From Christmas to Carneval

I´ve always had ambivalent feelings about holidays: on the one hand, I love nothing more than a houseful of the people I care for most, eating food I´ve made, and singing together the songs we all know ... on the other, decades of being the goose who lays the golden egg (that is, the mother who prepares the feast and tries to make sure everyone is happy) have taken their toll. So...

this very different Christmas, spent this year in Chile, has been predictably ambivalent for me. On the one hand, I enjoyed the peace of not fussing with any preparations. On the other hand, there were spots of emptiness and loneliness, spaces of sadness and despair. But they arose only when I thought, "Oh, it´s Christmas." If I didn´t try to mark the day, it was fine…

So what I want to think out loud about right now is this act of marking off, this setting apart of the sacred. I´m familiar with some of the classic texts on this distinction (am thinking especially right now of Emile Durkheim´s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) and Mircea Eliade´s The Sacred & The Profane (1957). The first argues that the primary characteristic of religion is that it divides the world into two domains, two separate worlds, of sacred and profane. The second defines this major differentiation of space as being between cosmos and chaos, and that´s the idea I want to work with here for a bit.

Now, I´m also familiar with most of the contemporary feminist theological work that critiques this division and, as a Quaker, have long had a religious practice that refuses such a distinction. We all have "that of god within" us, all is (at least potentially) sacred... but I´ve been realizing, on this trip (where I´ve learned so much about myself, much of which hasn´t been especially pleasant to learn...) that I do find the differentiation useful, and find myself drawn to those "sacred" spaces, those spaces apart where there´s a concentration, an intensity (maybe a purity?)-- and with it a possibility for change. I´m thinking here of classes (1 1/2 hour periods when, if everything´s working, everyone´s present and focused), of rich conversations with close friends, of challenging discussions among colleagues, of good dinner parties...

So it´s been disconcerting for me to celebrate this holiday in a country which makes very little distinction between secular and profane, where the streets and markets stayed busy through the holidays, where the communion mass (which we attended in Vicuña) was distributed to the tune of "Jingle Bells," with dogs and children running up and down the aisles, while we sang "Happy Birthday" to Jesus....

And now we´re deep into the week of El Carnaval Cultural in Valparaíso (for Philadelphians, this is a southern hemisphere version of the Fringe Festival in combination with the Mummer´s Parade). Celebrations end tonight with the world´s largest fireworks display over the bay. Wandering through all the art exhibits, in and out of street parades and park concerts, back and forth from movies and puppet shows, from dances to poetry set to music, I´ve had a deep experience, this week, of what Mikhail Bakhtin calls the "carnivalesque," that multiplicity of subjects, voices, and views of the world that will always be incomplete....

Because what´s been most striking, to me, about this carneval is the way it has been integrated into the regular work life of the city. Standing in the Plaza Sotomayor, watching the Victor Jara Sinfonico perform, I´m surrounded by huge cranes, moving cargo from ships to tractor trailer beds. I can´t hear the music on stage, because the vendor standing next to me is trying out all his his pipes...The performance of a duet between ships' horns and church bells is drowned out by police whistles and bus horns. There is no separation, no "sacred space" of culture set apart from the daily life of the city.

Comments

Shaye's picture

Your thinking is evocative of my own during the India trip. Shri Anandi Ma said, "Spirituality is not a matter for discussion. It is a matter for hard work." One of the students said that when he tells friends he's going on a yoga retreat, they tell him to enjoy the relaxation, but in fact he experiences the retreat as "spiritual boot camp". It takes work to bring spiritual reality and spiritual development into predominance in one's life, over the prevailing programs (for me, at least) of materialism, intellectualism, and naive arrogance. My limited understanding of Hinduism, and of the multitudinous pujas and ceremonies we witnessed, leads me to describe the basic tenets of Hinduism as: everything on earth and in the universe, every cell, every atom, is God, thus anything can be worshipped; the spiritual development of every human being relates to the ability to recognize, evoke, and strengthen Godness in whatever is worshipped; places/objects/people wherein God has been powerfully evoked have a spiritual charge which can be felt and appreciated by many, and which can serve as foci for worship and for spiritual development. I was staying in an ashram, a very different environment from that you describe, and also experienced no separation between the sacred and secular but perhaps from the opposite direction...everywhere was sacred space.
Michelle Mueller's picture

The experience of Carnaval is a great entry into European culture. I have not seen Carnaval anywhere other than in Greece. I would like to see more photographs from your travels.