By Corey Gilkes
January 24, 2011
Recently, we heard an announcement that the Catholic Church plans to have a band for the upcoming Carnival celebrations. And, even though Carnival has not yet been officially launched, ting done tun ole mas with that announcement.
According to reports the main organisers claim that they are trying to inject a spiritual element in the Mas which they see as having descended into a public display of tasteless, sexual decadence and drunkenness. Personally, I have very mixed views on this proposed band. On the face of it the idea is good, well-intentioned and frankly what I have seen over the last number of years as “costumes” disgust me to no end. Barring the usual Minshall and MacFarlane and one or two others, by and large the so-called bandleaders have no craft, no originality (unless you actually believe that ancient Romans did look like Las Vegas showgirls), and certainly little knowledge and even less respect for the history and uniqueness of Trinidad’s Mas which was first and foremost street theatre (and political street theatre at that). Furthermore, we have moved – or rather they have taken us – from the ingenuity and creativity of people like the late Cito Velasquez to outsourcing parts of the “costumes” in China. George Bailey must be giddy in his grave by now. So anybody or group that tries to bring something that is NOT that, they have my blind support…
Except when the group is a church group.
Don’t get me wrong, it is not that I hold the view that the Church should not get involved in something as “carnal” as Carnival and I’ll come to that in a minute; my issue with the Church (or mosque or any religious denomination for that matter) has to do with their ideology (and frankly I don’t completely trust their intentions either). Mind you this is not the first time such a thing has been proposed; for those old enough to remember, a Pentecostal group (I stand to be corrected) attempted the same thing and for the same reasons. And I was sceptical then as I am now.
My suspicion and scepticism stems from the fact that to date the Church has not publicly and properly dealt with the paranoiac fear of sex and women it inherited from Ancient Greece and Rome. In her book The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Barbara G. Walker quotes one Rev. Dr. Joseph Fletcher who wrote, “The Christian churches must shoulder some of the blame for confusion, ignorance and guilt which surrounds sex in Western culture….[T]he Christian church, from its earliest primitive beginnings, had been swayed by many Puritanical people, both Catholic and Protestant, who have viewed sex as inherently evil.” The historical record is very clear that they did. Of course, it has been dressed-up and presented in a very nice, pure, innocent way because, after all, you catch more flies with honey (look, for instance, at the way women have now become the most vociferous defenders of monogamous exclusive relationships which was an arrangement developed by men to control the women they feared and hated). For all the cloaking that does not and can never change the fact that much of this ethic of “decency” and “morality” and “modesty” they are trying to inject into the Mas had nothing to do with any such thing but came from ancient fears of women and were ideas that were developed to suppress women’s high political and social status. The main weapon used was shame: that is, by making them – much more so than the men – ashamed of their sexuality and erotic power.
My point is that, to date, I have neither seen nor heard the Church publicly acknowledge that it is their skewed, misogynist views of sex that led to the same decadence they now decry; when you repress something, do you not then make it more appealing? When you create or expand on philosophies that objectify women, blame their sexuality for all that is negative in society do you not create a mindset that approaches sex from a standpoint of violence? The Church has done all of this and more, and in so doing, warped the minds of even the Protestant sects that grew out of it; the same Protestant sects that centuries later would send missionaries to Trinidad to take charge of our colonial – and post colonial – schooling and churching.
Which brings me to what really chook mih to write this short piece: the attitude of many Trinis to this venture. I listened to a lot of the comments on radio and on online discussions and overwhelmingly the responses I heard were exactly as I expected them to be – hostile and ignorant. We Trinis are an amazing bunch of people; we joke about and treat lightly very serious things and make immense fuss over things that are often very trite. We are a culture of interesting contradictions and paradoxes; a classless society that is forever trying to instil Eurocentric ideas of class; a society that produced giant intellectuals like Lloyd Best, V.S. Naipaul, John LaRose, C.L.R. James, Lionel Sieukeran, and yet there is no culture of reading or critical thinking (hence the fact that we also like to speak with authority on things we know very little about, particularly when it deals with religion).
It also is most manifest in our approach to the sexual and sensual; the Africa and India in us gave us a society that is bursting with sexual energy that we are forever trying to play down and deny because since our foreparents time we were taught that that is base savagery, lewdness, obscene, indecent (read, uncultured or uncivilised…unlike the British). On a daily basis we interact with each other – often very innocently – in ways that in other countries like Canada and the US we would be instantly arrested or fired for being sexually inappropriate. But that is just how we are and while there should always be some sort of balance, that aspect of our selves should never be stifled apologetically or ashamedly.
Over and over I heard callers argue that what the Church is attempting to do is wrong, is a lowering of itself to the base level, that, “de Church eh have no business in dat,… That is not of god, dais of de flesh, Church is to stay out of that,” etcetera, etcetera,etcetera. Oh please, read already. Ironically, the more pious the pontificating, the more the pontificator showed his paganism…Ok, I’ll stop it now, but the fact is that that way we have learned to draw a firm demarcating line between the spiritual and the physical/carnal came from the ancient Zoroastrian belief system of Persia – in other words from a “pagan” culture. But I will always remember going to a lecture back in 1995 by Dr. Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool in which he said if Jesus were here today he’d be dancing and wining in a Carnival band. Admittedly, given the orgiastic nature of the ancient Jewish Agapae ritual, he may well have done a lot more than wine.
Now I know this may offend some reader’s sensibilities but don’t expect me to make any apologies for that. Too many of us are still holding onto this romanticised image of certain biblical characters, not least of which is the Jesus figure, and it should not be underestimated how profoundly that affects the way we perceive ourselves. There is a prevailing image of the Christ Jesus as an asexual person that is not even in keeping with Jewish culture at that time. This stems from the Greeks and Romans who had a big problem with sex, women, nakedness and the natural world. This discomfort passed on to the early Christian theologians as well as 1st century Jewish religious leaders who were already tainted by Levite Judaic thought.
I am by no means denying that Carnival is about sex. It is and has always been very sexual from its beginnings in Egypt (or further inland for all we know) through the Greeks and Romans who copied it from those Africans of the Nile Valley right up to the present day. The difference lies in how sex is viewed in different cultures. In Africa and related Celtic and Asiatic cultures, it was linked with fertility and rejuvenation, an expression of the pleasure principle that led to new life and thus continuity. For patriarchal Eurasia it was a potentially hostile force that had to be fought, tamed and brought under control. Sex became something that was seen as corrupting, dangerous and sinful because, when viewed in the context of the harsh climatic and living conditions of post-Ice Age Eurasia, it took away from the men’s pursuit of hunting and warfare which was essential to the survival of the clans in that region.
But the average Trini knows nothing of this because we are culturally illiterate and proudly so. Look around in the average library and tell me how many people are there on a daily basis. Most of the few who are there are in the place only because they have some test or assignment to hustle down. And for those who want to argue that the internet makes libraries unnecessary the reality is that for all this instant access to information people are reading and reasoning less, not more. And that is manifested in our school system, in the standards of Kaiso, Soca, popular music, political and religious discourse and Mas design.
So, to borrow from an old Kaiso, if de priest want to play, who is me? Let him go right ahead, but as far as I’m concerned ONLY after he has come to terms with his issues of sex. Because it is he who placed society in the mess that it is in, all the Mas has done is reflect that.