Today is Shrove Tuesday. Last day of the ancient carnival season and herald of Lent, it has dwindled down to a New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, Fasching in Munich, and not much of anything elsewhere. Does Mardi Gras have a purpose anymore besides showing off your bottom and getting drunk on Bourbon Street? Letting go—as the saying goes—does not mean much when there is little left to let go of.
We are a long way from the spring customs of European peasantry. However much they differed by locale or style, traditional pre-Lenten carnival practices come under the umbrella of Misrule. They were not tourist attractions. Rather, they were lively, popular interruptions of daily life, pregnant with ritual significance, and participated in with gusto by entire communities.
James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, first published in 1890, is a fundamental work of modern anthropology. Passages of Frazer’s theorizing on his subject were expurgated in 1922n not restored until 1994 by Oxford University Press. It was a major influence on a bevy of writers, among them T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, and D.H. Lawrence. So let us dip into it ourselves:
At Cobern in the Eifel Mountains [Western Germany] the lads make up a straw-man on Shrove Tuesday. The effigy is formally tried and accused of having perpetrated all the thefts that have been committed in the neighbourhood throughout the year. Being condemned to death, the straw-man is led through the village, shot, and burned upon a pyre. They dance round the blazing pile, and the last bride must leap over it. In Oldenburg on the evening of Shrove Tuesday people used to make long bundles of straw, which they set on fire, and then ran about the fields waving them, shrieking, and singing wild songs. Finally they burned a straw-man on the field.
There are two opposing interpretive camps on the subject of misrule. Some medievalists see it as a social protest performance, its oppositional tenor disguised by pageantry. Others take it for a safety valve for dissipating frustrations and resentments. Umberto Eco holds the latter view, though with the proviso that a scheduled trespass is a contradiction in terms:
Carnival can exist only as an authorized transgression . . . . If the ancient religious carnival was limited in time, the modern mass-carnival is limited in space: it is reserved for certain places, certain streets, or framed by the television screen.
In this sense, comedy and carnival are not instances of real transgressions. On the contrary, they represent paramount examples of law reinforcement. They remind us of the existence of the rule.
In short, it is a licensed affair. An anti-authoritarian carnival culture is a chimera of politicized imaginations.
I have no stake in the argument. It is the imagery of carnival that interests me, and the long, slow shift from lingering magical overtones, through communal masques with emphasis on costume and disguise, reduced finally to purposeless flash and flesh, concealing nothing, insinuating less. Exhibitionism for its own sake.
In Normandy on the evening of Ash Wednesday it used to be the custom to hold a celebration called the Burial of Shrove Tuesday. A squalid effigy scantily clothed in rags, a battered old hat crushed down on his dirty face, his great round paunch stuffed with straw, represented the disreputable old rake who, after a long course of dissipation, was now about to suffer for his sins. Hoisted on the shoulders of a sturdy fellow, who pretended to stagger under the burden, this popular personification of the Carnival promenaded the streets for the last time in a manner the reverse of triumphal. Preceded by a drummer and accompanied by a jeering rabble, among whom the urchins and all the tag-rag and bobtail of the town mustered in great force, the figure was carried about by the flickering light of torches to the discordant din of shovels and tongs, pots and pans, horns and kettles, mingled with hootings, groans, and hisses. From time to time the procession halted, and a champion of morality accused the broken-down old sinner of all the excesses he had committed and for which he was now about to be burned alive. The culprit, having nothing to urge in his own defence, was thrown on a heap of straw, a torch was put to it, and a great blaze shot up, to the delight of the children who frisked round it screaming out some old popular verses about the death of the Carnival. Sometimes the effigy was rolled down the slope of a hill before being burnt. At Saint-Lô the ragged effigy of Shrove Tuesday was followed by his widow, a big burly lout dressed as a woman with a crape veil, who emitted sounds of lamentation and woe in a stentorian voice. After being carried about the streets on a litter attended by a crowd of maskers, the figure was thrown into the River Vire.
and especially this:
Whether this fellow can be considered a site of symbolic struggle—to put it in academic terms—or just a guy having a night on the town, is anyone’s guess. I am just not sure I want to know.