Today, New York City celebrated its West Indian Day Parade and carnival, a tradition that originated in Harlem in the 1920s. Modeled on the traditional Carnival, it now boasts over three million participants in its street parade, most wearing fantastic and gaudy beaded and feathered costumes and carnival masks. Ample-bosomed dancers shake their barely-concealed breasts and tail feathers, spinning through the streets in the garish reds, violets, blues, and golds of their sequined costumes. They swirl around and through the crowds of carnival-goers and observers massed along the streets of Brooklyn to enjoy the spectacle.
Across the United States, many other municipalities are preparing for their annual state and county fairs and carnivals. The first snap of fall in the air traditionally heralds the sweet smells of cotton candy, ears of corn roasting on the grill, corn dogs fresh from the oven, the sound of carneys calling to passersby along the midway to come, tempt fate, try a game of chance or skill. Everyone loves something at a fair, a carnival, or a circus; everyone loves a party, sometime. Even the most pronounced introvert enjoys a good baby shower or wedding, or secretly longs for just one surprise birthday party.
The Call to Chaos
The carnival is, among other things, a human manifestation and celebration of the orgiastic urge. It is what Cirlot calls a “call to chaos,” behaviors that arise as the result of a “weakening of the will to accept the norm in the ordinary way.”1 Carnivals are thus often characterized by, or associated with drunkenness, sexual license, excesses of all kinds, a confusion of form (and thus transvestism), inversion of social patterns, an unleashing of opposites and of all kinds of passions. Mircea Eliade, scholar and author, said that chaos is a supreme fulfillment, and as such symbolic of the eternal moment and of timelessness. This is not to suggest that the goal of the carnival is only pleasure—not so. It is, on a deeper level, to bring about the symbolic dissolution of the world in a momentary disruption.
Carnival, or Shrovetide, marks the beginning of Lent in Catholic cultures, a tradition that has spread around the world and is now hardly regarded as linked to the liturgical calendar, much less to the somber Lenten season. In Germany, Carnival is known as Fastnacht, the eve of the fast; Carnival comes from the roots carne and levare, to remove meat. Mardi Gras includes the previous Thursday, and in England pancakes are traditionally eaten, probably in an attempt to use the eggs and fat forbidden during Lent—hence the names, “Pancake Day” and “Pancake Tuesday.” Common entertainments during Carnival include plays, masques, cock fights, dancing, and (of course) drinking.
Carnival is predated by the Saturnalia of the Greeks and Romans, and the idea that the reign of each new monarch or god would give way to that of another. The fool or king of the carnival was thus often one depicted as making merry all day and then killing himself (or being killed) by day’s end, signifying sacrifice as the sole source of re-creation. The carnival is thus symbolic of duration and sacrifice, whereby via inversion and transformation, “the brevity and intensity of life may be contrasted with its vulgar mediocrity.”2 The carnival is symbolic of our desire to capture in a short period of time all the possibilities of life.
The Meaning in Chaos
Carnival is chaos, the abyss from which an ordered creation later appears. Without one, we never experience the other; hence our cyclical, symbolic descent to lawlessness and primordial chaos as a means of invoking genesis. In waking life, we often participate in events whose origins and appeals we don’t understand. The sparkling lights, opulent golds, and garish reds of Carnival remind me that everywhere I look, there is a pattern and reason to life’s events, to our traditions and practices. The ancient alchemists believed in a spiritual and material order in the universe, in stages of development and of the work, or opus, that ultimately produced the essential gold of a substance or a person.
The Carnival reminds me of the displacements required by works of transformation, of what occurs or is brought on that demands the dissolution, division, separation, and chaos that necessarily precede a new creation.
Cirlot, J. E. (2001). A Dictionary of Symbols (2nd ed.). (London: Routledge) p. 279.
Hillman, James (2010). Alchemical Psychology (1st ed.). Putnam, CT: Spring Publications.