Wednesday, February 24, 2010

No Carnaval in Paradise: The impossibilities of Carnaval in a post-Christian world

There is a certain familiarity that Lisbon brings to the Goan visitor. The place is full of familiar names, figures and remembrances. In this context, a friend suggested that rather than think that it was Portuguese names that Goans bore, it was in fact Goan names that the Portuguese carried with them. Goa, in other words, is where Portugal originated.

Now this suggestion seems facile, ridiculous even. We would do well to remember though, that history is always an artifice, a construction of ideas, emphasizing some aspects rather than others, the direction of some flows, rather than others. Much writing and thinking, especially within Portugal, begins from the assertion of Portugal’s gift of culture to the world. Where there is talk of counterflows, the influence of the colonized is seen as only ornamental, superficial. The colonized has not really impacted on the famed continental Portuguese soul.

I am led to these ruminations by my thoughts this last Carnaval. Through the entire festival, I was possessed by a strange irritation; an irritation I just could not figure out. I was sure it had to do with my conviction that Carnaval is a tropical feast, and my being out of Goa and missing the passion with which Carnaval is celebrated in Goa. I argued in my last column that the Goan Carnval is now a brief and gaudy lament for a lost citizenship which is why we Goans are still so passionately celebrate it. It was after seeing my thoughts on paper, that it all came together, and I could place a finger on an alternate source of my irritation.

‘These silly Portuguese are not doing it right’ I kept thinking, holding Goan practice to be the model-type. And indeed why not, since as I will go on to argue, the Goan Carnaval continues to approximate the ideal of what Carnaval is supposed to be. The Portuguese Carnaval simply has ‘to suck’ as a Lisboeta friend put it, because it has largely lost any context that a Carnaval ought to have.

The hierarchy of the Goan Catholic Church may disapprove of it; and our last gasp of fun, before Lent may not quite be the spirit in which we ought to approach Lent. However, we must recognize that the fact that Lent is still taken fairly seriously provides a significant context for the Goan Carnaval. Even if we do not abstain during Lent, the Goan Catholic enters into a social context, not different from that experienced by the errant Muslim during Ramzaan. In not abstaining we recognize deep down, that it is we, the non-abstainers, who are the aberration. In the post-Christian society that Portugal has become, the absence of the tension of restraint that Lent provides to the periods of moral laxity and consumptive excess through the rest of the year, results in a Carnaval without an edge.

The Catholic faith in Portugal has been largely replaced by a more secular faith, that of the ceaseless worship of Mammon, through constant consumption and sensorial gratification. Ghalib perhaps captured it best in his couplet; ‘Hazaron qwahishein aisi ki har qwahish pe dum niklen; bahuth nikle merey armaan, phir bhi kum niklen’ (Thousands of desires, each worth dying for...many of them I have realized...yet I yearn for more...). My perspective is to be sure partial and biased. I am but a few months a Lisboeta, and live in close proximity to Bairro Alto, the veritable temple courtyard of Mammon in Lisbon. In this location, and to quote the Hindi poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan in his poem Madhushala, ‘Every day is Holi, and every night Diwali’.

Carnaval is necessarily a period of abandon, when we create a fleeting material paradise of plenty, to contrast with the daily deprivations we may suffer. As such, it is also a festival with stresses our relationship to the corporeal. When in this consumeristic world, every day is a Carnaval, and want is almost unknown, what sense in having a half week of Carnaval just once a year?

Portugal may be poor, its standards of living lower than in the rest of Europe, and yet, this is not the poverty of its not-so-distant past. It has, despite its grumbling, and it has to be said that the Portuguese lo-ove to grumble, settled comfortably into the Pax Europeana. This Pax is what Foucault has would have called governmentality. A situation where by and large our every material need is taken care off, or at least entertainment and distractions provided if it is not. Portugal’s needs may not be taken care of, but it definitely lives within a bureaucratic and consumeristic net where the edge of frustrated desires are blunted. The Goan Carnaval, as I laboured to indicate last week, is powered by the desire to incarnate a radically different citizenship from the one we currently inhere in. At Carnaval, we dance on the edge of that desire.

Goa, and indeed much of the world, lives outside of such a Pax. We may all be made of the same flesh and blood, but thanks to this Pax, this net of distraction, we realize our bodies (our corpus) in radically different ways from those in the European continent. It is perhaps a realization of this radical difference in corporeality, and the ensuing impossibility of Carnaval in Lisbon, that was at the basis of my irritation through Carnaval this year.

The time of Carnaval, and its relationship to the world, is an ideal. Once we are admitted into this reality, there is no new or old, authentic or pretender. When Portugal (or the colonizer) falls away from this ideal, it is indeed, Goa (or the colony) that becomes the model. The colony then, is where the metropole, can now originate from.

(A version of this column was first published in the Gomantak Times, 24 Feb 2010)


Image No.1 - Campo das Cebolas - Lisbon

Image No. 2 - Carnaval in Lisbon - 1907

Image No. 3 - The Fight Between Carnival and Lent - artwork by Pieter Bruegel

Image No.4 - Roman Triumph


Alcipe said...

Carnaval is in Brazil : the rest is silence...

Jason Keith Fernandes said...


It is possible! I was contemplating this possibility after writing this. That the whole conceptualisation of Carnaval as a reversal of the norm is a peculiarly Brazilian idea.

However, if you look at the practices of Carnaval in other spaces, the North Indian Holi for example, there is exactly such a reversal of the norm. Such reversals are seen elsewhere too. I would thus, like to hold on to this basic idea, while leaving open the possibility of thinking of Carnaval outside of the Brazilian experience. In this sense, perhaps the rest is silence! (but how poetically put! but this is to be expected of you no?)


Alcipe said...

Well, the reversal of the norm in a big feast comes already from Greeks and Romans. But the true modern Carnaval is Brazilian, in my opinion...