Observations Of The Carnival In New Orleans: What Does Mardi Gras Mean?

Carnival has come and gone. I spent the festivities traditionally preceding Lent (the period in the Christian calendar leading up to Easter, marked by prayer, sacrifice, and atonement) in a city especially known for such festivities, New Orleans. Walking through the city itself, past so many different remarkable buildings, experiencing an equal number of different sensations, feels like a paean to the celebration of life. And during Mardi Gras, the celebration increases exponentially, if one can imagine that.

However, amidst the fun and alterations in consciousness, Mardi Gras creates some serious paradoxes – between the giving of gifts and the production of waste, between satire and seriousness, between participation and spectacle, and between the temporal festival and its dreaded counterpart: the return to “normal” life. As such, at times, Mardi Gras can feel like a living reenactment of Pieter Bruegel’s great painting, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent.

Pieter Bruegel The Fight Between Carnival and Lent

In “Carnival against capital: a comparison of Bakhtin, Vaneigem and Bey,” Gavin Grindon nicely examines some of the theoretical elements underlying carnival, especially in relation to the writers mentioned in the title. When I think about carnival in terms of its polarizing aspects, it helps me to think of these theoretical elements in connection with those writers (partly because I think a lot about Raoul Vaneigem and Hakim Bey anyway): Bakhtin’s world of laughter, Vaneigem’s gift-giving, and the idea of turning official culture on its head – verbalized by Bakhtin, but having its temporal essence further realized by Bey.

Let’s look at one of the basic symbols of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras: beads. I would call them “currency,” but that word implies an exchange, whereas the giving of beads during Mardi Gras often does not. Krewes on floats give away beads, along with doubloons, throw cups, and other toys, to spectators along parades routes. For the duration of Mardi Gras, these items then serve as both decorations and would-be-currency – both directly in the parades and far away from them – that is, these decorations inhabit the entire city.

The Symbolism of Mardi Gras: Beads and Costumes

The giving of beads out of fun and celebration would seem like a good example of Vaneigem’s gift-giving in place of exchange, were it not for the great expense of human energy and material wealth needed in order to create and provide these “gifts.” Beads get made far away (in China), get paid for in large quantities, get shipped back across the world, and ultimately, many of them get thrown away. The idea of joyously giving away these attractive, harmless gifts for fun seems nice in theory, but it’s difficult to really buy into the idea while walking past the bead-strewn gutters of New Orleans on Wednesday morning.

mardi gras beads
Photo credit: Marie Hathaway

Mikhail Bakhtin, in his landmark Rabelais and His World, sees carnival as a means of turning the “world upside-down” – of reversing the hierarchy of everyday social relations, of equalizing power by negating it, and of questioning the mechanisms of culture in general. Mardi Gras, with its satirical floats and sometimes subversive krewes, seems to work toward manifesting Bakhtin’s carnival ideal…. but really, only for those directly involved. Therein lies another great paradox of Mardi Gras: the strong division between participants (those on the floats, those in the parades) and spectators (those who watch). If this line does not get crossed, the hierarchical divisions remain. (Think about this: the beads almost always get thrown “from above.”)

Exceptions, however, exist. Bourbon Street in New Orleans provides an admittedly “touristy” experience of Mardi Gras, but it also upholds the festive excess of carnival in an atmosphere almost devoid of boundaries. One can (and often, when it’s crowded, one must) walk in the middle of the street, among the intoxication of the crowd, immersed. The concept of spectatorship seems less pronounced in this situation. Nevertheless, the divisions between up (those who have found a way, financially or otherwise, to get to a balcony) and down (those on the street).

Even closer to the mark, on the day of Mardi Gras itself, the “Fat Tuesday” before Lent, dressing up in costume – becoming a participant – feels much more accepted, almost essential to the experience. For a day, the carnivalizing of official culture and oppression seems to exist as the way. Pity it’s only a day.

On the other hand, if we ask Hakim Bey, well known for his essay on the “Temporary Autonomous Zone” (TAZ), he might reply that only a day works just fine – enough to imagine a conceivably better world, and better than a lifetime without any freedom at all. We can also find his sentiments echoed by a New Orleans and Mardi Gras native, art critic and practicing Buddhist Eric Bookhardt. In “Occupy Wall Street: Carnival Against Capital? Carnivalesque as Protest Sensibility,” Claire Tancons quotes Bookhardt:

Carnival almost always is an innately anarchic and psychodramatic event … that enables everyone to visualize how things can be different and make them different, at least for a day, and that in itself is an inherently valuable, liberating, and potentially revolutionary practice. […] Carnival was the earliest TAZ prototype because the ‘king’ was always a parody and people’s roles within society were always autonomously self-defined, at least for that day.

Bookhardt’s conception sounds great, and often, it plays out that way. It never actually feels as manic as the struggle in The Fight Between Carnival and Lent looks. (Also, the title belies a bit the subtlety of the actual painting: in many spots, the “battle” appears more as a blend – a transformation from one to the other… and back again, as our eyes move up or down.) I bring up all the conflicts of interest in this back-and-forth exposition because it seems important to really examine the great tradition of carnival, to take what we can use, and discard other aspects. (Honestly, I really wonder if the conspicuous consumption of beads is worth the voluminous production efforts….) Take what we can use, and take the positive aspects further. I want to celebrate more carnivals, and I want to do it in the most productive – and fun – manner possible.

As a coda, early on in the trip, we walked into the magnificent St. Louis Cathedral, wandered around, and saw, among the murals and stained glass, a woman kneeling before the altar, signing with her hands. Upon closer inspection, she wasn’t making the sign of the cross, but texting on her phone. You be the judge: parody or paradox?

About the Author

I like to write, make films, play and watch soccer, meditate, read, and wander. I also enjoy psychogeography, Filipino cinema, craft beer, and strawberry shortcake. You can find me on Twitter and Google +.