Thursday, November 28, 2002

In his column in today's Express Kevin Baldeosingh takes on the notorious T&T "carnival mentality":

"Carnival mentality ... is a social concept, not an individual one. Basically, it implies a dominant ethos which embodies a lack of seriousness: about work, about important personal relationships, and about social and intellectual issues.

"In respect to the first, the country’s GNP, while certainly not where it should be, does not bear out the argument of a society of lazy people. As regards the second, again while family life leaves much to be desired, the marriage and divorce statistics do not suggest frivolity. Only in our social and intellectual discourse are we obviously lacking, but even here the avid interest in constitutional reform during the 18-18 impasse suggests that a sea change is happening.

"My own conclusion, therefore, is that by and large Trinis do not have a Carnival mentality, except during Carnival."

Baldeosingh's evidence for a "dominant ethos" of seriousness — high GNP, stable marriage & divorce rates, public interest in constitutional reform — to my ears gives not the resounding ring of truth but a hollow plunk. Are these the most compelling facts he can muster? T&T's GNP, for instance, is as high as it is chiefly because of our natural energy resources. Even if we were a nation of lazy gits, there'd be no end of foreigners willing to come in, suck the oil & gas out of the earth, & pay us handsomely for the privilege; so a link between our high GNP & "seriousness" is unconvincing.

But my main quibble is with his definition of the "carnival mentality" concept — "lack of seriousness" is an inadequate summary. In the first place let's remember that "carnival" as a social & moral phenomenon is not restricted to the Caribbean & in fact has a millennia-old pedigree. And for present purposes it's useful to consider the ideas of the Russian thinker M.M. Bakhtin, who, in a 1963 book called Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics wrote the following about the survival of ancient pagan modes in the strictly hierarchical society of medieval Europe (& I'm sure some scholar of "carnival arts" must have pointed out this connection long ago):

"It could be said (with certain reservations, of course) that a person of the Middle Ages lived, as it were, two lives: one that was the official life, monolithically serious and gloomy, subjugated to a strict hierarchical order, full of terror, dogmatism, reverence and piety; the other was the life of the carnival square, free and unrestricted, full of ambivalent laughter, blasphemy, the profanation of everything sacred, full of debasing and obscenities, familiar contact with everyone and everything. Both these lives were legitimate, but separated by strict temporal boundaries."

(See this entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy for more.)

In other words, Bakhtin proposes the "carnival mentality" as a means of liberation & subversion of oppressive norms (so let's bring some carnival mentality into the constitutional reform process!). And of course it's a commonplace among commentators & scholars & even people on the street here in the Caribbean that carnival is a highly creative process, manifesting itself in a complex of folk arts tending occasionally even to high art.

What I'm suggesting is that, while the term "carnival mentality" is almost invariably used for derogatory purposes, a more thoughtful definition would encompass the positive as well as the negative qualities of the carnival phenomenon, perhaps something like the following. "Carnival mentality": an ethos of pleasurable freedom (& freedom of pleasure) with a subversive tendency to mingle the serious with the frivolous, the sacred with the profane, characterised by an extraordinarily creative degree of playfulness, mockery, fantasy, irony, paradox & absurdity.

So how fitly can we ascribe such an ethos to T&T society? The answer is necessarily subjective; it seems to me that as a people we're remarkable for a playful impulsiveness ("catch a vaps"); a fundamental easygoingness disguised by aggressive talk & attitude; a casual acceptance of role-playing, even in the mundane form of stereotypes; an admiration for the absurd ("jokiness" & "picong"); a definite but limited tolerance for transgression ("bacchanal" & "commess"); a conviction that we're free to do as we please ("the road was made to walk on carnival day").

Put these all together & one is tempted to conclude, "lack of seriousness". Yet it's undeniable that, in the process of doing & believing all the above, we take ourselves very seriously — when Basdeo Panday, for instance, gets up on a podium & plays badjohn, don't for a moment think he's fooling around. But his audience at the same time recognises that he's "playing himself" — & the injunction to "play yourself" is truly defining of our mode of being.

What's crucial is the fact that, ultimately, we recognise the limits to these roles we play; note our unwillingness to endanger the dynamic balance achieved by these mechanisms. Last couple of general elections, everyone went around muttering about what would happen if one party won or lost, about riots, violence, the losing side "mashing up the place". An outsider might have sworn civil war was about to break out. But not a damned thing happened. Look at Jamaica's election about a week later. Dozens killed. A real country, with real problems, Wayne Brown called his new home.

At the same time, Baldeosingh is correct to point out that if the "carnival mentality", even as I've tried to redefine it, were the country's dominant ethos, we'd pretty much never get anything done — which isn't (always) the case. Note that for Bakhtin "carnival" was the flip side of another, more constraining mode. Borrow his formulation from its specifically medieval context & note how well it describes another aspect of contemporary T&T: our hierarchical order these days is basically economic; our "dogmatism, reverence and piety" reveals itself in widespread conventional morality, religiosity, superstition, & the fanatical devotion of many to the two main political parties. This also is clearly part of the equation.

Our definition as a people floats somewhere between those poles, "carnival" T&T & "pious" T&T. During that fantastic season ("fantastic" in the literal sense) between Christmas & Ash Wednesday the "carnival mentality" prevails, but it does not slumber the rest of the year, as Baldeosingh suggests. It's an undeniable part of who we are, a major component of our cultural DNA. But the "carnival mentality" does not totally encompass us or limit us, it does not disqualify us from constructive responsibility — & it is not necessarily a bad thing.

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