Mikhail Bakhtin, in his landmark study Rabelais and His World (1968), defined and explored two concepts that have been of immeasurable value to cultural historians and literary critics: the carnivalesque and the grotesque body. The first term, the carnivalesque, is a term that springs from Bakhtin’s examination of medieval carnival festivities, the only time of year that peasants were able to publicly break loose, so to speak, and celebrate in ways that cut against the grain of Christian morality and reigning class hierarchies. “Here, in the town square,” writes Bakhtin, “a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age” (10). During Carnival, Bakhtin continues, certain types of communication, performance, and story-telling reign supreme: there’s base language (billingsgate), iconoclastic laughter, and parody. Taken together, these qualities underline that carnival as a historical phenomenon, and as a concept (the carnivalesque), signify a rebellion against order on more than one level: against the order of religion and religious propriety; against the order of society and its hierarchical system of privilege and prohibitions; and against order in the abstract, in the sense of the symbolic and literal separation of things, bodies, and ideas.

Bakhtin’s concept of the grotesque body relates to the iconoclastic nature of carnival and its celebration of excess and freedom. Whereas in classical and naturalist imagery bodies are represented as discrete, finished, complete, the grotesque represents bodies as unfinished and overflowing. For example, Bakhtin argues that the grotesque “is looking for that which protrudes from the body, all that seeks to go out beyond the body’s confines…to all that prolongs the body and links it to other bodies or to the world outside” (316-17). That is why the grotesque body is a work in progress, an unfolding, a thing that is never completed. The means for this oozing quality are the bodily orifices: “Eating, drinking, defecation and other elimination (sweating, blowing of the nose, sneezing), as well as copulation, pregnancy, dismemberment, swalling up by another body – all these acts are performed on the confines of the body and the outer world, or on the confines of the old and new body” (317). In carnival, bodies are freed from the strictures of society and literally or symbolically indulge in all kinds of appetites (booze, food, sex, agression). The grotesque body is thus tied to carnival but it’s not limited to it, because the phrase also applies to literary representations of exaggerated or fantastical bodies. (Bakhtin’s book was a study of the sixteenth-century French author Francois Rabelais, whose work Gargantua and Pantagruel was full of grotesque body imagery.)

I remembered Bakhtin’s theory of carnival and the grotesque body this week because I was reading one of my favorite books, the sixteenth-century Spanish novel Lazarillo de Tormes, which has the honor of being not only a paradigmatic example of picaresque literature, but its first example. As J.A. Garrido de Ardila writes, the consensus view of what a picaresque novel is, as inspired by Lazarillo de Tormes, includes the following characteristics: realism; use of first person autobiographical mode; satire and comedy; a protagonist-narrator belonging to underclass or other outside group; a protagonist-narrator who is a trickser; and the evocation of an implicit or explicit reader (14-15). La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de Sus Fortunas y Adversidades first appeared in 1554 in three editions published in Spain and one in Antwerp, then a part of the Spanish empire. We don’t know for sure if there were earlier editions. The book was popular with readers right off the bat and unpopular with the Spanish Inquisition, which put it on its list of banned books in 1559.

One of the great mysteries of Spanish literature is who wrote the novel, and all the suspects are fascinating. A monk named José de Sigüenza found a draft of the book in the cell of one of his fellow monks, a man named Juan de Ortega (ca 1495-1497). Was it really a draft or just a manuscript copy, of the kind that people were known to make of the books that they liked to read? Alfonso de Valdés (1492-1532) was an Erasmian reformist who was close to King Charles V, and who was of Jewish extraction in a time of intense religious cleansing. The scholar Rosa Navarro Durán argues that the cover of Lazarillo de Tormes contains a cryptogram that spells out the name Valdés. (Below is an illustration of a modern edition that colors the letters in question in red to indicate the cryptogram, and then one of the original sixteenth-century covers.)

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Another popular suspect is Diego Hurtado de Mendoza (1504-1575), who received a flurry of attention in 2010 when Mercedes Agulló y Cabo wrote that a sixteenth century editor named Velasco listed a set of “corrections for the printing of Lazarillo” as belonging to Mendoza’s papers. Finally, there’s Sebastián Horozco (1510-1580), who was a new Christian who wrote a book named Relaciones históricas toledanas in which one of the episodes of Lazarillo appears. There isn’t a firm consensus on which of these various men wrote the novel and maybe there will never be.

As I reread the first chapter of el Lazarillo, which narrates the boy’s adventures with a blind and brutal huckster who viciously beats him, I am struck by the narrative’s grotesque corporeality and sensuality: Bodies are punished, hunger is experienced and sated, sexual desire is disclosed and the protagonist-narrator vomits a recently-eaten sausage into the face of his blind oppressor. There is nothing high flying here, no high minded narrative pretense. Instead we have a procession of scenes related to physical experience, bodily function, and different kinds of desire. Besides eating, there is the sucking of wine through a straw, as well as the dressing of open wounds with wine, the smelling of fried foods, the placing of a long mean nose into a boy’s mouth, and the subsequent ejection of a half digested fried sausage into the blind man’s face. This first chapter of Lazarillo de Tormes can be squarely placed in the domain of Bakhtin’s discussion of the grotesque body and its literary representation. There is undoubtedly something carnivalesque about how this book starts; not only are we in a world of grotesque bodily excess, but we are also in a contest of wills between boy and adult, servant and master. One of the hallmarks of carnival is of course the inversion of power relations, and pleasuring in forms of play that destabilize hierarchies.

One of the aforementioned, suspected authors of Lazarillo de Tormes, Sebastián Horozco, mentions the story of the blind man and Lazarillo in his collection of historical and cultural miscellany from the town of Toledo. Some have used this to propose him as the author of the novel, but what if he was simply drawing from popular tradition or folklore? What if Lazarillo and the blind man originated in the popular imagination before being scooped up by Horozco and/or whoever was the actual author of the novel? What I find appealing about this speculation is that it honors something that Bakhtin teaches us about medieval streetwise culture, and which subsequent cultural historians have shown in other contexts: that grotesque, exaggerated, comical, and slapsticky performances often manifest as markers of a non-elite sensibility. This is what we see in the first chapter of Lazarillo de Tormes and what encourages to see its greatness not only in terms of individualized, literary genius, but rather as something broader and more historical: the experience of carnival.