ANTIGRAVITY goes to print in the last few days before the gears of American production grind completely to a halt in New Orleans. Carnival, ladies and gentlefriends, is upon us. Ordinary finery is already frowned upon at parties, and victory over your to-do list is an increasingly impractical fantasy. All around us is a flurry of sequin sewing, papier mache layering, Indian suit beading, and intoxicant stockpiling. Like a ship unfurling its sails in the harbor, the city prepares to leave the everyday world behind.
In the United States of America, you can spend your whole life thinking that nothing exists beyond the neverending assembly line of work and commerce. There is no stop to its grueling rhythm—around the clock someone is always working. Breaks are done quickly and one at a time. Care is taken never to disrupt the collective workflow.
Not everyone loves Mardi Gras, but that it is disruptive everyone can agree. Those who try to maintain order in the days leading up to Fat Tuesday will experience nothing but frustration; there is no choice but to join in or leave town. It may be a funny way to subvert authority, but the fact remains that Mardi Gras is the one time of year in which the United States is forced to cede territory to another type of power. In moments of despair, it can seem like nothing on Earth can stand in the way of industrial production, so it’s cheering to watch the whole thing fall to its knees before a bunch of grown adults in tutus and face paint.
In fact, it has been doing so for thousands of years. In medieval Europe, Carnival offered a much-needed reprieve from the daily grind of authoritarianism. In everyday feudal life, the lord of the manor had the power to raise your rent to unpayable heights, control your freedom of movement, and devour the fruits of your labor. Each abuse reinforced the narrative that power possessed by the feudal lords was absolute.
But during Carnival, this world was turned deliberately and outrageously upside down. That time belonged to the people, and they seized upon the opportunity to desecrate the established order, joyously and with abandon. Catholic prudery was countered with overt, even grotesque sensuality. Sexual impulses were yielded to rather than denied, the body glorified instead of shamefully hidden away. Anyone roaming the cobblestone streets could expect to encounter a giant hungry belly, a gaping mouth, or a towering phallus.
The world of the Carnivalesque operated according to its own rules, and power was there to be reconfigured. Kings and queens were crowned for a day, a week, or a month. These rulers may not have had the law on their side, but they were imbued with the trickster’s power to transgress boundaries and blur the line between sacred and profane. Through the comic, arbitrary power of the Carnival kings, peasants flagrantly accused the self-serious nobility of being ridiculous.
Traveling across the Atlantic only caused the Carnivalesque to grow more brazen on the battlefield. In Trinidad, the Canboulay maskers named themselves after the burning sugar cane fields of the Haitian Revolution, and the characters they created parodied the pretensions of plantation owners and their wives. In 1881, Carnival celebrations escalated into a large-scale anti-colonial rebellion, with police officers battling it out with revelers on the streets of Port of Spain. Two years later, a law passed prohibiting drums and ceremonial stick fighting. Undeterred, Trinidadians found new ways to get the best of their British colonial overlords during Carnival; the insulting songs they began performing in the calypso tents elevated rebellious singers to the status of Carnival royalty.
In present day New Orleans, the political dynamics behind Carnival may not be clear cut, and the celebration does not always incite its citizens to rebel. For the feudal lords of St. Charles Avenue, Carnival is a celebration of the established order, and when they crown each other king for the day, it is without a hint of irony. But on Mardi Gras Day, Rex does not wear the only crown. On the battlefield of Carnival, the people still have home court advantage. They know how to crown themselves, and power is a prize to be won by those who do.
Illustration by Laura Frizzell
February 2023 wrap around cover by Deanna Larmeu