Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Daumier's Gargantua

Bakhtin in his famous study of Rabelais did the most to clarify the larger, metaphysical implications of the return of Rabelais in Bohemian Paris. Bakhtin argues that Rabelais is the exemplar of a folkloric, popular attitude that he names the laugh. The chronotope or time-space figure anchoring this world view and serving as its measure is the material, even grotesque, human body, the body in all of its corporeal vulgarity of copulation, defecation, the processes of living and dying. This time-space image is profoundly affirming in its embracing of the organic cycle of life, from birth to death and around again. “The extraordinary force of laughter in Rabelais, its radicalism, is explained predominantly by its deep-rooted folkloric base, by its link with the elements of the ancient complex – with death, the birth of new life, fertility and growth. This is real world-embracing laughter, one that can play with all the things of this world – from the most insignificant to the greatest, from distant things to those close at hand. This connection on the one hand with fundamental realities of life, and on the other with the most radical destruction of all false, verbal and ideological shells that had distorted and kept separate these realities, is what so sharply distinguishes Rabelaisian laughter from the laughter of other practitioners of the grotesque, humor, satire and irony” (Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination).

Julia Kristeva, who was one of the earliest and closest readers of Bakhtin, took her cue from this metaphysical laugh to characterize the French avant-garde writers (Lautreamont and Mallarme in particular) as accomplishing this transformation of laughter as device and method into a logic and ontology. “The practice of the text is a kind of laughter whose only explosions are those of language. The pleasures obtained from the lifting of inhibitions is immediately invested in the production of the new. Every practice that produces something new (a new device) is a practice of laughter: it obeys laughter’s logic and provides the subject with laughter’s advantages. When practice is not laughter, there is nothing new” (Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language).

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