What Carnival, Catastrophe, and Revolution Have in Common

Rebecca Solnit examines disasters to argue for resistance of an order controlled by elites.

san francisco 1989 earthquake
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In her acceptance speech for the 2014 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin said, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” Author Rebecca Solnit might agree with Le Guin’s memorable statements. In A Paradise Built in Hell, the California Book Club’s September selection, she describes the human potential to effect change in the brief time after disaster.

While Solnit draws from historical and sociological information about real-world disasters, she augments her researched accounts with works of literary criticism. For instance, Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of a carnivalistic sense of the world is important to her analysis. Bakhtin described carnival as a celebration of the “temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions.… People were, so to speak, reborn for new, purely human relations.”

Using Bakhtin’s concept as a springboard, Solnit draws an unusual comparison between disaster and revolution, noting their “carnivalesque aspects.” These are liminal times in which people “feel their own power.” Carnival, like revolution, is “an overthrow of the established order under which people are alienated from each other, too shy to act, divided along familiar lines. Those lines vanish and we merge exuberantly.”

Solnit implies that the creative and improvisational behavior of ordinary people after earthquakes and fires follows this conception of the carnivalesque. In the interstice between the start of a disaster and the resolution of it—whether the termination of this period involves rebuilding the social order or a cynical return to form—is a period of status reversal and removal for the powerful of society, a dominant minority class who hope to convince us that their power is inevitable and morally correct rather than provisional.

Implicit in Solnit’s argument is the sense that Hollywood disaster movies are a capitalist manifestation of the fear elites feel in disasters. Elite panic is a term coined by Rutgers University professors Caron Chess and Lee Clarke. Clarke told Solnit, “What elites will panic about is the possibility that we will panic. It is simply, more prosaically more important when they panic because they’re in positions of influence, positions of power.”

In certain Jacobean and Elizabethan plays, kings are depicted, at times, as not only chosen by divine law but also as benevolent rulers. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, for instance, the title character’s murder of kind King Duncan of Scotland opposes divine law. His flouting of the social order results in bloody carnage, and audiences understand the return to order as good. And yet many of the Bard’s plays emphasize status removal. As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and others favor the role reversals and fluid boundaries and suspension of the ordinary power dynamics observed in many cultures, including medieval England, during carnival.

Shakespeare’s rich plays were a brief window in which a king could be shown acting as flawed as the fool and the peasant, even though he might watch the play. In contrast, many Hollywood depictions of disaster reinforce our sense of social order, rather than challenge it or empower us. Solnit suggests that during the aftermath of disaster, the grotesque and the parodic—recalling the sharp mockery of a king and a power he may have perceived as divine and benevolent—should be favored.

The elite fear status reversal and removal under disaster conditions, as A Paradise Built in Hell elucidates: “They are being tested most harshly at what they do least well, and suddenly their mandate of heaven, their own legitimacy and power, is in question.” They are, in other words, like royals under threat of being dethroned by those who question divine rule. Solnit suggests that many Hollywood movies prescribe our social order through scripts and genres and stock characters. They don’t critique or spoof power the way carnival does in other cultures and times.

Rather, the scripts of these movies present familiar dramatic arguments about the need to quell disorderly mobs. They often demand that we return to the status quo and see the world through the eyes of the elite, law enforcement, and the media. We observe people turn into brutes under duress, motivation for the establishment to use violent methods of control. Unfortunately, as Solnit makes plain, this is also how our institutional actors behave in real life, off-screen, during disasters. Behind political cruelty are bad narratives.

Our lives need not follow these patterns. Solnit exhorts us to escape these tropes and what elites would have us believe. She sees the disorderly and chaotic as a window into the possible. We can embrace the carnivalesque in order to build the society we want. As she notes, “It is when people deviate from the script that exciting things happen.”•

Be sure to sign up for Alta Journal’s California Book Club, which will discuss A Paradise Built in Hell with Solnit at its September 23 gathering. And please join your fellow California Book Club members to talk about the book’s consideration of the carnivalesque during disasters and revolution in the Alta Clubhouse.

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