Friday, February 23, 2018

The great escape

Today the vast majority of our citizens will be either home, at the beach or abroad. But 100,000 or more will be in the Carnival, playing mas, liming or looking on. All would have been enjoying the holiday away from the routine and the humdrum struggle of daily living; all grateful for the break, the postponement of the norm. Some, particularly the "carnivalists", are already sad that in just a few hours, the infuriating dullness will resume when Ash Wednesday comes and the dream ends. For days afterwards and thereafter, they will look through the ordinary windows of home or the office, still longing to get away, still dissatisfied, yet hungry for ecstasy, desperate for the next chance to escape, to try and fill the void. Oh Lent, get away. Come Easter, come Maracas or Mayaro. Come quick.

Carnival is now mainly an escape, a futile shoving against the overwhelming, insidious meaninglessness. And like any intoxicant, it takes you to the air and then drops you flat. You have gone nowhere. You take nothing back with you. But you will need it again. So you will come again. There is little else for you in this place.

It should not have been like this. All festivals are a celebration: Christmas the birth of Christ , Divali the triumph of light over darkness, Eid ul Fitr the end of fasting and the arrival of renewal. All over the world we have festivals of music, drama, film, art and literature. Throughout history we have had festivals to mark the harvesting of crops, victory in battle or the attainment of independence. Festivals have meaning, are rooted in history and tradition. So why is our present Carnival overwhelmingly escapist? What have we been celebrating for the last decade? Do the tens of thousands have any idea? Do they care at all? Are they just out to have that ephemeral good time, which they have any time, throughout the year?

Our Carnival is now almost completely disconnected from meaning. As I observed before in this space, it appears doomed, "terminally plagued by paltriness, showcasing us to the world as a frivolous, flimsy people, wining, jumping, prancing to the precipice. Behold us Trinis, trivial to the bone." When a secular mass street festival like Carnival has drifted far from its origins, it is drained of its spiritual force and declines irretrievably, characterised mainly by an airy joyousness and much canal carnality, of which we are sure to have more than a surfeit today.

But let us also be clear. Bikinis and beads are also beautiful when they are part of a wonderful variety. But as the predominant fare, they turn tasteless. Without profundity everything else is trash. But when there is depth, the superficial is tolerable, even delightful.

I was therefore very heartened to witness the Canboulay enactment on Friday morning on television. Congratulations to my friends Eintou Springer and Norvan Fullerton, the entire cast and the large audience of about 2,000 who came out at 3.30 a.m. for the event. It was so redeeming, giving hope. It has to be the most potent enactment this Carnival and is a strong reminder of the indispensability of tradition in the development of cultural life.

Twelve years ago, in an Ash Wednesday article, "In a shallow state", I said: "the state of our Carnival and its art forms speaks volumes about the neglect of our history and the absence of tradition. Who remembers today that our Carnival also has its roots in the struggle for freedom and that the masquerade, the calypso and the steelband are all rooted in the battle for meaning, expression and selfhood? The history is dead and banality is alive. We have not built the tradition and so we have bacchanalia and the many thousands obeying the perennial inane call to put their hands in the air. Our young people are the main victims of this decadence and we should ponder this also when we seek to understand the present violence in our schools."

I continued further: "the role and importance of tradition in national development must be understood. Life is fleeting and society needs signposts, footprints and milestones for the growth of substance, understanding and security. Traditions therefore develop to provide psychological anchorage for the individual and the nation. Without tradition, there grows a permanent state of transience which produces dislocation for the majority, bewilderment instead of security, frenzy instead of calm and noise to camouflage the fear and the hollowness. Because we have never bothered to build tradition, culturally, Trinidad and Tobago suggests a windswept plain, where nothing but grass and shrubs take root here and there. Certainly we have produced no cultural Banyan tree from our history and experience as a nation. In the case of our Carnival, were it not for a few individuals, it would be the barrenness of bush and shrubs all over."

I therefore remain firm in my view that Carnival should not have produced the Carnival mentality. We should have strengthened the spiritual, philosophical and historical foundations of the festival so that it would produce art that seeks truth, celebrates beauty and possibility but exposes corruption and decadence; art which reveals the darkest recesses of human experience but points to the heights of human glory and magnificence. Because of its origin, the Carnival should be producing art to make the people stronger.

Instead, Carnival now trivialises art and culture, making the human energy of the festival more decadence than signs of inner vitality.

In a few hours, it will be Ash Wednesday again, the time for reflection, the inner search. The new National Carnival Commission must think. Our Carnival must be more than a great escape.

Ralph Maraj is a former

government minister