Juan Carnaval is about to die. The kings and queens of the San Pedro Carnival have written his will; tomorrow San Pedro will hold a wake, and his brides will weep behind their fishnet veils before removing their widow’s weeds and revealing themselves to be men. His will will be read, and he will be burnt, and Carnival will be over until next year. Four hundred years ago, a Flemish painter named Pieter Bruegel, in one of his most Boschian works, celebrated a different sort of celebration of the same holiday and called it The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (larger view). Over a hundred peasants gather around two figures: the hatchet-faced Lent, drawn by a nun and priest and wielding a scourge, and Carnival, fat as a lord and brandishing a roast pig as his weapon. The duel is about to commence. The painting is obviously allegorical, but the idea of a battle to celebrate the start of Lenten season was quite real. A whole variety of rituals were observed: mock battles staged with blunted weapons, masquerades, feasts designed to use up the butter that would be forbidden except for Sunday throughout the forty days of Lent. That tradition (or possibly other ones regarding the diet on the last day before Ash Wednesday — the word "Carnival" is derived from carne, "meat") gave it a name, Fat Tuesday. In French, it’s Mardi Gras. The funeral of Juan Carnaval, with its conscious inversions of the social order, make Mardi Gras a classic example of the sort of liminality that the anthropologist Victor Turner saw underpinning ritual, in which participants step onto a threshold, a "limen", in which the rules before and behind them do not apply. Medieval Catholocism was rich in feast days, and many of them stood outside the social order this way. Fat Tuesday was joined by the Feast of Fools and the Feast of Asses, which stood a wooden donkey by the alter and ended the Mass with "the priest, having turned to the people, in lieu of saying the ‘Ite, Missa est’, will bray thrice; the people instead of replying ‘Deo Gratias’ say, ‘Hinham, hinham, hinham.’"
About the time Bruegel was painting Carnival and Lent, a Franciscan monk named François Rabelais was writing his five-part masterpiece, Five books of the lives, heroic deeds and sayings of Gargantua and his son Pantagruel. An influence on everyone from Cervantes to Joyce, Gargantua and Pantagruel details the adventures of the giant Gargantua, his son Pantagruel, and Pantagruel’s friend Panurge, as they drink, fart, fight, gamble, and belch their way through a series of adventures. At one point, Pantagruel and his forces fight an army of Sausages and Chitterlings ("There can be no false Latin in this, said Xenomanes; Chitterlings are still Chitterlings, always double-hearted and treacherous."). Everywhere the band fights against restraint and hypocracy, for crudene vivacity. They have joined gross King Carnival in the battle against the ascentic Lady Lent. Who would fast when they could fight a sausage army? It’s this attitude that led the twentieth-century Russian intellectual Mikhail Bahktin to, in Rabelais and His World to identify Gargantua and Pantagruel as "carnivalesque", part of that body of literature that "celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions…. It was hostile to all that was immortalized and completed…." The carnivalesque is spectacle and ritual, comic grandioseness, and a fishmonger’s language rolled into one.
Bakhtin (who, in the most poetic gesture in the history of academics, used the only copy of what would have been a major work as cigarette paper during the siege of Leningrad) was both the last link to a pre-Soviet intellectual past and a comfortably ensconced Soviet intellectual, a man whose ideas about literature as dialogue and the carnivalesque folk tradition undercut the authority of regimes regardless of their position on dialectical materialism. Some works tentatively to Bakhtin are of dubious origin because of their clouded provenance and for the simple reason that people aren’t sure, in the end, how he felt about Marxism. The Bakhtinian carnival may be a useful tool for understanding some literature, but it’s also a tool for understanding Carnival.
The legacies in Juan Carnaval’s will are meant to make a statement about the fobiles of the townsfolk. The krewes — Cosmos, Zulu, Bacchus — don their costumes and parade through the streets. Hordes of drunks holler as women win their beads. The Mardi Gras Indians still turn out, masked as ever (if a bit less violent) than in the past, turning the whole of New Orleans, from Bourbon Street to freeway overpasses (link via Anne Galloway) into one gigantic carnival fling. Things are not as they once were. The rules before and behind do not apply. Isn’t that what brings the tourists in? And there are wheels within wheels; the Krewes of PAN, Comotose, and Space Age Love stand waiting, lest anyone take themselves too seriously. As Rabelais said,
‘Tis true that it brings forth to you no birth
Of any value, but in point of mirth;
Thinking therefore how sorrow might your mind
Consume, I could no apter subject find;
One inch of joy surmounts of grief a span;
Because to laugh is proper to the man.
Have a po’ boy and a hurricaine or three, because tomorrow Lent begins. Hinham, hinham, hinham!