To many, carnival is just a big lousy party. But that’s just an effect, not the substance of it. The roots of carnival lie in ancient traditions involving masking and key civic rituals. Let’s see, more in specific, why this is the case.
Masking and Lying
Presumably, masks were among the earliest human artifacts. Masking, at its core, symbolized the quest for truth and the mysteries associated with it. Of course, to mask something is to cover it up; that is, masking is a form of lying.
Yet, to wear a mask is to lie manifestly, is a manner to reflect on a certain matter of fact. Masks have been used in funerary ceremonies, for storytelling, in rituals of passage, just to name a few instances. And today, during carnival, masks are employed, for instance, to reflect on one’s own professional, political, sexual, racial, … identity, or to bring forth a political satire.
Life Is a Carnival
Carnival is a celebration filled with skepticism, satire, and sarcasm. Those who cherish carnival cannot refrain from taking a skeptical attitude towards fundamental aspects of living, and to do so with a satirical attitude. It is for this reason that carnival is associated with street parties: it is the celebration of human striving towards truth and it’s a manner to exorcise all forms of lies upon which our society may rest.
Taking a broader perspective, one may think that our entire life is a carnival. Everyday we mask ourselves to be in society: to meet our family and friends, to go to work, to part take in social festivities. While one may regard this as a form of lying, it is not necessary to take a negative ethical outlook towards it.
Truth as a Value
The sarcastic attitude proper of those who celebrate carnival shall not be mistaken for a disposal of truth: on the contrary, cherishing the difficulty to attain truth, playing with the possible manner in our perspective on worldly affairs may be confused by masks, carnival is reinforcing the importance of truth. To many of those celebrating carnival, truth is a value. The point is that truth may well be an ideal, hardly attainable.
Living Without a Truth
Indeed, carnival is perhaps a celebration during which we learn how to rejoice even in the absence of a truth. The attainment of pleasure may indeed be strictly correlated to the capacity of living without an absolute truth.
The interpretation of carnival offered here, of course, is a laic one. This festivity started being celebrated just before lent, that is in conjunction with the Christian calendar. Thus, one could rebut that at the heart of carnival lie those absolute truths that define Christianity.
While carnival is historically entrenched with Christianity, it may be overtly reductive to see its significance in relation to the Christian tradition alone. Celebrations analogous to carnival were already typical in Roman culture in the pre-Christian era; those celebrations, in turn, may have evolved out of celebrations coming from the contemporary Arabic peninsula, and perhaps from the Asian or African continent. The meaningfulness of carnival must hence be found in that particular human modality of using masks to celebrate joys and – especially – sorrows, of using masks to expiate the evil that we encounter in our everyday endeavor and that, at times, may seem unbearable or, at least, unavoidable. If evil is here to stay, if truth may never be attained, let’s use masks to exorcise those unexplainable mysteries: we may actually gain some terrain in our endeavor to make sense of them.
Further Online Sources
- The entry on the Definition of Lying and Deception at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- A piece on masking I wrote some time ago.