bloodli(n)es: Carnivalizing Narratives of Illness:

Breathing Bakhtinian Life into the Compromised and/or Dying Body

Sheila Simonson, University of Manitoba

Download bloodli(n)es: Carnivalizing Narratives of Illness: Breathing Bakhtinian Life into the Compromised and/or Dying Body PDF file


The following presents and discusses an excerpt from a work of creative non-fiction — a 90 page long poem titled bloodli(n)es. bloodli(n)es explores the evolving experiences, tensions, and suspensions of living with a degenerative and incurable disease. The poet confronts her diagnosis, her prognosis, a variety of physiological complications and related indignities, while being confronted with an inhospitable medical discourse. She struggles to come to ‘new terms;’ with her tumultuous past, her challenging present, and her uncertain future as well as with the new discursive, linguistic and physical terms being thrust upon her. Among the pressing questions the text raises is, why and how does this woman write; about her past, her disease, and her dying? What does her writing accomplish? How does she seek to write herself out: of an over-determined father-daughter history; a seemingly dead-end story; a textual tradition; the elevated poetics of sentimentality and transcendental notions that so often characterize stories of illness and death; and an overwhelmingly positivistic medical discourse, which increasingly threatens to over-define and over-write her?

A series of paintings expressing tensions arising at various points in the text accompanies this work. These are titled: (1) father/daughter dis-eases I; (2) silences suspended; (3) bloodli(n)es; (4) seeing red; (5) father/daughter dis-eases II; and (6) art-eries.

Back to top

Literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind;
that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks
straight and clear . . . in illness this make-believe ceases
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
To look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of
a lion tamer; a robust philosophy; a reason rooted in the bowels of
the earth . . . Yet it is not only a new language that we need, more
primitive, more sensual, more obscene
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional),
a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted
out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals. Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill

Back to top

[2] This excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s essay, On Being Ill, aptly situates and contextualizes my study. My first interest is in writing illness. Secondly, as Virginia argues in this passage, I feel that traditional literary approaches to writing of illness and death - its formal language and forms of polite discourse - are woefully inadequate to articulate the experiences of chronic, acute, or terminal illness. My scholarly and creative work seeks to subvert a long-standing classical tradition of literary representation in favour of a language grounded in the Bakhtinian grotesque body and a carnivalized writing that rematerializes the body and is thus better suited to such narratives. Contemporary poetics, in particular those founded on the vernacular and other so-called ‘sub-literary’ discourses, can provide suitable alternatives. More specifically, I would argue that writing based upon the carnivalesque and basked in the ‘grotesque’ (as espoused by Mikhail Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World), offers the most fertile ground for articulating illness.

Back to top

[3] I have adopted the phrase ‘diss-courses of bawdy/body language’ to describe the aesthetic and writing strategies that I see as being most suitable to this task; those characterized by vernacular, bawdy, bodily and scatological counter-discourses that are, in keeping with Woolf’s suggestion, more primitive, more sensual, and more obscene; basically more bodily. When writing out of a grotesque and Bakhtinian aesthetic, the materiality and matter of the body is no longer avoided and in fact, at times, takes on a life of its own. Indeed, anyone who has been truly ill, or has even gotten ‘sick-drunk,’ can attest to the ‘baseness’ of the situation and the inappropriateness of high-minded discourse. As one becomes subject to (and the subject of) one’s own body and its functions and malfunctions (burning from fever, lesions, rashes, infections, etc.), the cold, classical, and bloodless body of literature seems a distant and false manifestation; a hoax.

Back to top

[4] Turning our attention to Bakhtin for a moment, I’d like to consider three aspects of the carnivalesque in particular: grotesque realism, the conception of the grotesque body, and the notion of carnivalized writing. Bakhtin speaks of the carnival atmosphere as an anti-authoritarian attitude to life, founded in the joyful acceptance of the materiality of the body. The essential principle of grotesque realism is “degradation,” or debasement, and despite conventional connotations, he does not mean this to be wholly negative (Dentith 67). According to Bakhtin, “debasement is a fundamental artistic principle of grotesque realism; all that is sacred and exalted is rethought on the level of the material bodily stratum or else combined and mixed with its images” (Bakhtin 370-371). Stressing the ambivalence of carnival imagery, Bakhtin asserts that the degradation enacted in grotesque realism is a constant reminder AND affirmation that we are all creatures of flesh and blood and other bodily fluids, emphasizing that even excrement is ‘gay matter,’ simultaneously linked not only to decay and death, but also to regeneration and renewal. Grotesque realism celebrates the material body that eats, digests, copulates, and excretes, doing so in an abandoned and exaggerated way.

Back to top

[5] Related to grotesque realism is the conception of the grotesque body, which Bakhtin sharply distinguishes from the ‘classical body.’ The body of classical art (both in its representations and as a category), being subject to the bloodless niceties of academic philosophy and polite society, is a completed, contained, enclosed, spiritual and presumably eternal thing; a cold, static, bloodless body - consider, for example, the Apollo Belvedere - whereas the grotesque body is unfinished, protean, unapologetically corporeal, and ambivalent. It is, to quote from Simon Dentith in his book Bakhtinian Thought, “a thing of buds and sprouts, the orifices evident through which it sucks in and expels the world...a body marked by the evidence of its material origins and destiny” (67). In the context of carnival, the body is unbounded, is in transformation, and materially linked to the past and future. Whereas classical art celebrates the elevated realms of the spiritual and the cerebral, the grotesque celebrates le bas corporel, or, in other words, “the material bodily lower stratum;” our material connection to both birth and death (Bakhtin 325). According to Bakhtin, the “verbal norms of official and literary language, determined by the canon” prohibit and exclude what is linked with birth, sex, and death, distinguishing between familiar and vernacular speech, and so-called correct language (Bakhtin 320). In the context of these conventions, the grotesque characteristics of the body cease to play a role, and cease to be spoken. For Bakhtin, the grotesque body — physically and linguistically — brings the materiality of the body back into utterance and text (Bakhtin 318).

Back to top

[6] Carnivalized writing can be understood not only as an aesthetic that celebrates the anarchic, body-based and grotesque elements that can be mobilized against the seriousness and sterility of official culture, but perhaps more stylistically, as writing that has taken the carnival spirit into itself and consequently reproduces it in its own structure and practice. Like the carnival, carnivalized writing becomes a time outside of standard time, and so structurally, is often given to non-chronology, shifting tenses, overlaps and non-linearity. The language of the carnivalized text is ‘down-to-earth,’ idiomatic and vernacular, allowing for the informality, familiarity, fraternization, and intimacy impermissible at other times and in other con/texts, offering an aesthetic liberated from that which is prescribed and universally accepted. Common to both the carnivalesque and carnivalized writing is an attitude in which the high, the elevated, the official, and even the sacred, is debased and exposed, specifically as a condition of renewal and regeneration. It is often characterized by a swing from a mock-serious tone, to the comic or sardonic, providing a malleable space where activities and symbols can be inflected in different directions. Both are also characterized by polyphony, that is, multiple voices - as if standing in the middle of a crowd at a carnival - fragments, overlaps, snippets of conversations, and so on.

Back to top

[7] From out of this theoretical and critical context I have been writing a long poem titled blood-lines in which I have sought to apply the Bakhtinian ‘diss-course of bawdy/language’ to a narrative about chronic illness and the experience of facing death. The narrator has been diagnosed with a degenerative and incurable form kidney disease, and as she becomes increasingly ill over a period of several years, being diagnosed with other complications and conditions, she records her thoughts and experiences. A notable aspect of her writing is the manner in which she singles out individual body parts, organs and other ’matter,‘ giving them “Id/ entities of their own.” She takes off the kidd gloves, if you will, wading hip deep into the material and materiality of her body, refusing to hide behind polite discourse.

Back to top

[8] Additionally, her use of bawdy and bodily humour not only transforms “terror into a gay carnival monster” (Dentith 241), but undercuts the prescriptive seriousness and sterility of the medical professionals and their discourses, which might otherwise over-write her. Her writing also subverts the desire of polite society to avoid talking about the body, its matters, and most of all the messiness of death. The narrator engages in Woolf’s “childish outspokenness” and blurts out that which might otherwise be deemed inappropriate and literarily unacceptable. And her writing itself is carnivalized; drawing upon the tumultuous, rebellious, parodic, and evolving character of the carnival. Finally, by employing these carnivalized strategies, the narrator is able to side-step the conventional abstractions, transcendental pit-falls, and sentimentality that are so frequently characteristic of texts dealing death.

Back to top

Increasingly becomes
a series of                 
strange plantings...   
to plant in an other
i found myself 
at a sex conference, ended up
in a lecture, by accident, intimacy 
coaching, they called it
the speaker wanted to
do an exercise, asked us to
focus, on what we wanted, he said 
it didn't have to be 
material, but we should choose 
something big, i thought 

     what the hell, let’s 
     give this a go

had three words 
on my mind, when i opened 
my eyes he was staring 
at me, he said 
“what do YOU want”
off guard, i blurted 
“a healthy kidney”
the audience went 
to settle
in an other
it wasn't where I planned to
do it, but there,                 
i said it, i have          
said it   
allowed to
it, was that me?
a kid
ney, speaking
the unspeakable?
PKD is inherited,
a dis-
ease passed on
from parents to children...
Sheila image 1
gene   tics in my family
tree dis-eases 
passed on, root to tip
...if you inher(e)  it
the gene you will have
the disease, or will be
a silent carrier...
Sheila image 2
so long                     
i've been                                
a carrier                                
of silences                             
i've been      	   
by secrets                
needing to be           
kept, the words             
on the tip of             
my tongue, dangerous           
if let                     
i just kept       
quiet,  my mouth
things would work              
out, in the end                      
but held hostage
beneath my thinning skin  
the past           
worked its way         
wormed away at                 
secrets and cells                 
mutating, i am  
infected, have
been exposed, at last   
as a carrier of 	  
Sheila note 1
“we’ll have a better idea
of what we’re dealing
with when you see
the nephrologist”, doc’s talking about
the ‘how long’
and ‘how bad’
details, i’m about to become
                        an expert
                        on parts
of my body which, until now,
i hadn’t given a second
...changes everything  
the world  has           
on its axis, wor(l)ds    
have changed
change in
compos i tion
touched, the intimacy 
coach seems 
shocked, but pleased 
with my honesty

        i wonder if
        i have gone 
                too far
        am too far gone?

he doesn’t hold 
back “you know,”
he says, “kid  ney 
failure is a man  i-festation of
unresolved anger” or
in other words, being 
pissed off,
that’s clever
kidneys, the bladder being 
urine and all
that too

        u r’ in the ball park, man on 
        to me, i guess

have i been dealing 
with the past, he ventures
or perhaps repressing 
feelings of frustration

                      ?what's the big deal
                                  do you kid
                              know or not
                  do you like fooling
                  around, the block
 	             i’ve been there
            and yer’ catching on
                         to the dirt
	         rounding third
   hoping for a homerun
one of a pair
they filter impurities
in the blood...
Sheila image 3
filtering impurities, by-
guess that's been a problem
ta-da, see ya
not, want
not, i'll tell ya what
i want not
to have to 
waste another day
you know
PKD causes cysts to form in the kid
ney, there is no known treatment or cure...
Sheila image 4
Sheila note 2
i’m not scared                       
off, at the moment       
(oops! that’s what got me 
in this      
mess, right?)      
i should re                         
vise, get hold of    
myself, say          
i am in               
disbelief (but    
it wouldn’t be
sac containing fluid or semifluid
morbid matter...
;morbid matter     
more bad              
what’s the matter  
with you               
...indicative of dis-
doc said to me
“at least you have that
healthy sense of humour”
an unusual interest in
sad or unpleasant things,
especially death.
anne called 
today she says she knows 
someone else with this 
            did i want it?
their number? 
so i could talk to them
she’s trying 
i know, to be helpful 
but i can just imagine 
the call
hi, you don’t know me 
but we have a disease in 
common, my fear is 
this will be
come my primary source of 
i’ve never been the support
group type

do they have one? a twelve 
step program for going 
into kidney failure?
other organs can be affected
including the heart...
? how/do i get passed it
,my past
has taken over, how    
do i grow                    
passed it or                 
do i, try to                  
take another                
can i pass?       

Sheila note 3
can love be         
a burrowing or
a burying
(of hatchets, perhaps)?
Sheila image 5
the old man and me 
are at an impasse, 
have not yet come 
to terms, but i’ve learned 
to manage
         the mess
         the waste
at this stage, the best i can do
is damage 
control, i figure 
he knows that, finally 
has decided to leave
well enough alone
Simon says,   
what a waste...    
...the main job of the kid
neys is to remove waste...
Kidney as editor    
taking out the bad stuff,  
now walking off the job; 
what’s a poet to do?

...clean up your own mess   
 ...without properly functioning kidneys
     waste products build up
   in the blood, are poisonous...
? have you ever tried to       
imagine, your insides
the landscape beneath        
it’s alien, my own        
flesh and blood,           
i’ve been learning          
how things are                    
supposed to be, how           
my body, stubborn        
refuses to con  
i’m getting acquainted with  
the uni/verse    
my in/verse    
my photo negative     
forced to see                       
the world                            
in black and white               
one litre of blood
enters the kid
ney through the renal art
eries every minute...
Sheila image 6
scary stuff, after all
veining the canvas
of skin;
never a dull moment
the intimacy
coach is persistent
thanks me for sharing
gives me a voucher for a free
forty-minute session

         it’s like getting a coupon 
         for a free oil change 
         after the car is wrecked, eh?
         all i really need
         is an oil, lube and filter 
         and i’ll be roadworthy, 
         ready to go!

says he’d be honoured 
to coach me, that is
         help me out 
         with diet and exercise, maybe			
         or perhaps, it’s psychological 
         well-being he’s after  
         either way, it’s a dirty
         job, but someone’s gotta 
         do it

i get this image of us shacked up
in Labour and Delivery

         i must admit 
         i’m labouring 
         for some 
         deliverance, here

he’s in
my room, i’m hooked 
up to machines 
and monitors, labouring
he’s cheering me
on like a Lamaze coach
“come on, be a sport!”
he’s checking my fluids, hey 
listen, it isn’t that far 
fetched, is it 
or death 
they’ve always been 
         together if you want 
         to make an om
         let’s get real here,
         you have to
         scramble a little sometimes
         break some, if you can 
         have someone coach 
         you through
         birth why not death, 
         why not?

Passages appearing in ‘yellow notes’ have been borrowed with permission from Robert Kroetsch’s The Hornbooks of Rita K.

Back to top

Works Cited

  • Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and his World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.
  • Barthes, Roland. “From Work to Text.” Image, Music, Text. 6th ed. London: Fontana Press, 1990. 155-164.
  • Cooley, Dennis. The Vernacular Muse. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1987.
  • Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feelings. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.
  • Dentith, Simon. Bakhtinian Thought. New York: Routledge, 1996.
  • Kroetsch, Robert. A Likely Story. Red Deer, AB: Reed Deer College Press, 1995.
  • ---. Seed Catalogue. (1977) Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1986.
  • ---. The Hornbooks of Rita K. Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 2001.
  • Nichol, B.P. Selected Organs: parts of an autobiography. Windsor, Ont: Black Moss Press, 1998.
  • Woolf, Virginia. On Being Ill. (1930) Ashfield, Mass.: Paris Press, 2002.

Back to top