Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Grotesque Image of the Body

Degradation and debasement of the higher do not have a formal and relative character in grotesque realism. "Upward" and "downward" have here an absolute and strictly topographical meaning. "Downward" is earth, "upward" is heaven. Earth is an element that devours, swallows up (the grave, the womb) and at the same time as element of birth, of renascence (the maternal breasts). Such is the meaning of "upward" and "downward" in their cosmic aspect, while in their purely bodily aspect, which is not clearly distinct from the cosmic, the upper part is the face of the head and the lower part is the genital organs, the belly, and the buttocks. These absolute topographical connotations are used by grotesque realism, including medieval parody. Degradation here means coming down to earth, the contact with earth as an element that swallows up and gives birth at the same time. To degrade is to bury, to sow, and to kill simultaneously, in order to bring forth something more and better. To degrade also means to concern oneself with the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and the reproductive organs; it therefore relates to acts of defecation and copulation, conception, pregnancy, and birth. Degradation digs a bodily grave for a new birth; it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one. To degrade an object does not imply merely hurling it into the void of nonexistence, into absolute destruction, but to hurl it down the reproductive lower stratum, the zone in which conception and a new birth take place. Grotesque realism knows no other lower level; it is the fruitful earth and the womb. It is always conceiving.

This is the reason why medieval parody is unique, quite unlike the purely formalist literary parody of modern times, which has a solely negative character and is deprived of regenerating ambivalence. This genre and all the other modern forms of degradation could not, of course, preserve their former immensely important meaning.

Degradation, whether parodical of or some other type, is characteristic of Renaissance literature, which in that sense perpetuated the best tradition of the culture of folk humor (fully and deeply expressed by Rabelais). But even at this point the material bodily principle was subject to a certain alteration and narrowing. Its universal and festive character was somewhat weakened. True, this process was still at its initial stage as can be observed, for instance, in Don Quixote.

The fundamental trend of Cervantes' parodies is a "coming down to earth", a contact with the reproductive and generating power of the earth and of the body. This is a continuation of the grotesque tradition. But at the same time the material bodily principle has already been reduced. It is undergoing a peculiar crisis of splitting. Cervantes' images of bodily life have begun to lead a double existence.

Sancho's fat belly (panza), his appetite and thirst still convey a powerful carnivalesque spirit. His love of abundance and wealth have not, as yet, a basically private, egotistic and alienating character. Sancho is the direct heir of the antique potbellied demons which decorate the famous Corinthian vases. In Cervantes' images of food and drink there is still the spirit of popular banquets. Sancho's materialism, his potbelly, appetite, his abundant defecation, are on the absolute lower level of grotesque realism of the gay bodily grave (belly, bowels, earth) which has been dug for Don Quixote's abstract and deadened idealism. One could say that the knight of the sad countenance must die in order to be reborn a better and a greater man. This is a bodily and popular corrective to individual idealistic and spiritual pretense. Moreover, it is the popular corrective of laughter applied to the narrow-minded spiritual presence (the absolute lower stratum is always laughing); it is a regenerating and laughing death. Sancho's role in relation to Don Quixote can be compared to the role of medieval parodies versus high ideology and cult, to the role of the clown versus serious ceremonial, to charnage versus careme. The gay principle of regeneration can also be seen, to a lesser extent, in the windmills (giants), inns (castles), flocks of rams and sheep (armies of knights), innkeepers (lords of the castle), prostitutes (noble ladies), and so forth. All these images form a typical grotesque carnival, which turns a kitchen and banquet into a battle, kitchen utensils and shaving bowls into arms and helmets, and wine into blood. Such is the first, carnival aspect of the material bodily images of Don Quixote. But it is precisely this aspect which creates the grand style of Cervantes' realism, his universal nature, and his deep popular utopianism.

... The Grotesque Image of the Body and Its Sources, Michail Bakhtin


marzuki said...

How can anyone ever read and understand this kinda stuff? haha. The name Don Quixote appears in two of my texts and funny i see his name here too. I wonder who he is.

Hope i can get something about the Grotesque from this piece.

TheHoopoe said...

I find this reading extremely fascinating. In fact, I find Bakhtin an intellectual philosopher and loves his works.
Apparently, I know of someone who writes a thesis based on this literature, got an A grade, won the best paper award at a prestigious conference, invited to present it .... so, Bakhtin can't be that bad :p