By Jennifer Levasseur
“It’s carnival time and everybody’s havin’ fun.” —Al Johnson, “Carnival Time”
“[Carnival] belongs to the borderline between art and life. In reality, it is life itself, but shaped according to a certain pattern of play. … During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom.” —Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World
It’s difficult—nay, blasphemous—for a New Orleanian to admit, but here goes: I have an ambivalent relationship with Mardi Gras. Take it a step further: I can’t remember the last time I participated in any way in carnival. Forget masking or second-lining or even simply dressing in green, purple and gold. I’ve barely viewed a parade from a comfortable distance in two decades. Along with this confession, like a shamed police officer giving up the badge, I should forfeit my fleur-de-lis earrings and t-shirt and necklace, oh and every other thing—household and personal—emblazoned with the city’s symbol that we self-referential denizens sport as a uniform.
Blame in on the fact that I went to high school and college steps away from major parade routes: it was too available. Your front porch holds no exoticism. If you miss the festivities this year, they’ll roll back around next. If you don’t mask during this season, another opportunity—Halloween, Southern Decadence, next Saturday night—will present itself. Anyway, you’re allowed to stuff yourself with cream cheese-filled king cake immediately after Christmas even if you skip every parade and leave town before the grand finale.
In my childhood, our attic groaned under the weight of Schwegmann’s grocery bags filled with beads and doubloons. As in every south Louisiana household, plastic Mardi Gras cups became our daily glassware, year round. Like all local children, we reveled in the days off school, in being hoisted onto our father’s shoulders to scream and plead for throws. It didn’t cost a cent to fill more bags than we could carry—bags jammed with stuffed animals and rubber balls and cheap trinkets. Some krewe members even threw candy.
After the excitement of going to night parades without supervision in high school (studying French and algebra while we waited for the floats to roll; we were good girls), the magic faded. For years—for way too many years—I have opted out of carnival. My adult memories of the season settle on traffic jams, on reading inside a coffee shop while glancing up at as the flambeaux burn by, on complaining about the disruption and the trash. It’s fine for some—I love looking at the clever costumes on TV or printed in the newspaper—but I didn’t need it in my life. My Mardi Gras had passed. I didn’t even mourn it.
So I thought.
We create narratives about ourselves without questioning their origins. We fail to challenge what we think we believe. We allow inertia to define our characters.
Not until months before I submitted my PhD dissertation (detailing, in part, the Bakhtinian grotesque in Stefan Zweig’s masterpiece Beware of Pity) last year did I realize I’d been moving—without recognition, without introspection—toward the necessity of carnival and masking. The subconscious knows what it wants.
Masking requires the desire, the daring and also the confidence in the solidity of the self in order to leave it. Carnival may feel like a temporary break in the norm, but as Bakhtin and many sociologists and anthropologists remind us, carnival, with its revolutionary nature, can fundamentally change a person, even if nothing about their “real” lives are altered. Their vision of themselves changes, new possibilities open up. To leave oneself, however temporarily, can be terrifying. In Bakhtin’s words, medieval carnival was a “second life of the people, who for a time entered the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality, and abundance. … the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalized and completed.”
Masking admits dissatisfaction (no wonder the great centers of carnival today are cities rife with corruption, poverty, inequality) and a fearless glimpse into another life.
To fully participate in carnival, you need both the desire to escape yourself and to be prepared to return dissatisfied with what you’d previously accepted as good enough.
Does it sound like I’m overthinking a fun evening out with silly costumes and too much hooch? Is it just that some people enjoy dressing up and some don’t? If you think the discussion should end there, you—like me at times—have forgotten the true impulse behind carnival. No one disputes that Mardi Gras is the big, debauched revelry that encourages us all to live it up before repenting with ashes and entering into the austerity of Lent. (Like cousin Michael says, You gotta be bad before you can be good.)
But carnival, regardless of whether we acknowledge its power, remains much more than costuming, drinking, gorging and dancing in the street—even though it is all of those things as well.
Even cave paintings verify that we require this self-suspending ecstasy. Carnival aims for individual liberation through communal exhortation. For a little while, social strata vanishes. The man running naked through town might be the local goofball, or he might be the parish priest. This communal ecstasy becomes a window into another kind of society, one equal, free, abundant and full of laughter. Those deserving respect become figures of mockery. Nothing is sacred.
This year’s Le Krewe d’Etat (which rolled down St Charles Avenue on February 5) celebrated the theme “The Dictator Plays Games” by transforming beloved kid’s games into means of ridiculing powerful figures: Hillary Clinton’s face on the body of a crazed ass next to the sign “Pin the Tale on the Donkey”; Bernie Sanders’s campaign as a round of Candyland (treats for everyone!); and the Republican hopefuls as the Barrel of Monkeys.
Those who stand outside of carnival can still appreciate the puns, the clever mockery and even the impressive masks. But the observer—rather than participant—of carnival is lonesome. It takes a leap to view the revelry, the swath of colors, the jolt of noise and rhythm and push yourself inside.
On February 16, 1942, the exiled Austrian author Stefan Zweig witnessed carnival in Rio de Janeiro. George Prochnik in The Impossible Exile describes Zweig as seeing his values made flesh on the streets of Rio: “human unity on earth and the capacity of art to induce a sense of earthly transcendence—all woes and petty factionalism sublimated in aesthetic rapture.” The next morning, Zweig read about the British defeat in Singapore. His depression deepened. A few days later, he poisoned himself.
Though he would not—or could not—join in the festivities, Zweig (as quoted in Donald Prater’s European of Yesterday) understood the ability of carnival to renew: “I could not let myself be swept along by this wave of pleasure and drunkenness; how one would have enjoyed in the old days seeing a whole city dancing, walking, singing for four whole days without police, without papers, without business—a multitude made one by joy alone!”
To leave the ordinary business of our own lives, and our very real difficulties, and join the reveling crowd requires planning, errands, organization, giving of oneself while rejecting identity—all those kinds of tasks we already feel buried under. It’s easy to opt out, to tell ourselves that we can enjoy it on TV from the comfort of our own homes. And with access to a clean toilet.
It’s easier, safer to dismiss the possibility of that second life, as Binx Bolling in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (which unfolds in the days leading up to Mardi Gras) seems to do. When Binx was wounded in Korea, slumped on the ground, staring at a dung beetle, he vowed—if he survived—to commit his life to the search. What is the search? “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”
Binx remains self-reflective enough to recognize that as soon as he was out of danger, all thoughts of the search disappeared. While literally grounded, facing the vulnerability of the body and his own mortality, he saw new possibilities. With his “real” life restored, he dallies with his secretaries, trusts in Consumer Reports and binges on films that serve as substitute for experience. He may be distant, but he behaves (mostly) well in society: “It is a pleasure to carry out the duties of a citizen and to receive in return a receipt or a neat styrene card with one’s name on it certifying, so to speak, one’s right to exist. What satisfaction I take in appearing the first day to get my auto tag and brake sticker!”
He, like me (correction: I, like him), rejected Mardi Gras.
When Binx stumbles upon a parade in which his latest secretary marches, he thinks he recognizes her in the shepherdess costume: “her legs are not so fine after all.” He’s coerced into taking his cousin Kate to his own krewe’s parade, but they flee after a few minutes to watch Panic in the Streets.
The pulse of Mardi Gras runs in the background of the novel, though Binx assiduously ignores it. The passing days are punctuated by the references to the festivities happening to other people, and his uncle decides to send him on an unexpected business trip to Chicago scheduled for Fat Tuesday (“You don’t really care about Carnival, do you?”). Binx doesn’t just reject Mardi Gras and the search: he seems to deny any interaction that will leave him vulnerable or exposed. For most of the novel, he remains isolated. Binx’s own transformation eventually does occur, through a communal interaction with what Bakhtin would call the grotesque body, if not during carnival itself.
Perhaps I can continue as I have, assuming with absolutely no evidence, that I do not require carnival. But when you slough off one tradition, it’s easy to ignore another. To allow the bother of holidays, of celebrations, of communal activity to fall away. To lose sight of the search. To mistake isolation for comfortable solitude. To dwell on the inconvenience or let inertia leach challenging experiences.
I am not in New Orleans this year for Mardi Gras, so the question of whether I would mask and really enter into the terrifying (for me) and exhilarating transfiguration of self remains an intellectual exercise. I fear the gesture would be misunderstood if I showed up to my job in Melbourne, Australia, inebriated with my face painted, yelling for throws and mocking my superiors.
So today, in a small, personal gesture to the season and in an embrace of a task for which I do not have time and could have skipped with remonstrance from no one, I am baking a king cake. (This sounds more impressive if you know that I have many and varied food allergies and that I can consume almost none of the ingredients such a cake requires.)
This may seem like a paltry effort (you haven’t seen the sink of unwashed dishes and the pecan bits all over the kitchen floor), but it is a symbol that I refuse to opt out. That option is—and has been—too easy, living as I do far from home and family, without kids to force me into tradition. From today, I refuse to opt out. I refuse to accept myself or my surroundings for what they are. I accept the need of communal ecstasy, of mockery and of revolution. I won’t be masked on Fat Tuesday, but I will still stuff my face with king cake, I will play Al Johnson’s “Carnival Time” too loudly, and I will terrify myself by considering a real Mardi Gras experience. Next year…
And even if next year rolls around and I’m not in New Orleans and I can’t push myself to paint my face and become someone else, I will have committed to that multi-stepped, time-consuming king cake with its six separate recipes. And there will be complaints if I don’t remember. If I don’t commit.
For now, that is enough.