Nowhere do we see more clearly the symbiotic relationship between the idea of New Orleans and the material realities of life here than in Carnival. The holiday is special not only because we still do it (unlike most of the world) but because we analyze ourselves in the process.
Yes, making money off tourists is a major motivation, too, but locals have always insisted that there’s a deeper, more spiritual purpose at work. The city doesn’t sponsor Carnival as much as it seeks to manage it and contain it, and, yes, insure some revenue as a lagniappe. The city’s role in what locals perceive as an organic social phenomenon is often bitterly contested.
This year’s Carnival ordinance affecting parade-route practices is nowhere near as contentious as the 1991-92 fight over desegregation of once powerful and racially exclusive krewes. Yet both city interventions are in keeping with the socially healthful benefits that many of us detect in Carnival.
You may have heard people refer to a golden age of Carnival in the late 19th Century, when “If Ever I Cease to Love” was composed. Don’t believe them. The golden age of Carnival is now, and it dawned right around when we finally buried the corpse of the supposedly golden carnival of a hundred years ago.
That necessary development was the Carnival desegregation ordinance, passed by the City Council in 1991, revised the following year, and struck down by federal courts in the following years. Despite its legal failure, its intent was basically realized: to ban from city streets krewes that refused to open their memberships to all races, thus forcing from the streets the very krewes that had originated the krewe system and defined the reigning institutional practice of Mardi Gras in New Orleans for a century.
Of course, these organizations — notably Comus, Proteus, and Momus — were not only elitist but patently racist, and, yes, the parades that filled the vacuum — like Orpheus, Krewe d’Etat, Krewe du Vieux, and everybody’s current favorite, Muses — offer a far richer spectacle than the tired older parades, even if their float-design standards (the one forté of the “old-line” krewes) are lower.
More significantly, the conception of Carnival in the hands of the Uptown old-line krewes was an aberration in the vast lineage of carnival history. Carnival is ancient, many centuries older than New Orleans itself, and its practice has been in constant evolution.
Looked at from a certain angle, we might see a contraction of Carnival in our time rather than a flowering. When I was a kid, I used to enjoy walking to the corner of Piety and St. Claude to catch the Okeanos parade. The Krewe of Carrollton rolled in Carrollton and the Krewe of Mid-City rolled in Mid-City. Now, of course, all of these krewes have been sucked into the Uptown parade route, where they are joined every year by other krewes abandoning their old neighborhood routes — this year the Westbank’s Alla is the latest krewe from the provinces to stroll down St. Charles Avenue. Endymion hangs on as the only Orleans Parish parade to shun the Uptown route.
But then, that depends on how you define “parade.” The model of tractor-drawn floats tossing throws, interspersed with high school marching bands, equestrians, and perhaps Shriners in little cars, is one vision of a Carnival parade, but there wouldn’t be much cause for golden-age claims if that’s all there was to it. That version of Mardi Gras has dwindled, yes, but a more exciting, more participatory, and more carnivalesque Mardi Gras has bloomed in its place. Furthermore, taking the long view of Carnival, a history rooted in ancient times, how foundational is a modern, top-down, mechanized street parade, anyway?
Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, in a book about folk culture influences on the great Renaissance French writer Rabelais, outlined a theory of Carnival based on ancient and medieval traditions. Centuries later, it’s remarkable to witness how the “carnivalesque” spirit he details lives on so palpably on the other side of the world. A few of the key attributes Bakhtin ascribes to Carnival are a satirical impulse of a bawdy kind that he calls “grotesque realism,” the inversion of normal prevailing social hierarchies, and mass participation.
In light of principles like these, it’s a no-brainer that the latest city ordinance supports, rather than inhibits, the ancient foundations of Carnival tradition. Even here in New Orleans, one of the prevailing social strictures upended by Carnival has been segregation in public settings. Blocking off and segregating swaths of the public space for members-only parties doesn’t jibe with the carnivalesque injunction to cast off social distinctions and rub shoulders with strangers for a limited period of time.
Setting up private facilities like port-o-lets and denying access to strangers or broke people is the norm 46 weeks of the year; we try something different for the other couple of weeks. So the City Council’s very restrained measure will certainly do no harm to the still unfolding Carnival golden age we’re privileged to witness. It also covers only a tiny aspect of the Carnival experience today, which has become more broadly participatory then ever.
For one thing, a proliferation of smaller parading organizations that march with the large night parades has expanded opportunity for affordable participation by a greater number of adults. It’s true that fraternal organizations have had this access in the past, but today’s adult marching clubs are far more performance-oriented. Since the Pussyfooters took to the streets in 2001, they’ve been joined by other adult women dance troupes like The Bearded Oysters, the Cameltoe Steppers, and in 2011* one without an anatomically suggestive name, The Sirens. New additions keep coming, like the Nola Chorus Girl project, which will hit the streets for the first time in the entry-level Pygmalion parade on Feb. 22. The 610 Stompers famously opened the dance troupe genre to all-male clubs, too. Amateur musical societies like the Ninth Ward Marching Band and the Noicisian Coalition add their colors as well, so that the big street parade of our time is far more diverse in its offerings and has also that infatuated energy that comes from amateur cultural participation, the genius of Carnival in the first place.
But the gorgeous splashy extravaganza of the super krewes is just one of many ways to do Carnival. Krewe du Vieux gets a lot closer to the spirit captured by Bakhtin.
It’s very decentralized, an amalgam of 17 sub-krewes. The krewe captains vote on a theme, but then each of the sub-krewes handles its own theme delivery (in float design, costume, handmade throws, and even print texts).
This is democratized aesthetics, highly appropriate for the people’s holiday. Since Krewe du Vieux is a walking parade, participants are at eye-level with spectators, and they parade on the narrow streets of Marigny and the Quarter, so the contact between participant and spectator is more egalitarian, if not downright intimate at times.
The irreverent obscenity of Krewe du Vieux’s performance is as old as Carnival’s earliest incarnations, even though Uptown Carnival practice broke from that tradition back in the morally hypocritical 1800s. Bakhtin calls the emphasis on baser bodily urges and functions the “grotesque bodily principle,” and Krewe du Vieux dishes out steaming bowlfuls of it.
Bakhtin sees bodily degradation as nothing more than a predicate for transcending the merely lewd, a liberation from imprisoning hypocrisies of ideology, the bull#@%$ we have to contend with all the rest of the year.
Krewe du Vieux is quite conscious of itself not just as an insurrection, but also as a resurrection, an effort to recover from the anti-carnivalesque aspects of the 19th century Uptown Carnival model. Their mission statement expresses this ambition explicitly: “We believe in exposing the world to the true nature of Mardi Gras — and in exposing ourselves to the world.” Since Katrina, Krewe du Vieux has been joined by several other downtown parading clubs — ‘ti Rex, Chewbacchus, Red Beans — each of which follows the Krewe du Vieux model far more faithfully than the Uptown one, especially by keeping dues affordable.
But the ultimate expression of the carnivalesque instinct in our time is what happens downtown on Fat Tuesday itself. Here the line between spectator and performer is almost totally erased as thousands — whether costumed, masked or merely bystanders — converge in the streets in a utopian vision of mass civic participation. And on this day — if only for a day — we also witness New Orleans’ idealized sense of itself come down to earth to shape the city’s social reality.
Many of the most enthusiastic and freshly creative participants in the downtown Fat Tuesday are transplants drawn to the city by the idea of New Orleans more than by direct connections to its pre-existing social world. They renew the city’s mythos as a place beyond convention, an outlier, an abandoned colony of misfits and outcasts turning lemons into spiked lemonade. The more biting the satirical edge, the more crass the transgression of genteel proprieties, the more powerful the punch.
Senseless beauty is valued and is only more transgressive for brazenly occupying such a large swath of a city, if only for a day. It’s public theater with an amateur cast of thousands, clustering and breaking apart at different points — Frenchmen and Chartres, Royal and Kerlerec, Jackson Square and the Moonwalk.
One of the greatest artworks I’ve ever seen was a guy by the corner of Royal and Esplanade wearing only a bath towel. His hair was messed up, he had shaving cream on half his face, and he carried a disposable razor. He just stood and shivered, eying the crowd nervously, as if inexplicably transported from another universe.
Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich in a post-Katrina homage praised New Orleans’ contribution to American culture as the promotion of a “freewheeling, anti-elitist, come-one, come-all prototype for making art.” He wasn’t referring to Carnival specifically, but nothing fulfills that vision more than downtown on Fat Tuesday.
Those who rue the dearth of private contributions to local art organizations often cite the drain on people’s funds caused by Carnival spending. But making our own art, music, and theater, utterly without professional credentials and on a scale no other city does, is nothing to be ashamed of.
Many locals, especially younger suburbanites heeding their parents’ warnings, avoid the creole districts on Mardi Gras day. They have no idea what they’re missing, but its ancient name is Carnival.
C.W. Cannon teaches English and New Orleans Studies at Loyola University.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the date of The Sirens debut.