitly rejects that kind of cover-up. Rabelais may present characters who have exaggerated characteristics, such as the giant Gargantua, but he also calls attention to elements of “normal” humanity that have often been suppressed or prohibited from public display and in literature and other creative expressions. These functions include sexual intercourse, childbirth, displaying the penis, eating, and defecation.

Confronting and even celebrating the physicality of the body is necessary, Bakhtin insists, not to shock the reader or viewer but to liberate the impulses that are essential for the continuity of human life, through reproduction, but also for creativity in every realm. The artist has an obligation to turn this unflinching gaze—often enhanced with ridicule, caricature, or satire—on the rich and powerful. The general populace applies these principles in moments of openness, such as festivals, when the normal social order is inverted. He terms this atmosphere and related attitudes the “carnivalesque.” Bakhtin’s approach is subversive or menacing to the social order because he insists on speaking truth to power.

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Bakhtin wants to understand how comic literature intersects with and reflects social concerns. In his study of Rabelais, he shows how the comic reveals truths about society. To do this, he uses the terms carnivalesque and grotesque realism. Carnivalesque refers to those moments, often represented by carnivals such as the Mardi Gras, in which the normal rules of social relationships are turned upside down. Hierarchies are flattened, for everyone can join in the festivities and mingle freely. A person's normal rank or gender in society can be disguised through a costume or simply treated as unimportant: in the carnival space, we are all equal and true community, a genuine coming together, can occur.

Grotesque realism focuses on how Rabelais emphasized the embodied aspects of this carnival atmosphere. Rabelais's descriptions of the body and its function are often bawdy and gross (grotesque), but this, to Bakhtin, underscores how fecundity and creativity come out of encounters with the "raw materials" outside of the boundaries of polite discourse.

Bakhtin wrote this in 1940, at the height of Stalinist Russia's power, so the emphasis is on celebrating the collective over the individual, and on reclaiming comedy, such as that written by Rabelais, as genuine people's literature, not the rarified output of the bourgeoisie. We celebrate Bakhtin's work today for its articulation of the way diverse voices are represented in literature.

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In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin puts forward the concept of Grotesque Realism which is an analysis of language and literature involving the body. This is a continuation of Bakhtin's project of shifting the formalist and structuralist focus on abstract structures of language to real (Realist) individual and social manifestations of language. 

Describing the "carnivalesque" culture, both as life and in theater, Bakhtin sees a more free social scene which is to say the carnival culture is simply more genuine. 

We have already said that during the carnival there is a temporary suspension of all hierarchical distinctions and barriers among men and of certain norms and prohibitions of usual life. We added that an ideal and at the same time real form of communication, impossible in ordinary life, is established. (Introduction to Rabelais and His World

Such an atmosphere where norms are less inhibiting, creates a more informal and, for Bakhtin, a more real kind of communication. Being informal, the profane and grotesque are more frequently used both as an expression of this freer communication and, when necessary, as an appropriate mode to mock as is the case with satire and folk humor. 

Grotesque Realism is not the objectification of the body, nor is it simply using profane gestures to make disgusting jokes or comments. Bakhtin sees grotesque realism as something positive. All people have bodies. Focusing on the bodies of the living world accentuates a universal; we all have bodies. Since it is a universal, this material/realist concept of grotesque realism is both material and "cosmic," a universal notion of the "collective ancestral body of all the people." 

Grotesque Realism essentially focuses on degradation. Here, Bakhtin notes that degradation is not pejorative. It is a degrading from the abstract or spiritual to the earthly, material human life. It is a "coming down to earth." This is why some of the themes involve the actions of the body: eating, defecation, procreation, production, birth, etc. - and these all indicate things like consumption, transition, rejuvenation and renewal. Focusing on the body is therefore a triumphant moment for realism in that it focuses on actual physical changes in time and history. It is, in this sense, a more real Realism or a more free use of satire. And given that the focus on the body illustrates concepts like eating, procreation, and renewal (birth), this also illustrates people's actual power for individual and social renewal or reinvention. 

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