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Saturday, July 19, 2008

As You Like It


Dr. Lester CN Simon

At least once during this carnival you will see one or two persons or a group of revelers, on stage, in the street or in the tight confines of a dancehall, doing a dance that can only be described as adulterated, virtual sex. You will look and continue to stare so you can tell your friends just how awful and disgusting it was, especially with children looking on; so you can wonder if people really go through all those and even more elastic contortions, in the privacy of their homes. But the primary reason you are taking it all in, is to try to understand philosophically why normally sane, decent individuals would engage in such an exercise of erotic exorcism in public. It’s carnival.

We cannot continue to pass off gross, indecent revelers as being simply vulgar and obscene. That is easy. We have to try to understand why. And please do not tell me it’s an African thing. Even if it were, there are innumerable African things we can do without. It might help if we acknowledge that whilst the outlandish behaviour is more pervasive in recent years, extreme forms of erotic display during carnival are not new phenomena, contrary to the hypocritical claims of those who have upgraded their carnival status from vagabond revelers to hoity-toity onlookers.

I recall some of the stern rebukes and threats of lashings I got as a child from mere friends of my grandmother for the most minor infractions. Subsequently, I would stare open-mouthed in disbelief at their wanton and vulgar displays during carnival in the middle of High Street miles away from sleepy New Winthropes village. I had to conclude that their frantic calls to poor little me to join them in the big bacchanal were guilty acknowledgements that the punishments I had received were pointedly not for the actual infractions but for not knowing when and where to misbehave.

We may refer to those who display lewd behaviour during carnival as exhibitionists, and the onlookers as peeping Toms engaged in public voyeurism. We can then begin to move the discussion to a higher level similar to that on which some academics discuss postmodern, social relationships such as exist through reality television shows. These range from the mild What Not To Wear to the racy, exorcism of Jerry Springer. In both of these reality shows, as in all of them, the participants and the viewers undergo varying degrees of mutual, eschatological pleasure.

One of the remarkable rewards from peeping at the exhibitionists carrying out their disgusting behaviour is that peeping seduces the onlookers to project their inner feelings of disgust on to the exhibitionists. This is turn allows the peepers to satisfy their insatiable appetite to see the badness in others relative to the goodness in themselves. It is a form of guilty pleasure that the peepers get. They claim in infinite, storytelling details to their respectable friends, that their revelations from their precise observations of the exhibitionists were so awful, they would (not could) never in their wildest dream behave like that, even in private, let alone in public. On the other hand, the exhibitionists enjoy shocking the public peepers. The stares and cries of disbelief from the peepers spur them on to more and more excessive, indecent behaviour so they can qualify for their ten minutes of fame. They desperately and despicably need each other.

In reference to carnival, Derek Walcott refers to the culture of loss or denial followed by rediscovery through mimicry, and then extensions into inventions, as noted by the Walcott critic, Otto Heim. He goes on to document that the banning of African drumming led to the use of the garbage can cover and the birth of the steel pan; calypso evolved as an expression of satire by way of parody; and carnival costumes can be seen as an improvisation on sculpture. Where then do we place the despicable carnival slackness we complain about with bitter remarks but also with seemingly inexhaustible and salacious enthusiasm?

Slackness exists in many forms of popular culture, ranging from Jamaican dancehall lyrics and dances, to the almost primitive exhibitionism at some American and European music festivals. It is written by Carolyn Cooper in Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large, that Lady Saw (who reportedly makes Yellow Man at his worse seem like a Boy Scout), defended her dancehall slackness thus: “Slackness is when the road waan fi fix…...when government break them promise…when politician issue out gun…..And let the two Party a shot them one another down”. Lady Saw will mesmerize you by first offering welcoming advice on safe sex and then explain in graphic, anatomical detail (that would turn Yellow Man from yellow to black) the physiological reasons for her penchant for a particular sexual position; all in song and dance.

Suffice it to say that according to the queen of dancehall slackness, slackness has decidedly taken over when the Hobson’s choice is between the slackness of physical death by the gun and the slackness of moral decay, decadence and spiritual death by a cavalcade of vile lyrics and public, sexual exorcism. Escaping the gun consigns you to Styx, where the sole staple is endless cavorting in a banal and lifeless community comprising only all-inclusive, exorcistic dancehalls.

Beenie Man’s claim to slackness is less accusatory and more historical. He makes the point that popular reggae music was finely sanitized for uppity people from rustic, raw Jamaican music. Hence his slackness music and that of others, especially in its incomprehensibility to uppity people, has strong umbilical and historical ties to authentic Jamaican music. It seems that the devil has driven away David with his psalmic harp and he now walks alone between the banal “syn-copation” of some of our music. So now, you can understand my initial pleasant surprise and subsequent utter disarray on hearing Warrior Queen sing praises to the heavenly Father for his gift to her. In the chorus I discover that the gift resides in the endowment of her mate and his climactic effects on her.

The destructiveness of musical and dancing slackness is that it is so common, it spawns a way of life that objectifies the human form in general and the female body in particular. It passes from being a stimulant (like alcohol in small doses) to a depressant (like alcohol in large doses). Some artists claim it is all an act and say they are completely different off stage. Unfortunately, some of the ardent followers wonder why they should bother to repair to the tightness of other people’s normality when they are almost constantly in the sweet normality of slackness.

Dancehall slackness, which is seeping into carnival slackness, has been very badly bruised in the battle against what it defines as the ultimate slackness: homosexuality. This is largely because of the influence and financial power of the metropolitan homosexuals. However, it boggles the mind that the cries to kill homosexuals are loudest in Jamaica, where the national death rate is unacceptably high. Or maybe it should not boggle the mind at all. Tolerance of lifestyles and behaviours and consequent moderations and modifications for public consumption might be the answer. Indeed, some dancehall DJs have already tempered their lyrics and it has been argued that Jamaicans should be allowed to arrive at their own level of local tolerance of homosexuality rather than have tolerance shove down their throats by metropolitan, homosexual imperialists.

If we use Walcott’s model or principle of creation emerging from denial or lack, we may be forced to suggest that the persistence and pervasiveness of carnival and dancehall slackness in the form of erotic exorcism, speak to the denial, lack and repression of normal, healthy sexual attitudes, behaviours and relationships in the community. We therefore end up with a classic, calypso irony: Far from hinting at enjoyable, healthy, raunchy, sexual activity in private, the erotic dancing and sexual mimicry on display in public, during carnival and inside the dancehall, is probably a reflection of the very opposite, in private. The masses put on a naked mask to “play mas” and act out unfulfilled sexual fantasies far removed from their private, boring realities.

Now be honest. This explanation must make you feel less resentful of them and so much more morally superior to the exorcising, carnival vagabonds. You are not a public peeping Tom. You are quietly and studiously regarding and researching the carnival bacchanal for no reason other than unadulterated, academic and philosophical insights. That explains why you need the towering, vantage height of the sky-walking moko jumbie who is able to see and foresee all danger and all evil. After all, even in your self-righteousness and pompousness, you are carnival.

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