(in a state of being) confused, not well organized, or giving importance to unexpected things
“The government’s topsy-turvy priorities mean that spending on education remains low.”
‘Carnivalesque’ is a literary genre that creates comedy and humour by subverting the norm. It originated as ‘carnival,’ thought of by Mikhail Bakhtin when tracing the evolution of comedic literature back to the Feast of Fools, a medieval festival where the power is transferred from those usually in control to the subordinates for one day of ‘misrule.’
In short, carnivalesque is the idea that comedy stems from the suspension of natural laws, and flipping the norm on its head.
I first heard about this genre of literature when attending a lecture at Sheffield University about Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The tutor put forward the idea that the comedy in Twelfth Night stems from its origins as a festival: ‘twelfth night’ is a Christian festival marking the coming of the Epiphany, or celebrating the arrival of the 3 wise men to visit baby Jesus, considered to be either the 5th or 6th of January. If we consider what Bakhtin said about the Feast of Fools, a similar idea is clear: the misrule stems from the festival, and the idea that the norm can be escaped for a brief window of time.
It is thought that Shakespeare did not name Twelfth Night for its content, but the day on which it was first performed. Whilst this cannot be known with utter certainty, it does make sense: Twelfth Night is not a play about a festival. It is, however, a play coated in misrule. With deception, disguise, a female protagonist, and the rejection of puritan morals, it is safe to say that Twelfth Night is a topsy-turvy play; never would such events actually occur to the same extent in reality. However, in staging them, Shakespeare indulges his audience, and allows for this brief escape from the norm. In short, he organises the misrule so that they don’t have to.
This ‘organised misrule’ of festivals or plays like Twelfth Night are often considered to be a preventative measure for uprising. If a society rigorously split into classes – as Elizabethan England was – occasionally hands the power from the upper to the lower classes, the lower classes are less likely to rebel. By providing this ‘organised misrule’ – in a sense, by controlling the misrule – these upper classes were able to hold onto their positions of power for the remainder of the time.
However, what I’m curious about is whether ‘topsy-turvy’ and ‘carnivalesque’ literature can lead to a different response. Could ‘topsy-turvy’ features of literature lead not to laughter, but to disturbance?
How fine is the line between comedy and upset?
Those of us who have watched Netflix’s Stranger Things are well aware of the concept of the ‘Upside-Down’ (which is, serendipitously, a synonym for ‘topsy-turvy’). The disturb in this TV series stems from the unsettling similarity the Upside-Down bears to reality. In fact, all of the same buildings exist. It is only that there are no people, and there’s concerning amount of grey goo everywhere. Regardless, there is a gap between reality and the Upside-Down, and this ‘gap’ is what leads to disturbance.
But if Stranger Things had been written as a comedy, how would this differ? Well, if we consider comedies that have a similar ‘gap,’ we can see that it is merely the writer’s intention that differs. In Twelfth Night, Viola dresses as a man in order to pass through society safely. The ‘gap’ here is that the average person would not do this, or would never be in the position to do this. The fact that Twelfth Night is set in a foreign land reminds the audience that this is not normal.
This is comedic because it does not happen in reality, and because Shakespeare wants it to be.
However, writers do not always have the intention of creating comedy. Take Mary Shelley, for example, writer of Frankenstein which was based on a nightmare she had. The most disturbing quality of Frankenstein’s monster is the resemblance he bears to reality. Because he is not close enough to reality to be convincing, he is sickening.
This is called the Uncanny Valley, a hypothesized relationship between the degree of an object’s resemblance to a human being and the emotional response to such an object. The concept is that humanoid objects which appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings elicit uncanny feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers. Let’s look at Frankenstein’s monster as our example:
How to describe my feelings at this awful show, how to represent unfortunate, created by me with such incredible work? And meanwhile its members were proportional, and I picked up for it beautiful lines. Beautiful — My God great! Yellow skin too hardly fitted his muscles and veins; hair black, shiny and long, and teeth white as pearls; but that their contrast with the watery eyes almost indistinguishable in color from eye-sockets, with dry skin and a narrow cut of a black mouth was more terrible. […] It was impossible to look at it without shuddering. No mummy restored to life could be more awful than this monster. I saw the creation unfinished; it was ugly even then; but when his joints and muscles started moving, something turned out more terrible, than all fictions of Dante.
Dr. Frankestein is disgusted at his creation. What he thought would be “beautiful” – with “black, shiny and long” hair and “teeth white as pearls” – turns out to be “terrible” and “impossible to look at it without shuddering.” This is because of the contrast in the beautiful aspects of the monster, and the harrowing: his “watery eyes,” “narrow cut of a black mouth,” and “dry skin” is not humanoid enough to inspire feelings of adoration. Instead, the resemblance the monster bears to reality makes him “sickening.”
But can the Uncanny Valley be considered in contexts not concerning ‘humanoid objects’?
Let’s look at a different genre of literature: War literature.
‘Uncanny’ can be defined as “strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way.” Sigmund Freud, however, looked at ‘the uncanny’ as a “psychological experience of something as strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. It may describe incidents where an everyday object or event is experienced in an unsettling, alienating, or taboo context.”
In Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff, the idea of war as ‘uncanny’ is presented. Raleigh’s first impression of war is that it is ‘uncanny’ and ‘silly.’ Throughout the play, Sherriff “shows how men are forced to endure a world which is ‘frightfully quiet’ and ‘uncanny,’ where natural laws dissolve, and time takes on a new dimension.” The men are forced to sit and wait for an attack. They live underground. They are surrounded by other men – both dead and alive – and share their living space with rats. The ‘gap’ here between reality and the text is even more frightening because this text is based on reality. ‘War’ in itself is uncanny.
This becomes clearer when tokens from the normal world are introduced into the dugout. Osborne talks about his children back home, and how they play with toy soldiers. He talks about gardening. Trotter and Hibbert show pictures of women. Raleigh thinks about playing rugby, and how no-man’s land is about the size of a rugby pitch.
At times, Sherriff allows the ‘uncanny’ to be comedic. For example, Trotter is gaining weight on rations, and the men’s tea tastes like onions. However, the ‘uncanny’ is also allowed to be disturbing – the ‘quiet,’ Raleigh’s eagerness to go on a raid, and the young soldier’s death, which he related to “that time I got hit in rugger.” The disturbance here stems from the fact that this is nothing like “that time.” This is war, and this is fatal.
However, the fact that the dying boy makes a connection to this ‘strangely familiar’ experience lends itself to the Uncanny Valley: an everyday rugby injury is inflated to a fatal war injury. This is ‘uncanny’ and unsettling because it shouldn’t be happening. War is the epitome of the ‘uncanny.’
But where else can we see the ‘uncanny’ in literature? Let’s return to Shakespeare.
The Taming of the Shrew is another of Shakespeare’s comedies, though this has much darker themes. ‘Carnivalesque’ is clear in how the audience are transported to wealthy Italian households, and a very British character is seen to ‘tame’ his wife. Whilst there were methods in society to ‘tame’ women – like the scold’s bridal – during this period, these were extreme circumstances. To see Petruchio tame Katherina in such an orchestrated and lighthearted way is certainly a ‘topsy-turvy’ take on reality, and the fact that this wouldn’t really be done in reality allows it to be ‘carnivalesque.’ In short, this is an extreme view on ‘taming’ women.
However, The Taming of the Shrew has – on occasion – been staged as a tragedy. This is certainly a valid interpretation: a woman is stripped of her personality and treated like an animal. Petruchio has an entire soliloquy based on how he will tame Katherina as though she is a hawk. In 1986, a Turkish production of The Taming of the Shrew by Yurcel Enten staged it as a tragedy, and Katherina’s final speech was delivered by the actress with a shawl over her arms. At the end of the speech she revealed that she had slashed her wrists, and the play closed with her death. Certainly, the ‘uncanny’ in Taming can be both comedic and disturbing. It all depends on performance.
Another genre of literature in which the ‘uncanny’ is prevalent is dystopia. Surely the unsettling features of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale stem from the resemblance they bear to reality. It is the mixture of a society we know and one that we hope we will never have to know that terrify us; the mixture of reality and unreality that entertains in some instances utterly disturbs in this instance, bringing us back to ‘carnivalesque’:
With humour and the grotesque, it weds and combines the sacred with the profane.
We can be both amused and terrified by the idea of ‘topsy-turvy.’ It all depends on how the writer wants us to react.