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Bakhtin's Carnival Laughter and the Cajun Country Mardi Gras

Bakhtin's Carnival Laughter and the Cajun Country Mardi Gras

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Academic research paper on Cajun culture
Academic research paper on Cajun culture

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Bakhtin's Carnival Laughter and the Cajun Country Mardi GrasAuthor(s): Carl LindahlReviewed work(s):Source:
Folklore,
Vol. 107 (1996), pp. 57-70Published by:
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Folklore107(1996):57-70RESEARCHARTICLE
Bakhtin'sCarnivalLaughterand theCajunCountryMardiGras
CarlLindahl
Abstract
M.M. Bakhtin's ocialconstructionof Renaissancecarnivals,andhis views on carnivalngeneral,encountertroublewhentestedagainstapresentdayenactment,heCajuncountryCourirde MardiGras,aprocessionalbeggingritualcelebratedn southernLouisiana.Thelivingfestival revealsstructuresmissingfromBakhtin'slitesources andconsequentlyromhiswritings:structureshat articulate he folkcommunity'sautonomousvalues andco-operativesurvivalstrategies.AslongasliterarystudiesbasedonBakhtin ind in carnivalonlythatwhichopposeseliteculture,heywill fail torecognisethe dimensionsofcommunityself-celebrationand self-definitionessentialtomanyfolkfestivals.It is notfolklorists,butfolklore's criticaltranslatorswho-forbetter orworse-representthedisciplinetoalargercommunityconcernedprimarilywiththe roleof word asart. Thus Mikhail Bakhtinmaywell be re-membered forwritingthe mostinfluentialfolklorestudyof recent decades. RabelaisandHisWorld,trans-lated intoEnglishin1968,twenty-eight yearsafter itscompletion,is the most recent critical classic to exam-ine lore'semergenceinliterature(Holquist1981,xxv).It has served-toagreaterdegreethanthe earlierworks ofJesseWeston(1920)and DanielHoffman(1961)--tointroduce aparticularvision offolklore toagenerationofliteraryscholars.Unlike hispredeces-sors,whose workfocusedon onespecificliteraryde-velopmentorperiod,Bakhtin hasbroughtfolklore abroad new audience.By placingcarnivallaughteratthe heart of thenovel,Bakhtinpushedfolklore tothecentreofrecent criticalpursuits.But he alsobroughtmisreadingswhich couldeasilysubvert theinterdisci-plinarybond his workhaspromisedto build.Folklor-ists,rememberingthechaosspawnedamongliteraryscholarsbythe works of Weston andHoffman,owecriticsapreciseaccountingofBakhtin'sfailings,as wellas of hisusefulandimportantinsights.Here I takeBakhtin's ideas about carnivaland testthemagainstreal-lifeenactments-medieval,Renais-sance andmodern-to show whereBakhtinfollowsthe festiverecordscloselyandwhere heseems torefashion them tofithispreconceptions.Inpointingout thedistortions,Ido notintendto assailthe contri-butions. It would bedifficult to miss sogreatatarget,but farmore difficult-andpointless-toattempttodismantle it.Mypurposeis to establishthatBakhtin,insetting upfolkloreasanabsolute poleinhis dialec-tic ofculture,exaggeratescertainaspectsofcarnivaltoanextremeseldom,ifever,achievedinits enact-ment. What Bakhtinsaysabout literature hasunques-tionedvalue,but what hesaysabout the folkloric na-ture ofinnovationin literatureneeds modification.Ibeginwith his baseconception.To Bakhtin folk-lore is"popularlaughter"(1968,4-6;1981,23),infusedwith"utopianradicalism"(1981,186),absolutelyfreeinessence and anti-hierarchical to the core. Itsprimarymode isparody,itstargettheossified cultureof theelite. Theconceptof tradition has little roleinthischar-acterisationoffolklore.Infact,seenbyBakhtin,tradi-tion,theperspectivethat tilts towardthepast,is thepropertyof eliteculture,whichseeks tomaintainitsoldways,oldlaws,old families inpositionsof abso-lute control. Thepastis theenemyoffolklore,whichcontinuallyridiculesit anditsrepresentatives,usingcarnivalas astageonwhich to recreate the world af-ter theimageofpopularfreedom(Bakhtin1968,5-17;1981,81-2).Theequationoffestivelaughterwith folklorewastofigurelargelyinBakhtin'sgenrecriticism,wherethe lifelessculture of theelitewasequatedwiththeepic,andcarnivalesquefolkfreedom was seen astheimpulseembodiedinthemultitude ofpopularvoicesthatsoundinthe novel(Bakhtin1981,3-40).In asense,carnival isthe"novel"-in thetruestmeaningof theterm.Folklore is notmeretradition,but aconstantnewness,changing continuallytojartheears andminds ofthose forwhomliteraturepresentsastatic,monolithicvision of theconservativepast(Holquist1981,xxviiandxxxi-xxxii).HereBakhtinanticipatedsome ofthe mostrespectedstatementsinthefolklorestudies ofthe1970s,includingthose of DanBen-Amos,whospecifically rejectsassociationsbetweenfolkloreandtradition,andRichardBauman,whosees thees-
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58CarlLindahl
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Figure1.Unmasked,butwearing capesandcowboyhats,twocapitaineseadmaskedMaidiGrasridersnaprocessionalcirclearoundheirtown;ChurchPoint,Louisiana,1984(photograph:CarlLindahl).oftheday'sproceedings.He andhisco-capitainesare theonlyun-maskedriders.Thegroupleavesfroma central locationintown,movingtoitsrural outskirts. Whentheyreachafarmhouse,the ridersbeginacyclethat will berepeatedfifteenortwentytimes beforethedayisout. Thecapitainecallshistroupeto ahaltonthe road beforethefarmhouse,then rides forwardalone to asktheowner'spermis-sionto enter theyard.When con-sentisgranted,the leaderwaves awhiteflag signallingthe riders toengage.They chargethe farm-house,then dismount andbeginabeggingdance-aperformancecalculated to coaxa live chickenfromtheir host.' When thetroupehasgrovelledto thefarmer'ssat-isfaction,hepresentsa chicken-or two-to thecapitaine,who sum-monsthe masked men behind ansence of folkloreinitsnewness,its creative and emer-gent qualities(Ben-Amos1971;Bauman1975).ToBakhtin,there isnoactivitymoreessentiallyfolk-loric thancarnival. Under"carnival,"hesubsumesanumberofcelebrations-includingmedieval enact-mentsofthe Feastof FoolsandLordof Misrule rev-els-most often observedinthe month betweenAd-vent andEpiphany-butthe celebration that most thor-oughlyembodiesthespiritoffolkfestivalisthe oneheemploysto name them all: the GermanFastnacht,the French MardiGras,theSpanishCarnavaland Ital-ianCarnevale,celebrated on the eve of the ChristianLenten fast(Bakhtin1968,5).We have extensive accountsof late medieval andearlyRenaissancecarnivals,as well as somelivingex-amplesto workwith.One of the mostthoroughlydocu-mented is theCajun countryCourir de MardiGras,stillpractisedintwo dozen rural locales ontheprairiesofsouthwest Louisiana(Osterand Reed1960;Oster1964;Post1974;Ancelet and Lindahl1974-95;Ancelet andMorgan1979;Ancelet1980;Gould1980;Adair1983;GouldandSpitzer1984;Spitzer1986;Ancelet1989;Ancelet,EdwardsandPitre1991;Lindahl1992;Mire1992;Ware1994).Itisthis celebration whichIwill useasmy principal pointofcomparison,soInow describeitbriefly.ASketchof CajunMardi GrasAgroupof costumed menandboys-ideally,so thor-oughlycostumedthat their friends and relations wouldnot know them-assembleintheearly morningundertheleadershipof thecapitaine,atemporary despotwhowillplaythe "mostimportant singlerole"(Spitzer1986,455)in the festive drama and standinfullcommandimaginaryline wheretheywaittostruggleand chase.Thecapitainehrowsthe chicken into anopenfieldandthe men runafterit. The one who catches itishailedas avictor,and the entiretroupecelebrates thevictorywith free-formcarousinguntil thecapitaineblows ahorn to summon them back to the road. Thispatternisrepeatedatvariousfarmhouses until theMardi Grashas circledthetown,at whichtime thecapitaineeadsthegroupinaparadeback to its centre.The wholetown thensharesagumbo(athicklong-seasonedsoup)cookedfromcapturedchickensand ends theeveningwithabalmasqud.Nextmorningis AshWednesday,dayofatonement,beginningofLent-and,asmorethan one riderhastoldme,"Ifyoudo Mardi Grasright,you'llhaveenoughto atone for whenyou get upearlynextmorningandgotochurch."2Thereismore thanampleevidence that thepre-Lenten feasts of Rabelais's time wereperformedinsimilar fashion.RogerVaultier documentsperform-ancesdatingfrom the fourteenth and fifteenth centu-ries(Vaultier1946,45-59).Emmanuel LeRoyLadurieanalysesingreatdetailtwo celebrationsenacted insouthern Francewithintwenty-six yearsof Rabelais'sdeath(LeRoyLadurie1979).Arnold vanGenneptracesthehistoricaldevelopmentandgeographicvariationofMardi GrasthroughoutFrance,helpingus to estab-lishthat such modern enactments astheCajunCourirsharemanyof the forms and functions of those wit-nessedbyRabelais(vanGennep1937-8,868-1148).3It does not takelongto sketch theskeletonof MardiGras,but to tell all it doesormeans would fillmanybooks.Icanemphasise onlyafew ofitssignalfunc-tions,those mostimportantto a constructivecritiqueofBakhtin.First,MardiGras definesgroupterritory:the riders leavefrom,and returnto,themoyeu,the
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