Bitter Carnival

Bitter Carnival: Ressentiment and the Abject Hero

Michael André Bernstein
Copyright Date: 1992
Pages: 260
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  • Book Info
    Bitter Carnival
    Book Description:

    "You people put importance on your lives. Well, my life has never been important to anyone. I haven't got any guilt about anything," bragged the mass-murderer Charles Manson. "These children that come at you with knives, they are your children. You taught them. I didn't teach them. . . . They are running in the streets--and they are coming right at you!" When a real murderer accuses the society he has brutalized, we are shocked, but we are thrilled by the same accusations when they are mouthed by a fictional rebel, outlaw, or monster. In Bitter Carnival, Michael Andr Bernstein explores this contradiction and defines a new figure: the Abject Hero. Standing at the junction of contestation and conformity, the Abject Hero occupies the logically impossible space created by the intersection of the satanic and the servile. Bernstein shows that we heroicize the Abject Hero because he represents a convention that has become a staple of our common mythology, as seductive in mass culture as it is in high art. Moving from an examination of classical Latin satire; through radically new analyses of Diderot, Dostoevsky, and Cline; and culminating in the courtroom testimony of Charles Manson, Bitter Carnival offers a revisionist rereading of the entire tradition of the "Saturnalian dialogue" between masters and slaves, monarchs and fools, philosophers and madmen, citizens and malcontents. It contests the supposedly regenerative power of the carnivalesque and challenges the pieties of utopian radicalism fashionable in contemporary academic thinking. The clarity of its argument and literary style compel us to confront a powerful dilemma that engages some of the most central issues in literary studies, ethics, cultural history, and critical theory today.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2063-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction Murder and the Utopian Moment
    (pp. 3-10)

    IN JULY 1979, on my way to visit my family in Toronto, I stopped for a few days in New York. On one of those evenings, at a friend’s apartment, I wanted to see who was playing in some of the clubs I used to visit when I still lived on the East Coast. My friend passed me a copy of that week’sVillage Voice, and I can still remember idly flipping through it before turning back for a moment to glance at the cover. Then I felt the room turn suddenly quiet, and something that must have been nausea...

    • One I Wear Not Motley in My Brain: Slaves, Fools, and Abject Heroes
      (pp. 13-33)

      “THERE IS no slander in an allowed fool, though he do nothing but rail.”¹ So Olivia assures Malvolio in Shakespeare’sTwelfth Night, but, of course, the very necessity of giving voice to such assurance indicates that offense has already been given, if only to the prickly steward, “sick of self-love” and temperamentally hostile to the clown’s impertinent playfulness. The crucial word here is “allowed,” as Olivia seeks to show the essential harmlessness of her fool’s raillery, not by disputing the content of his barbs, but rather, by emphasizing what kind of person has uttered them. Her remark cuts two ways,...

    • Two O Totiens Servus: Horace, Juvenal, and the Classical Saturnalia
      (pp. 34-56)

      LIKE SO MUCH else in contemporary theory, our newfound faith in the liberating power of carnival laughter returns for much of its rhetoric to the cardinal example of Friedrich Nietzsche. InBeyond Good and Evil, for example, Nietzsche claims for his own age a unique preparedness

      for a carnival in the grand style, for the laughter and high spirits of the most spiritual revelry, for the transcendental heights of the highest nonsense and Aristophanean derision of the world. Perhaps this is where we shall discover the realm of ourinvention, that realm in which we, too, can still be original,...

    • Three Oui, Monsieur le Philosophe: Diderot’s Le Neveu de Rameau
      (pp. 59-84)

      IN PLAUTUS’S comedyPersa, the parasite Saturio reassures his daughter that far from having nothing to give her as a dowry he actually possesses “a whole hamper full of books.” Saturio promises that if she cooperates with his schemes he will give her “a good six hundred witticisms” from his collection as her marriage portion, and, to make her dowry truly rare, will select only the choicest of them: “all Attic ones without a single Sicilian jest among them.”¹ What is so striking about this scene is less the high value placed on books—a commonplace of literature before the...

    • Four Lacerations: The Novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky
      (pp. 87-120)

      FEW EPISODES in Diderot’s life have provoked as much curiosity as his brief stay in St. Petersburg at the court of Catherine the Great (October 1773–March 1774). Among the very wildest of the speculations concerning this visit is the following, supposedly much repeated folk-legend version of the encounter between the archetypal representative of an atheistic Parisian Enlightenment and the Russian Orthodox ecclesiastical hierarchy:

      Did you ever hear, most Holy Father, how Diderot went to see the Metropolitan Platon, in the time of the Empress Catherine. He went in and said straight out, “There is no God.” To which the...

    • Five L’Apocalypse à Crédit: Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s War Trilogy
      (pp. 121-156)

      EARLY INThe Brothers Karamazov, Ivan tells his father that although Smerdyakov has the soul of a resentful lackey, his frustrated vanity and cringing defiance make him a “prime candidate” for the role of social incendiary. “When the time comes,” Ivan predicts, the revolution will be initiated by the Smerdyakovs of the world.¹ Dostoevsky clearly feared a left-wing uprising, inspired by doctrines imported into Russia from Western Europe. But theressentimentthat drives the Smerdyakovs to their compensatory longings for power is as likely to find expression in right-wing as in Marxist conspiracies, and the past century has born witness...

    • Six These Children That Come at You with Knives: Charles Manson and the Modern Saturnalia
      (pp. 157-184)

      WHEN Ivan Karamazov finally testifies at his brother’s trial for patricide, he is less interested in clearing Dmitri of the charge than in convicting everyone else in the courtroom of longing to commit the act for which they now feign such repugnance: “Who doesn’t desire his father’s death? . . . My father has been murdered and they pretend they’re horrified. . . . They keep up the sham with one another. Liars! They all desire the death of their fathers. One reptile devours another.”¹ But Ivan is far from alone in his demoralizing realization. After all, fourteen-year-old Lisa Khokhlakova...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 185-234)
  9. Index
    (pp. 235-243)