Leaving the Flesh

Celebrating Life and Death at Carnival

By Alex Dimeff, graphic designer

Featured image: The North Side Skull and Bones Gang, Mardi Gras Day 2008. Photograph by Charles Silver.

Last week, for the first time since the 2020 COVID lockdowns, I donned a Carnival costume: a paper crown and a royal blue satin suit embroidered with gold flowers. When I first stepped out of my little cottage, the night air chilled me, but I warmed up quickly, chest flushing as I pedaled my bike uptown, towards the start of the parade. 

This was not Mardi Gras Day itself, but the Thursday before, February 24th, the date Russia launched its large-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Throughout the following days, my focus oscillated. I checked my phone for parade routes and for updates on the horrors unfolding in Eastern Europe.

And somehow this dissonance was appropriate. 

The word carnival means to leave the flesh, that is, to bid farewell to meat before Lent begins, with all its pescetarian restrictions. During Carnival, we feast in preparation for the coming fast. It’s a bit of a contradiction, but then again, Mardi Gras is a holiday of contradictions. We express ourselves by masking, by becoming what we are not. We celebrate life–carnal, visceral life–and yet we also embrace images of death: the dancing flames of execution at the Joan of Arc Parade, the skeleton jester of Krewe d’Etat, the Skull & Bones Gang pounding on doors in Treme and the 7th Ward early Mardi Gras morning. 

The North Side Skull and Bones Gang, Mardi Gras Day 2008. Photograph by Charles Silver.

Two years into the pandemic, and only days into the largest invasion on the European continent since WWII, death’s specter hung especially close this Mardi Gras season. 

We knew the risks of gathering in crowds, but we were drawn to come together. We knew war plagued the world, but something moved us to celebrate life and creation.

And I cannot overemphasize the word creation. During Carnival, it’s on full display, that human impulse to make. Every year, Mardi Gras Indians stun the city with intricately beaded costumes they spent the year sewing. High school marching bands show off musical arrangements they practiced for months. People who never considered themselves “artistic” don headdresses concocted from tinsel and cardboard and some prior year’s Mardi Gras throws. 

There is a poetic logic to all this, to placing death alongside creation. At Carnival we let opposing forces sit in contrast, in compliment. To me, this is the soul of Mardi Gras: juxtaposition.

Seventh Ward Warriors, Mardi Gras Day 2005. Photograph by Rachel Breunlin. 

Carnival shows the bad and the good in us, greed and restraint, human pettiness and human grace side by side. 

The ugliness: people camping out on public land, claiming it as their own property, trying to secure a prime spot for the Endymion or Muses parade. Revelers jostling for plastic throws that they’ll likely discard. Purple beads glimmering in a landfill for all eternity, never degrading. 

The beauty: old friends sharing king cake and buying each other drinks. Parade-goers emptying their pockets to give alms to torch-bearing Flambeaux. Strangers tossing butterfly wings and stuffed elephants and hand-painted coconuts to excited children. 

Sometimes I worry that competition over territory and material resources is intrinsic to humanity. You see it in the harmless fun of crowds begging for plastic swords and bedazzled shoes. You see it in Putin’s decision to turn missiles on his country’s neighbor. You see it in the lives already lost during the Russo-Ukrainian War: nearly 14,000 since 2014, including over 3,300 civilians.

But cooperation and generosity, I think, are as essential to us as conflict. On any given day, some human beings will engage each other physically, hurt each other physically, but the majority of us will not. Most of us won’t throw a punch today. Most of us will never fire a weapon at another person. 

I believe that peace is our default condition, and though human selfishness never disappears, it’s largely overwhelmed by our good nature. I believe this because I’ve felt the warmth between strangers in a Mardi Gras crowd. 

Significantly, unlike Christmas, which is primarily celebrated in the intimacy of the home, Mardi Gras is a public holiday. We revel on the streets, pursuing joy alongside people we’ve never met before and may never meet again. 

Here is the most essential and mysterious of Mardi Gras contradictions: the human capacity to experience closeness and camaraderie with people we don’t know.

Darryl Montana, Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian tribe, wearing a suit dedicated to his father, Allison “Tootie” Montana, in 2006. The apron of the suit was an image of Tootie in the last suit he made before he passed. Photograph by Jeffrey David Ehrenreich. 

This year I ended my Mardi Gras on the Mississippi. So much history in that river: conquest, slave trade, struggle—and the emergence of flawed but vibrant cultures out of all that pain.

This year, watching the water, I thought of Kiev and Kharkiv and the Donbas. The strangeness of reveling in New Orleans, marching dazed and bedizened through the French Quarter, while elsewhere, ordinary people were assembling Molotov cocktails in basements and crowding railway stations, hoping to get their children onto the next train to the Polish border.

It’s always there, but right then I felt it strongly: that awful symmetry between life and death, joy and suffering.

Perched on the riverfront rocks, we pulled off our masks and talked about Ukraine, what we could do, what we couldn’t. We settled nothing. On that bright, uncertain afternoon, we gazed out at the river and hoped that life and goodness would, once again, against every threat, prevail.

Note: All images in this post appear in The House of Dance & Feathers: A Museum By Ronald W. Lewis by Ronald W. Lewis and Rachel Breunlin, published by the University of New Orleans Press in partnership with the Neighborhood Story Project in 2009.

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