…the hidden past affects the present even as it emerges through present discoveries as a new, unsuspected force—Wilson Harris
Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday. You get up and pad to the window. Part the curtains. Pitch dark behind the frost on the window pane. You don’t need to see through. You know it snowed overnight. Not a sound. All is blanketed. Hushed. You tiptoe to the landing past the mirror with your shadow in it. Past your uncle Gustave’s bedroom. Rrrr-snorrR. Rrrr-snorrR. The coast is clear, as they say. You fix your gaze to the ray of light at the bottom of the flight of stairs. You go down, careful to skip the step that creaks—fourth from the bottom. A smell of coffee seeps from under the door. Muffled noises. A fart. You hold your breath. Put your eye to the key hole.
Cousin Victor stands in his long johns and camisole. He puts on his suit. It’s taupe with red, yellow and black lions and crowns. Trimmed with white lace cuffs. Auntie Jo stuffs his back with straw. You see his beanie and collar on the table. His mask. And behind, the feather hat you are dying to touch. White ostrich feathers. The most expensive kind—last year he made do with the touched up ones the rain had ruined. His clogs and basket and ramon lie next to the stove. You are jealous. You want to take his ramon apart. Break each single stick it’s made of. You’ll never own a stick. You’ll never ward off evil spirits. You’ll never be a Gille. You are just a girl.
A grunt. A knock on the back door. Auntie Jo rushes across the room to answer it. Cousin Victor puts on his white cotton beanie. Pins a round bell on his chest. Straps his waist with a chiming belt. You smell oranges: they are packed in a box at your feet, and next to it is the tin of galettes you won’t touch. Victor slips on his clogs. They clang on the tiles. Holy cow! Here comes cousin Alain with his drum. You feel hot. Ashamed. Last year you embarrassed yourself and everybody else. Alain threw a blood orange at you and you tried to throw it back. Uncle Gustave only just had time to grip your wrist. Suddenly, you sense a presence. You are nothing but a troublemaker.
She will grow out of it, says Auntie Jo as she mops the floor after the two men drum and jingled themselves out of her house. I creep into the kitchen. Slide a finger on Victor’s wax mask. It is cool and smooth, but threatening. Garish and nasty, with its painted hot pink cheeks, vermillion mouth and green glasses; its curly moustache and twisted eyebrows. Not everyone wears a mask. Those who do, won’t all the time. There is a code Victor abides by. I can only guess from what I see. At the crack of dawn on Mardi Gras the Gilles go out unmasked and clean-shaven. I eye the virginal feather hat ready for Victor’s moment of glory later this afternoon. Auntie Jo dusts.
Imagine a dialogue of two persons in which the statements of the second speaker are omitted, but in such a way that the general sense is not at all violated. The second speaker is present invisibly, his words are not there, but deep traces left by those words have a determining influence on all the present and visible words of the first speaker. We sense that this is a conversation, although only one person is speaking, it is a conversation of the most intense kind, for each uttered word responds and reacts with its every fiber to the invisible speaker, points to something outside itself, beyond its own limits, to the unspoken words of another person.
I’ll get breakfast ready, says Auntie Jo. Even though it’s only four am, I agree to the hot chocolate. Don’t you dare touch that mask! Something about Cousin Victor’s fake face disturbs me. Is it the apple-coloured lenses with enlarged black pupils? If I were to make my own mask, it would have red glasses, I say. Auntie Jo nods. Stirs the hot chocolate. My ramon would be made of straw. At this, she explodes into a fit of laughter. I don’t know this yet, but I will later question why the victors of this world need the protection of masks and sticks. What I do know is that I’ll catch as many oranges as I can. I’ll let them rot until all that’s left is a stinking puff of grey dust.
She only reflected his own glories upon him: all that she was, was him, while he was here, and all that she is now is at best but his pale shade. She was a very faithful mirror, reflecting truly, though but dimly, his own glories upon him, so long as he was present; but she, that was nothing before his inspection gave her a fair figure, when he was removed, was only filled with a dark mist, and never could again take in any delightful object, nor return any shining representation. Traces in the mirror, another mask, closed. Something that comes ready-made—a trace faintly reproduces something that already exists. It contains, yet excludes any element of reciprocity.
As the enterprise of living and the direction of it has such import for the conditions of peoples’ lives, and as at least half of those affected are women, it is fair for women to claim a right to participate fully and equally in the organisation of social life. Carnival itself, as an idea and practice, can be seen as another myth, or ideology, which permeates, and is reproduced through, tradition. Its seemingly transgressive nature only serves to mask the privileged class that has, throughout history, plundered and monopolised power and resources to excess, and for their own ends—which they still do, under similar guises, yet often masquerading as new partnerships…
The questionability of newness. Language as discursive practice is deemed to mediate and is mediated by all representations of the constructed world, thus shaping experiential, social and historical processes when translated into action. On this account, no essential human nature, or objective facts, can be postulated which could be put forward as a hindrance to possibilities for changes in human enterprises, that is, in aspirations and methods used towards them. Discursive practices then in this view are causal influences in social life and the recording of it. But is the sentence actually the minimal unit of social utterance and hence, the foundation of discourse?
Poetic discourse is not a window, to be seen through, a transparent pane of glass pointing to something outside it with a stick. It is a system of signs with its own intertextual and intratextual interconnectedness. It is a hay stack. In its midst is a stray straw called the referential fallacy of language. Reference, especially where the hidden past affects the present, can only be that kind of blindness a window makes of the pane it is, that motoric thrust of the word which takes you out of language into a tenuous world of the other and so prevents you seeing what it is you see. Language is material and literary writing is a littering of transparent channels of communication.
Passages in italics are sourced from the following:
Bakhtin, M 1984 Problems of Dostoevsky’s poetics (ed. & trans. C Emerson) Minneapolis, MN: University of Minneapolis Press
Bernstein, C 1986 ‘Stay straws and straw men’ in B Andrews (ed.) Content’s dream: Essays 1975-1984, Los Angeles, CA: Sun and Moon Press, 40-49
Bristol, M D 1989 Carnival and theater: Plebeian culture and the structure of authority in Renaissance England, London: Methuen, 7
Deleuze, G and Guattari, F 1987 A thousand plateaux: Capitalism and schizophrenia, Minneapolis MN: University of Minneapolis Press, 12
Harris, W 2013 The carnival trilogy, London: Faber, 31
Hobby, E 1998 Virtue of necessity: English women’s writing 1649-88, London: Virago, 79
Mc Caffery 1986 North of intention: Critical writings 1973-1986, New York, NY: Roof Books, 13