Rabelais and his World [Bakhtin]
Bakhtin’s book has made a significant contribution to the understanding of Rabelais (as well as explaining his centuries-long misinterpretation), but, even more importantly, it establishes a new category of humor that shapes the reader’s understanding of comedy itself. That the author did his important work under Stalin’s regime is the more remarkable
Bakhtin’s revealing information on topics such as folk observances, vituperative speech, Cyprian’s Dinner, and the Easter laugh would alone make the book worth reading. The application of these data to Rabelais was ground-breaking; such analyses as the discussion of the wedding customs of the Bum-bailiffs in Book Four (to take an example almost at random) are persuasive, magnifying rather than diminishing the strength of the texts.
But the greatest achievement of Bakhtin’s book is to define a unique form of comedy, one associated with the Carnival holiday, a universalizing humor embracing all of humankind, the wise and comely as well as the ridiculous, a sort of grand upwelling of spirit in which the dualities of pain and pleasure, life and death dissolve in laughter. Rabelais and his World is a rare book of criticism. A work of art in itself, it illuminates a text but teaches the reader as well about literature in general and even, perhaps, a bit about life.
It Can’t Happen Here [Lewis]
I do recall the pleasure of a suburban sixth-grader looking for allies in his opposition to the “booboisie” (to use Mencken’s term). The satiric shots in Main Street may have had targets already a generation gone, but every one of them was pointed in the correct direction. I fancy, though, that even then I suspected Lewis of being a bit flat, his points repetitive, his analysis shallow and too easy.
In fact It Can’t Happen Here is best read as a potboiler, a genre on which Lewis had cut his teeth. As a boy’s adventure story it is almost readable, while artistically and on the political thematic level, it is a labored exercise. The view from Sauk Centre made the small fish, the petty bourgeoisie, look like the ruling class. Poor taste can seem a greater issue than greed, a small-town Babbitt a more despicable enemy than a robber baron. But Lewis never goes in to what really motivates even the follower in fascism: the aggression, economic insecurity, and scapegoating that can combine to make a rank-and-file Nazi or Tea Partier. His stormtroopers are vulgar rubes who dress in drag and blackface for “good, old-time Elks Club humor.” Jessup, the Vermonter who might as well have been Midwestern, thinks that those who “mind their own business” very likely rank higher in heaven than such “plumed souls” as the abolitionists.
Lewis had interrupted his education at Yale to spend time in Upton Sinclair’s short-lived experimental community, the Helicon Home Colony, but it may be that neither Yale nor the communards transformed him altogether. I am pleased to report that he does declare for some sort of Cooperative Commonwealth at last which places his social thought still in advance of the early twenty-first century.
A decent read yet today, Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland resembles its British predecessors of earlier decades as an epistolary seduction novel while emphatically Gothic, like books in the more recent fashion.
In the new American land, the author poises himself delicately between many of his oppositions. The Lockean reliance on perceptions is here traduced by false sense impressions while the pious man falls prey to monstrous delusion. The characters are only recent Americans with ties yet to Europe, and the action occurs in a kind of historic breather between the French and Indian and the Revolutionary Wars. The sensational Gothic side-show attractions of spontaneous combustion and “biloquism” are neither fully accounted for as in the Radcliffe’s “explained supernatural” nor are they as mysterious as in Walpole. The potential Eden of the American forest turns hellish. Its residents sidestep Europe’s centuries-long accretions of injustice only to enact a more monstrous scenario.
The reader may wonder, though, whether Brown is in fact subtly playing both ends of these dualities or if he is simply careless. Carwin is never really motivated and Louisa is quite forgotten by her author (until the very end). The description is Romantic to a fault, but, especially when representing emotional states, it is repetitive and over-amplified.
The book is particularly susceptible to self-reflective readings in which Carwin’s voices are a figure for the author’s speaking in the first person narration. The plot depends on misunderstanding and missed communications as well as on things unknowable to the characters. In fact it is sufficiently underdetermined that the reader at the end is likely to feel unsatisfied.