Mardi Gras After Katrina: Laughing In the Face of Fate

By Ken Ringle
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, February 27, 2006

Whenever people up here find out I'm from New Orleans, they ask me questions about Mardi Gras.

Like, "I thought Mardi Gras was the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. But they're already parading in New Orleans. Is Mardi Gras a holiday or a season?"

"Yes," I explain.

I'm happy to clarify things like this because, while I don't spend a lot of time at Mardi Gras myself, I grew up with it in my blood. My grandmother was one of the first queens of Mardi Gras back in the 1800s, and few major parades or balls have stepped off in the Crescent City for the past 50 years without one of my many New Orleans relatives riding a float, wearing a crown, falling off a parade truck or otherwise helping the festivities along.

So when people up here ask how a city as broken and desperate as post-Katrina New Orleans can hold carnival anyway, I try to explain how very, very different Washington is from New Orleans. It's not just the absence of drive-through daiquiri bars in Washington. It's that people in the nation's capital tend to think they'll never die. Or, at least, that the government is working hard on this mortality thing, and that pretty soon we'll be told how if we never smoke or drink or eat sugar or cream or stay out late and have sex, we'll live forever.

New Orleans, needless to say, is under no such illusion. Almost from the moment of its founding nearly 300 years ago, the city has clutched mortality to its Latin-Catholic-voodoo soul. Living perpetually under the Damoclean sword of cholera and yellow fever and floods and hurricanes, New Orleanians understood with an almost terrifying urgency that death was inevitable, but a well-lived life took some effort.

So they dressed up in fancy clothes, setting desserts on fire and otherwise refining their appreciation of what life can offer. Since they couldn't defeat death, they would dance with it. And the laughing defiance of that dance would comprise the sort of existential triumph that philosophers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche would later attempt to codify in less joyous terms.

Carnival in New Orleans is thus the ritualization of that nose-thumbing at fate. It says, in effect, you regularly hurt me and you're going to kill me, but you can't defeat me as long as I'm eating and drinking and making fun of you and I laugh in your face. Washington works earnestly at controlling fate; New Orleans gives it the finger. The New Orleans approach is not unique in the rest of the world. The same finger-at-fate defiance lies at the heart of almost every lyric of every Argentine tango ever sung, of every Portuguese fado or Spanish flamenco, not to mention this country's homegrown anthem of human resilience-amid-pain, the blues.

But those are all cries of defiance from the poor and downtrodden and oppressed. What's remarkable about Mardi Gras in New Orleans is the extent to which the entire city has institutionalized this defiant laughter, so that every class, race and condition shares it. In a noisy, messy, highly varied and inevitably imperfect way, Mardi Gras amounts to all New Orleanians reminding each other that they're all in this fate thing together. Nothing signals that more than the climax of Mardi Gras, just before it all ends tomorrow, when Comus, the symbolic king of New Orleans's vestigial old family aristocracy, and Rex, the "king of the people," ceremonially come together at the end of their krewes' elaborate balls at New Orleans Municipal Auditorium.

Now, some would argue -- and they'll get little dispute from me -- that New Orleanians have been taking this "City That Care Forgot" thing a little too far in recent years, and that they might have paid a little less attention in recent years to the Mardi Gras schedule and a bit more to their political leadership and their levee engineers.

But the point is that carnival isn't just about having a good time. It's about reminding oneself that good times are a precious part of life -- not to be traded casually for an extra hour at the office or a fleeting illusion of power or significance, as they so often are in Washington.

Carnival is very much a cultural and psychological survival mechanism for almost all New Orleanians, black and white, rich and poor, and for the city as a whole. It's the great shared experience of perhaps America's most culturally diverse city -- a giant municipal block party in which each neighborhood, age and ethnic group acts out and shares with others its particular finger-at-fate coping mechanism. For some, that's an elaborate $1 million costumed tableau drawn from Roman or Greek mythology. For others it's a neighborhood bloody mary party at a front porch along the Rex parade route, with balloons and funny hats for the kids and the family dog dressed up in a tutu.

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