The Harmonies of Untuned Instruments [1] : The Cosmic Carnival


(C. Герасимов, “Мать партизана” / S. Gerasimov, “The Partisan’s Mother”, 1943.)

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“Everyone is saying: where can we hide when the war comes? No one at all is saying: where can we hide the war?”

Kenneth Patchen, The Journal of Albion Moonlight, 1941.

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The Cosmic Carnival

When the Surrealists expressed the anxiety of the decades preluding the Second World War with the declaration that “the simplest surrealist gesture consists in going out into the street, gun in hand, and taking pot shots at the crowd,” they recognized what can now be understood as an unfortunate precedent to the normalization of this extreme violence that is increasingly characteristic of militarized, ideological state terrorism. The absurdism of the revolutionary act has been transformed into the rationalized mechanism of the oppressor. The surrealist act provokes a sensation of the inexplicable that exists between the immediate reality of human participation, and the reality that exists beyond the scope of perceived possibility. The surrealist act, however, relies on an ever-increasing grandiosity that, with every replication must surpass itself, and therefore relies on the multiplication of violence as disruption of the ordinary.

As an experiment of the ordinarily improbable, the carnivalesque creates conditions for an experience of liberty that is inexpressible in a society which has divided the cosmic with the criminal, where prohibition is a provocation of indulgence, and the crookedness of navigating social compromise is turned outward for the performance and humiliation of absolute moral scripture. Through the framework of Russian writer Mikhail Bakhtin’s analyses on the carnival and the grotesque, Adel Iskander explores how the carnivalesque has the potential to enable and mediate further violence. “Unacceptable behavior is welcomed in the carnival”, he says, “peoples’ true natures are made visible”. The carnival liberates and permits what is ordinarily taboo. It allows a transgression against an accepted identity, and a performance that assumes its actions as outside of the ‘normal’.

“Карнавал не созерцают, – в нем живут, и живут все, потому что по идее своей он всенароден. Пока карнавал совершается, ни для кого нет другой жизни, кроме карнавальной. От него некуда уйти, ибо карнавал не знает пространственных границ. Во время карнавала можно жить только по его законам, то есть по законам карнавальной свободы. Карнавал носит вселенский характер, это особое состояние всего мира, его возрождение и обновление, которому все причастны. Таков карнавал по своей идее, по своей сущности, которая живо ощущалась всеми его участниками.”

М. Бахтин, Творчество Франсуа Рабле и народная культура Средневековья и Ренессанса, 1965.

“The carnival is not observed, it is lived in by all, because its essence is universal. As the carnival unravels, there is no other life but the carnival. There is nowhere else to go, for the carnival does not know boundaries. It is only possible to live by its laws, that is, by the laws of the carnivalesque freedom. The carnival embodies a cosmic character – it contains the whole world, all of its becoming and renewal. This is the idea, the essence, of the carnival, that is vitally experienced by all of its participants.”

In response to Iskandar, a member of the lecture audience noted, “the carnival is going on so long as we are looking at the freaks”. By this, it is implied that the carnival is not made by ‘the freaks’ or the freakishness itself, but by our relationship to the grotesque. For the carnival to be made known, it must let loose a few seams – there must be a distraction from its apparent cosmic nature that distinguishes it as a theatre of substitution, and makes evident the seduction of its freedoms as really being a self-enclosed artifice.

The cruelty of the simulation is especially present in the sardonic humour associated with the carnival. Bakhtin writes on degradation, “To degrade is to bury, to sow, and to kill simultaneously, in order to bring forth something more and better” [1]. Cruelty is rationalized here in the possibility for retribution through satire – the spectacle necessitates the potential for the mercy of the alternative. But in this closed system, we are bound to the circumstances of oppression: that the necessity and possibility for expression of an alternative is made possible out of the horror of the carnival – that in order to see that an alternative is necessary, this truth is made evident through violence.

In Bela Tarr’s 2001 film Werckmeister Harmonies (an adaptation of the novel The Melancholy of Resistance, written by Hungarian author Laszlo Krasznakhorkai), György Eszter sees the horrors of the carnivalesque in the eye of the carnival’s main attraction, the freak in all its senseless glory – the eye of a dead whale, the mute and innocent village idiot. The disintegration of the boundless, cosmic illusion of the carnival, and the separation of voyeur and participant, is in this dreadful moment of confrontation with an animal – the only non-participant of the carnival who embodies no inherent role in itself, but carries the burden of human instrumentation. The bones that were dragged in for the performance of power, the bodies of ‘freaks’, have become black mirrors for the eyes that have not yet looked upon themselves. In the eye of the whale, György recognizes that he too is implicated in the violence of the carnival, although he only arrives after the tents have been pulled down, and the ‘official spectacle’ is over. The resonance that remains is that of the awful and conflicted position of witnessing the trace of immense violence, of being implicated in it – of participating by not having stopped it – but also the overwhelming feeling of powerlessness at not knowing what to do, or the force necessary to intervene far exceeding the capability of the one self.



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[1] M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World. Translation by Helene Iswolsky. First Midland Book Edition, 1984. Online here.

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György Eszter: … all this was not enough, unhinged arrogance wished to take possession of all the harmonies of the gods. And it was done in its own way, technicians were charged with the solution, a Praetorius, a Salinas, and finally an Andreas Werckmeister, who resolved the difficulty by dividing the octave of the harmony of the gods, the twelve half-tones, into twelve equal parts. Of two semi-tones he falsified one, instead of ten black keys, five were used and that sealed the position. We have to turn our backs on this development of tuning instruments, the so-called constant-tempered, and its sad history and bring back the naturally tuned instrument. Carefully, we have to correct Werckmeister’s mistakes.

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This is part of a series of reflections on the first lecture given at the VISR free lecture series, “On Civil War and Resistance“. They are open to everyone, Monday nights at 7 pm, at Or Gallery, 555 Hamilton Street, Vancouver.

& thank you N.