Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Carnival, Creativity, and the Sublimation of Drunkenness

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Carnival, Creativity, and the Sublimation of Drunkenness

Article excerpt

The connection between intoxication and creativity makes a regular if infrequent appearance in the history of the arts. In the classical period, for example, it appears in Horace's dictum that "no poems can please long, nor live, which are written by water-drinkers" (308). Yet this connection, which should be powerfully operative in culture, is repeatedly suppressed and elided in its texts, so that, for example, the "intoxication" of Friedrich Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy finally comes to mean almost everything but the intoxication of drugs and drink. One of the great modern sites of creativity is the reconstituted "carnival" of Mikhail Bakhtin, where popular play is artistic but also feeds the individual artistry of the carnivalesque productions of a Francois Rabelais and the novel that follows. Mood-altering substances are left out of the mix that produces the Bakhtinian carnival, with the result that Bakhtin and his commentators cannot offer any explanation for that festive institution beyond itself.

Although Western culture has long tended to ignore the material base of experience, one can still discover its vagrant traces. In this essay I will explore how a far-reaching esthetic project of the late 19th and 20th centuries - the Dionysian esthetic of Nietzsche and the carnival esthetics of Bakhtin and others - is unable to suppress its connection to intoxication as a remarkable fact of social life. What I hope to demonstrate is a widespread affirmation of the necessity and intensity of this link between carnival and intoxication, but one that must be inferred from insinuation and silence. Drawing from a wide range of works of art, criticism, and cultural commentary (in no particular chronological order and largely, but not exclusively, associated with Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World), I will first look at the way in which the matter of intoxication is both present and elided in various accounts of carnival and then the ways in which it returns to the text of culture. I end with a consideration of certain 19th-century American fictions which stage the origin of European-American civilization as a drunken carnival.

Bakhtin's festive esthetic ranges from the literal intoxication of "carnival" to the metaphoric intoxication of the "carnivalesque." It is driven neither by individual genius nor the imagination. A hybrid figure like "the dialogic imagination" comes to fill the gap, but such a conception can only be understood to be metaphoric. For Bakhtin this is the relevant esthetic: it allows him to recover a valuable literary tradition that accounts for the Renaissance, the rise of the novel, and the postmodern present (Bakhtin 273; Rutland 131-32; LaCapra 296). As Gary Shapiro suggests, this festive esthetic may also be regarded as the esthetic unconscious: "Aesthetics is a very recent invention, a concept which is built on the exclusion of laughter, the festive, and the grotesque" (49-50). Balancing Bakhtin's notion of "carnivalization" in art is a modernist counter-esthetic: the "narcotization" of mass art. If literature is theoretically intoxicated, mass culture is perceived as drugged. These two movements in the history of modernity enable us to rename the split between art and pop culture as intoxication and addiction (or, as alcohol and drugs).

From a present-day perspective, the concept of intoxication I mobilize in this essay may sound utopian - that is also a basic charge leveled against Bakhtin's notion of carnival - but the fluctuations in that concept should be regarded as the expression of what Lacan would call a cultural imaginary, a self-indulgent historical narrative in which the valence of intoxication changes radically in the late 19th century from Rabelaisian ecstasy to the sodden depression of Edgar Degas's Absinthe-drinker. A carnivalesque amplitude persists, however, in works like Emile Zola's L'Assommoir or William Burroughs's Naked Lunch, even though it must now be literally identified as delirium tremens or some equivalent pathology. …

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