Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

This site is listed in BlogCatalog and
Literature Blogs
Literature blog

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Notes on Recent Reading 8 [Bakhtin, Lewis, Brown]

Rabelais and his World [Bakhtin]

Bakhtin’s book has made a significant contribution to the understanding of Rabelais (as well as explaining his centuries-long misinterpretation), but, even more importantly, it establishes a new category of humor that shapes the reader’s understanding of comedy itself. That the author did his important work under Stalin’s regime is the more remarkable
Bakhtin’s revealing information on topics such as folk observances, vituperative speech, Cyprian’s Dinner, and the Easter laugh would alone make the book worth reading. The application of these data to Rabelais was ground-breaking; such analyses as the discussion of the wedding customs of the Bum-bailiffs in Book Four (to take an example almost at random) are persuasive, magnifying rather than diminishing the strength of the texts.

But the greatest achievement of Bakhtin’s book is to define a unique form of comedy, one associated with the Carnival holiday, a universalizing humor embracing all of humankind, the wise and comely as well as the ridiculous, a sort of grand upwelling of spirit in which the dualities of pain and pleasure, life and death dissolve in laughter. Rabelais and his World is a rare book of criticism. A work of art in itself, it illuminates a text but teaches the reader as well about literature in general and even, perhaps, a bit about life.

It Can’t Happen Here [Lewis]

I do recall the pleasure of a suburban sixth-grader looking for allies in his opposition to the “booboisie” (to use Mencken’s term). The satiric shots in Main Street may have had targets already a generation gone, but every one of them was pointed in the correct direction. I fancy, though, that even then I suspected Lewis of being a bit flat, his points repetitive, his analysis shallow and too easy.

In fact It Can’t Happen Here is best read as a potboiler, a genre on which Lewis had cut his teeth. As a boy’s adventure story it is almost readable, while artistically and on the political thematic level, it is a labored exercise. The view from Sauk Centre made the small fish, the petty bourgeoisie, look like the ruling class. Poor taste can seem a greater issue than greed, a small-town Babbitt a more despicable enemy than a robber baron. But Lewis never goes in to what really motivates even the follower in fascism: the aggression, economic insecurity, and scapegoating that can combine to make a rank-and-file Nazi or Tea Partier. His stormtroopers are vulgar rubes who dress in drag and blackface for “good, old-time Elks Club humor.” Jessup, the Vermonter who might as well have been Midwestern, thinks that those who “mind their own business” very likely rank higher in heaven than such “plumed souls” as the abolitionists.

Lewis had interrupted his education at Yale to spend time in Upton Sinclair’s short-lived experimental community, the Helicon Home Colony, but it may be that neither Yale nor the communards transformed him altogether. I am pleased to report that he does declare for some sort of Cooperative Commonwealth at last which places his social thought still in advance of the early twenty-first century.

Wieland [Brown]

A decent read yet today, Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland resembles its British predecessors of earlier decades as an epistolary seduction novel while emphatically Gothic, like books in the more recent fashion.

In the new American land, the author poises himself delicately between many of his oppositions. The Lockean reliance on perceptions is here traduced by false sense impressions while the pious man falls prey to monstrous delusion. The characters are only recent Americans with ties yet to Europe, and the action occurs in a kind of historic breather between the French and Indian and the Revolutionary Wars. The sensational Gothic side-show attractions of spontaneous combustion and “biloquism” are neither fully accounted for as in the Radcliffe’s “explained supernatural” nor are they as mysterious as in Walpole. The potential Eden of the American forest turns hellish. Its residents sidestep Europe’s centuries-long accretions of injustice only to enact a more monstrous scenario.

The reader may wonder, though, whether Brown is in fact subtly playing both ends of these dualities or if he is simply careless. Carwin is never really motivated and Louisa is quite forgotten by her author (until the very end). The description is Romantic to a fault, but, especially when representing emotional states, it is repetitive and over-amplified.
The book is particularly susceptible to self-reflective readings in which Carwin’s voices are a figure for the author’s speaking in the first person narration. The plot depends on misunderstanding and missed communications as well as on things unknowable to the characters. In fact it is sufficiently underdetermined that the reader at the end is likely to feel unsatisfied.

A Very Funny Fellow [Donald Lev]

Donald Lev’s new book A Very Funny Fellow (NYQ Books) derives its title from a friend whom Lev quotes as telling him forty years ago, “You’re a very funny fellow, but you are no poet.” The first part of this proposition at any rate is proved abundantly in this new collection. Lev’s humor will appeal to readers who have a taste for mordant existential joshing in the vein of Stephen Crane’s Black Riders (and, in fact, Crane’s Sullivan County haunts are not far distant from the contemporary poet’s Ulster digs). Even the Muse and the God of Israel “dissolve in laughter” when the poet apologetically addresses them in “Sacrifice.” In “Chalk” Stalin is the guy who couldn’t get a joke.

Apart from the funny business Lev is a poet of thought and theme, though he would doubtless pooh-pooh such a notion. With an unassuming lightness reminiscent of Piet Hein’s Grooks, Lev spins out little dialectical webs that define an ironic persona, self-reflective to a fault, confused and weak in the tangle of every day’s human predicament, yet whose neuroses rest on a broader foundation of affirmation and for whom poetry provides the redemptive charms necessary to get through the day.
That takes a bit of doing for Lev whose waking is “full of the usual apprehension, afflicted with “the pain of being” (“The Acceptance”). The writers in “Our National Literature” are “digging deeply into themselves . . . to hold the pain precisely.” The title of “Let Me Out” declares his mantra unreservedly and urgently.

In “Homage to the Playwright” the persona is looking for the click in the imagination that can resolve suffering at least contingently – with alcohol for Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or, alternatively, with art, poetry, and movies. Making life livable is the business of the imagination, as one sees with the poet’s outburst in a crowded theater in “Fire,” or when he retreats from “The Smaller Television” in the bar to the one yet smaller in the “lair” of his mind. He envisions his “Career” as a movie. Poetry is, after all, necessary as matzohball soup according to “Say What Is Real, Marsyas.”
A portion of the pain can be traced to missed communication. Even as post-structural critics question the efficiency of language, Lev highlights missed signs, error through blind ignorance, the unknowability of the spectacle before our eyes. The author finds himself at a loss as he has discarded the instructions “in a sudden fit of despair” (“Technology”). His audience is theoretical, unreachable in “So Many Who Might Understand.” His literary ancestor Kafka had his own frustrations, but in “The Question” our twenty-first century author can only lag belatedly behind, calling out the master of insecurity in vain. His very metaphors in “Breakfast with Prufrock” and “Poem on a Nice Sunny Afternoon” pause, admit their own confusion, and give up before completion.

More immediate human love sometimes proves elusive as well. While affirming “Family is Everything,” he confesses his aloneness and is left with bleak television instead. References to his parents are uncomfortable, often rueful. But his devotion to the late poet Enid Dame is moving and profound. As “Lines in Winter for Enid” puts it, “Something’s vanished/ Nothing has taken its place.” Tenderness emerges, too, in his poems for Charlie Barton and Ira Cohen, though in “When I Seek an Image” he provides an ironic corrective, saying “The past never was./ All that ever was for me is here./ sitting in my chair, seeking images.”

He can ridicule easy access to New Age truth (shamanistic tripping in “The Serpent,” nature worship in “I Blame This One …”) and maintains “I have a headache where my third eye should be (from “The Space Thing”). Earlier intellectual fashions fare no better. Meeting Ingmar Bergman after a seder, they play chess, with Lev objecting his amateurism, “till daylight erased us.”
In spite of himself, Lev’s vision casts fiery sparks. His alienation earned through suffering justifies his use of the title “East of Eden.” His spiritual yearning is explicit in “One Slip,” and “God is a Red Peanut” is more, after all, than a punch line in a title. The voice is not wholly un-Job-like that in “In this Dream” conflates his almighty computer with the God of Israel and worries, “Am I lost?” Whether he likes it or not, the “Spirit of Righteousness” animates him in “Witness.”

Lev’s natural physical neurotic uneasiness is balanced with a truly redemptive affirmation, a conviction that “whatever is, is right.” What might have been a lost sheep in the Bible is a wandering dog here (“Dog Story”). Let not your heart be troubled, the tale ends well. In “Special Edition” he marvels at the wondrous particularity of everything and cannot resist saying, at the possible risk of sounding silly, “I am grateful to be part of it.” He quotes Buber “the world is incomprehensible, but/ embraceable” (“To Embrace It”) and gives us a “Meditation” very nearly straight: “See there the umbilical knotting? The universe?” Just when the reader thinks he may have dropped down a few levels of irony the Buddha stops by to fix his plumbing (“The Buddha”).

In “Total Eclipse” in a few colloquial lines, tossed off with the casual expertise of a master, Lev deploys his attention to the low-mimetic (someone’s “getting soused on pitchers of beer/ and setting his beard on fire”), the cosmic (lunar eclipse), and the tragic/mythic – it is his friend’s thirty-third birthday, his “crucifixion year.”

May Donald Lev continue recording his dodgy encounters with everyday life and with Ultimate Reality, what he calls his “fleeting thoughts” (“One Slip”) for our amusement and instruction. Horace would have patted him on the head (receiving doubtless a quizzical grimace in return). As a writer and as an editor (his Home Planet News remains one of the most consistently provocative and classy little journals in America) Lev is a long distance runner. He apologizes for being unable to write as his “Titanic” sinks, and chaos surrounds him, yet here – fortunately -- are the words before us on the page.

Longinus’ Sublime

(I here avoid Greek, using instead T. S. Dorsch's translation, readily available in the Penguin Classical Literary Criticism.)

I have yet to hear a convincing case for assigning literary value. To argue that one poem is “better” than another – or “more beautiful” or “greater” – one must adopt an empirical approach: some texts have in the past produced richer, stronger, more sublime reactions in more readers. It is likely that new readers will find the same rewards, though in every age they will, of course, discard some classics and adopt new ones.

Apart from distinctions among individual works, of course, art’s value has been questioned since Greek antiquity. To Plato the transports of art are highly suspect. Either as author or reader, he considered seizure by poetry as risky as seizure by love or by any of the gods. His idea of imitation dooms art from the start to a position subsidiary both to ordinary perceived reality and to the loftier philosophic forms. Aristotle’s celebrated assertion of the superiority of poetry to history reduces the poet’s achievement to the ability to penetrate to broader generalizations than most observers, a sort of generalized “science” or predicting. Aristotle treats poetry as simply one of the artifact-generating activities of humankind, subject to analysis and description like species of fish. Most other ancient writers on the topic specialize in composing effective oratory.

And then this mysterious essay On the Sublime drifts into view. Its author never questions art’s positive value. His date, indeed one might almost say his era, is in doubt. His name is a mere convenience. Though a tenth century manuscript is headed with the names Longinus and Dionysius, the essay seems to belong to neither of the known figures with those names. There are no references to the work by any other author of antiquity. Its singular character is suggested by the fact that Longinus cites an ode by Sappho and the opening of Genesis with equal admiration.

Longinus’ essay, far more than most criticism of any age, focuses on the reader’s reaction more than on “truth,” expressive content or formal beauty. Though it is undoubtedly true that people learn from the poetry and plays they consume and all respond to intentional patterns, the primary motive of literary consumers is surely pleasure. Santayana’s celebrated axiom “Beauty is pleasure objectified – pleasure regarded as the quality of an object” restores pleasure to the foreground (while attempting to resist its subjectivity by the repetition of the word “object”).

Admittedly, Longinus’ pleasure principle is concealed behind the word “sublime,” an old-fashioned term about which we hear little these days. As the very use of the word indicates a value judgment, to approve the sublime would seem tautological, but Longinus uses the concept to put the spotlight on his subjective impressions. To him the sublime is what “entrances,” what the reader or listener finds “irresistible.” [Ch. 1] Sublimity seems in the end to mean simply excellence or distinction of a certain high-flown sort.

Sublimity is generated by the use of rhetorical figures (which are, after all, one of the primary markers of the literary text). According to Longinus, “rhetorical figures reinforce the sublime.” [Ch. 17] Too much, however is a bad thing. Though an “accumulation of figures” can have a moving effect, [Ch. 20] an excess is as pathological as a swelling in the body. [Ch. 3] Longinus understands that literary success and failure both stem from deviation from ordinary language – only taste can discern the right use of rhetoric. [Ch. 5]

Accustomed for several hundred years to the aesthetics of the sordid and the mean we might be puzzled by Longinus’ exclusive preference for the “noble,” “uplifting,” grand style is based an assumption unlikely to find many advocates today: “Sublimity is the echo of a noble mind.” [Ch. 9] Modern readers would not be inclined to make “character” an issue for authors as is has become for politicians. Since the Romantic glorification of the outsider and the anti-hero, conventional morality is required neither of protagonists nor of their creators. For Longinus rhetoric has decayed with the loss of democracy: “no slave ever becomes an orator.” [Ch. 44] He conflates aesthetic and moral/spiritual categories, thinking high-mindedness most attractive and literature a sort of pleasurable training program for self-improvement. For him literary acumen is not a specialized branch of knowledge but the measure of the whole man. “The ability to judge literature is the crowning achievement of long experience.” [Ch. 6]

Like Plato’s use of the dialogue form, Longinus’ epistolary pretense suggests a living human nexus and the pleasure and affection people experience in the exchange of ideas. At the outset he proposes setting forth his views to Terentianus at his friend’s prompting so they might together pursue truth.

Longinus’ praise of the author of Genesis provides thematic reinforcement of this sense of dignity. Whether or not he is a Hellenized Jew, he is impressed with the philosophical sophistication of the concept of the divine expressed in the creation by fiat. He contrasts it to Homeric passages in which the gods play a less dignified role. He says nothing about the Hebrew author’s stately monumental hieratic rhetoric describing the “unfolding” of reality in the establishment of binary oppositions: light/dark, heaven/earth, sea/land, and the rest. Surely not every statement of an absolute divine would win his praise, and indeed he finds excuses for the dubious Homeric material which, he says, must be “taken as allegory.” His subjectivity is in the lead.

Likewise a few pages later when he praises Sappho’s poem “Equal to the gods he seems to me . . .” he uses entirely impressionistic language, both positively (“Are you not astonished”) and negatively (“it is obvious to anyone” “he has made it trivial and elegant instead of terrifying”). [Ch. 10]

The fact is that each of us similarly makes intuitive value judgments about art. The ingenious can then invent rationalizations for them, some of which might prove useful in looking at other works. One’s unanalytical first reactions, though, like one’s sense impressions in daily life, provide the data with which everyone works. My strongest impression of the great critics, like Longinus, William Hazlitt, and Northrup Frye, are less their theoretical assumptions than the dependable accuracy of their value judgments. Longinus may annoy the modern reader with his lengthy discussions of figures of speech and thought bearing lengthy Greek names, most familiar only to a few specialists today, but he knows what is good. Further, the fact is that rhetoric, really the study of how aesthetic language differs from other discourses, long formed the base of literary theory and remains largely neglected today. ( I, for one, would welcome its revival, and one could do worse than to begin with Longinus on metaphor. [Ch. 32]) Another stylist, Edward Gibbon, justly said of Longinus, “He tells me his own feelings upon reading it, and tells them with such energy that he communicates them.”

Dame Fortuna in Portugal

One of the gifts of travel is the perspective one gains from backing away from the automatized data of daily experience. Apart from the sharpening of individual perceptions, one also stands back from detail and glimpses some grander generalizations. There is always the potential for a trip to become a pilgrimage, for a sublime thought or two to drift effortless into consciousness. Many ordinary travelers are moved to ruminations on history, psychology, philosophy, and the spiritual while on the road that would have been unlikely at home.

So I found myself at the end of a more-than-ordinarily eventful day on the road thinking of that watered-down version of Ἀνάγκη we call luck. Chaucer and the authors of the Carmina Burana, when in a moralizing mood, loved depicting Dame Fortuna, mainly in a cautionary way, warning against complacency. [1] She was sometimes represented with a blindfold to indicate her capriciousness (though in modern times Justice is similarly figured to indicate the opposite). Like the momento mori she was employed to keep a damper on the temporary illusion that one has got the better of the world. Many of us in the twenty-first century have better odds against sudden trauma or illness, but we remain as subject to suffering and death as any of our ancestors.

The traveler enhances his vulnerability by the willful abandonment of some portion of that security. During the Middle Ages this meant accepting real risks – it was for good reason that merchants and pilgrims traveled in groups. Today we are safer in an airplane than in our cars. Even in remote regions, there is little chance of armed attackers. Vaccinations keep even many microbes at bay. Yet on the road the future is always more tinged with doubt, and the eyes of the visitor in a foreign place are wide open not merely to see strange sights but also to watch for pickpockets or for the proper stop in an unfamiliar bus system.

The hitchhiker, a sight almost defunct today but familiar to me and thousands of others in the past, is perhaps the purest form of this recreational casting oneself like a die at hazard. Standing by the side of the road, one cannot ignore one’s suspension in the moment. An easy transit to journey’s end may materialize at any moment or one may be stranded for hours in an inhospitable downpour. The host driver may be charming and amiable. He may buy his guest lunch and go off his route out of great-heartedness. Or he may glug whiskey from a nearly empty pint and accelerate to a hundred and twenty while muttering racist epithets. His rider knows he is in the hands of Lady Fortuna.

To a lesser extent the same thrill of uncertainty applies to all travel apart from the guided tour and the all-inclusive resort. I thought Patricia and I were going in class when we picked up a little Citroen from a rental agent in Lisbon. Having decided to take the smaller roads to avoid the monotony and tolls of the limited access autoroutes, we had prudently printed great sheaves of pages from Michelin’s website which seemed to give only too much detail about every kilometer of the trip. Who is more the master of his fate than the driver of a private car?

We set out for Nazaré in mid-morning, plenty of time to arrive there for a lunch of fresh seafood. We negotiated the initial turns fairly smoothly, though the Michelin programming seemed to be ignorant of certain one-way streets and no-left-turn signs, but before long we found ourselves in a wasteland of endless suburbs full of immense apartment developments and industrial zones. Every hundred yards a roundabout appeared, generally bearing no route numbers, but rather the name of the town to come, not infrequently a place of such little consequence as to be absent on our map (also a Michelin product). We must have paused a dozen times to puzzle over our map (when fully unfolded it approached the size of a queen-size bed) and our printed directions, generally finding no enlightenment and then importuning the locals to find our way. I was surprised to find so many Portuguese who knew no English, and more surprised to find that a passable acquaintance with Spanish and a five hour Pimsleur course allowed me to understand just enough to get back behind the wheel and start out again. After the seventh or eighth friendly informant had suggested that we would be better off heading onto the superhighway, we finally did.

In Nazaré we found Carnival and a most satisfying caldeirada. Looking out of our room which overlooked the beach and the stage for the festivities, we felt like grandees. But the day came on which we were to depart. There were no gathering clouds in the sky to set the mood, and we headed back to the big highway, blithe and breezy. After a short time, however, the electric system warning light on the dash illuminated. I would have to stop, but I had noticed that the rest areas seemed to include mechanics as indicated by an unmistakable wrench icon. Then another warning light appeared, this one unintelligible, its icon resembling a print by Arp. Finally I saw, in the increasingly troubled realm around the speedometer, a bright and insistent flashing red message STOP NOW, STOP NOW, STOP NOW.

In the event the rest area turned out to have no mechanic. Perhaps the coin-operated telephone was unusually expensive; perhaps I hadn’t used one in so long that the ordinary rate had risen without my noticing. When I eventually managed to reach an English-speaking agent in the car rental office, she seemed perplexed and asked me to call again after she had had an opportunity to consult with others. I was ultimately told to sit tight, that the Lisbon office was sending both a tow truck and a taxicab a hundred miles to retrieve me and the suffering Citroen, that we were then to return to the airport in Lisbon where we would receive a different car. Waiting for our angels of mercy was not the only painfully long delay – we sat with our cab driver in a loading zone in the arrivals area for over an hour (meter running) before the genial Paolo from whom we had first dealt suddenly appeared with apologies and explanations. And then we were on our way again, covering the same ground we had been over twice before, six hours lost, adrenaline wasted in fruitless anxiety, but heading down the road.
Arriving finally in Coimbra too late for lunch we checked into the funky old Hotel Avenida and began roaming the city.

Portuguese restaurants generally serve no dinner until after 7:30 or so, and, shortly before that hour, we set out looking for a likely place. While strolling the narrow lanes of the Azeitarias in the town’s Baixa district, we heard a guitarist playing with saudade mixed with a propulsive energy and singing with soulful passion. We paused outside the tiny hole-in-the-wall with no name, just decal letters labeling it a “casa de pasto,” not so different from the old signs in the USA that said “Eat,” though I believe that last word is linked etymologically to pasture. We could see that the musician was simply a customer. We entered, stood at the bar, and asked for glasses of red wine (€.20 each, maybe 26¢).

The proprietor, with unruly hair and teeth askew, leaned across the bar and whispered that the man was singing “revolutionary songs, all political songs.” We declared our sympathies as socialist trade unionists and the man to our left immediately paid for our wine. Though few of the party spoke much English, we learned that they had gathered specifically to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of José (Zeca) Afonso, the great progressive singer who began doing Coimbra-style fado, but became spokesperson against Salazar’s fascist regime and the colonial wars Portugal was waging in Africa. His “Canta Camarada” became a Communist anthem and his banned song “Grândola, Vila Morena” was broadcast to signal the beginning of the so-called Carnation Revolution in 1974.

The men, for the most part my age or a bit younger, were singing along with these tunes of their own youth, thinking back doubtless to a time when it appeared that left forces were approaching a decisive triumph. The country did shed its authoritarians and its colonies (the wars had been consuming forty percent of the country’s gross national product), but the more radical plans of land reform and redistribution of income were never realized. The party in the café had got on to Spanish Civil War songs and Cuban composer Carlos Puebla’s “Hasta Siempre” celebrating Che Guevara. Patricia stood up and the guitarist picked out the melody as she sang a rousing version of “Solidarity Forever.” We stayed for three hours.

To me, in this obscure spot in Europe, in a small group of otherwise ordinary aging men, we had encountered a saving remnant who made real the promise of the “Internationale,” the possibility of love/caritas/karuna, the apocalyptic upheaval (“We have been naught, we shall be all!”), and the vision of universal brother/sisterhood when “the international working class shall be the human race.”

Without opening oneself to the fortunes of the road we would have experienced neither the desolation of an anonymous superhighway roadside (that could have been anywhere in the developed world) nor the warmth and comradeship of our friends in the Casa de Pastos, celebrating a very local hero. Though I may have had difficulty in suppressing anxiety and frustration in the early afternoon, it is surely nothing but the angry face of the elation I welcomed later.

1. The lady is often shown with her wheel of fortune. The Svetasvatara Upanishad depicts the universe as a wheel: birth, death, rebirth.

Carnival [Portugal]

The promise of Carnival is immense. Denying the power of time and claiming a moment of life victorious, it occurs at the chronological boundary between winter and spring. Like Saturnalia or the ancient komos, the customs associated with the time just before Lent tend to return humanity (albeit temporarily and in imagination) to a utopian golden age without distinctions. There are no performers and spectators -- the entire world is carnivalesque and the spectacle, rather than a work of art, is reality itself. The emphasis on the body is democratizing, universal. The laughter is upwelling, non-specific, laughter at the cosmos. For this reason, as Bakhtin demonstrated in Rabelais and his World, it is beyond good and evil, containing aggression as well as love, death as part of life, comic suffering, and foolish joy. The impulse of carnival arises surely in the most archaic yea-saying practices of springtime ritual, celebrating nature’s Phoenix-like rebirth from its own corpse. Carnival provides an annual excuse to imagine social equality in an inclusive community in which an abundance of all good things – notably represented by food and drink – is available to all and the censorious mandates of everyday life may be treated lightly or flouted altogether. We had heard that Carnival in Nazaré, on Portugal’s Atlantic coast, was a grass-roots affair. The locals eschew the popular Brazilian tunes, composing songs every year anew about the town’s own scenes and issues. If it promised little of the all-out sensual assault one hears of in Trinidad or Rio, or the marvelous music and glitz of New Orleans, lesser in scale than even nearby Torres Vedras (where we meant to go until we found we couldn’t book a room), Nazaré offered instead a most participatory festival in which we thought perhaps even a visitor might feel the publicly-shared humanity at the heart of Carnival, reflecting the universality of our species’ nature, our passions and concerns. The stage for Tuesday’s parade was on the edge of the beach just beneath our balcony at the Hotel Mar Bravo. It featured the legend “Carnaval 2012 ca crise é pu pescoce” which I am told could be translated “the [economic] crisis is strangling us,” but one could never have guessed the message from the flipped-out jolly clown depicted next to the words. The music had blasted for hours, becoming almost hypnotic and the streets were crowded by the time the parade began, and floats began to pass by in the most glorious variety. The king and queen rode to their thrones in a cannibal’s pot. Was the giant face of a disturbed-looking European looking forward whose other half, looking back, was a gleeful Chinese, complete with queue, a political comment? A couple of ladies in traditional dress carrying racks of drying mackerel such as one sees daily on the beach led a troupe of women in the costume version of the same outfit dancing with mock racks of drying fish. There were not one, but two representations of surfers off the nearby point on which the Virgin Mary had performed a miracle. A group of men in tutus delighted the viewers no less than the dance school teens who followed them. Some floats were drawn by cars, some by tractors, not a few were simply pushed along. There were a number of more casual participants. A family had entered the parade playing what they please on flute, trumpet, and drum. They marched along, pausing now and then to chat with friends. Another family had cobbled together a modest sort of hand-drawn float using a toy wagon, a bit of papier-mâché and crepe. Was the car with hand-written signs declaring “love is not a crime” the local gay liberation? Viewers on the sidelines stepped into the street for a block or so to blow a toy horn in exuberance, then they head to the sidelines to buy a bag of fava-type beans and a beer. Even the elders were jiving, many people danced, raising their arms like Pentecostals in an upwelling of spirits as spontaneous as the mood of the dogs playing along the shore. When the parade had passed by twice after circling back, performances began on the stage. The king and queen were ceremonially seated to gaze with approval as kids danced, the men in tutus danced, anyone who wanted to come on stage to dance or sing or simply take a turn passing under the raised shepherds’ crooks of some celebrants who seemed to be impersonating Biblical figures. As dark approached, a drama I suspect of very ancient roots was enacted. A frame representing a metal detector was brought on stage and a judge seated with court officers in attendance. A new procession approached, carrying a dummy who was the defendant, but his wife was quite human and pled his case warmly. A burlesque priest appeared to offer aid. Eventually, as sun set, the dummy was convicted, carried out toward the ocean, and burned on the sand. I believe a fish was buried with him. Earlier that afternoon, we had lunched at outdoor café seats in a tiny square just off the beach. We ordered a seafood caldeirada, a fish stew akin to bouillabaisse. When a huge and brimming pot emerged from the kitchen, I reminded the waiter that we had asked only for a single order, planning to share. Told that this massive heap of clams, cockles, ray, and shrimp with a few vegetables and potatoes was indeed a single serving, we set to. In moments we were enjoying a memorable meal with a clay pitcher of the house wine. We fell into conversation with our amiable neighbors, a clown and a man in kilts, with occasional comments by two youths in pink fright wigs occupying the next table. The meal could not have been more satisfying. The full belly is perhaps the most eloquent and succinct expression of Carnival.