Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

"Like a Caravan of Carnival Folk": Child of God as Subversive Carnivalesque

Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

"Like a Caravan of Carnival Folk": Child of God as Subversive Carnivalesque

Article excerpt

They came like a caravan of carnival folk" and converged on the former farm of Lester Ballard, the protagonist of Child of God (McCarthy 3). It is not difficult to notice a link between this novel's opening sentence and Mikhail Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World, for the concept of "carnival" and the nature of the "folk" are paramount themes in Bakhtin's work (Holquist xviii-xix).1 It is surprising, then, that no critic has offered a detailed consideration of the relationship between Child of God and Bakhtin's conception of the carnivalesque. This essay explores that gap in the literature and contends that, contrary to initial appearances, the novel's carnival-like events do not closely resemble what Bakhtin describes as folk carnival, for they are missing two of folk carnival's central characteristics-its basis in laughter and its suspension of normal social hierarchies. Instead, each of the novel's carnival-like gatherings is serious in its maintenance of the power strata that are endemic to its Sevier County setting-especially the authorities of law, religion, and capital. In that way, the story's carnival-like gatherings are much more akin to what Bakhtin calls official ceremonies, which are sober and serve to reinforce social hierarchies. In those respects, the novel's official ceremonies are sharply opposed to folk carnival.

Yet, despite the scenes of official ceremony in which the text appears to present its world as a stratified society, there is a specific way in which that world is, in fact, endowed with the character of Bakhtinian folk carnival. For Bakhtin, the grotesquery of the human body is another central feature of folk carnival, and the text repeatedly depicts human bodies as grotesque-that is, as open to, and continuous with, the rest of the natural world. Through that grotesquery, the text constructs a world in which social hierarchies are ultimately leveled: Though they might not be aware of it, the story's inhabitants are equal in that they are in equal intercourse with the natural world. In this respect, the world of Child of God is animated by the egalitarian spirit of folk carnival. In other words, the official ceremonies of the text are like a mask of inequality that only partially conceals the true identity of the novel's world-a world of social egalitarianism that is rooted in a common grotesquery. Finally, as it operates in the text, this social leveling is also subversive, for all denizens of its world are portrayed as the equals of the person they treat as the "lowest" of social outcasts: Lester Ballard, a cursing, killing, cadaver- molesting "child of God" (4).

Child of God's Official Ceremonies

As is well known, Bakhtin locates the "greatest literary expression" of Europe's "thousand-year-old development of the folk culture of humor" in the sixteenth-century French writer, Francois Rabelais (Bakhtin 3-4). That "folk culture of humor," Bakhtin writes, included "folk carnival humor," which was the expression of folk humor through popular events, such as festivals, pageants, feasts, processions, and the "comic shows of the marketplace" (4-5). Although folk carnival took those various forms, it was always "based on laughter" and "sharply distinct from the serious official, ecclesiastical, feudal, and political cult forms and ceremonials" of medieval Europe (5). Folk carnival "built a second world and a second life outside officialdom, a world in which all medieval people participated" (6). Folk carnival involved "the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions," and, while it lasted, the population "celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order" (10). During folk carnival, the regular "corporative and caste divisions" were set aside, and people from different social strata mingled freely (10). In this essay, the phrase "folk carnival" will be used to encompass the array of popular events that bear these features. …

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