Surrealpolitik: Menippean Satire in Russian Postmodern Prose

Author: Nina Kolesnikoff


Quick Summary

Her focus is on Russian literature obviously enough but this article is useful in setting out the terms of Menippean satire as articulated by both Bakhtin and Northrop Frye, who is apparently the Bakhtin of Western literary criticism with his own ideas about Menippean satire. So my main interest here is her explanation of "what is Menippean satire".


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Michail Bachtin is unquestionably the most important scholar to theorize Menippean satire. In his works on Francois Rabelais and the development of the novel, he traced the history and outlined some basic characteristics of Menippean satire, including its extraordinary philosophical universalism, juxtaposition of the serious and comic elements, bold use of the fantastic and slum naturalism, representation of unusual and abnormal states, scandal scenes, sharp contrasts, and multiplicity of divergent styles and discourses. He emphasized the deep organic unity of these seemingly heterogeneous factors, as well as its great flexibility to absorb into itself kindred small genres, and to penetrate as a component element into other larger genres. (page 48)
Tags: [Carnival, Menippean Satire]
In Western literary criticism, Northrop Frye is recognized as the ultimate authority on Menippean satire. In his influential study, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, he sketched the development of Menippean satire and stressed the difference between this genre and the traditional novelistic forms of romance and picaresque novel. The principal difference, according to Frye, involves the change of focus from the exploits of heroes and the structure of society to abstract ideas and theories, as well as the stylized representation of characters who appear as mouthpieces for the ideas they represent. Frye defined Menippean satire as a loose-jointed narrative which relies on the free play of intellectual fancy and the kind of humorous observation that produces caricature. In its most concentrated form Menippean satire presents us with a vision of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern and a structure based on violent dislocations in the customary logic of narrative. (page 48)
Tags: [Carnival, Menippean Satire]
Michail Bachtin’s theory...offers the most comprehensive and rigorous formulation of the essential properties of Menippean satire and its continuous role as a carrier of the carnivalesque tradition in modern literature. (page 49)
Tags: [Menippean Satire]
[E]lements of Menippean satire appear in numerous postmodern texts, co-existing with other generic conventions...[I]ts presence is...marked by extraordinary freedom of plot and philosophical invention, a radical rejection of established hierarchy and order, as well as an exuberant and transgressive narrative style which relies on a polyphony of discourses and languages. The overall function of Menippean satire in these texts is to carnivalize the narrative by introducing some universal concerns and presenting them in a comic manner, by juxtaposing the lofty and the mundane, the abstract and the concrete, the high and the low. (page 49)
Tags: [Menippean Satire]
In accordance with the Bakhtinian model, these texts are distinguished by a unique combination of serious philosophical concerns and a comical narrative manner which relies on sharp contrasts and paradoxes, unusual points of view and an unrestrained use of the fantastic. Of the three postmodern menippeas, [Pelevin's Buddha's Little Finger] has the most obvious philosophical focus, since it places in the center of the narrative the idea of the illusory nature of the physical world and the need to discover inner spirituality. The novel continually underscores the difficulty in distinguishing between reality and illusion, actual experience and dreams, sanity and insanity, appearance and essence. Characteristically, these abstract ideas are conveyed in the novel in a down-to-earth and playful manner which relies on absurd explanations full of ironies and oversimplifications, and a juxtaposition of sophisticated philosophical terms with the most deflated concepts. (page 49-50)
Tags: [Menippean Satire]