This is the initial post of a series of comments/questions prompted by Branka Arsic’s wonderful new book from Harvard, Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau — a game-changer! I’ll be moving slowly.
And before I begin with her new book, let me start with some remarks about carnivals.
In his magisterial A Secular Age, Charles Taylor writes that
Carnival and similar [Medieval] festivities, such as the feasts of misrule, or boy bishops, and the like [are] . . . periods in which the ordinary order of things was inverted, or “the world was turned upside down”. For a while, there was a ludic interval, in which people played out a condition of reversal of the usual order. Boys wore the mitre, or fools were made kings for a day; what was ordinarily revered was mocked, people permitted themselves various forms of licence, not just sexually but also in close-to-violent acts, and the like.
You might wonder what this has to do with Thoreau. Well, my suggestion is that sometimes — sometimes — I suspect Thoreau is carnivalesque, inverting social and natural and ontological orders, making trees the residence of gods, making lunatic loons his favorite bird, daring to eat a muskrat live, asking that ordinary townsfolk read Asian and Western classics in the original languages, living in poverty and calling it privilege — the list goes on.
And it includes ideas from his politics: John Brown is a saint and George Washington never died because he never lived, that slaves are modern Christs, and that the ads are the most important part of newspapers.
I want to try the idea that these are not (only?) metaphors or irony or hyperbole or myth or plain contradictions but part of a carnivalesque strategy and enactment — turning the world upside down better to see it properly.
Returning to Taylor and Medieval carnivals considers an enigma he spots in these displays:
their human meaning was at once very powerfully felt in them — people threw themselves into these feasts with gusto — and yet also enigmatic. . . . the festivals were not putting forward an alternative to the established order . . . that is, presenting an antithetical [social, political] order of things which might replace the prevailing dispensation. The mockery was enflamed by an understanding that betters, superiors, virtue, ecclesial charisma, etc. ought to rule; the humour was in that sense not ultimately serious.
I’d only add that Carnivals and Thoreau are serious enough. Fun and rebellion and incarnated spirit are serious enough. And of course we shouldn’t think that Thoreau had no thought of reforming the social order. It’s just that I think there’s a lot of carnival along the way, that some of his suggestions are nothing but provocative fun, and we shouldn’t turn him into a tedious environmental prophet.
We can test this hypothesis case by case, and I’ll begin along this path soon.
For instance, paying off begging children or the unfortunate with charitable contributions may miss the goodness of heart we would hope for in true philanthropy and it might be that the best way to suggest this might be to mock philanthropy (without showing what better practice should replace it).
As I take up Branka Arsic’s book, I’ll try to put this idea of illumination by carnivalistic inversion to good work. Inversion brings heaven into the meadows and swamps and finds in waters at his feet the stars above. It helps us see how God is found in the senses and how material objects are alive. But more on this later.