The Other Side of Carnival: Romola and Bakhtin

Article excerpt

Mikhail Bakhtin popularized the idea of carnival as a signifier of joyful relativism--a "temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order" (Rabelais 10). Carnivalemphasizes ambivalence, or the unfinalizability of life. By focusing on the communal body in which birth and death are intimately intertwined, Bakhtin's carnival is able to evade the fears of life and to celebrate the "cheerful death" of an individual (Dialogic Imagination 198). This approach has a disturbing element since political structures are such that it is usually the least powerful who are subject to carnival danger and its "cheerful death." Gary Morson and Caryl Emerson argue that Bakhtin probably did not "seriously consider the philosophical--and much less the political--implication of carnival at its least 'reduced'" (470). I suggest that George Eliot frames her historical novel Romola (1863), set in fifteenth-century Florence, by carnival for reasons similar to those that motivate Bakhtin's interest in this parodic festival. Recent criticism of Eliot points to the indeterminacy in her work and her refusal to sanction a single unified interpretative model or truth.[1] In contrast to Bakhtin, however, Eliot recognizes the threat posed by carnival when it is not simply a textual metaphor. People are killed, maimed, and raped during festal fun and freedom. Bakhtin's discussion of carnival offers a point of approach to Eliot's novel, but his theory is in turn criticized by Eliot's less utopian view of carnival.


Both Eliot and Bakhtin had read Goethe's description of Roman Carnival in Italian Journey (1786-88). While Eliot does not make any specific comments on this section, sherecords reading the work aloud with George Lewes in her journal between 30 Nov. - 8 Dec. 1854 and also refers to this collection of Goethe's letters in her commonplace book (McCobb 167-68). Goethe's influence on Eliot should not be underestimated, since her knowledge of German culture was remarkable. By the mid 1840s she had already read many of Goethe's important works (McCobb 11-12). She also worked with Lewes as a "silent collaborator" (Haight 172-73) on his Life of Goethe (1855), revisions to which were made for a second edition, published in the year following Romola in 1864. It is reasonable to suppose that Eliot recalled Goethe's discussion of carnival when she began work on Romola while on her own Italian journeys in 1860, when the idea of Romola was conceived, and in 1861, when she returned to do research for the novel. Goethe was also very influential on Bakhtin, and amongst other things, Bakhtin greatly admired Goethe's recognition of the importance of popular forms.[2] In his book on Rabelais, Bakhtin draws attention to Goethe's discussion of Roman Carnival, particularly his description of carnival's participatory nature, its abolition of differences between social orders, its tumult and reveling, and its public location in the Corso. Goethe observes horse racing, the masks and fancy dress, and the election and crowning of the carnival Kings. Praising Goethe's understanding of carnival's ambivalence, Bakhtin cites in particular his discussion of "the ambivalent curse that is also a confirmation, sia ammazzato!" (Rabelais 251). During the fire festival, everyone merrily attempts to blow out each other's candles and wishes each other death, making fire a symbol of ambivalence.

While commending Goethe's recognition of carnival's "deep philosophical character" (Rabelais 252), Bakhtin criticizes the transformation of carnival in Goethe's Ash Wednesday Meditations into an "individual subjective experience" (Rabelais 252), opening the way for the Romantic treatment of the subject. Goethe concludes his discussion with his famous simile that "life taken as a whole, is like the Roman Carnival, unpredictable, unsatisfactory and problematic" (469). Both Bakhtin and Eliot recognize the popular nature of carnival and its contradictory and parodic orientation. …