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Coney Island Carnivalesque
Some Reflections on Marking the Summer Solstice in NYC
This past Saturday we celebrated the start of the summer in NYC with the 40th annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade, the first time the parade has been held since 2019 due to the pandemic.As usual, it was colorful, campy, loud, chaotic, and lots of fun. I had the privilege of marching as a sort of Polynesian mer-monk and/or the personal assistant to a sexy jellyfish — as one does.
The Mermaid Parade is like NYC’s version of Mardi Gras, and probably our biggest public Pagan ritual. Besides celebrating the start of summer with a massive art parade of mermaids, sea creatures, floats, classic cars, and other honky-tonk examples of seaside kitsch, the parade ends with an official ceremony opening the beach for the summer led by the year’s Queen Mermaid and King Neptune (this year, Mx Justin Vivian Bond and former NYC health commissioner Dave Chokshi). This alone takes the event from being a fun art parade to being a kind of Pagan summer solstice ritual, not to mention the fact that it embodies the weird psycho-spiritual Americana already represented by Coney Island as a New York institution.
The parade is also a great example of Mikhail Bakhtin’s concepts of the carnivalesque and the grotesque, originally used to describe the late medieval and early modern world of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, but really extended by Bakhtin to describe an overall attitude and disposition toward life and embodiment.
According to scholar Simon Dentith, Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque uses the pre-Lenten carnival as a launching pad to describe “a gay, affirmative, and militantly anti-authoritarian attitude to life, founded upon a joyful acceptance of the materiality of the body.”The carnivalesque is related to Bakhtin’s aesthetic category of “grotesque realism,” which Dentith calls “the literary expression of a central attitude in popular culture, expressed most evidently in the life of carnival with its feasting, Feast of Fools, games-playing and symbolic inversions.” Bakhtin ultimately traces grotesque realism as an aesthetic to what he calls “the collective ancestral body of all the people,” what Dentith defines as “the epochally prepared ground of carnival images and festive forms which is no less than the material and bodily continuity of human life.”
Grotesque realism’s essential principle is one of “degradation” — not purely negative degradation, but an ambivalent degradation that reminds us we “are all creatures of flesh and thus of food and faeces also” while simultaneously affirming that even excrement is “gay matter” which is linked to regeneration and renewal.The grotesque body of the carnival thus both degrades and offers the possibility of new birth, like the cycle of the seasons itself.
This body, which you can see on display so clearly in the sometimes grotesque, sometimes funny, sometimes sexy costumes and floats of the Mermaid Parade — in undulating octopoid tentacles of papier-mâché, shimmering sparkling mermaid tails, exposed breasts and painted skin and waving celebrating arms — is open and in process and messy and fluid rather than closed and harmonious and well-proportioned. It is a body “in which becoming rather than completion is evident,” a body marked by “openness to the world and the future” and symbolized in literature by “consuming maws, pregnant stomachs, evident phalluses and gargantuan evacuations” — all of which you can find at the Mermaid Parade each year, but also at Coney Island on the average day of the week.Whether you are marching in costume as a many-tentacled sea creature or hurling your hotdogs out on the downward descent of the Cyclone, your body at Coney Island is “unfinished, a thing of buds and sprouts, the orifices evident through which it sucks in and expels the world.” Bakhtin summarizes:
[T]he grotesque images preserve their peculiar nature, entirely different from ready-made, completed being. They remain ambivalent and contradictory; they are ugly, monstrous, hideous from the point of view of ‘classic’ aesthetics, that is, the aesthetics of the ready-made and the completed.
This was also clear to me on Saturday as I tried to act as PR manager to the aforementioned sexy jellyfish. Lots of people wanted pictures of her (for obvious reasons), but there were a few annoying men (always men) who wanted to know why they couldn’t see her face. I think there was something uncanny about an attractive woman’s body attached to a tentacled jellyfish head, something mysterious or unsettling — like the mythological mermaids who had human bodies and grotesque fish heads, the total reverse of the Disney ideal. Some people wanted the look to be completed with a pretty face, but that would have undermined the point.
Some Christian scholars of Bakhtin, like Ruth Coates, connect his portrayal of the grotesque body to Christian incarnational theology. And it is true that the third chapter of Bakhtin’s book on Rabelais contains a section that centers on the importance of self-sacrificial love or agape to the carnivalesque. Coates connects this to the Christian idea of agape — according to Coates, the open-ended nature of the grotesque body, so different from the self-assured and completed classical body, gives the carnivalesque the power to cope with suffering, death, and failure by responding with openness and self-giving.
Agape, also figured by Coates as “carnival love,” is “self-giving and self-emptying in the same sense given to it by the Incarnation; that is to say, it is kenotic.”In Bakhtinian terms, “agape represents a refusal to claim one’s own ‘givenness’, or closure, within the event of being”; agape is “thus a powerful force that liberates the lover, since he (or she) overcomes a soul-destroying tendency to live for himself and retains his openness to the other, and to being in general.” Put in even more characteristic Bakhtinian terms, agape maintains the open-ended and unfinished character of the grotesque body, the body symbolically centered on the orifices of the “bodily lower stratum” rather than the completion and closure of the classical body.
Incarnation, agape, and a focus on the “bodily lower stratum” are not only themes in Christian theology and the Bakhtinian carnivalesque, but are also concepts in the occult philosophy of Thelema. As I reflect on these Bakhtinian ideas in the context of the ritual drama of the Mermaid Parade, I think of the Thelemic emphasis on engaging with existence as “pure joy” through the constant copulation of Hadit — the mover, shaker, and “knower” who lies at the core of our being, our Star — with Nuit — the infinite possibilities of experience itself, materiality itself — through agape or love under will.This Thelemic agape, like the Christian agape, is kenotic because in every single temporal moment we are dissolved in a self-giving union with a new experience in a way that simultaneously results in the death of our old self, and the manifestation of a uniquely new event, the body of the ever-coming son Ra-Hoor-Khuit, who will only exist in that specific configuration for that exact moment.
Thelemic agape is likewise incarnational — our Star is newly incarnate, physically manifest, in every moment, and like Bakhtin’s grotesque body, it is truly material, open-ended, unfinished, and constantly in flux. And understanding Thelemic agape as symbolized — not just symbolized, actually enacted — by ecstatic copulation, we can see why there is an emphasis in both Crowley’s phallicism and in Bakhtin’s carnivalesque on the “bodily lower stratum,” the generative organs, the digestive tract, sexual fluids, piss and shit — the stuff of incarnation, the necessary instruments of fertility, growth, and the cyclical change of seasons which we celebrate with the summer solstice.
The connections between Bakhtin’s and Crowley’s ideas are not really a coincidence. After all, Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, the jumping-off point for Bakhtin, is also one of the pre-Crowley sources of the philosophy of Thelema, with Rabelais himself describing an “Abbaye de Thélème” whose only rule was “Fay çe que vouldras” — “Do what thou wilt.”
So as we wrap up the Mermaid Parade and the summer solstice this year, we see that the teeming undulating phallic and yonic world of the carnival and the grotesque body is also the incarnate world of kenotic agape, Christian or Thelemic. Maybe, in a sweaty chaotic parade of bare limbs and glittery makeup and papier-mâchéd fins and the smell of suntan lotion and stale beer and trash swirling in the seaside breeze, we also find that, reality being one — or none — any gap between Pagan, Christian, Thelemic or otherwise collapses in the “collective ancestral body of all,” in the “epochally prepared ground of carnival images and festive forms which is no less than the material and bodily continuity” of all life, the omnipresence of the body of Nuit.And the sign is her ecstasy.
Simon Dentith, Bakhtinian Thought: An Introductory Reader, 66.
Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 19; Dentith, 67.
Ruth Coates, Christianity in Bakhtin: God and the Exiled Author, 136-137.
Coates, 137; citing Philippians 2:5-8.
For more on the union between Nuit and Hadit as agapeic, read Frater Entelecheia’s great post on “Apophatic Theology and the Gnostic Mass.”
Bakhtin, 19; Dentith, 67; and Liber AL vel Legis I:26.