A Paradise Built in Hell – Carnival and Disaster

A Paradise Built in Hell – the extraordinary communities that arise in disaster by Rebecca Solnit

III Carnival and Revolution – Mexico City’s Earthquake

Standing on Top of Golden Hours

The True Feast of Time

Falling in love is easy. The experience carries us along effortlessly for a while, everything is harmonious, and the possibilities seem endless. Then one day you wake up in the same room as another human being with his or her own needs and views and the interesting process of actually finding common ground and forming a resilient and lasting bond begins… or fails. A disaster is as far from falling in love as can be imagined, but disaster utopias are also a spell when engagement, improvisation, and empathy happen as if by themselves. Then comes the hard business of producing a good society by determination and dedication Civil society has moments when it falls in love with itself or celebrates its anniversaries, when those ties again become enchantments rather than obligations. The era when the connections were made, the possibilities were exciting, and joy came readily matters afterward. Memory of such moments becomes a resource to tap into through recollection and invocation, and celebrating those moments revives and reaffirms the emotions. Thus it is that we celebrate birthdays, the dates on which couples met or were married, on which revolutions began, battles were won, on which a god, saint, or hero was born, performed a miracle, left the earth, and more. Then enchanted time can be reclaimed and renewed by memory and celebration, and most cultures have a calendar of such occasions, when the linear time of production pauses and the cyclical time of celebration appears.

Disaster and revolution both create in some sense a carnival – an upheaval and a meeting ground, and there are carnivalesque aspects to disaster. We could think f revolutions as carnivals, for whatever good they create in the long term it is only in the moment that they create the sense of openness to each other and to possibility that is so exhilarating. That is, imagined as moments of renewal and reinvention rather than attempts to secure some good permanently, we could see the ephemeral utopia they create with new eyes. And certainly carnival and revolution have long been linked. (Though the word is used more generally in the English-speaking world, Carnival is most specifically the festivities that occur before Lent – in other words, a series of celebrations in the span of time between Christmas and Easter.)

Carnival makes sense as a revolution too: an overthrow of the established order under which we are alienated from each other, too shy to act, divided along familiar lines. Those lines vanish and we merge exuberantly.. Carnival is a hectic, short-lived, raucous version of utopia, one that matters because it is widely available, though just as carnival is scheduled and disaster is not, so carnival has known limits and consequences and disaster does not. Still, the resemblances are significant – carnival, for example, often features grotesque images, motifs of death, role inversion and transformation, and much chaos, as well as the basic ingredient of people living together in a shared space and going beyond their usual bounds. Carnival is in some sense a formalized disaster, a ritual to reap disaster’s benefits with a minimum of disaster’s tragic consequences. You could call it disaster made predictable, both in when it happens and what it wreaks. Fritz spoke of “the failure of modern societies to fulfill an individual’s basic human needs for community identity” and concluded that “disasters provide a temporary liberation from the worries, inhibitions, and anxieties associated with the past and future because they force people to concentrate their full attention on immediate moment-to-moment, day-to-day needs within the context of the present realities.” He could have also been describing what carnival provides in the more safe and structured break from ordinary time.

Some ancient calendars had three hundred sixty days; the five at the end of the year were categorically outside time, so that the ordinary rules did not apply (similarly, Halloween was initially a Celtic year’s-end festival when the dead could travel through the gap between the old year and the new). A sense of being outside ordinary time, of disorder and inversion, governs saturnalias and carnivals. They are liminal in an almost literal sense, since that word means crossing lintels or thresholds. The Roman Saturnalia was a year-end winter festival of freedom: gambling was permitted in public, everyone wore the wool caps of freedmen, slaves were relieved of their duties and masters sometimes waited on slaves, a lord of misrule was chosen (and in some accounts, this holiday of Saturn was assimilated into that of Kronos, the god of time and the Golden Age). The festival lasted a few days and then several days, but long after it was over it must have left a lingering sense that the everyday order of things was not the inevitable one; it must have, like disaster and revolution, opened up the possibilities.

Scholarship nowadays denies a direct relationship between the Roman Saturnalia and Christian Carnival, but there are many similarities, including a lord of misrule and acts of inversion of ordinary power relations. In his book Carnival and Other Christian Festivals, Max Harris recounts the theological basis for the inversion of hierarchies, the passage in the Magnificat where Mary says (in Luke 1:22), in celebration of the impending birth of her son, “He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble.” And he quotes Peter burke, who wrote that the whole Christmas season was “treated as carnivalesque, appropriately enough from a Christian point of view, since the birth of the Son of God in a manger was a spectacular example of the world turned upside down.” Carnival, which was originally part of the Christmas season rather than the prelude to Lent, could include impersonations of the clergy; cross-dressing actual members of the clergy; comic blasphemies, including parodies of the Mass and risqué humor; ritual enactments of historic battles (particularly in the New World) in which the losers were no longer necessarily the losers; masks; dances; fireworks; spectacles; uproar; and chaos. The Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin goes further in his famous description of carnival: “Carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions. Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalized and completed. … People were, so to speak, reborn for new, purely human relations. These truly human relations were not only a fruit of imagination or abstract thought; they were experienced.”

Looking back from the perspective of disaster and revolution, carnival seems not merely to punctuate the calendar of ordinary time but to puncture it as well, as if with air holes to breathe through, or to let pressure off, or to let outside possibilities in. Carnival is often spoken of as liminal, as a moment of suspension between two states, of openness to transformation and difference, a moment when the rules are no longer in effect (though the disorder that Carnival creates and celebrates has its own strict parameters). Europe’s Protestant Reformation, in eliminating so many festivals and celebrations, did not merely increase work time but also undid the dialogue between ordinary time and its festive interruption, an interruption that is also an assertion of civil society, of memory, of collective liberation. And so one way to regard uprisings and maybe even disasters is as unseasonal outbreaks of carnival, assertions of civil society, community, and the breakdown of categories and boundaries. Covert new erotic unions are a staple of old stories about masked Carnival, but the public union of each to each is its point.

Many traditional carnivals feature subversive and mocking elements: parodies of the church and religion, status reversals, re-enactments of historical moments – such as the conquest of Latin America – in ways that reclaim power and voice. There is a permanent debate over whether carnival is truly subversive or the way an unjust society lets off pressure that allows the status quo to stand, but the only possible answer is that it varies, as do carnivals. The only great carnival rites in the United States include segregated balls and the public parade of New Orleans’s most powerful people in masks and hats that vaguely resemble the pointed caps of the Ku Klux Klan. When the City of New Orleans mandated in the early 1990s that the parades no longer be racially exclusive, some of the old elite white krewes canceled their public events rather than integrate.

The last surviving oligarchical public parade, Rex, still follows Zulu, the blackface African American parade that was founded as a parody of both Rex and African American stereotypes a century ago. Each year Rex and Zulu acknowledge each other in an uneasy truce while all the rest of the city revels, dresses up, dons masks, promenades, and drinks a lot. Mardi Gras is a strange festival, balanced between asserting the status quo and letting loose, between hierarchy and subversion. After all, the great majority excluded from the elite carnival balls have their own balls, parades, street revels, and parties, some of which include biting social commentary. Traditional carnivals continue throughout Europe, India, and the Americas, notably in Brazil, the Caribbean, and Bolivia, while the feast days and festivals of Mexico and indigenous New Mexico continue another version of the rite

Disaster belongs to the sociologists, but carnival to the anthropologists, who talk of its liminality. That is, like initiation rites, carnival takes place in a space betwixt and between familiar, settled states; it is a place of becoming in which differences diminish and commonalities matter, a separation from what came before. The anthropologist Victor Tune noted that liminal moments open up the possibility of communitas, the ties that are made when ordinary structures and the divides they enforce cease to matter or exist. The celebration that is carnival often resembles disaster in being made of turbulence and destruction: of people throwing colored powders in India or candies and meringues in Spain or beads in New Orleans; of creating huge messes in the streets and leaving piles of debris behind; of shouting, rushing, dancing, spinning; of mingling with strangers who are for the moment less strange; of images of the grotesque, the morbid, and the unsettling.

To make fellowship, joy, and freedom work for a day or a week is far more doable than the permanent transformation of society, and it can inspire people to return to that society in its everyday incarnation with renewed powers and ties. The anarchist theorist Hakim Bey famously coined the term temporary autonomous zones to describe these phenomena, neither revolution nor festival, in which people liberate themselves for pleasure and social reinvention. He saw their ephemerality as a survival technique, a way of arising, affecting, and vanishing before any move to repress arose: “The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the state can crush it.” The goal is not permanence or confrontation, and the moment of liberation can be re-created, so that its lapse is not necessarily a defeat.


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