Opinion: Carnivalistic misalliances

POSTED: 04/23/14 10:40 PM

One cannot help wondering about what exactly defines Carnival as the “most important cultural event” in St. Maarten. When the Carnival Village opened on Monday night, Culture Minister Patricia Lourens was off island and the Minister of Public Health (public deafness would maybe be a more accurate observation in this case), Cornelius de Weever did the honors.

We do not know why Minister Lourens was off island, so it is a stretch to assume that she fled Carnival. There is probably a good reason for her absence. But still, what then is more important than “the most important cultural event”?

What makes one also wonder about the cultural aspect of Carnival is that Collective Preventive Services considers it necessary to distribute free condoms during this festive season. We hear that a lot of babies are born in St. Maarten in the month of January, which happens to be nine months after Carnival. There is no record of the number of fathers that stay with the Carnival mothers after these births, but the odds are not good. Many Carnival babies will end up in one-parent families. That is a shortcut to poverty and a troubled life.

Not to put too much of a damper on the 45th anniversary of Carnival, history shows that this celebration comes with its own set of rules – and St. Maarten has thrown quite some of them out of the window for reasons unknown.

Let us begin with the origin of Carnival. If we take it that the word itself stems from the Italian carne levare (to remove meat) or from the Latin carne vale (farewell to meat) we have to assume that this has something to do with Lent, the forty days of fasting before Easter. That would make the celebration a wild party to get rid of all the stuff you are not supposed to eat or drink during Lent. Because St. Maarten celebrates its Carnival actually after Easter, this explanation won’t fly here.

And we could so easily link Carnival to that other day on our calendar that matters: November 11, St. Maarten Day. The reality is – we don’t. In Europe Carnival opens on November 11, usually at 11.11 p.m. This date has to do with the advent season, or, if you want, with the harvest celebration on St. Maarten Day.

Steady factors in Carnival are the parades and masquerades that signify the abolition – for the duration of the celebration – of the rules that apply during the rest of the year. Basically, everything that is not allowed on all those other days is permitted during Carnival. Love thy neighbor as thyself, so to speak.

Revelers must love the theory developed by the Russian philosopher Mikhal Bakhtin, who died at the age of 80 in 1975. Bakhtin distinguished four categories of the carnavalistic sense of the world. (This is according to Wikipedia, we did not make it up).

The first category fits seamlessly with the distribution of free condoms here: familiar and free interaction between people. Bakhtin noted that Carnival “often brought unlikely people together and that it encouraged the interaction and free expression of themselves in unity.”

The second category the Russian philosopher established is the one of eccentric behavior. No more complaining about how the girls dance in our Grand Parade: “Unacceptable behavior is welcomed and accepted in Carnival, and one’s natural behavior can be revealed without consequences,” Bakhtin wrote. Sounds like a good opportunity for politicians to bury the hatchet. The third category is even more interesting: carnivalistic misalliances. “Familiar and free format of Carnival allows everything that may normally be separate to reunite – heaven and hell, young and old,” to which we would add: Romain Laville and the UP, Louie Laveist and the DP – and so on.

And then there is the sacrilegious category. Bakhtin was convinced that Carnival “allowed for sacrilegious events to occur without the need for punishment.”

Taken all together, Bakhtin’s philosophy sums op Carnival as “creative theatrical expressions of manifested life experiences in the form of sensual ritualistic performances.”

There you have it in a nutshell. Not for nothing, Carnival is related to the extravagant Feast of Fools that drew fire from the church in the Middle Ages. Not much has changed over the centuries then. As revelers celebrate their Carnival, few of them will actually be aware of its roots and its meaning. That’s okay: this ignorance fits perfectly in a carnivalesque concept that is – based on historical data – designed to do what one would otherwise not do during the rest of the year. If only that were true.

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