Sexual license, cross-dressing and other healthy behavior

Why we need the excesses of Carnival.

Published March 2, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

In the middle of the 15th century, a Parisian theologian compared people to wine fermenting in a barrel. He believed that barrels of aging wine needed to be opened just to keep them from exploding. And that the wine of human madness needed to be released at least once each year in order to transform itself into the good wine of pious devotion. He was writing about the Feast of Saturn and its modern incarnation, the Carnival.

In ancient Rome, there were more slaves than slave-owners and more paupers than patricians. One of the techniques used to distract the wretched souls at the bottom of Roman society and keep them from doing the math and overturning the structure was the Feast of Saturn. It was a government-sponsored festival that took place in the cities and was calculated to release the tensions between the "rich and famous" and "the never-to-be-rich and famous."

Cities are artificial, gridlike and designed to be structured and orderly. Many people living in them feel they require regular infusions of new life. Mythically speaking, that new life can only come from outside the city, from "Out There." The Feast of Saturn was essentially a strategy for letting the Wild Otherness into the city.

It did this by stressing Nature (the opposite of the paved city), vegetation, animals and the past. The god of the procession was Bacchus, the god of new life, rising sap, spring, wine and ecstasy. Had it been around, he would have been the god of Viagra. Bacchus was the god of the theater; he encouraged his followers to dress up and pretend they were somebody else. He could manifest himself as androgynous and promoted cross-dressing. He was the god of masks.

Bacchus was always a foreigner -- he came from Out There, with his wildness and sexual license. He was experienced as an invasion of the psyche. He represented the outside both physically and mentally, as in being "outside yourself" in the way an intoxicated person might be. He invaded the city with disorder; he was chaos personified. He disrupted the city and made its residents drop their normal activities to attend to him, drink with him, dance with him, make love with him.

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Feast of Saturn was converted into Carnival, the last opportunity to live it up before the 40 days of Lent, the most serious period of fasting and abstinence in the church's calendar. Next week dozens of carnivals will take place in Catholic communities throughout the world.

In its true form Carnival is a feast that sets out to invert the normal reality of life. It is always grossly indecent and openly obsessed with sex. It demands excess of all kinds: overeating, overdrinking, noise, expense, size and sexual outrageousness. It displays the inventiveness of ordinary citizens, especially people who have little chance to be creative in their everyday lives. It satirizes famous people, symbols and events. Look carefully at a Carnival and you will see the limitations that chafe at people.

Carnival was imported to the New World by its original French and Spanish settlers. In New Orleans, the French tradition of Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), black African dance and the masked balls of the Confederate aristocracy came together to create something distinctly American. The city's first documented procession with masks in the streets took place in 1837. For the most part, these pageants used fairly acidic humor and ridiculed much of life in New Orleans.

A fascination with other times and places is an important ingredient of Carnival, and in New Orleans the past is constantly being dragged out and put on view as part of the inversion strategy. The whole nomenclature of the festival is self-consciously "old." Words like "Krewe," with its idiosyncratic spelling, were designed to evoke the idea of the Renaissance. The Krewe names are drawn from Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology: the Mystic Krewe of Comus, the Krewe of Rex, the Krewes of Proteus and Hermes and so on.

New Orleans is self-conscious about its history and uses Mardi Gras to reconfirm its image as Southern, Catholic and French. It displays its food, its jazz and its reputation for being "naughty."

During the 1960s, Carnival in New Orleans started to become a parade. The main reasons for this slight shift were the development of nationally coordinated television programs and the modern propensity to make every social manifestation into a spectacle for others and to try to sell it.

Many Americans love parades because they give individuals a chance to belong to a group and at the same time demonstrate that affiliation to a large audience. The word "parade" comes from the old Spanish word "parada," which meant "the stopping." It was a military word that was used to describe the period of time that a foreign army stayed in an occupied town. The soldiers marched through the streets, which gave them the chance to show their strength and impress the locals. It may seem odd that something as regimented as an army would have a part in the history of Carnival, but soldiers are from the realm of war, which is the ultimate chaos.

Women began to parade openly in New Orleans during the 1941 Mardi Gras, with the foundation of the Krewe of Venus. Men and women did not parade together until the 1960s. Yet as early as 1912, there were bands of "Baby Dolls" -- tough women -- who walked along the street instead of riding a float. These days there are so many Krewes that the New Orleans newspaper, the Times-Picayune, has a Web site that tells you how you can quickly become a member and join the parade.

In ancient carnivals, nuts and sweets were tossed to the spectators. Today the crowd grasps for necklaces and plastic coins called doubloons. The distribution of "wealth" to the population is a way of letting everyone take part in the event. The people on the floats have everything they want, and are moving through life. The spectators are not advancing; they are watching life go by. The distribution of trinkets keeps the watchers amused and in their place. It is a tradition that celebrates the American myths of equality and success through accumulation, but at the same time makes fun of them, the true mark of Carnival.

The festivities last only a short time and show people that rebellion, disorder and general chaos are not what they want on a regular basis. Order and organization are essential for the survival of a community, and these are always reestablished at the end of any Carnival. The madness has been given an official release and the powerful elite can persuade themselves that the population has returned to pious devotion.

By Burt Wolf

Burt Wolf's TV show, "Travels & Traditions II," appears on almost 300 public-television stations weekly. His column appears every Wednesday in Salon. For more columns, visit his archive. He also writes regularly about food and cooking equipment for Burt


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