“It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.” — John Updike
Everyone has heard of Carnival, but unless you’ve experienced it in Switzerland, you ain’t seen nothing! Carnival (or Fasnacht) is a wild celebration here, and a quintessential encounter with liminality.
Social theorists describe liminality as a transitory phase between the past and future — the mid-point in a rite of passage. So what has this to do with the Carnival in Luzern?
Carnivals began as seasonal religious rituals. They marked the transition between worldliness and holiness, a time when the community got together to let off steam before the fasting of Lent. They probably have roots in pagan rites demarcating the death of winter and the birth of spring.
Anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep identified three stages in a rite of passage: separation, transition, and reincorporation. These elements can be seen time and again in tribal rites marking the passage of boys into manhood:
- The preliminal separation phase begins with a symbolic ritual that interrupts the community’s everyday life. People are on notice: we are entering a period that has special significance, and something out of the ordinary is about to happen.
- Next comes the liminal transitional phase. Having broken with the continuity of their old lives, adolescent initiates are isolated from the rest of the community. They enter this stage leaving behind their boyhood status and exit after being inducted as adults. In the interim, they are symbolic outsiders suspended in limbo on the threshold of change. No longer boys, but not yet men, this is a restless and ambiguous time for initiates. Freed of their moorings, they have no role or status within society, nor are they bound by its norms. Often they must undergo painful or dangerous initiation rites to prove their worthiness of adult status.
- This transient, unsettling phase ends with a post-liminal celebration that acknowledges the adulthood of successful initiates and returns them to new roles within their community.
To know what I mean in modern-day terms, think of the stag and hen nights that mark the transition from single status to married life. Tradition dictates groom and bride be separated the night before the wedding. This provides an opportunity for friends of the groom or bride to ritually mourn their loss of unattached freedom and celebrate their entry into married life. Caught up for one night on the threshold of marriage, conventions of behavior are suspended whilst the stag or hen is “tested,” often through some act of humiliation, before being inducted into a new life through the marriage ceremony.
What is striking about liminality in a social context is the quality of abandonment. Imagine the potential for chaos when identities are shed, order is suspended, and conventions of behavior are blurred. Which brings me back to the Luzern Fasnacht (the night before fasting). Carnival in Luzern has deviated from its original, religious roots, but it retains the essence of all three of Van Gennep’s liminal elements. It opens with a big bang at 5 a.m. announcing to the townsfolk that order as they know it is suspended. Thereafter the city goes crazy for six full days in an outdoor party that turns life in this otherwise self-controlled and dignified city on its head. Revelry and boisterous behaviour are tolerated. Guggenmusik bands roam the alleyways and squares of the old town at all hours, beating out a cacophony with horns and drums. Identities dissolve behind fantastical, grotesque masks — disguises that provide anonymity, allowing participants to lose their individuality and inhibitions. During this period of misrule, the bizarre becomes normal.
But liminality is transitory and so is Carnival. It ends six days later with a huge parade, after which the city returns to its usual rhythm.
Luzern is a beautiful city at any time of year. But if you’ve never seen Fasnacht there, you should. It’s a great way to chase away the winter blues and experience the chaos of liminality.
Stephen Chamberlain is the author of the fantasy novel Graëlfire. He draws inspiration from the impact of landscape on myth, and the association of liminality with the supernatural and magic. Stephen lives in Switzerland.