I was invited to be a guest author at an Fallen Angels Reviews chat in celebration of Phat Tuesday. As in Fat Tuesday. As in Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras? What could I possibly contribute to this conversation? There is absolutely nothing -not a single thing- I know about Mardi Gras.
And then I thought back... way back... back to my university days and a spark ignited in the bottom of my memory. I do know a thing or two about Mardi Gras, or at least about the history and significance of Carnival. At least on paper.
So here it is, class: the entire cheat sheet for those of you who skipped, slept or partied through the 9am lecture by professor Giselle (shame on you!)
In major medieval centres, 3 months per year were generally devoted to carnival festivities! It was a time when peasants would come together, joined even by scholars and monks, to mock the king, the church and even each other.
Some features of Carnival included ritual spectacles like fairs and feasts, processions and competitions, open-air amusements with costumes and masks, giants and little people, monsters and trained animals, parodies and vulgar farce and a whole lot of “low” and “dirty” kinds of folk humour.
World Upside Down
Carnival was all about violating social norms, turning your everyday worldview on its head. For example, one popular performance portrayed nuns and monks having sex on stage. Live sex shows? Carnival at its most carnivalesque. Though, I never was clear on whether the performers were actual nuns and monks, or just peasants dressed in habits and robes. But I have an active imagination…
The king is a servant, the church is a whore, the sage is a fool. If you want to sound terribly scholarly, you can call this hierarchy inversion a ritual strategy of subordination.
Carnival was always very much about the body. Not the body as a pretty and well-behaved little thing, but the body as a nasty, excessive, oily entity with gaping orifices and bulging organs. The sexual and scatological are given priority. The carnivalesque body jiggles with blubber; it is open, not closed; protruding, not emaciated.
There was an obsession not only with desire and disgust, but with a combination of the two. Birth and death were bundled together, as in the bizarre image of a wretched old hag with a big pregnant belly. What does this serve to represent? Two bodies in one: the body giving life and the body dying.
It all sounds fairly disgusting, but that was the point. What happens when we laugh at the grotesque? When we laugh at death and disease and big fat bellies? They become less frightening. When we laugh at something, it loses its power over us.
All People Body
During Carnival time, there was no distinction between actor and audience. You couldn’t just stand back and watch Carnival. If you were there, you were an active participant. Sure you were part of the fun, but this also meant nobody was safe from mockery and derision.
Carnival brought the people together, made them a collective entity. It created the idea of a community as one body all laughing together at the serious elements of their culture, at oppression and unfairness. This communal body was ever-expanding and boundless. Never did it apologize for or renounce its earthiness.
The people knew well all the grotesque qualities of this laughing communal body had positive forces: they represented regeneration, renewal and fertility.
Carnival as a means of social control?
Everything that couldn’t happen in the buckled-down world of everyday life was permitted during Carnival. It provided a space for release, but because this explosion of all things rude and ludicrous happened on such a grand scale, some theorists argue Carnival only served to reinforce cultural norms.
Wait, what? If Carnival was so rebellious, why was it not considered a protest by the ruling classes and the Church? Because it was licensed by the authorities. It was anticipated and allowed. Anyway, the peasants chose a Carnival king and queen and this was perceived to reinforce the status quo. Even the party where anything goes maintained the concept of a ruling class.
Ultimately, like a child throwing a fit in the grocery store, Carnival was seen by the rulers as a chance for the people to get all that crazy animal energy out of their systems. It’s no coincidence “Carnival Proper” is followed by the abstinence and fasting of Lent.
Citing my sources:
For more theory of the carnivalesque, consult (as I did) Mikhail Bakhtin's introduction to RABELAIS AND HIS WORLD and Stallybrass and White's THE POLITICS AND POETICS OF TRANSGRESSION.