I N T E R P R E T I V E R E A D I N G
r e a d i n g a n g e l a c a r t e r ' s W I S E C H I L D R E N
BY S.L. DEEFHOLTS
P A R T T H R E ECARNIVAL AND THE CARNIVALESQUE
Life As A Carnival
OFFICIALLY, CARNIVAL is a time of wild revelry that takes place before Lent. People are allowed to cut loose before the weeks of restraint that are to follow. In the modern world, carnival still thrives in diverse forms, from the elegant masks and elaborate costumes in Venice, to the wild debauchery of the New Orleans Mardi Gras. But, carnival has an old lineage. And the term "carnivalesque" refers to a certain distinctive spirit that pervaded the medieval European carnivals as described by a Russian critic named Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin lived in the 20th century, but in his book, Rabelais and his World, he studied the works of the medieval French writer and satirist Rabelais. Bakhtin argued that although many had analysed Rabelais' work in the past, none had looked at them in their proper context. That context is the medieval carnival, as Bakhtin defines it.THE CARNIVALESQUE IN Wise Children
I won't be commenting on the accuracy of Baktin's notions of the medieval carnival. But, I will say that his ideas about the spirit that pervaded these celebrations -- the attitudes, forms and conventions that emerged among the people -- have influenced various contemporary writers, in the form of the carnivalesque. As David K. Danow points out, in his book, The Spirit of Carnival, carnival itself and the carnivalesque should be separated in your mind: while "carnival" refers to a specific kind of celebration and the attitudes that emerge during these times, "carnivalesque" extracts that essence. It names this distinctive spirit in other contexts, including fiction.
According to Bakhtin, carnival was a time when all the hierarchies that were so firmly established in medieval life were inverted. The lowliest were placed at the same level as those who were ordinarily socially superior -- and sometimes even elevated above them. This was a time of flux. It acknowledged the organic functions of the body with bawdy references to eating, drinking, copulation and defecation. Carnival was marked by inclusion rather than exclusion -- it embraced the diversity of humanity in all its forms and imperfections, and, in fact, privileged those imperfections over the perfected, Classical conception of humanity. The emphasis was on our earthy side, and so much of the carnival imagery dealt with humans when they are closest to the earth: namely, at times of birth and of death.
One potent image that Bakhtin evokes as being emblematic of the carnival spirit is that of the laughing hag who is heavily pregnant and on the verge of giving birth. Her flesh is aged and sagging, and she is close to death, but she is also about to bring fresh life into the world and to continue the cycle of birth, life and death, well beyond her own return to the earth. And, so, she laughs at life, at death, at humanity and at the cycle of existence.
Her laughter represents yet another aspect of carnival. This form of humour undermines the hierarchies that exist outside of carnival -- it reminds us that even the most exalted of men and women are just as human as the rest of us. Like us, they eat, drink, copulate and defecate. And, like us, they were born and they will die. And so, this humour elevates the lowly, even as it reduces the lofty. Like the celebration of the imperfections of humanity, its frailties and its links with its earthy origins, carnival laughter allows for the destruction of hierarchies.
Bakhtin argues that, as with the carnival spirit, carnival humour has no real equivalent in contemporary satire, which is purely exclusive, laughing at a subject outside of itself. Carnival laughter ridiculed the humanity that it encompassed. By reducing humanity to its physical forms and the cycles of birth, aging and death to which these forms are subject, it allowed for a kind of regeneration to take place that is not possible in a sterilized, perfected context of humour.
So what are these characteristics of the carnivalesque?revelry and celebrationEach of the different bulleted points are often manifested through an attenuated depiction of reality -- or even by portrayals that seem almost "larger than life," giving them an exaggerated, dreamlike or magical feel. On the one hand, this is because each of these elements do contain an inherent magic: revelry always has a strange, wild feel to it, while the inversion of hierarchies requires a special kind of magic in order to be possible, and so on down the list. These are simply some of the many elements in the world -- and in the world of re-presentation -- that contain a magical potential. In addition, this feeling of intensity can come from the weight of layered meaning that an author has woven into a text, because the events being recounted can often operate on three or more different levels, the most frequent of these being the literal, the referential (i.e. allusions, like the presence of Shakespearean motifs in Wise Children) and the metaphorical. So, in order to bring the elements of the carnivalesque alive in novels -- to evoke that sense of inclusion, of fullness and even of earthiness -- authors have sometimes turned to Magical Realism in order to truly capture, at the emotive level, these different factors.
leveling or inversion of hierarchies
the chaos of change and of fluctuation
inclusion of all humanity
laughter that regenerates even as it reduces
acknowledgement of the body and its cycles of birth, aging and death as well as the organic functions of eating, drinking, copulation and defecation
Danow points out some further characteristics that manifest in carnivalesque literature -- characteristics that may strike you as being somewhat familiar: "it supports the unsupportable, assails the unassailable, at times regards the supernatural as natural, takes fiction as truth and makes the extraordinary or 'magical' as viable a possibility as the ordinary or 'real,' so that no true distinction is perceived or acknowledged between the two" (3). Taken out of context, some might assume that Danow's description is actually an explication of Magical Realism. This connection is key, since many manifestations of the carnivalesque in novels also tie into manifestations of Magical Realism. Although the two concepts are separate and can exist completely independently of each other, there are areas where the two are juxtaposed, so that often, by observing -- or better still, by examining -- the carnivaesque elements in a given novel, we are also noting the presence of Magical Realism, or at the very least, its traces.
The repeated refrain in Wise Children is "What a joy it is to dance and sing!" It is a book about celebration and about the lighter side of life -- it glances away from tragedies, and even from the plodding passage of the everyday. We know from page one that this book is in a lighter vein -- the narrative begins with a riddle and proceeds into Dora's bouncy introduction of herself and her context. Her explication of her location is literal as well as metaphorical -- she and her sister do live on the "bastard side of Old Father Thames" (1), and this is one of the first things Dora tells us. We also learn of her connection to Shakespeare early on: she and Nora have lived all of their lives in the house on 49 Bard Road, and their lives have been correspondingly influenced by the Bard's presence in his more burlesque manifestations. She and Nora come from the side of the comedies and bawdiness of the comic relief in the plays -- the characters who are unashamed of their bodies and who are not afraid to acknowledge the sweat, the flatulence and the defecation associated with the mortal coil. And so, Dora sets us up with her introduction: we know we are in for an irreverent account in a slightly off-colour hue.PART 4 ~ ALL THE WORLD'S A STAGE -- Shakespeare is inevitable in this book, and the allusions explicated here are only a sampling
The spirit of the carnivalesque permeates the work. And so it is that Dora has absolutely no reverence for the more exalted characters in the novel. The Lady Atlanta Hazard, first wife to Dora's father, Melchior, affectionately becomes "Wheelchair" when she is confined to the aforementioned apparatus after an unfortunate fall left her with spinal damage. And even when she is at her height of beauty and glory -- widely regarded as the loveliest woman of her generation -- Dora insists on associating her features with livestock: "a fair-haired lady with a sheep's profile," (56) and "a sheep in a tiara" (70). Similarly, the Lady A.'s twin daughters, Saskia and Imogen -- reknowned beauties in their own right -- are also described as resembling "sheep with bright red fleece" (74). Time and time again, Dora refuses to pay homage to her social "superiors." Instead, she is more than ready to pull away the veil of mystique that enshrouds those who are higher up in the social hierarchy: " 'The lovely Hazard girls', they used to called them. Huh. Lovely is as lovely does; if they looked like what they behave like, they'd frighten little children," (7) she says of the Lady A.'s daughters.
And, despite his lofty reputation, Dora's own father is similarly subjected to her cheeky commentary. She doesn't hesitate to take him down a peg or two -- or to remind us that for all his high-flown language and ambitions, he's as human and as flawed as the rest of us. She knows that the quickest way to undermine dignity is to bring up images of copulation and defecation -- and so, she often evokes such associations when her father enters the scene: "... smashing legs... I did piss myself when I saw him, in fact, but only a little bit, hardly enough to stain the sofa. Such eyes! Melchior's eyes, warm and dark and sexy as inside of a London cab in wartime... those knicker-shifting, unfasten-your-brassiere-from-the-back-of-the-gallery eyes..."(72). Later, it is not Melchior's eyes that come under scrutiny, but some other, considerably more private, parts: "...the way that Melchior filled those tights was the snag; Genghis hadn't gone to all this expenses to that his wife would be upstaged by her co-star's package" (132). And so it is that even the head of the "Royal Family of the theatre" (37) is temporarily dethroned by Dora's irreverence.
Her descriptions of these -- and other -- figures are sassy and vivid. She is ready to laugh at the absurd, no matter how it tries to disguise itself in finery. This is one of the key factors that allows her to level the hierarchies in her life. In her eyes -- and her narrative -- the class system is a bit of folly. She doesn't care about who was born as what, and so she is ready to reduce everyone to the same level by bringing out all their common flaws and their humanity. Nor does she pretend to be any better than they. She willingly admits to her own shortcomings and transgressions -- often as not without shame and with few regrets. And so it is that in her laughter, we can find our own humanity as well -- our virtues and our shortcomings. We can never quite take ourselves seriously when we think of Dora's stories, because as she points out, "nothing is a matter of life and death except life and death" (215).
And yet, between the extremes of life's beginning and end, there is so much to be experienced. Dora may claim to have said "maybe" to life (5), but her narrative serves as a resounding "yes" to all the chaos of life. The events she recounts are surreal, chaotic and wonderfully vivid. But, at a deeper level, the narrative itself presents a stylistic tribute to the joy of fluctuation: Dora happily discards the option of a chronological, ordered account in favour of a burgeoning style that bursts at the seams of cohesion. She freezes her account in the middle of one scene in order to jump several generations back into the past and regale her audience with an evocation of her grandparents (11-12), even though they don't have any direct relevance to the scene that she has frozen. And, by the time she finally returns to set the present scene back into action, we've practically forgotten that it had been frozen in the first place.
Again and again, she jumps across the span of her life. An account of her childhood shares the same page as the story of how they lost their adoptive mother when they were on the verge of turning thirty. From there, we jump back again to age fifteen and the tale of how she and her sister ended up dyeing their hair (78-79). And so it is that the narrative itself buckles and shakes against the conventions of linearity, often as not breaking into a joyously whimsical form that, by its very nature, is carnivalesque in its celebration of chaos and flux.
Of course, the carnivalesque -- and the chaotic -- is not merely confined to events or to narrative styles. People can also carry about them that aura of unpredictability and magic. Perry is one such character: when he enters the scene, magic, revelry and pandemonium follow. He has a full laugh and a vast presence. He is a magician who can summon doves out of handkerchiefs (31), make a full set of china and cutlery disappear after an afternoon picnic (62), extricate a couple of cream buns from Grandma Chance's cleavage (73) or, best of all, extract a scarlet macaw from Melchior's tights, thus resolving the problem of the size of his brother's "package" (133). His laughter, like Dora's own, is full and infectious -- he's ready to see the funny side of most situations and is ready to include himself in that carnivalesque humour of his.
Perry is like a traveling carnival -- and travel he must, because of a kind of restlessness in his nature. No one ever knows where he might be, or when he might reappear in their lives, without warning. But, when he does reappear, he brings fun and revelry with him. It is he who first introduces Dora and Nora, when they are still tiny, to the magic of the phonograph, and the joy of song and dance (33). Later, when they are thirteen, he sweeps them off for a picnic in Brighton, where, once again, they revel in good food, good company and high spirits (62).
Yet, beyond his conjuring talents and his ability to raise the spirits of those around him into a celebratory state, events themselves often seem to become a little strange when Perry comes to visit. On one occasion, Perry suggests that they dance: "As I remember it, a band struck up out of nowhere.... Or perhaps it was Perry on his harmonica, all the time, who provided the music, so that we could dance for him"(68). Later, even stranger things ensue: "Peregrine spread his arms as wide as wings and gathered up the orphan girls, pressed us so close we crushed against his waistcoat, bruising our cheeks on his braces' buttons. Or perhaps he slipped one of us in each pocket of his jacket. Or he crushed us far inside his shirt, against his soft, warm belly, to be sustained by the thumping comfort of his heart. And then, hup! he did a back-flip out of the window with us, saving us" (72).
He is monumental -- "the size of a warehouse, bigger, the size of a tower block" (206) and as far as he's concerned "'life's a carnival'"(222). As Dora says, he is "always the lucky one, our Peregrine, even in his memories, which [a]re full of laughter and dancing; he always remember[s] the good times" (18). If there's an event to be celebrated, the possibility of Perry turning up as the spirit of carnival himself can never be completely discounted, regardless of his presumed location or status.
And indeed, talk of events to celebrate brings us around to yet another aspect of the carnivalesque: revelry.
Of course, it is important to note that, like the other elements, the revelry of the carnivalesque does have a darker side. Part of the appeal of celebration is the fact that it is a time to release all inhibitions and cut loose, but this always carries with it an element of danger -- the wild card that can suddenly turn a happy crowd into a vicious or panicked mob. This darker side is as important an aspect as the brighter aspects and it can be part of the excitement of the celebration itself for some participants -- the sense of living on the edge and of risking the possibility of that shift in mood. If this dangerous side intrigues you, then Danow's The Spirit of Carnival often deals with this aspect of the carnivalesque.
But, Dora -- and, at a higher level, Carter -- have consciously chosen to eschew this subtext to revelry for the purposes of Wise Children. In that sense, it is a paean to a more controlled kind of celebration -- perhaps even one that has some elements of the potentially spectacular but meticulously choreographed, revelry that takes place on stage for the pleasure of an audience. Dora is, after all, a performer. She may improvise as well as the next person -- humour often requires the ability to capitalize on the spontaneous -- but she's also memorized her lines and knows all her steps. Yet, despite the overarching control, orchestration can be made to appear chaotic and wild. Even if Carter ultimately keeps a tight rein on her characters and her stories, the feeling of burgeoning, carnivalesque splendour is still vividly felt.
Outside of medieval carnival itself, times of revelry and celebration encompass the moments that are closest to the carnivalesque. And so it is during these times that Dora allows her vision of events to slip even further from the bonds of realism and shift into a magically real perspective. Anything can, and does happen. And so it is that during the party following the filming of the movie The Dream, the set of the Athenian wood can be transformed:
"The tin roof over our head seemed to have cracked open and disappeared, somehow, because there was a real, black sky above us... And I no longer remember that set as a set, but as a real wood, dangerous, uncomfortable, with real, steel spines on the conkers and thorns on the bushes, but looking as if it were unreal and painted, and the bewildering moonlight spilled like milk in this wood, as if Hollywood were the name of the enchanted forest where you lose yourself and find yourself, again; the wood that changes you; the wood where you go mad; the wood where the shadows live longer than you do. (157-8) "
Here, we have a glimpse of the ambivalence of the carnivalesque -- the magical aspects of the revelry are also reminders of mortality. The celebration of life may be ongoing, but the individuals are transient. The carnivalesque celebrates the cycle, but in doing so, also depersonalizes the individuals -- the revelry of the carnival is about birth, life, death and transformation; it brings our attention to the bodies and the mortality that we all have in common. At the same time, the pure carnivalesque spirit overlooks those things that differentiate us from each other, and it is for this reason that status is ignored and hierarchies toppled during these times.
The culmination of all these wild, surreal celebrations can be found at the end of the novel, during Melchior's 100th birthday celebration. Here, we find food and drink. But, we are also witness to the other aspects of the material bodily principle and the idea that we are all ultimately eating, drinking, copulating and dying beings. And so, there's a magnificent scene of cthonic copulation that is somehow also seasoned with a kind of monumental laughter that encompasses the very world that it inhabits. There are shadows of death and betrayal -- as well as the motif of death cheated, for we also learn that the reports of the demise of both Perry and Tiffany are greatly exaggerated. The hierarchical superiority of "realism" is also toppled during these scenes, and Magical Realism seeps in, adding extra force to the throbbing vivacity of the events recounted. We are presented with resolutions to many of the outstanding questions and intrigues of Dora's narrative and left with a sense of closure that is, in itself, bordering on the magical.
We are also presented with reminders of the other end of the life span: birth. Three-month old twins, "brown as [...] quail[s], round as [...] egg[s]" (226), presented to Dora and Nora, courtesy of Perry. Nora in particular, is thrilled by the prospect of raising the two wee scraps: "'Babies!' she said, and cackled with glee" (229). And so it is that the novel ends with the marvelous, memorable, utterly carnivalesque image of the laughing hags, serenading their babies in two-part harmony as they head toward their home on Bard Road.
PART 5 ~ CONCLUSION
return to INTRODUCTION
return to PART 1 ~ DUALITIES
return to AN INVENTORY OF TWINS
return to PART 2 ~ …AND DUPLICITY
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