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Rabelais in Russia, or the man on a chair in a hat

May 8, 2023

I recently reread Mikhail Bakhtin’s mind-blowing book Rabelais and His World. On the face of it, a book about the fantastical literary imaginings of a 16th century writer by a long-dead philosopher from Soviet Russia probably shouldn’t loom too large in the reading list of a contemporary blogger writing about farming, ecology and politics. And yet. Here, I’m going to lay down a few waymarks, and come back to them in future posts.

François Rabelais (d.1553) was, in more ways than one, a Renaissance man who along with Cervantes and Shakespeare pioneered modern literary culture. But – a key point, this – he wasn’t ‘modern’. So claims Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) in his aforementioned book, which on the one hand was a scholarly appraisal of the medieval culture out of which Rabelais emerged, and on the other was a veiled critique of Soviet communism.

For those of us who’ve quailed before the prospect of a viva for a higher degree, spare a thought for Bakhtin defending his thesis on Rabelais in front of Stalinist apparatchiks who could probably have had him shot if he’d put a foot wrong. In the event he wasn’t shot, but the powers that be deemed his work unworthy of the degree he sought, and Bakhtin sank into obscurity before being rediscovered in the 1960s. When his work was translated into English, it set the Anglophone literary world alight. So in a sense Bakhtin had the last laugh. Although I daresay he’d disagree, because one of his major arguments is that nobody ever gets the last laugh.

Let me try to precis those major arguments. Bakhtin says there was a folk culture of festive laughter in medieval Europe that mocked the power, pomposity and seriousness of political and ecclesiastical rule – a spirit of carnival opposed to everything fixed, stable, dogmatic and immortal that Rabelais drew on in his writing. I learned a new word from the book – ‘agelast’: one who doesn’t laugh, most of all at themselves, who sees their foes as enemies of eternal truths, who doesn’t place themselves in the melting pot of history and see the comedy of their own limitations. I think I have some agelast tendencies – actually, I think most people do, especially when it comes to cherished political or spiritual beliefs.

But the people’s laughter, says Bakhtin, is not simply negative and mocking. It’s not the laughter of the modern satirist, who elevates themselves above the object of their derision. It’s much more ambivalent, turning the laughter on itself, while affirming and regenerating that which it derides. Also, it’s a social, collective laughter in a way that’s hard for we moderns to comprehend – even (or perhaps especially) for those of us on the political left who pepper our speech with eulogies for community and collectivism that too often sound like we’re trying a bit too hard, toiling to transcend a culture of individualism and interiority that sticks to us all the more as we wave it away with supercilious dismissal.

Turning to another major focus of the people’s laughter, Bakhtin emphasizes what he calls grotesque realism and the lower bodily stratum. Folks, what we’re talking about here is birth and death, fecundity and decay, sex, genitals, wombs, defecation, urination, fat bellies, eating, feasting, and general hyperbolic excess in the more material, gross and animalistic aspects of human life.

Again, this lower bodily stratum has a collective and a political aspect. Modern conceptions of the individual body, of modesty and shame, and the vulgarity of the lower bodily stratum find no place in it. Politically, it’s the arena of reversal – the king as a fool or slave, the cleric as greedy or lustful, the death or dismemberment of the agelast, the fecund regeneration of the world out of decay and death. Bakhtin tells us that this abundant regeneration out of decay in the people’s laughter is in a sense anti-natural. Whereas kings and clerics invoke a fear of death and nature’s overmighty powers to frighten those they rule, the people’s laughter strips these high ups down to their grotesque, earthly bodies, celebrates human powers over nature and scorns death, out of which comes rebirth.

The arena for much of this carnival spirit, according to Bakhtin, is the marketplace. Markets, feasts, fairs and carnivals were closely related in medieval life. Unlike the seriousness and hierarchy of normal life, they were an arena of bawdy equality and billingsgate banter. Which is interesting in view of the dominance of ‘the market’ in contemporary economic spirituality as a kind of serious, implacable force of nature – the preserve of the agelast. Hence the importance that I’ve emphasized before of the difference between ‘the market’ and ‘the marketplace’.

A final, fascinating aspect of Bakhtin’s analysis was the vertical rather than horizontal conception of quality in medieval thought. Whereas nowadays we make ‘progress’, we move ‘forward’, we scorn ‘backwardness’ and we conceive ourselves as historical subjects moving on towards an improvable future, medieval conceptions emphasized a hierarchy of the ‘higher’ (closer to perfection) and the ‘lower’ (more gross or debased). It did, as discussed, invert this hierarchy in the carnival imagery and it welcomed the new, but it didn’t place humans outside the hierarchy as moving inexorably onwards collectively through history towards a perfection of form.

Now, it’s probably fair to say that Bakhtin’s account of this ‘second life’ of the people built by medieval folk culture is a bit idealized, though no more so than the idealization of the people’s march ‘forwards’ through history associated with the bourgeois individualism of Marxism and other modernist dogmas. Apart from the occasional and understandable nod to Marxist orthodoxy in his book, Bakhtin’s thinking is deeply and fundamentally non-Marxist, and – more broadly – non-modernist, with its refusal of completion, ultimate telos, and unmediated serious truth.I find it endlessly suggestive of the kind of recurrent populist culture of the everyday that I extolled in Chapter 20 of A Small Farm Future (a passage that – no coincidence! – was picked out by two Marxist critics for particular scorn. A little more on that presently).

Nevertheless, it’s quite challenging for me to let go of the horizontal frame and embrace verticality and hierarchy, emerging as I have from this same agelast culture of bourgeois modernist rationalism as Marxism. Particularly today of all days, when I gather that somewhere in London there’s a man on a big chair with a fancy hat that some people are getting very excited about. So whereas my most deeply-grained disposition is to an agelast rationalist republicanism that inclines me to greet this event thus…

…I’m beginning to embrace the notion that there are hierarchies we cannot simply transcend through history, and that they must be honoured. But, per Rabelais and Bakhtin, that doesn’t mean we can’t invert and relativize them, make fun of them and insist on keeping them at arm’s length while we get on with the more important business of the people’s life and livelihood.

Thus it is that I am prepared to swear obedience to King Charles, albeit only in a suitably Rabelaisian manner. And so, my liege lord, my poxy majesty, my big-eared people-eater of a rancid monarch, I raise a glass – nay, a veritable ocean – of wine to salute and pay obeisance to your ineffable superiority, your divine organic-ness, your architectural carbuncularity, your kingly royalness and your myriad excellences. Now get on your knees, you clown, and kiss my feet.


Teaser photo credit: Karneval in Rom, Detail, by Johannes Ingelbach. Public Domain

Chris Smaje

After studying then teaching and researching in social science and policy, I became a small-scale commercial veg grower in 2007. Nowadays, when I’m not writing about the need to design low-impact local food systems before they’re foisted on us by default, I spend my time as an aspiring woodsman, stockman, gardener and peasant on the small farm I help to run in Somerset, southwest England Though smallholding, small-scale farming, peasant farming, agrarianism – call it what you will – has had many epitaphs written for it over the years, I think it’s the most likely way for humanity to see itself through the numerous crises we currently face in both the Global North and South. In my writing and blogging I attempt to explain why. The posts are sometimes practical but mostly political, as I try to wrestle with how to make the world a more welcoming place for the smallholder. Chris is the author of A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth, and most recently, Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future: The Case for an Ecological Food System and Against Manufactured Foods.

Tags: carnival, laughter, left agrarian populism