Carnivalism: the shadow of hierarchy
I asked their [my classes’] indulgence for a historical detour. “Hierarchical societies that are deeply unequal and exploitive,” I pointed at the image, “force people to release stress through play. In Ancient Greece, the cult of Dionysus held rituals where they drank, took psychedelics and danced on mountains. When Rome absorbed Greece, Dionysus was renamed Bacchus and again, citizens, exhausted by the hierarchy, fled to the mountains and drank and had orgies and were consumed with their bodies.”
“The carnival is the shadow of hierarchy,” I said, “In every age, in every continent, it reappears as one answer to inequality. People return to the very parts of themselves that had to be repressed to fit in and highlight, exaggerate it in order to free themselves. The question today is, how are you going to return to yourselves?” Home in Brooklyn, I dug through my library for Mikhail Bakhtin’s classic 1965 book Rabelais and His World, where he cataloged the qualities of Carnival. He wrote, “Festivals…were the second life of the people, who for a time entered the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality and abundance. People were reborn…liberating them from norms of etiquette and decency. The words were a magnifying glass on memory. I closed my eyes and saw the bawdy, sexual humor of NYC’s Halloween or the Critical Tits ride at Burning Man. Hierarchy suspended and reversed. Space and Time, re-imagined. Masks taken off. Absurd, more truthful masks put on. Raucous laughter. Sex. Obscenity. The Grotesque Body. I shut the book, thinking of Ancient Egypt’s New Year Festival of Drunkenness and Greece’s Dionysian Mystery Cults. The Roman Empire had Saturnalia and the pagans, Germanic Yule Tide. Rising from history were the same psychedelic and alcohol flushed faces, the same wild dancing, the same fire, feasts and libertine excess. The egalitarian chaos of folk culture is universal.