Today is Ash Wednesday and in many places around the world, including my home town of Hoensbroek, this marks the end of the annual carnival. Traditionally, Ash Wednesday was the start of the lent and carnival were the last three joyful days before the sombre time of fasting until Easter.
The annual carnival is an important part of the annual calender in the southern parts of the Netherlands and has played an important part in the first thirty years of my life. When I was a boy I was dragged by my parents to many carnival parades and parties. When I was in my second year of university I even had the honour of being known as Prince Peter I of the Klotsköp in Hoensbroek. My last carnival experience was when I visited a party of the Limburger Kangaroos in Melbourne Australia.
Having been away from my home town for ten years now I have obtained some distance from these traditions to be able to place them in some philosophical context. Although it might seem at first sight that carnival is about eating, drinking and fornicating as much as possible, in this article I will argue that carnival plays an important part in contemporary post-modern culture, specially with the disappearance of its religious significance as a preparation to the fasting.1
The essence of the carnival is a praise of folly and it are three days of the year when the normal world is turned upside down. Power over the city or town is symbolically handed over to the prince of the carnival and his Council of Eleven. The council and the prince are cultural mediators of the festivities, creating a connection between the everyday world of the sane and the world of the insane. The Council of Eleven is steeped in symbolism. Their bicorne hats are inspired on the hats worn by jesters and symbolise the foolishness that is central to carnival. Their formal suits are a reminder of the worldly connection of the council who are thus mediating between the two worlds. Every member of the council and the prince wear a chain that symbolises their unity. The regalia of the prince, his sceptre, feathers and other distinguishing features, are an expression of his symbolic power of the three days of folly. The council and the prince are the cultural mediators of the carnival, as it is their task to organise the carnival and bring folly to the otherwise so serious world.
The most recognisable aspect of carnival in most cultures around the world are the costumes worn by the revellers. They replace their identity in real life for a temporary identity, usually signifying a connection with the bizarre world of insane. The costume is a ‘mask’ behind which one can hide their normal identity so that carnival can be celebrated without shame. Although revellers hide their personal identity behind the ‘mask’, it is in fact an expression of their individuality. People take great care choosing their temporary identity and some express themselves in very individual creations.
The temporary loss of personal identity is an expression of a longing to a pre-modern time. Celebrations have a strong collectivist character – to properly celebrate carnival requires a critical mass of people. This is why my most recent experience with carnival in Mebourne was not very satisfying, compared to my home where regular life stands still for several days.
This shows a paradox in carnival. One the one hand we celebrate our individuality through costumes and on the other hand we seek for collectivist experiences. In contemporary society, personal identity is a product of individual development. We can, to a certain extent, choose our identity. This is, however, a fairly recent development. Our identities used to be determined by tradition and heritage. Although we can never fully relinquish our tradition and heritage, we now have great freedom in defining ourselves.
During carnival the idea of a fixed identity is implicitly criticised and our post-modern concept of individually created identities taken to the extreme with the ‘mask’ as a symbol of the fluidity of our identity.
During the the three days of carnival, many towns organise strange activities that are totally deprived of meaning. One such example is the annual Kowrenne (running of the cows) in Hoensbroek. This is a game whereby people run underneath home made models of cows. There is no reason for this activity, nor does it contain any symbolism to something outside the activity itself. These activities are an expression of the collective identity of the people that organise them and therefore have a very strong local character.
Carnival is an expression of Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, the playing man, providing resistance against the individualist aspects of contemporary life by organising a collective experience. The absurdity of carnival is an ode to absurdity, with the fools as the central symbol, mediated by the Council of Eleven. In carnival, people refer back to a time when, as Michel Foucault argues, when sanity and insanity where not opposites, but were complimentary. The absurdity of life is, according to Albert Camus, located in the confrontation between the irrationality of reality and our longing for clarity. In carnival, this confrontation is resolved by giving priority to the irrational. Carnival is thus a purification ritual as a catharsis for the pressures of contemporary life. Even though carnival has, in most regions, lost its connection with religion, it plays an important function in contemporary society.
Expressions of absurdity are not limited to places where carnival is formally celebrated. Many sports events, dance parties and pop festivals show similar aspects. This shows that, as Barbara Ehrenreich beautifully outlined in her book Collective Joy, that we have a deep need for ritualistic moments where we can express the absurdity of life and relieve our selves from having to create our own identity. Carnival shows that we should not take life to seriously and that reason and insanity are not mutually exclusive extremes, but aspects we need to fully embrace in order to be fully human.
Drawings by René Feijten.