Gringo does the East Village

Gringo does the East Village

Here's a real Halloween scare, it's a book called "Carnival in Romans" by the French historian Emmanuel Leroy Ladurie. Ladurie describes a festival held in Southern France in 1580, in the midst of which the town’s upper classes (imaginatively disguised, of course), murdered the leadership of the town's craftsmen.

It's a check to our belief that Halloween parties and disguises are a return to some kind of spontaneous, eternal and classless behavior. Whatever Halloween might once have been, it has the potential now as then to turn into a vision of the world upside-down, the rising of the downtrodden - or the reverse, the crushing of the oppressed. By all
indications it's heading in the latter direction.

Perhaps it's been heading there for a while. Since the 'sixties in America, wearing costume has become a public declaration of one's own right to class identity, any class identity, whether it's the tenured professor in jeans or the kids in Mohawks, or the Village Halloween Parade. Since 1965, when Mikhail Bakhtin came out with the idea of the "carnivalesque," it's been taken for granted that carnivals and Halloween and such are forms of resistance to the World of Order.

Bakhtin led a sheltered life. The history of disguise is nothing like that. Going back to Roman Saturnalia, such festivals were tolerated, and understood to be tolerated by the upper class: disguise was a privilege granted, and often bloodily withdrawn. And if the lower classes had the privilege to dress up as their betters once a year, the
upper classes, too, had the privilege to dress down every day, and the power to enforce it. Carnival in Venice, then and now, was a time when you couldn't tell one rich man from another, but you could always tell how much the costume cost. As in America today, fashion was the marker of pure class, irrespective of age, or gender, or ethnicity.

The Jacobin Constitution of 1793 was the first and last to guarantee fashion as a right, not a privilege. And perhaps at times the privilege to dress has been subverted by the lower classes, as in the "Cutty Wren," when Irish peasants, suitably disguised, went off to burn down landlords' houses, or the Molly Maguires, who supposedly dressed as
women. Not now. Not tonight. Tonight the Halloween parade in Lower Manhattan will be like any other weekend, with hordes of the privileged descending on the neighborhood dressed up as hipsters, or radicals, or the downtrodden. In Edo Japan or Baroque Europe a gentleman was somebody all dressed up, or down, down to the sword and ready to use it, and ready to show he was ready to use it. In twenty-first century America a gentleman is someone who runs through the street in a baseball cap, tossing beer-bottles through windows.

This is Halloween as Potlatch, a ceremony of conspicuous destruction: as in the seventeenth century, fun isn't fun for the ruling class unless there's someone to be hurt and humiliated by it, someone to "put in their place," and that someone becomes lower class by the very fact of being vulnerable to hurt and humiliation. That's obvious any night in
Lower Manhattan; on the Upper East Side it's slightly subtler. Here there are few Halloween decorations, but where there are they're overwhelming. The new rich cover the facades of their mansions with expensive junk: spiders and ghouls and such. On a genteel side-street off Fifth Avenue, there's a series of fake tombstones in the front
yard: "Au Revoir, Olga, Jeremy's Favorite Nanny…." "Rest Easy, Ann, Jeremy's 3rd Nanny," etc. Even by Reagan-Bush standards it's enough to make your skin crawl.