Bakhtin – Rabelais and his World

Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, 1965 [EN 1984]



Gustave Doré’s illustration.


Especially on the first try, Rabelais can read like a relentless wave of examples and close literary analysis. The importance of this long and deep engagement with Rabelais’ writing is central to communicating with Bakhtin. Nevertheless, this summary functions more like a companion, summarising arguments in a more extractive sense, roughly following the order of the book.



Rabelais is special in his ‘radically’ popular sourcing of his imagery; he thus opens up the folk, and particularly folk laughter – a long underanalysed subject. It takes three forms: ritual spectacles, comic verbal compositions, billingsgate. (4-5)

The first involves carnivals, feasts, etc. – remnants of a ‘second life’ of the folk that date back to prehistory. Originally both official and ‘serious’, the comic realm was degraded into folk, but remains a form of play that remains anchored in some way to everyday life (5-7) Carnival is participatory, autonomous and universalising. Clowns and fools live constantly on this boundary between the carnival and the mundane.

[The carnival] offered a completely different, nonofficial, extraecclesiastical and extrapolitical aspect of the world, of man, and of human relations; they built a second world and a second life (6)

Carnival was always partly sanctioned by the Church and conditioned by it. At the same time, they inherit pagan calendars and ancient festivities which themselves were ritual moments of defining (new) temporal orders. (7-9) || Meanwhile, many official Medieval feasts had lost such functions; their official and hegemonic nature alienated laughter and creation, which goes to the marketplace and the carnival.  || Carnivals dissolve rank, official feasts confirm them. The temporary practice of the carnival or festival in fact yields a lasting tradition of a language that is not inflected by rank. (9-10) Carnival a universal and ambivalent laughter; it is essentially self-deprecative, and is not reducible to ‘purely negative’ satire or mockery. (11-12)

The second includes comic compositions. There is a long history of parodies of ecclesiastical tradition, etc. (13-5) The third is billingsgate; carnivalesque language retains “elements of the old ritual of fraternisation” that is now entirely lost, existing only as isolated abuses, “something like a proverb.” Whereas much ancient abuse was ambiguously caught between mockery and reverence (of the deity), carnivalesque abuse is entirely universal. Thus the marketplace became a ‘cesspool’ of language, a reservoir for language excluded officially. (16-7)



“Laughter degrades and materialises.” (20) Rabelais inherits from folk humour a ‘grotesque realism’ in depictions of the body; an ambivalent (positive/negative), universal imagery that does not reduce its subject to individualised ego or physiology. Thus it is characterised by an excessive depiction that is in fact an abundance. ‘High’ expression is unerringly degraded through this imagery. (19-20)

Degradation is far from purely negative. It is about bringing down in order to regenerate. Hence, Don Quixote features Sancho as the remnant of the potbellied demon, a degraded character, while Quixote’s hallucinations carnivalise his surroundings. Yet Don Quixote was also a forerunner in the historical severance of the grotesque from its positive dimension. These characters become individualised – the Renaissance being the point of shift. (22-3)

Primitive images are founded on cyclical, biological time. Grotesque images are part of its superseding with historical time. Yet this process remains incomplete in the grotesque. Biological/primitive imagery are retained in historicised form, e.g. senile pregnant hags. (25-6) || The grotesque body is open, blended, on the limits, two ends that feed into one. It is this grotesque that underlies festive culture, medieval parody and abuse language. Although modern abuse retains only the degrading element, it is this roots that gives abuse such a primal attraction. (27-8)

Historically, the term ‘grotesque’ developed unevenly, and lacked theorisation on its own terms until 18c. 17c-18c saw a gradual “narrowing down of… folk culture”; this alienation and literarisation formalised the grotesque, ossifying it. (33-4) By the Romantic age, the grotesque was changing; as a reaction to Enlightenment classicism, it was valorised as a literary tradition with a ‘private’, ‘chamber’ character. Laughter was thus castrated of its function; the grotesque becomes an alien world, the underworld of monsters rather than the defeat of monsters by laughter. (37-9) The grotesque continued to receive attention, e.g. 1820s French Romanticism and Victor Hugo, who saw it as a buffoonery counterpart to the sublime. (42-4) It would decline after Romanticism, seen as a limited form of satire. (44-5) Modernist / realistic grotesque in 20c makes of it an alien gloom, terrifying and fearful; older grotesque was not about terror but a world of new possibilities. (46-7)

Thus Rabelais, for Bakhtin, is a masterful wielder of the grotesque at a time when it was at its historical peak. This is when it was truly ‘realism’, with its dynamicity and its various connections to time, etc. (52-3) The grotesque unity of Rabelais was appreciated in his time, but not later; even his contemporary imitators involved an immediate disintegration in style. (62) His changing place in literature involved a development of a hierarchy of literary genres. 16c saw it as ‘amusing’ but not low or irrelevant (65); laughter, and R, are increasingly relegated. (see right) 17c La Bruyère cannot reconcile the ‘low’ obscenity of R with his genius. (108) R is reduced soon to a ‘period writer’, making direct historical allegories of people and events of his time. (113)

The decline of R’s fame is related to the decline of popular-festive laughter in social life & the influence of 17/18c epistemological revolution. (115-6) The gap becomes wider in 18c; R’s laughter is now despised, e.g. by Voltaire. One version even censored R. (117-8) Carnival images and language become pure hedonism. (119) 20th century saw the founding of Rabelasiana in France, with a focus on ‘scientific’ history and analysis of language. Yet no real synthesis has been achieved, and laughter remains badly understood. (129-131) In Russia, there has been no real analysis of Rabelais (137); some appear after WW2, but not comprehensive. (140)

rabelais writes



Renaissance laughter was, in the tradition of Hippokrates, Aristotle and Lucian, seen as a unique human capacity with therapeutic, liberating and creative. (69-71) This was rooted in medieval folk culture, but for a brief time became much more widespread; the low fertilised the high. (72-3)

Medieval laughter was, before 16c, segregated, existing either in non-official settings, or as sublimated and curtailed forms within them. (73-5) Folk laughter had a place even in the upper echelons; yet they were also frequently sanctioned against. (76-7) Laughter had a specific, integrated role in the feast; they were occasions when it was more widely permitted. (78-9) Festive laughter is linked to a sense of renewal, and of a promise or experience of social change at least. (80-2) This laughter is directly translated into medieval parody literature, which was decidedly un-literary. These parodied both content and language of the sacred. (83-7)

It was ‘man’s second nature’ that was laughing, the lower bodily stratum which could not express itself in official cult and ideology (75)

Medieval laughter was universal as it was indiscriminatory; it addressed everyone and existed in a diffuse, underlying form in society. (88-9) They also produced ‘unofficial’ truths of the world for the people. It is thus a ritual of overcoming, of life at the end of death. (90-1) Thus, all in all, medieval laughter degraded the high, opening up a universal plane of laughter; in it lay a temporary process of overcoming the actual, bringing forth the truth and even a dream of change. Medieval seriousness had a profound effect on the people, however; this respite of laughter was always limited, and they lived ‘two lives’, official and carnival. (95-6)

Laughter could only extend out of these limits by passing into literature. Renaissance literature did not directly mimic the classical, but introduced a ‘carnivalised’ antiquity that drew on late antique writers. (97-8) But immediately after R it becomes rigid and negative. Laughter lived on in modified forms, like court masquerades, the comic novel of the bourgeois, etc; but there is eventually the loss of carnival themes and the lower stratum. (101-5) Grotesque/folk laughter was compatible with seriousness; the split only comes in modern times. (121-2) Afterwards, “obscenity has become narrowly sexual, isolated, individual”. (109)



Rabelais’ language is difficult for modern readers because it now exists in degraded form. (146) In his time, profanities and colloquialisms were present in both literature and the marketplace. (153)Each image was duplicated in a dual state of life and death, creation and destruction; laughter allowed the harmless presence of demons and underworld. (147-9) Praise and abuse are frequently combined; there are grotesque curses; ecclesiastical and other official discourse are corrupted and parodied. (166-8) Fear and suffering are debased, and end in renewal; e.g. excrement as an intermediary change-element. (175)

Rabelais’ own life prepared him for his work; he had experience of the marketplace spectacles like theatre scaffoldings, wrote comic literature as a student, and his works directly provided material for fairs too. (156-8) His work is full of such examples (see right), and also attacks virulently those who denounce the grotesque. (172-3)

Various genres of folk discourse are found in R. E.g. street cries that advertise in a ‘versified form’, which followed no standard but accumulated an immense bank of popular imagery. They use the imagery of the marketplace, e.g. utensils and kitchen, as symbols for cosmologies. (181-5) Or consider medical hawking that both advises and abuses. (186) Or profanities as ‘breaches in ordinary speech’, a transgression; e.g. oaths were strictly persecuted, because it takes God outside the official – a ‘verbal protest’. (188-9) Oaths render the human body as dismembered and anatomised in the name of the divine body; God’s bowels! (192-3)



There is a popular-festive [p-f] system of images. What happens in festivals? The king is the clown, abuse and beating his method of metamorphosis and death/rebirth.  – echoes of Saturanalia. (197) The suspension of social norms in favour of festive norms. ‘Anatomising’ description emerges as a central symbol, wherein fights, thrashings or floods of urine take on wider implications. (200-5) There is a fundamental ambivalence in every instance of p-f due to this duality in grotesque imagery. (217)Thus the grotesque body in p-f enables the imbuing of wider, contemporary meanings in language. (207-8)

To say ‘carnivalesque’ is thus to point to p-f’s only remaining life. The composite term of C integrated the image/meaning systems of other forms of p-f life as they died out. (218-9) Certainly, various still-remaining festivals were covered in R; they introduced material abundance (220-1), productivity & growth (222), fecal and other grotesque matter (223), parodies of official discourse in carnival form (227), etc. There were also games like fortune-telling, which introduced prophetic riddles, parody prophecies (231-3) as well as the concept of time, destiny and universal / cosmic meaning; life as play. (235)

In Rabelais abuse never assumes the character merely of personal invective; it is universal, and when all is said and done it always aims at the higher level (212)

The worldview of p-f was well described by Goethe’s description of Roman carnivals. It was from the people for the people; social differences were flattened; uncrowning & mock enactments, like mimicking knifing & birthing in ambivalent form. (246-8) But his reflections are limited to “individual subjective experience”, lacking the collective and historic aspect. (252) C looks to the future, and dream its victory over the past. R also briefly discusses the first French comic drama in 1262, which features many p-f elements; critically, the idea of an ‘unofficial truth’. (257-262) Such truth is universalised; the world of p–f is never closed off. (265)

P-f was not a specific technique for aesthetic or censorship purposes, but inseparable from R’s ideas. (269) He solved for the Renaissance the question of how to write ‘frank’ literature (271) – by drawing from old folk humour and culture that medieval officialdom denied. (274)

What is the role of the feast and festive folly displayed in it? They grant the author the right to treat an unofficial subject. (262)

gargantua eats



Banquet imagery as another part of the carnivalesque, tied in with other p-f imagery. This involves banquet scenes themselves and eating, which are connected to abundance, popular, gaiety / truth, conversation. Eating is grotesque because of its opening-up, devouring, vulgarising – a form of conquering the world in grotesque struggle. (281) Food and work are intertwined. (281-2) There is gaiety and celebration in all meals. (283-4) Truth can only come forth from the gay banquet; seriousness hinders this fearless, liberating truth with mysticism and abstraction. (285)

Historically, the Coena Cypriani, 5-8cAD, a menagerie of Christian imagery on banquets, was very popular, and introduced the banquet to literature; it involved a free collection of various characters and images. (287-9) Medieval symposium traditions often parodied litany and other Christian formalities in a grotesquely ambivalent form. (290-1) Eating-objects like bread or wine have internal C predilections; thus the banquet lives on even in the most formalised context. (292) 12-13c Latin recreational literature shows the figure of the monk, for whom the banquest is an ambivalent contradiction to the ascetic ideal. (294-5) Banquet imagery in clowns and other popular comic entertainment; in medieval literature; Italian poetry; etc. (299-302)

All in all there is a tradition of fearless speech, debasement of the ascetic, etc. (296-7) R’s own banquets are not always historic, but often point to a utopian future; this kind of dreaming survives in the ‘toast’. (301)



Negative, satirical grotesque must be rejected. The grotesque excess is not limited to satire; there is a positive pathos. (307-9) The excessive imagery employed in the grotesque is surely going overboard if it’s all for simple satire; it’s about a universal dethroning. (312-4)

The grotesque is concerned with that which protrudes from the body, and that which devours – thus eyes, mouth, orifices of expulsion, etc. (316-7) This grotesque body is “cosmic and universal” not only in its reference but in its own history, in contrast to the short-lived and artificial nature of the classical body. (318-9) The classical body smoothes over the grotesque; eating, etc. become private and psychological. Expressive organs like the head take precedence; the body may be accentuated but not individualised. (321-4)

In R, we see: death-renewal-fertility in the opening of Pantagruel (327); eating, devouring imagery (331); hyperbolisation into cosmic meaning, where the body at once represents cosmic change and presides over it. (334, 441) R’s grotesque has various sources: e.g. his giants are from festivals, local legends, Antique literature, ‘probably’ mainly from p-f forms. (343) ‘Indian Wonders’ provided tales of unusual bodies. (345) Medieval mysteries and diableries, concerned with dismemberment and devouring. (347) Anatomical imagery in medieval literature, including saintly relics. (350) Billingsgate from comedy, marketplace. (352) Ancient authors, primarily Hippokrates’ body and its anatomical, cosmic character. (355)

R thus reveals a philosophy of the body: the medieval body/cosmos was built on Aristotle’s 4 elements. The Renaissance collapses this order, and puts the human at the centre; so from a vertical hierarchy to a horizontal one, with the ‘open’ body at the centre. (362-4) Body becomes at once material, present, lived, and in such ways connected to immortal history and cosmology. (366-7)

gargantua icart

Louis Icart, Gargantua et Pantagruel, 1936.



The lower stratum involves debasement of the valued (370); R takes us to hell, but this is not the end, this is where birth begins. (378) The aim is to, by laughter, free us from seriousness like supplication, lament, humility and piousness. (380) ‘Down below’, all things can be inverted, somewhat like the carnival. (383) But this is not mere reversal, which would only be vindictive; it is a bringing down in order to rebirth a new order. (388) The birth/death joining; death too can be gay, and ambivalent. (407-9)

For thousands of years folk culture strove… to overcome by laughter, render sober, and express in the language of the material bodily stratum (in an ambivalent sense) all the central ideas, images, and symbols of official cultures. (394)

Again, sources include legends, medieval and antique literature, pagan mythology and its Christian remnants, ritual precedents of carnivalesque hell, etc. (391-4) The Underworld is clearly contrasted to Christian afterlife. The official gloom & fear is inverted, defeated by carnival laughter. (395)

The relation to cosmology: Medieval vertical system of symbols had a clear meaning and hierarchy. (401) Dante was the pinnacle of this, though he was already at the shift. A new horizontal system is, in R’s time, under formation; R participates by subverting the vertical in his writings. (402-3)

p-f negation is never an abstract refusal, but a material reconstruction (see right). The lower stratum is a time/space negation, a metamorphosis that produces something new by negating existing manifestations of the world. (411-2) The praise/abuse duality enables language to be directed universally (419); this was always a factor of unpublicised speech, though now such spheres are losing their original meaning and function. (421-2) Now they are being replaced by unambiguous, rhetorical forms, e.g. the ‘blazon’ which in original 15c-16c forms are praise/abuse but gradually degenerate into pure phrase, officialised and frozen into rhetoric. (428-431)



R combined the history of folk culture with his contemporary history. He has a definitely progressivist interest, but he is not reducible to a political agenda; he has a universal goal of “destroy[ing] the official picture of events”. (438-9) He wants to embrace the carnivalesque / p-f beyond all officialdom, a more radical politics. (453)

R certainly inverts his characters into familiar local settings with specific, sometimes real, objects and peoples. (442-3) But this familiarity does not remain purely local; it develops universal connections so that one has always a concrete depiction of the universal grotesque. (448)

R’s work is also an encyclopaedia of contemporary reality and its objects in p-f form. (455) The ‘latest’ in oral language in the street is sourced (456); nicknames are used to bring forth an oral mode of speech into his writing, softening the divide between proper & common nouns and also achieving praise/abuse duality. (459) Numbers, too, are unbalanced and exaggerated to become a grotesque style. (465)

Previously, Latin vs. remainder in language divided official v. C in politics. Renaissance collapses this; R’s time is a special luminal period with an awareness of time and history. (466-7) The emergence of national language thence has a significant ideological impact; one became finally aware of different linguistic styles and modes of classification, which allowed the earlier linguistic dogmatism to be more easily rejected. (470-1)

We repeat, every act of world history was accompanied by a laughing chorus. But not every period of history had Rabelais for coryphaeus.” (474)