It’s Fat Tuesday in the Protestant State of South Carolina, so not much is going on carnivalwise except on Folly Beach, which celebrates Fat/Shrove Tuesday not in the context of the Christian calendar but as another excuse to lure consumers onto the island so they can get rip-roaring drunk. This lack of a Catholic context is underscored by Folly’s postponing its big celebration — Folly Gras — until the more pecuniarily advantageous weekend, this Saturday, the fourth day of Lent.
The origins of Carnival are obscure; some anthropologists tie the festivities to the ancient Italian tradition of Bacchanalia (see Livy for some hyper-ventilated descriptions of the festivities) while others dismiss the connection as spurious. Etymologically, most agree that carne — meat — comprises to the root for the celebration, which features feasting and in some cases nudity — chili con carne and carnal knowledge.
The ancient celebration of Bacchanalia embraced — if Livy can be believed — a leveling of the social playing field, allowing plebeians to run free through the streets mixing with their so-called social superiors, and Carnival’s tendency for disguise might be akin to this earlier democratization of social hierarchy. Who is that behind that elaborate mask, Jeb Bush or the Leatherman, Queen Victoria or Sophie Tucker?
Although I’m not Catholic nor have given up anything for Lent since the ’60’s, I like the counterbalancing of Carnival and Lent as mythic antitheses — each in its way helping us to come to terms with death and therefore life.
Man runs his course;
A brand, or flaming breath.
Comes to destroy
All those antinomies
Of day and night;
The body calls it death,
The heart remorse.
But if these be right
What is joy?
So, on that bright note, I’m headed down to Center Street to see what’s going down. Who knows, maybe the Leatherman will show up.