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Summaries of papers from previous international HCA conferences
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Summaries of papers from previous international HCA conferences

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Summary of Jens Aage Doctor:

"H. C. Andersens karneval".

This paper has been published in Andersen og Verden, Odense 1993.

The Concept of Carnival as an Angle of Interpretation

Jens Aage Doctor

(summary for pages 410-19)

This interpretation of Andersen's fairy tales is based on Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of carnival as presented in his famous book on Rabelais. Characteristic features of carnival are, for example, materialism, inversion of any dominant hierarchy and degradation of a given order's highest estimated values. They are introduced and illuminated through an initial interpretation of a record in Andersen's diary (May 26th, 1841), where some Hungarian millers expose their uncovered behinds to the passengers on board a ship on the Danube.

Thus prestige-conveying abstract studies and academic garrulity are being degraded in "Simple Simon". The two brothers mount the high horse and are qualified by their learned heads alone. Simple Simon sits close to the earth and has, so to speak, his riches between his legs: "The billy-goat is mine, and he can carry me". His cultured brothers fail to profit by their learning, because they have never confronted it with that concrete reality of which Simple Simon has a most certain sense, namely the material bodily lower stratum (i.e. Bakhtin's designation of the bottom as an organic seat of decomposition, digestion, defecation and sex). So the plot leads to a thorough carnivalistic inversion. By Simple Simon's victory the hierarchy of current value is turned topsyturvy: the heads are humiliated and the material bodily lower stratum accordingly elevated. Whereas the two brothers refine themselves beyond matter, Simple Simon's road to the princess is bordered with some unpopular but indisputably earthly truths; his humble discoveries call forth the automatic contempt of his arrogant brothers, but - being samples from the material bodily lower stratum - they inspire him. Thus the dead crow gives his goat-ride its perspective: that of death. And with the worn, defective wooden shoe degradation has taken us almost to the ground: bodily to the foot, socially to the working class and its toilsome, heavy march on earth. These two first discoveries are in the process of decomposition and so they point to indifference, which is the starting point as well as the end of every organic structure. They - and all that lives - revert to earth. With the third find, mud from the ditch, we are eventually in touch with earth itself: "'the finest sort', Simple Simon said, and then he filled his pocket". Thou shalt become earth again: that is the wooer's message to his chosen bride! In carnival, however, death isn't a terrible termination of life, death doesn't lead out of - or beyond - earthly life, but into it: as a necessary condition of the renewal of generations. To carry out wooing as a gastronomic affair is the carnivalistic coup of this tale, for so the point of view is shifted from the greatest cycle of reproduction (the renewal of generations) to the smallest (the body's daily supply of food). So it becomes a meal in commemoration of death's importance to life's perpetual recreation.

Through its imaginative strength and presence of mind the dialogue between Simple Simon and the princess bears witness to the liberating linguistic potential of carnival. This is also the case in "Dad's Always Right". Here capitalist economy is degraded; its guiding principle, buy cheap/sell dear, is inverted and so buy dear/sell cheap becomes the main pattern for all the bargains until the bottom is reached and the capital is nothing but a sack of rotten apples for the pigs. The rotten apples mark indifference and signify (like the mud in "Simple Simon") the turning-point of the story. For the tale does not stop here, where everything is lost and the peasant's failure is just as evident as is the success of the two wealthy Englishmen. It rises again in all its glory: we are told the same story once again in every detail and yet it is anything but boring! On the contrary: it has become twice as exciting. The more badly Dad fares with his bargains, the more prolific is Mum's enthusiastic appreciation of her dear husband's genius and thoughtfulness.

Carnival is perceptible on all sides of Andersen's fairy tales. It is a valuable material counterbalance to the spirituality of the dominating cultural ideology that normally applies to his writings. It extends the selective realism of his genre pictures and is an approach to his repressions ("The Shepherdess and the Chimney-Sweep"). In carnival the relation between the oppressor and the oppressed is inverted ("Little Claus and Big Claus"). Carnival offers room for Andersen's proletarian experience which is normally denied; and for his well-known predilection for word-play: it is linguistic carnival in miniature when a semantic contraction makes two reciprocally distant meanings meet in a pun. Carnival has given linguistic pep and artistic stimulation to his most widely read fairy tales.

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