Monday, January 14, 2008

Let the Good Times Mold

I come from a long weekend in New Orleans, the site of this year's Southern Political Science Conference. While much of the attention of the nation on New Orleans centers on whether its levees can be built to withstand Category 5 hurricanes and whether the awful destruction still evident in places like the ninth ward can ever be reversed, I was struck rather by the overall increase of seediness of Bourbon Street - with its now countless strip clubs - and the wildness of the revelry that was indistinguishable from night to night, with deafening music (most certainly not fine blues or jazz) pulsating from every locale and endless supplies of frozen drinks in every hand. Each evening was a crazed and almost desperate frenzy of celebration, though for no reason that was evident other than what was expected during a visit to Bourbon Street.

I was reminded of several passages from Charles Taylor's book A Secular Age in which he strikingly describes the "necessity of antistructure" as an intrinsic component of a society organized to recognize the existence of a structured - that is, divinely ordered - universe. Taylor describes the ritual of "Carnival," that period of "structured" uninhibition, the annual loosening of morals and wild, oft anonymous celebration and revelry in the days preceding Lent and its rites of self-denial and anticipation of the death of Christ and our own. "Carnival" - or, as we have come to call it, "Mardi Gras" - is a ritualized festival by which we "break out of coded roles..., sets free our spontaneity and creativity..., and allows free reign to the imagination."

Taylor's analysis points in particular to the central vitality that "anti-structure" drew from the constant emphasis upon "structure" (a feature that one has some sense of when experiencing Fasching in otherwise tightly-wound Southern Germany): "Seen in this perspective, the power of anti-structure comes also from the sense that all codes limit us, shut us out from something important, prevent us from seeing and feeling things of great moment.... All codes need to be countervailed, sometimes even swamped in their negation, on pain of rigidity, enervation, the atrophy of social cohesion, blindness, perhaps ultimately self-destruction" (A Secular Age, 50).

How then, can we understand the continuous and unbroken, wholly de-ritualized and almost desperate revelry that takes place (so far as I can tell) every night on Bourbon Street? Ironically, the nightly celebration is itself a strange homage to Mardi Gras and the ritualized tradition of carnival: New Orleans is, for most people, a place that we associate with people who know how to party, know how to "cut loose" in the most apparently outlandish and uninhibited manner. But, the very cause of that association is deeply bound to the older, medieval Christian tradition in which "anti-structure" is bound closely to "structure," in which the culmination of the ritualized unleashing of revelry (Mardi Gras, or "fat Tuesday") is immediately followed by the solemn putting on of ashes with the lament, "from ashes you come, to ashes you shall return." Shorn of that close relationship, "anti-structure" in fact loses its structure and becomes aimless and unserious celebration of nothing and to no end or purpose. Observing the people seeking accelerated intoxication and wandering in herds looking this way and that hoping to see actual outbreaks of ecstasy, I couldn't help but be struck by the forlornness of the appearance of revelry, the desperation that underlie the efforts to appear joyous, the unexceptionalness of the now-unremarkable female ululations and the wholly predictable male whoops. The celebration seemed more a set of expected and dutiful going through motions, all actual meaning of the original purpose of the celebration lost to the unbroken hedonism of our culture and, more importantly, the overarching disbelief in any actual "structure" that could sustain genuine outbreaks of "anti-structure." A mockery instead of a celebration, a self-consciously mimiced charade rather than an outbreak of overturned or reversed roles, in a concentrated form my encounter with Bourbon Street over the weekend helped me to understand better my dissatisfaction for much of what passes for apparent celebration in our culture.


Unknown said...

You should have gone to Frenchmen Street to find New Orleanians partying. Tourists are all you find on Bourbon Street.

Anonymous said...

I've thought a lot about this celebration issue over the years. Your line,

...helped me to understand better my dissatisfaction for much of what passes for apparent celebration in our culture.

expresses these thoghts well. We have done some things to fix it:

1) moved completely to the liturgical calendar, and ignore all secular holidays, so we stay on the liturgical seasons leading up to every holiday, so they have real, deeper meanings and are well timed seasonally with fasting/reflection.

2) cut back the materialism in the everyday (no tv, one car, no video games) so that people and not things dominate. It's hard to really celebrate when "things" not people are the daily focus.

3) eat healthy and eat around the litergical cycle so the taste buds aren't completely used up when a good celebration comes around.

These are the only ways we have found to recover the joy of celebrations. Personally, I don't see how modernity can coexist with real celebration. It's almost as if modernity demands the camera be running, and somebody has to "sell" us the fun or it's not real. "Shallow" is the word I'm looking for.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't Taylor say that the modern world rejects anti-structure on principle? That is, the revelers aren't really escaping from anything because the structure of modern life, unlike the structure of medieval life, cannot be overturned even temporarily.

Black Sea said...

Walker Percy wrote about the distinction betwen Mardi Gras in its traditional form, in which drink was meant to celebrate the festival, and Mardi Gras in its modern form, in which drink is meant to anesthetize (sp?) one against "the failure of the festival," or words to that effect.