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Carnivalism: The Shadow of Hierarchy

Puerto Rico still had no power. Weeks after Hurricane Maria battered the island, streetlights were like dead iron flowers and the avenues, draped in shadows. I came to find family and report for my newspaper. Parking near Borinquen Plaza, I got out and saw boys popping wheelies on bikes. Couples drank on benches. A crowd cheered on old men, who played dominoes. I was a little embarrassed and said, “Why aren’t you suffering more?” 

The air was prickly, almost electric with freedom. Like a carnival. The next day, I drove around the island, interviewing people and found immense suffering. In the mountains, families starved, the old and sick were desperate. People had died. Yet everyone I talked with always admitted the same guilty secret. They loved the renewed connection. Family. Friends. Even the land. It all was powerfully present.

Days later, I was on a jet back to New York, watching the island shrink in the distance. When it vanished, my body snapped on its memory like an oyster on a pearl. The people’s defiant joy, glowed in my ribcage. Sadness, tightened my throat. What would happen to all that beauty? Will it vanish when the lights turn on? Or will it be blown away by another hurricane? 


The Carnival. It rises everywhere, all the time. In the oddest places and unforeseen moments. It rises in a plaza on a hurricane hit island. It rises in the protest camps of Occupy Wall Street. It rises in Burning Man and the Caribbean like clockwork. It rises in Tahrir Square and the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain.

The Carnival. It’s a mystery spark, light in the eyes, wild laughter, bodies aglow with infectious joy. I’ve seen it pop up after the state has paralyzed or when we escape to a far out empty land. The soul, grows and regrows the carnival like flowers, overtaking barbed wire. 

Home in Brooklyn, I dug through my library for Mikhail Bakhtin’s classic 1965 book Rabelais and His World, where he cataloged the qualities of Carnival. He wrote, “Festivals…were the second life of the people, who for a time entered the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality and abundance. People were reborn…liberating them from norms of etiquette and decency.”

The words were a magnifying glass on memory. I closed my eyes and saw the bawdy, sexual humor of NYC’s Halloween or the Critical Tits ride at Burning Man. Hierarchy suspended and reversed. Space and Time, re-imagined. Masks taken off. Absurd, more truthful masks put on. Raucous laughter. Sex. Obscenity. The Grotesque Body.

I shut the book, thinking of Ancient Egypt’s New Year Festival of Drunkenness and Greece’s Dionysian Mystery Cults. The Roman Empire had Saturnalia and the pagans, Germanic Yule Tide. Rising from history were the same psychedelic and alcohol flushed faces, the same wild dancing, the same fire, feasts and libertine excess. The egalitarian chaos of folk culture is universal.

What did it mean? What image of human nature is needed to anchor these temporary utopias into a practical vision? The question was dire. The neo-liberal center, collapsed. Reactionary politics has cast a shadow over the West. Golden Dawn in Greece. The National Front in France. Trump here. Beyond our borders, the world fights hunger, disease and climate change.

“This is stupid.” I looked out of my apartment window. Across the street, I had seen a boy shoot a gun at a party, another time, a man was gunned down in his building. Every week, a line of poor people gathered at the Macedonian Church for bags of free food. What could the carnival mean for us? 

It means our suffering is not natural. Our fear and hunger, aren’t natural. We’re not just the urban poor or just races or genders. Under the weight of hierarchy, inside our depths are mirrors. When facing each other, in play, in love, in curiosity, in lust, in hope; we infinitely reflect our possible selves. In that endless world is a people who can rescue the future.    

The Weight of Hierarchy

 Walking through Manhattan, I had one question. Where did this weight come from? The heavy feeling that snuffed out the spirit of carnival. Was it being broke while walking under the ads of wealthy, sexy couples? Or the store mannequins in expensive suits? Maybe it was the police on the subway? Or predatory men searching for an easy mark? Or the bills, the damn bills.

I was born in the city. The city was born in me. My blood sped through my veins like a runaway train. Which meant, I knew NYC’s nightmare history. It was built by slaves. Rebuilt by poor, desperate immigrants. Irish skeletons were at the bottom of bridges. Italian and Jewish women had died in factory fire.

Each generation, new immigrants crashed into the city. Some succeeded. Many were crushed by the weight of exhaustion or disease. The weight of unrealized dreams. The weight of prejudice. The Irish weren’t white. The Jews and Italians weren’t white. Until America needed soldiers and consumers and adopted them.

My family was never whitened. They were Puerto Ricans who came to NYC as it lost industry. Many fell between the cracks into ghettoes and were stamped by stereotype. Our poverty was naturalized as the effect of our flawed genes, mixed and impure.

Was this the source of the weight? The reason our bodies, our skin color, our accent was a thing to hide, conceal and drag around like a dirty secret? Or something to wear like proud armor, even if it meant not being able to feel?

At the café, I looked on my phone for a documentary series called Out of Egypt. The host, Dr. Kara Cooney explored archeological sites. I muted it while skimming Plato’s Republic, preparing for tomorrow’s class. I skimmed The Myth of the Metals reading, “The God in fashioning those of you who are competent to rule, mixed gold in at their birth; this is why they are the most honored; in auxiliaries, silver; and iron and bronze in the famers and other craftsmen….Hence the god commands the rulers first to keep over the children, seeing which of these metals is mixed in their souls…there is an oracle that city will be destroyed when an iron or bronze man is its guardian.”

Out of Egypt was still playing, I turned on the sound. The host walked in a low adobe maze, saying, “The imperial palace was surrounded by walls that cut off the royal elite from the commoners. The Chimor believed that social status had been by determined by creation itself. According to their myth the Sun God populated the world with three eggs. Gold for the ruling elite. Silver for their wives. Copper for everyone else. Who belonged outside the palace walls.”

I looked back and forth from Plato’s Republic to Out of Egypt’s episode on the Chimor Empire in Peru. More than 1200 years and 7,000 miles separated them yet both ruling classes came up with the same mythology to sanction their power. It was the divine right to rule. God was the author of social rank, literally writing it into their flesh. Metal was a metaphor of permanence, so no one would think change was possible.

And from this Noble Lie rose the prosperous city. It is the same city from yesterday to now. It can be ancient Athens or modern Lagos, neo-lithic Chimor or today’s Islamabad or London, Sau Paulo or here, all around me, New York. The city, the maze, rising from the stolen labor of the masses, built with bones and calcified dreams, glued with tears, burning our breath, the city, where our bodies where transformed into myth.

I put the Plato’s Republic down and looked at my hand. How bronze my skin looked. 

Home is Where the Body Is 

The next day, I walked into my class and smiled at their bright faces. The whole semester, my students peeled off ideas from their bodies. Ideas of hierarchy. Ideas of not being rich enough. Or straight enough. Or white enough. Or beautiful or handsome enough. 

Like all youth, they were growing in the cracks of history. I lowered the screen as they flipped through their books. The lesson plan was on the Black Arts Movement. We talked about afros, dashikis and nationalism as black people, rediscovered themselves by returning to a body, alienated by internalized racism. The first image I showed was of an Ancient Greek vase with wild drinking. They scrunched their eyes. 

I asked their indulgence for a historical detour. “Hierarchical societies that are deeply unequal and exploitive,” I pointed at the image, “force people to release stress through play. In Ancient Greece, the cult of Dionysus held rituals where they drank, took psychedelics and danced on mountains. When Rome absorbed Greece, Dionysus was renamed Bacchus and again, citizens, exhausted by the hierarchy, fled to the mountains and drank and had orgies and were consumed with their bodies.” 

I could see them squinting with a where-is-he-going with this look but the idea of ancient raves was fun, so they paid attention.

“But isn’t that just weird old timey stuff,” I said, “What does it have to do with now?” I clicked on a clip of Kathleen Cleaver in the 1970’s, who pointed at her friends each one with a giant, elegant Afro. So round. So sheen. Like small planets of a new universe. Cleaver said, “This brother, myself, all of us were born with hair like this and we wear it like this because it’s natural. For so many years, we were told that only white people were beautiful, only straight hair, light eyes, light skin…this has changed, now because black people are aware.” 

Finally, I asked them to turn to Assata’s autobiography. I read, “The first time I attended a Republic of new Afrika event, I drank in the atmosphere, the surroundings were gay and carnival like. Brothers were pounding out messages on drums. Groups danced to motherland rhythms until their skins glazed with sweat. Vibrant sisters and brothers with big Afros and flowing African garments strode proudly.”

We closed the book and they blinked quietly, a young woman in the back, reflexively touched her hair. “The carnival is the shadow of hierarchy,” I said, “In every age, in every continent, it reappears as one answer to inequality. People return to the very parts of themselves that had to be repressed to fit in and highlight, exaggerate it in order to free themselves. The question today is, how are you going to return to yourselves?”

We were so in the zone that class ended and we didn’t notice. We snapped out of the spell. They gathered their bags, thanking me on the way out. I got to my office and the Burning Man poster was on the wall.

I touched it, remembered the many times I had gone to the desert to escape capitalism and find myself. Thousands of people in the desert like cells multiplying into a secret dream, growing, growing, growing. I leaned in and smelled the dust. 

Carnivalism Today

We rode bicycles into the night desert, looking at a city slowly being built. Large construction cranes like metal storks, pieced together the Man, a 42 foot tall, wood effigy. Huge lights hummed as a construction crew hauled wood.

“It’s so quiet,” Veronica said to me and Matt. The wind sang and whistled, scrapped and howled. We stopped our bikes and scanned the distance. Grey night. Grey desert. Moonlight was a soft glow.

We marveled at being at Burning Man so early. Building our camp. Coming out to see the city before the thousands poured in. It was peaceful.

Over the next week, we built our camp, welcomed friends. We lounged in the hot sun. We drank, smoked and fed each other. We played on the art installations, rode giant metal bulls, climbed inside a jellyfish sculpture, danced under an LED glowing tree as dusty Burners kissed. The week was a blur of color and music and hugs.

Each day that went by was closer to returning the default world, the capitalist world, the world of hierarchy. When will the carnival never end? When can we return to our egalitarian truth? The questions dogged me and when I was scheduled to speak at a theme camp, I got on stage and asked what they wanted?

I told them that we have three different carnivals. The reactionary carnival of hate. Where angry nativist crowds scapegoated minorities. We have the status quo carnivals like Burning Man and in the Caribbean, where the state sanctions the brief outburst to release pressure and get us back to work. And there’s the revolutionary carnival, where the people spill into the streets and tear down the hierarchy with laughter, sex, dancing, art and protest.  

I said a global carnival would blur religions and nations and borders. The expensive ships and jets and guns we buy to protect ourselves, could be melted into solar panels and steel for new homes and bridges. How? Call upon a real part of human nature. We are mirrors and in the reflection, the carnival is reborn.

Later than night, a campmate shared their mushrooms. I gobbled them down and we all rode out into the fully built, load, raucous Black Rock City. Dragon art cars snorted fire. Burners in blinking coats jumped into each other’s arms. 

We bicycled to The Man and stared up in awe. The mushrooms made reality ripple like the surface of a pond. Colors seemed to stick on our fingers like taffy. Beneath The Man’s legs was a glowing egg.

“Who knew The Man could lay eggs,” Matt said. I smiled, “I think he’s transgender.” Burners leaned in, coated with dust and took photos. Others danced. Others meditated in the corner. Others took turns, touching the egg.

I went over and placed both palms on it. My friends did to. More people came, laying hands upon hands. The Man symbolized our dreamed of tomorrow. We began chanting Om. It felt so close, the new world, a glowing fetus, our hands on it, trying to feel it awaken.

Photo: Alejandro Wilkins

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