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Carnival, the last laugh
I got the impression that Carnivalists lost enthusiasm in the last-half for the idea that Carnival generates a profit. But, being what they are, they found an even more preposterous proposition: that Carnival is a happy-making, joy-bringing, cathartic romp.
Ordinarily I’d hate to be the bad guy who has to tell kids there ain’t no Santy Claus, but Carnivalists ain’t kids (except in terms of IQ).
Fun is, to be sure, subjective. Some people have fun getting high, driving drunk, fighting, sexually molesting women, publicly urinating, and so on. (Yeah, The Hangover, Pts I & II). But of course, none of this ever happened during our Carnival.
The residents of Diamond Vale and Chaguanas who cited overloud noise, fights, public urination, and threats when they tried to stop all-night parties in their neighbourhoods must have been spiteful killjoys. Not “real” Trinidadians.
The fun we real Trinis mean, and which we experience during our Carnival, is ecstatic abandon, levelling the playing field, “letting go” of sense and logic (apparently a good thing all year round). In fact, we want to get so happy, we need the entire police force and army out on the streets to make sure everyone is happy. And private security in mas bands, to keep the happiness locked in.
The happiness talk got me to thinking about how the Carnival faces and bodies expressed this happiness. Looking at one of the reality shows some years ago, I noticed the very narrow range of emotions (judges and participants) deployed, what was animating those emotions, and how easy they were to decode.
Everyone on the show (and many others) desperately wanted to be famous, rich, and drowned in excess, and willing to trample anyone to get them. In our time, this cluster of desire fuels the contemporary cultural condition. The means of desire fulfilment come from a small common pool of images: rap videos, OMG, TMZ, reality TV, Kim Kardashian etc. Our youth consume these urges like calypso tents gobble government money.
And this desperate desire for mindless gratification, at no cost, now drives the Carnival. I saw the same expressions—desperation, smugness, desire and febrile excitation—as I passed round the panyards, the tents, in the fete photos in the papers, and the clips of the fetes on television.
In the panyards, evident was the desperate “Ok, here I am, gimme my ‘authentic Trini’ stamp.” The fete pictures said: “Way de camera, where de camera—look mih here! I’s ah Trini. Tell de world!” In the big soca/Machel shows, rampant were a kind of unhinged libidinousness, drunkenness, and licence, a desperate grasping for the promised ecstatic abandon.
Literally, with arms outstretched. All of it in expectation of the camera, an observer, without which, it would all be for naught. And the calypso tents tents were as funny as a funeral. Many calypsonians looked on the verge of tears, singing under the pall of state funding. Aloes was morose and apologetic. Misery sang to wretchedness, and was called out for encore after encore.
But the joylessness was most explicit in the mas bands. The tableaux of attractive women, clad in ways that might make porn stars blush, heavily guarded by large men, cordoned off from the rest of the world, didn’t make the onlookers as happy so much as enflamed them.
I don’t know if it happened this year, but in previous years, there were many stories about the bad boys who lie in wait on the corners where the police can’t patrol, and attack the hottie bands, to grab some of that thar gold that blinds them.
So, in sum: unless there was another Carnival happening in some place other than the tents, panyards I went to, and the fetes and concerts I saw on TV, there didn’t seem to be much joy. What there did seem to be was a determined, desperate gaiety.
Maybe that’s what constitutes a good time these days. And for a festival whose raison d’etre is inverting authority and power, the power relations seemed resilient.
The rich consumed conspicuously and narcissistically in fantastically expensive all-inclusives, and exclusive bands. The poor and dispossessed, who, in theory, should be enjoying their moment of elevation, found themselves on the margins as voyeurs, enraged and as dispossessed as ever.
But this is a subjective business. If a person insists they happy and having fun, you have to take their word for it. And don't bother to point out that happiness and fun are usually not synonymous with greed, lust, violence, and anarchy, and need the entire police force to protect them.
If this is a conscious thing, why would they do it—make a massive show of having a good time—en masse? To do otherwise might be to “bad talk” Trinidad. Or it might be that the insistence on finding justifications for the Carnival (on whatever grounds) is a symptom of a deeper conflict?
Post-independence Creole society is now consciously configured around the values Carnival is supposed to embody: creativity, joie de vivre, happy bacchanal. The ostensible happiness could be a need to “prove” we’re alright to the outside world, and ourselves, and the Creole paradigm is working.
It might be that the independence generation wishes to evade how unbelievably they’ve screwed up the society. Or the “Creole” society architects and cogs wish to evade the fact that the Creole paradigm is a failure. And there, unfortunately, the divided society is stuck. Unless the society admits that what’s going on is nothing to be happy about, or celebrate, then, well, we ain’t going nowhere.
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