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CARNrVAL OF SILENCE: BAKHTIN AND HUGO'S NOTRE-DAME DE PARIS Lynn Franken In our opinion a very novel and interesting book might be written upon the employment ofthe grotesque in art. (Hugo, "Preface" 32) For the word (and, consequently,for a human being) there is nothing more terrible than a lack of response. (Bakhtin, "Problem" 127) Notre-Dame de Paris begins on carnival day: On January 6, 1482, the people ofParis were awakened by the tumultuous clanging of all the bells in the city. [. . .] The cause ofall the commotion on the sixth of January was the double holiday of the Epiphany and the Festival ofFools, united since time immemorial. (Blair I)1 To reread Hugo's novel in the Ught ofBakhtin on carnival is to anticipate from this setting some inversion of the world of medieval Paris: some relocation of power, some illuminating or regenerative transposition of values. In Christian tradition, Epiphany ranks as the generative transpositional moment (the Gentile Magi adore the Christ Chüd). In secular paraUel, the Festival of Fools upends aU worldly hierarchies. With this deeply suggestive beginning, Hugo elects carnival as a dominant motif for his novel. Yet the regenerative potential that Bakhtin finds at the heart of aU carnival forms, Hugo specificaUy rejects. From a Bakhtinian point of view, it would seem, the problem with Notre-Dame de Paris is the bleak resolution of its carnival promise. Hugo's primary source for literary carnival was almost certainly Rabelais. In his 1864 study of Shakespeare and the nature of genius, Hugo identifies Rabelais as the genius of the belly: "Rabelais is the Aeschylus of victuals; indeed, it is grand when we think that eating is devouring. There is something of the gulf in the glutton. [. . .] This universe , which Dante put into hell, Rabelais confines in a winecask [. . .]" (Shakespeare 47, 51).2 Referring to this study in RabeL·is and His World, Bakhtin credits Hugo with "the most profound and fuU admiration of Rabelais" (125) even as he cites Hugo's final understanding as an early example in a long series of carnival misreadings: Hugo correctly understands the essential relation ofRabelaisian laughter to death and to the struggle between life and death. [. . .] More than that he sees the link between Dante's hell and Rabelais' gluttony. [. . .] Having correctly pointed out the relation between laughter, death ofthe old world, hell, and banquet imagery (devouring and swallowing), Hugo falsely interpreted this connection. He tried to lend it [. . .] a moral-philosophical character. He failed to understand the regenerating and renewing power of the lower stratum. (126) In Bakhtin's analysis, Hugo gets the formal and functional correspondences right but misses the regenerative affect. For Bakhtin, the lower stratum, this beUy with its maze of guts, genital protrusions, and prolixVoIs 25 (2001): 110 ??? COHPAnATIST ity of extrusion, is in carnival terms both grave and garden; "the zone in which conception and new birth take place," it is to be understood as a topography only, without moral or philosophical implications. As Bakhtin reads Hugo, however—"[t]he destroying force of the topographic lower stratum is interpreted in ethical and philosophical terms" (Rabelais 126). And, indeed, Hugo fairly thunders his denunciation of the ethics of the belly, which is to humanity a formidable weight: it breaks every moment the equilibrium between the soul and the body. It fills history. It is responsible for nearly all crimes. It is the bottle ofall vices. It is the belly which by voluptuousness makes the sultan and by drunkenness the czar [...]. The appetite debauches the intellect. [. . .] The belly eats the man. (Shakespeare 50) At the same time, as Bakhtin notices, Hugo also locates heroism in the belly. His exemplar, Catherine Sforza, rebuffs a threat to her children, exposing herself "naked to her navel" as she shouts: "With this I can give birth to others" (Shakespeare 51). Granting that Hugo understands the universality of Rabelais' images of the lower stratum, Bakhtin concludes, nevertheless, that the "spirit" of Hugo's observations "is not entirely Rabelaisian" (Rabelais 127). Carnival laughter in Bakhtin's poetics serves to transfer all that is high, spiritual, and ideal to the material level, the site of renewal. When the people laugh, Bakhtin writes...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-0887
Print ISSN
0195-7678
Pages
pp. 110-132
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-03
Open Access
No
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