Q: Archbishop J, is Carnival evil?
This is a complex question that deserves a detailed answer. But I will begin with the simple answer. Carnival, the internet, business, politics, and religion are instruments; they have been used for good, and for evil. None of these can be designated evil in itself. It is important to begin with this fundamental point.
In this article, I am focusing on the Tuesday festival and the fete culture, both of which have gone in the same direction.
In my book, Rekindling Carnival Rhythms, I have done an evaluation of other dimensions of the Carnival, demonstrating their positive developmental model that have contributed in fundamental ways to our society.
What is evil?
The real question concerns the nature of evil. Theologians and philosophers have been exploring this for a long time now. I will give two views that represent the Catholic position.
The view expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 407, says: “By our first parents’ sin, the devil has acquired a certain domination over man, even though man remains free. Original sin entails “‘captivity under the power of him who thenceforth had the power of death, that is, the devil’.”
Ignorance of the fact that man has a wounded nature inclined to evil gives rise to serious errors in the areas of education, politics, social action, and morals. In this view, evil is connected to morality and our wound by the Fall: we are inclined to sin.
The second view, expressed by St Ignatius of Loyola, says: “Evil is the enemy of human nature.” In this view evil is against everything that would lead to human flourishing: it desires the opposite of human flourishing. It strives after servitude and depravation, and moral, spiritual, intellectual, and physical death.
Taken together, we can see that evil is complex. As privation, it is an antithesis of the good which has wounded the human in a fundamental way but not taken away free will. And it is the enemy of all that leads to human flourishing.
In the biblical tradition, relating to the Fall, the term used for the human wound is concupiscence and it is threefold: “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 Jn 2:16).
These correspond to the three desires of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:6: “The woman saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom.”
This triple wound is what humanity battles every moment of every day, the point of our weakness and where we are tempted to go against human nature. Our nature is to flourish and for this, we must live in harmony with God’s will.
The Carnival and Ritual
Russian literary theorist and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin believes the carnivalesque creates a ritual space and time in which the norms of society are suspended. The world is turned upside down, the king becomes a pauper, and the pauper becomes a king.
By suspending the hierarchical norms of our everyday life, each citizen through jest and mockery sees the society from a new perspective. Fun is poked at every area of life, and we are invited into a ritual space where—for a limited time—we can recreate ourselves by seeing the world from a new perspective.
The idea of a ritual space is that it has fixed boundaries in time that do not eliminate the moral order; it holds it more loosely during the ritual time but only to reinforce it, more clearly, during regular time.
At its peak in the 1960s and 70s, our Carnival was about beauty and social integration. Now, our Carnival no longer turns the world and social order upside down—the king remains a king. In fact, we are reinforcing the social stratification of the rest of the year.
The all-inclusive bands deprive the small vendor of Carnival income; it excludes the lower classes from mixing and mingling on the streets, with every other class of society.
It is an imposition of both a rigid social structure and a crude capitalism which, for the sake of cheaply-made costumes, has sacrificed the creative community that emerged around the making of the mas.
In the absence of the elements of ritual and the object of beauty, what is turned upside down is the moral order, where nudity and concupiscence are given license. Once beauty is not the object of a festival, then creating shock through nudity, vulgarity and depravity soon fill the void.
The Trinidad Carnival, in its adult Tuesday mas and fete culture used to build community and creativity around the creation of the mas; now its logic is making money—lust of the eye.
It was committed to beauty and creativity; now it excites the base human desires—lust of the flesh.
It was an engine of social integration; now it reinforces segregation and enforced class structure and arrogance—pride of life.
Is this leading us to the best version of ourselves?
In the 1830s, the planter class and the slaves had two different festivals. In the 1900s, the two came together with the elites on lorries. In the 2020s, the lower class is excluded from the Tuesday mas and the major fetes.
We sacrificed the social integration we had in the 1970s for an elitist Carnival, which excludes the little man.
All that made the Carnival Monday and Tuesday festival and fete culture an engine for social transformation have been sacrificed. Gone is the loosening of the social hierarchy leading to integration, the creation of a community around the making of the mas, strong time boundaries and great fun within a strong sense of decency. With decency thrown out the window, the time boundary collapsed, the mas-making community dismantled, and the elites imposing their segregation on the Carnival, the festival no longer leads the citizen or the nation to human flourishing.
This is a picture not only of Carnival, but of Trinidad and Tobago today. If you want to know why we cannot solve the crime and murder problem, it is because we have a false model of development which excludes a large portion of our population leaving them underdeveloped with limited access to our culture and economic life.
The Carnival which used to create a space for reintegration now segregates socially while it abandons all moral norms.
There is evil here. But we need to understand what is the enemy of human nature (evil). The Carnival? Or is the Carnival just a symptom of a deeper ailment of our society—a model of development gone very wrong?
Carnival is a mirror of the soul of our society, it reflects us and the state of our soul.
Look at all the positive elements of Carnival and give gratitude to God for them. Look at all the bad elements of Carnival and ask God to show us the way to become the nation we are called to be.