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Monday, December 17, 2012

Bakhtin’s Theory of Literary Carnival Meets the Mighty Sparrow


I found myself explaining Bakhtin’s theory of literary carnival to my ten-year-old daughter yesterday. She has been reading over my shoulder as I write about the concept and she finally asked what I was talking about. I decided to make an effort at an explanation, figuring that if I could frame it out for her then it might advance my efforts to explain the concept in my work.

Bakhtin’s carnival, like many ancient and modern social carnivals, is a way of looking at the world that unifies, merges or subverts norms and ideas that are typically thought of as opposites. I describe carnival in more detail in an essay I wrote for the NYU Review of Law and Social Change. I also blogged about the concept previously here.

Carnival often involves subversion of mainstream social, legal, economic or other norms.  In carnival, privileged figures are sometimes mocked, demoted and subverted by the oppressed who then assume power, even though only in pretense and usually for only a short while. Carnival is a sanctioned blowing off of social steam that, while riotous and even sometimes offensive, is often ambivalent in its goals: in carnival the lowly sometimes secretly admire and yearn for the respectability and privilege of those whom they mock.

Bakhtin’s carnival is related to historically instantiated folk carnivals such as pre-Lenten celebrations. Bakhtin’s carnival is also, however, sometimes much more metaphorical in nature, and occurs within certain types of language forms, such as in parodies or satires that are unconnected to any particular instance of a folk carnival. Sometimes the material and metaphoric dimensions of carnival come together, such as in some Caribbean carnivals where raucous folk festival is characterized by carnivalesque songs, poems or chants.

My daughter was frowning in puzzlement at this point so I offered an example of a genre of carnivalistic discourses: calypso songs. Calypso songs provide a duel purpose explanation of Bakhtin’s carnival—they frequently form a part of pre-Lenten or other festivals in much of the Caribbean, and the songs themselves offer a rich tradition of satire and parody that challenges mainstream ideas and figures in society. In my explanation I used a calypso song that my daughter knows, Mighty Sparrow’s “Mr. Walker.”  This was a particular favorite of my late mother-in-law and we sing and play it a lot as we reminiscence during the Christmas season.

Here are the words and a link to the song:

She ugly yes, but she wearing them expensive dress
The People say she ugly, but she father full of money
Oh Lord Mamma, woy woy

Good morning Mr. Walker
I come to see your daughter
Oh, Mr. Walker!
I come to see your daughter
Sweet Rosemarie, she promise she gone marry me
And now I tired waiting!
I come to fix the wedding.

After the wedding day, I don't care what nobody say
Every time I take a good look at she face I see a bankbook
Oh Lord Mamma, woy woy

Good morning Mr. Walker
I come to see your daughter
Hmm, Mr. Walker!
I come to see your daughter
Sweet Rosemarie, she promise she gone marry me
And now I tired waiting!
I come to fix the wedding.

Apart from that, they say how she so big and fat
When she dress they tantalize she, saying monkey wearing mini
Oh Lord Mamma, woy woy

Good morning Mr. Walker
I come to see your daughter
Oy, Mr. Walker!
I come to see your daughter
Sweet Rosemarie, she promise she gone marry me
And now I tired waiting!
I come to fix the wedding.

All I know, is I don't intend to let she go
Cause if she was a beauty, nothing like me could get she
Oh Lord Mamma, woy woy

Good morning Mr. Walker
I come to see your daughter
Oy, Mr. Walker!
I come to see your daughter
Sweet Rosemarie, she promise she gone marry me
And now I tired waiting!
I come to fix the wedding.

My daughter is especially amused that the song seems to offer open insult to the woman being described all while prefacing the insults with a particularly Caribbean aspect of social nicety: “good morning.” Part of her amusement is because this rang true for her. During many of our visits to the U.S. and British Virgin Islands it has become apparent to my daughter that little can be accomplished in business or social settings without starting with a requisite good morning, good afternoon, etc.  However, because of the outlandishness of the insults, my daughter is also clear that there is no way under the sun that a potential suitor is going to show up and say such offensive things to a woman’s father while claiming that he wants to marry her. She also understands that part of the humor lies in the demand from such a seemingly disempowered suitor. So, my daughter reasons, the song must be intended as a never-could-be, sly extended joke.

A troubling part is that the singer seems to assert that the unattractiveness of the woman potentially lowers her to his level. Listening from the perspective of Bakhtin’s carnival, however, my daughter starts to understand that the singer, though he seems to assail the “ugly” woman and her rich father, is partly laughing at himself. The plaintive tone of the music in some sections hints that the singer likely means the OPPOSITE of much of what he says and probably greatly admires both the woman and her father. That the singer says that he will keep the woman is perhaps best understood not as a plan to keep hold of the desire of his head (or wallet) but the desire of his heart.

Ah, this does the trick for my daughter. “Mr. Walker” is Bakhtinian carnival.

2 comments:

  1. Your daughter is pretty smart.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The co-presence of paradoxes and multiplicity of realities.
    thanks!

    ReplyDelete