Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (On-‘hree duh Too-‘loose Low-‘twhek–say it fast) mastered the grotesquery I so lovingly associate with Parisian nightlife at the turn of the century (the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth), an era taking center stage right now at the Frist Art Museum in their show, Paris 1900: City of Entertainment. Grotesque–curled and crinkled like gargoyle faces, sneering–not to shame the women involved, but to highlight the excesses of high society men, who could afford to lay out all night, imbibe spumante (while the poor artists imbibed absinthe, and sometimes the not-so-poor, like our dear Henri), and secure the services of singing and dancing courtesans. It really is like in the movie Moulin Rouge–maybe not as polished, or as over-the-top theatrically, as the perfected routines and filmed angles of the movie, but in spirit, a match. I imagine the can-can was quite a spectacle for the booze-buzzing minds of men with no fear of repercussions for lecherous behavior. It is not for me to judge those men, but it is for me to acknowledge that without them, there may not have been a “Belle Epoque,” at least not in the charmed, green-glowing, guiltily pleasurable fashion which art history has handed down to us. And I wouldn’t want a Paris 1900 without Toulouse-Lautrec in it, without the features he painted so fantastically distorted by excess.
I think of the approach of World War I, during which the youth of France would be decimated in a war for which no one was prepared–the first modern war, with long-range artillery and machine guns; trench warfare, with all its dismal living conditions: arms and legs of the dead protruding from the soft mud. I swear I’m not judging those wealthy, lecherous men, on display in so many of the paintings in Paris 1900. What else could well-off men be expected to do? Besides, the war was a good fourteen years away. No one saw it coming–not yet.
Paris 1900 would’ve been a good time to be alive, if you were a man of means in the City of Lights. Maybe, too, if your were a woman of means, though I suspect the same freedoms weren’t afforded you, regardless of social class. Imagine the wives of these men at home. It’s two a.m., the men are out, drifting through Montmartre, brain-blitzed on champagne, and their eyes have begun seeking unfamiliar entertainments. The wives at home are trying to sleep, trying to convince themselves their husbands are only out laughing with friends and have lost track of time, essentially remaining faithful. They suspect otherwise, but they’re not ready to accept it (and they might never be). And they wouldn’t dare threaten their own fragile position by making accusations of infidelity. They’d do it subtly, with guilt and moralistic innuendo. And the men may or may not take the bait, yielding to the hints of their wives, and the damnable situation proves to us, one-hundred-eighteen years later, that the women–even the rich ones–held staggeringly little influence over their well-heeled husbands. I may have this all wrong, but I look at the ghostly profile of a mustachioed man puffing a cigar in Beraud’s painting, and his top hat is more solid than his face, and he’s more-or-less a demon, or if not a demon, then an apparition of debauchery. An apparition in a long coat. And that’s when I feel I’m dead-on about the dynamic at home for these men and their beleaguered wives: lots of things left unsaid. Just as there are lots of things the paintings aren’t saying. But it’s not like we need them to.
I knew the carnival was there, but I couldn’t yet see it. Rounding a long curve at twenty miles-per-hour, around the northern perimeter of the CoolSprings Galleria, with the interstate running parallel on my left, I looked up at just the right moment, and through a break in the tall trees, I saw flashing, colored lights. The lights formed a number and a word: “1001 Nachts.” At first, a tiny spark of excitement rushed through me, provoked by the sight of a carnival ride–a vestige of childhood perhaps, one I wouldn’t have expected to feel as an adult. But there it was, the old excitement: even though I wasn’t going to ride anything or play any games, or even treat myself to some wayward, deep-fried confection, the little surge had come. Second, I wondered why the word nights was in German. The original collection of stories known as The Thousand and One Nights, as you probably know, was written in Arabic, so it had to be translated into something, right? But why not English, for an American audience? Here are two theories: either the ride originally operated in Germany, OR . . . somebody thought “1001 Nachts” sounded more exotic. My measly Google research yielded nothing, so I’ll go with the latter of those theories, a choice allowing me to good-naturedly mock the ride maker’s naming decision while still appreciating the imagination that went into creating this magic-carpet simulating ride.
It was 4:45 on a Wednesday afternoon, so I didn’t expect a bustling crowd, but what I found was no crowd at all. In fact, there were no visitors anywhere, except me. There were people milling about, but it soon became clear they were all employed by the amusement company–each one had on some color variant of the same digitally-embroidered polo shirt. Rides spun with no one on them; appeals to play games were directed solely at me. It was a bit surreal. Finally, someone informed me that the carnival didn’t officially open until five, though I was free to stroll through the premises and be harassed by game operators. I was only a few minutes early, but early nonetheless. It was opening night, and no one was there yet . . . but me.
Some of the game operators wore headsets, the purpose of which apparently was to let them speak to customers without yelling. I found this out after I’d only barely entered the loop, before I’d made eye contact with anybody. “You ready to shoot some hoops?” It took a couple seconds to find the source of the question. Then up ahead, some thirty or forty yards, standing in front of a basketball shooting game, a young man was smiling at me. It seemed ridiculous he’d solicit my money from that distance. But it didn’t seem to matter to these hi-tech carnival barkers whether I was near them or far away. Indeed, a few minutes later, a woman spoke to me via headset from a mere four feet, which was kind of weird, like talking on the phone to someone who’s in the same room. She demonstrated how to stand a bottle upright with a ring-on-a-string so I’d know the secret and all I’d have to do was give her a few dollars and then I’d have my pick of any of the stuffed animals hanging from the canopy’s ceiling. Something I found hilarious, though, was her response when I told her no: she said, “I understand.” Why this was so funny, I’m not sure. I guess because it was such a real-world answer to a situation that was inherently absurd. It surprised me she didn’t keep pressing. Maybe she too sensed how uncomfortable this one-on-one interchange with a headset was. I moved on, passing through the shadow of 1001 Nachts, which soared atop its flat post, sometimes lit, sometimes not.
The highlight of my solitary, earlybird, parking-lot carnival stroll would have to be the freak show tent. I never expect to see this in modern times, except for maybe at Coney Island, where a legitimate historical–albeit quirky and gloriously anachronistic–culture surrounds it (though to Coney Island’s credit, I’ve noticed the gentler term “sideshow” often used in place of “freak show” in their promotional literature). The phenomenon of the freak show evades the flailing and grasping tentacles of political correctness, somehow; the whole idea of profiting off labeling people as “freaks” seems like it would be an intolerable subversion in our society. But nevertheless, at the very back of the carnival, a red and yellow striped tent stretched wide across the pavement, its facade covered in various classic freak-show style posters, testifying to an uncharacteristic laxity in the aforementioned political correctness.
The posters on the tent might’ve been as much decorative as they were informative. I couldn’t tell from the posters what was actually inside the tent versus what may have been merely a set of freak show tropes, included on the facade for simple effect. There’s no way all the things advertised were really in there: Chupacabra, Bigfoot, a unicorn, Dolly the Two-faced Cow, and the Eight-Legged Freak–all under one roof?! Come on now! (Save something for the other freak shows.) But I do love the freak show aesthetic–part Victorian, part Vaudeville. It’s a look that stubbornly has never changed with the times. Maybe because, every generation, no one can believe it’s still here.
A dry-erase board near the tent’s entrance provided clarity: there was definitely a fire-eater and a sword-swallower inside (the same person, perhaps?). While I was taking pictures, a slump-shouldered and heavily pierced man in a tank top shuffled by and disappeared into the gloom of the tent. A minute or two later, I could see him sitting in there, on a metal folding chair. I wondered if he was the sword-swallower. He was watching me, which was more awkward than creepy. I had the sense he was no freak at all but a regular guy, just waiting for his shift to begin. In that minute, he was the subject of his own life, but when the show began, that’s when he’d transform from man to freak–from subject to object. Questions like “did he choose this life or did it choose him?” ran through my mind. And I guess I could ask that of any carnival worker. It’s no secret those jobs are few people’s idea of desirable. Yet we’ll always have those jobs, and we’ll always have the people who work them–thoughts which remind me of the importance of kindness. It’s easy to look down on people whose job it is to beg strangers to compete for prizes they don’t really want, prizes that probably aren’t worth the money spent trying to win them–stuffed animals that not even kids really care about. But behind that solicitous carnival worker is a person who probably wonders how they ended up there; a person who feels they have no other option; a person trying to stay sober; a person who’s lost everything; a person who never had anything; a person who’s alone; and yes, probably one or two who actually like what they’re doing–people who find freedom in the transience of it, in the camaraderie of it (I witnessed this in those few minutes before the place opened); people who enjoy helping others have fun, and certainly people who don’t get hung up on whether a sign reads “1001 Nights” or “1001 Nachts.” So in addition to me reminding myself to be kind, here’s another reminder I got from my fourteen-minute-long carnival-wandering experience: people are more than their jobs. I wish there was a Netflix documentary profiling carnival workers. I think it would be fascinating.
As I was returning to my car, other people had begun to arrive. A woman took a picture of her daughter posing with raised arms in front of the Ferris wheel. I can only imagine that photo ended up on social media, complete with witty hashtags and links to various family members’ accounts. 50 Cent’s “In da Club” was playing somewhere; it seemed to be coming from the basketball shooting game. A worker near the front was mouthing every word. I drove out the way I’d come in, and just before the carnival disappeared behind the trees, I looked in my rearview mirror, and you can probably guess what I saw, hovering high above where the carnival used to be: 1001 Nachts.
**For a truly, um, “unique” story involving the ride in the first paragraph, 1001 Nachts, click here.
Pretending a thing’s great, because we’ve already decided it’s great (or the media or an authority figure has convinced us it’s great), is an affliction suffered by many (particularly in the insecure American middle class). For example, people sometimes praise a film because respected and intellectual movie critics give it a high rating; when those same people watch the film, they find in it virtues that may not really be there, simply to avoid feeling like they don’t “get it.”
This tendency creates some awkward public situations. Imagine a famous singer waiting to sing the national anthem before a game. She stands center-court or midfield, depending on the sport, knowing whichever team loses will see its season end this very night–that’s how important the game is. The singer’s voice is the source of her fame. When she performs, people expect flourishes, tonal modulations, effortless vibrato–a general mastery overall. The lights are brighter than those of the venues to which she’s accustomed, and it’s odd to be alone in the center, with no backstage to retreat to, and all that anxious energy stewing in a ring around her. Nevertheless, she’s a professional. Clutching the microphone with both hands, the tip comes to rest lightly on the indentation between her chin and lower lip, and she begins.
Except on this occasion, she starts the song a couple steps high, effectively placing the word “free”–the big climax, seventh word from the end–just out of range. No one knows this but her, and she struggles to keep a quaver from her voice. This game is televised–the effects of a screw-up are infinite. The audience assumes she can sing anything, and in any range. As long as she’s playing to her strengths, which would normally be the case, she can prevent them ever knowing she has limits. But tonight, apparently, a limit was going to reveal itself. The word approaches. She feels she has no choice but to go for it. So with all her respiratory might, she belts it out long and loud, and it’s a half-step flat, and there’s an obvious strain in her voice. Anyone not tone-deaf would notice. She is mortified, but manages to finish the song.
The audience goes wild with deafening cheers and applause. A generous observer might credit their enthusiasm to their esteem for the American flag, and for a handful, this may be true. Still, others might simply be getting a head start cheering for whichever team they support. But the majority of the crowd is clearly blinded by celebrity–by what they expected to hear, as opposed to what they did hear. They react out of the foregone conclusion that Singer X is great, that she is a famous singer because she’s a phenomenal singer; that money follows quality. You can be certain, though, there’s another, more quiet contingent who feels extremely awkward right now, because they’re honest with themselves about what they just witnessed: a famous singer blowing it on a really big stage. And it somehow makes it worse that people are pretending it didn’t happen. In fact, they’re going beyond pretending it didn’t happen: they’re acting as if it was wonderful.