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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Happy Boxing Day 2012



Good King Wenceslas looked out


On the feast of Stephen

When the snow lay round about

Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night

Though the frost was cruel

When a poor man came in sight

Gath’ring winter fuel

“Hither, page, and stand by me

If thou know’st it, telling

Yonder peasant, who is he?

Where and what his dwelling?”

“Sire, he lives a good league hence

Underneath the mountain

Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh and bring me wine

Bring me pine logs hither

Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither.”

Page and monarch forth they went

Forth they went together

Through the rude wind’s wild lament

And the bitter weather….

I hope that all who celebrate it passed a happy Christmas holiday yesterday. For some, the holiday goes on, for today is Boxing Day. Falling on December 26, Boxing Day, also called St. Stephens’s Day, is mostly a Commonwealth holiday. I became familiar with it via my British Virgin Islands in-laws. On this day, it is said, the poor received the contents of church poor boxes, collections for the poor, and the servants of great houses, who often had to work on Christmas day, received gift boxes from their masters.

While Christmas Day is a solemn time for many, Boxing Day is often more raucously festive, filled with home visiting, parties, horse races and other sporting events. My fondest memory of Boxing Day was on a hot, sunny day in 2006 in Tortola, British Virgin Islands when my family and I gathered at the home of my late beloved father-in-law, Ta. When we arrived, inside the small house where Ta had been born early in the last century were several members of his church who had come to visit, laugh and pray with him. As his parlor was small, we stayed out on the porch, overlooking the seemingly endless bay. 

To accompany the talk and prayers inside, we began singing Christmas carols and hymns. Some of the church people inside joined in, their voices merging with ours through the open, unscreened door that led from the porch to the darkened, windowless front room where Ta sat, his face etched with joy. He spoke but little that day, uncharacteristic for him. Ta, like Stephen for whom this day is also named, was a man with an active tongue and wit.

Also like Stephen, Ta was a man of grace, wisdom, courage, intelligence, and perhaps above all, justice. Over his long and blessed life, Ta told many stories and jokes, and in the jokes lay the truth, sometimes told straight, sometimes told sideways until it could be told straight. Ta was a lion, of the breed about which abolitionist Wendell Phillips wrote in a now famous letter to Frederick Douglass: You remember the old fable of 'The Man and the Lion,' where the lion complained that he should not be so misrepresented 'when the lions wrote history.' I am glad the time has come when the 'lions write history.'”

The wind blew gently and strongly that Boxing Day, and we sang on. From time to time we looked out at the vast ocean beyond the bay, dreaming of truth, dreaming of history, and the dream was life and life was the dream.

Happy Boxing Day to one and all! Dream well.



Monday, December 17, 2012

Bakhtin’s Theory of Literary Carnival Meets the Mighty Sparrow


I found myself explaining Bakhtin’s theory of literary carnival to my ten-year-old daughter yesterday. She has been reading over my shoulder as I write about the concept and she finally asked what I was talking about. I decided to make an effort at an explanation, figuring that if I could frame it out for her then it might advance my efforts to explain the concept in my work.

Bakhtin’s carnival, like many ancient and modern social carnivals, is a way of looking at the world that unifies, merges or subverts norms and ideas that are typically thought of as opposites. I describe carnival in more detail in an essay I wrote for the NYU Review of Law and Social Change. I also blogged about the concept previously here.

Carnival often involves subversion of mainstream social, legal, economic or other norms.  In carnival, privileged figures are sometimes mocked, demoted and subverted by the oppressed who then assume power, even though only in pretense and usually for only a short while. Carnival is a sanctioned blowing off of social steam that, while riotous and even sometimes offensive, is often ambivalent in its goals: in carnival the lowly sometimes secretly admire and yearn for the respectability and privilege of those whom they mock.

Bakhtin’s carnival is related to historically instantiated folk carnivals such as pre-Lenten celebrations. Bakhtin’s carnival is also, however, sometimes much more metaphorical in nature, and occurs within certain types of language forms, such as in parodies or satires that are unconnected to any particular instance of a folk carnival. Sometimes the material and metaphoric dimensions of carnival come together, such as in some Caribbean carnivals where raucous folk festival is characterized by carnivalesque songs, poems or chants.

My daughter was frowning in puzzlement at this point so I offered an example of a genre of carnivalistic discourses: calypso songs. Calypso songs provide a duel purpose explanation of Bakhtin’s carnival—they frequently form a part of pre-Lenten or other festivals in much of the Caribbean, and the songs themselves offer a rich tradition of satire and parody that challenges mainstream ideas and figures in society. In my explanation I used a calypso song that my daughter knows, Mighty Sparrow’s “Mr. Walker.”  This was a particular favorite of my late mother-in-law and we sing and play it a lot as we reminiscence during the Christmas season.

Here are the words and a link to the song:

She ugly yes, but she wearing them expensive dress
The People say she ugly, but she father full of money
Oh Lord Mamma, woy woy

Good morning Mr. Walker
I come to see your daughter
Oh, Mr. Walker!
I come to see your daughter
Sweet Rosemarie, she promise she gone marry me
And now I tired waiting!
I come to fix the wedding.

After the wedding day, I don't care what nobody say
Every time I take a good look at she face I see a bankbook
Oh Lord Mamma, woy woy

Good morning Mr. Walker
I come to see your daughter
Hmm, Mr. Walker!
I come to see your daughter
Sweet Rosemarie, she promise she gone marry me
And now I tired waiting!
I come to fix the wedding.

Apart from that, they say how she so big and fat
When she dress they tantalize she, saying monkey wearing mini
Oh Lord Mamma, woy woy

Good morning Mr. Walker
I come to see your daughter
Oy, Mr. Walker!
I come to see your daughter
Sweet Rosemarie, she promise she gone marry me
And now I tired waiting!
I come to fix the wedding.

All I know, is I don't intend to let she go
Cause if she was a beauty, nothing like me could get she
Oh Lord Mamma, woy woy

Good morning Mr. Walker
I come to see your daughter
Oy, Mr. Walker!
I come to see your daughter
Sweet Rosemarie, she promise she gone marry me
And now I tired waiting!
I come to fix the wedding.

My daughter is especially amused that the song seems to offer open insult to the woman being described all while prefacing the insults with a particularly Caribbean aspect of social nicety: “good morning.” Part of her amusement is because this rang true for her. During many of our visits to the U.S. and British Virgin Islands it has become apparent to my daughter that little can be accomplished in business or social settings without starting with a requisite good morning, good afternoon, etc.  However, because of the outlandishness of the insults, my daughter is also clear that there is no way under the sun that a potential suitor is going to show up and say such offensive things to a woman’s father while claiming that he wants to marry her. She also understands that part of the humor lies in the demand from such a seemingly disempowered suitor. So, my daughter reasons, the song must be intended as a never-could-be, sly extended joke.

A troubling part is that the singer seems to assert that the unattractiveness of the woman potentially lowers her to his level. Listening from the perspective of Bakhtin’s carnival, however, my daughter starts to understand that the singer, though he seems to assail the “ugly” woman and her rich father, is partly laughing at himself. The plaintive tone of the music in some sections hints that the singer likely means the OPPOSITE of much of what he says and probably greatly admires both the woman and her father. That the singer says that he will keep the woman is perhaps best understood not as a plan to keep hold of the desire of his head (or wallet) but the desire of his heart.

Ah, this does the trick for my daughter. “Mr. Walker” is Bakhtinian carnival.