Tuesday, March 03, 2015

`The Carnival Would Soon Be Gone'

Circuses I dislike – the tedium of trapeze artists, too many brass instruments, the creepy gaiety of clowns, tawdry performers in dirty costumes waiting to enter the ring. As a boy with my grandfather (a Mason whose lodge, the Al Sirat Grotto, sponsored the circus in Cleveland) I was simultaneously bored and disgusted, a pairing of emotions that helped prepare me for a career in journalism. I remember sitting in the bleachers near the backstage entrance and watching a man in tights throw back his head and take a long pull from a bottle. Ever since, I’ve tried to avoid scenes of enforced fun. As Dr. Johnson observed: “Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment.” 

But I like county fairs and carnivals. Sherwood Anderson called the former a “pagan outbreak,” and I enjoy the livestock, crafts and cuisine. The freak shows of my youth (“Alive, livin’ and breathin’!”) have disappeared, replaced by tattooed crowds roaming the midway. Carnivals, sort of low-rent county fairs, fill church parking lots with rides and games. Unlike circuses, fairs and carnivals encourage mobility. Bored? Move along. How exciting and disreputable a traveling carnival must have seemed to small town Americans even a century ago. It would have been an annual, much-anticipated event in that pre-Youtube era. Clive James in “The Carnival” (Angels Over Elsinore, 2008) understands its arrival and departure as a life-metaphor: 

“The carnival, the carnival. You grieve,
Knowing the day must come when it will leave.
But that was why her silver slippers shone--
Because the carnival would soon be gone.” 

Dr. Johnson nails a comparable thought, familiar to all grownups, in The Rambler #71: “The pleasure of expecting enjoyment is often greater than that of obtaining it, and the completion of almost every wish is found a disappointment.”

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