It is a telling coincidence that two exceptional reflections on Carnival were written—almost simultaneously—when Europe was approaching its most devastating crisis. Bakhtin finished Rabelais and his World in 1940 (not published until 1966). In 1935, Benjamin published a short text entitled “Conversation above the Corso: Recollections of Carnival-Time in Nice,” one of the journalistic commissions that allowed him to survive in the south of France while fleeing Nazi persecution. It is no coincidence that both Bakhtin and Benjamin would turn their attention to periods of upheaval in Europe—the Renaissance and the Baroque—and especially to Carnival which, as readers of Goethe, both understood as as a time when the artificiality of the social order was unmasked, conventions vanished and, as Bakhtin put it, “all participants entered, as it were, the utopian kingdom of absolute equality and freedom” (Rabelais and his World, 264). Why wear carnival masks when the world around us is falling apart?
But the masks are not the same. In Benjamin’s text, the narrator—hardly interested in the carnival itself—sits in a café with his friend and an excentric Danish sculptor to observe and comment on the Mardi Gras parade, which they find unremarkable. There is nothing extraordinary about Carnival because, the friend says, in today’s social and economic conditions you run into the extraordinary wherever you turn. Take the mask of the “Fairground Chronicler,” which resembles an advertisement for a shoe company. Distracted, the narrator simply imagines the masks after the names that the friends call out—’Animal-Tamer Tamed,' the ‘Boxing Kangaroo,’ the ‘Chestnut Vendor.’ Some of his imagined masks might have been a match to the real ones on the street, the narrator decides, “especially since they were not disfigured by numbers sewn to their backs” (SW3, 27). With the shadow of fascism over Benjamin’s shoulder, Carnival’s all-too real utopia seems unpromising.
For Bakhtin, Carnival is a heteroglossic event: a multifarious mix of imperial, popular, religious, and humanist elements, which Renaissance writers appropriated as the utopian image of a new world. In contrast, Benjamin’s bored narrator dismisses the “monkish” suggestion that the word ‘carnival’ comes from saying ‘carne, vale,’ (meat, farewell) at the beginning of Lent, rather suggesting it comes from the Roman custom of reconsecrating boats—carrus navalis—in solemn processions before relaunching them. Less a Catholic origin, then, than a pagan and Imperial one. In turn, the Danish sculptor (perhaps a mask for Brecht, at the time exiled in Denmark) says: “The carnival is a state of exception. A descendant of the ancient saturnalia, when everything was turned upside down and the lords waited on the slaves” (SW3, 28).
Bakhtin has a similar point: he says that the image of Carnival fills the same function in Rabelais as the plague did for Bocaccio. The plague "grants the right to use other words, to have another approach to life and to the world. Not only have all conventions been dropped, but all laws ‘both human and divine’ are silenced. Life has been lifted out of its routine, the web of conventions has been torn; all the official hierarchic limits have been swept away” (Rabelais and his World, 273). Carnival is a crisis—a moment of judgment and a turning point—in a mask.
If both the Plague and Carnival are temporary suspensions of the normal order, a temporary upsetting of the hierarchical arrangements of space and time—a time upside down—, what happens when they coincide, as it does now?
In our case, the COVID-19 crisis is nothing but the interruption of the normal order in which Carnival would have been an interruption of the normal order. Interrupting Carnival does not mean carrying on as usual—it means that the usual order in which Carnival would have normally taken place is interrupted. Is this not to say that Carnival is already a part of the normal order? And not even just any part of the normal order, but an essential part? Carnival is an interruption—as upheaval, renovation, or catharsis—that is necessary to carry on with business as usual.
Isn’t this implied in Benjamin’s observation that Carnival is a state of exception? We know this logic well: in Schmitt (who Benjamin cites in his book on the Baroque) the state of exception is ultimately what allows sovereign power to be above the law and hence preserve the law. Sovereign power only affirms itself as power when it interrupts the normal order; hence, its power depends, essentially, on this capacity for interruption.
The “world upside down” of Carnival has always been, as Benjamin writes, the time when lords served slaves. If the lord allows the interruption of the normal order it is only so that he can continue ruling after the temporary suspension. This might be the reason why Benjamin is uninterested in the floats and parades of the Carnival of Nice: he sees them against the rising threat of fascism and, as he writes, “a state of exception only stands out against an ordinary state.” (SW3 26). In 1935, as in 2020, the ordinary state has already been interrupted, the conventions have been unmasked along with the revelers, and the stark reality appears as it is: with numbers sewn to their backs.
Final coincidence: Benjamin is also a reader of Rabelais, and mentions the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel in connection with Carnival. For the Danish sculptor in Benjamin’s text, giants symbolize one side of childhood innocence, the other side being the minute world of fairies (the text, after all, is supposed to be a review of an exhibition titled l’Enfance). The wonderful thing about children, they conclude, is that they can freely switch between the two border-zones of the human and spend time in either. The revolutionary power in childlike innocence, Benjamin implies, is the capacity to adopt all masks and none—to enjoy the mimetic impulse—whereas adults are incapable of removing their serious, hardened masks. Thus, “carnival should be an opportunity, at least once a year, to behave in a slightly giant-like way—at once more freely and more decently than we do in your everyday lives” (SW3, 30). The problem is how to tell the difference between the normal and the extraordinary when the state of exception becomes permanent.
* Daniel Villegas holds a PhD in Music and Aesthetics and is a Postdoctoral Researcher with Homo Mimeticus: Theory and Criticism ERC project at the Institute of Philosophy, KU Leuven. He is currently writing a book titled Mimetologies: Mimesis and Music 1600-1850 for Oxford University Press.