Calaveras; Literary Humour In Mexico’s Day Of The Dead

Peter Narvaez

Peter Narvaez

In ‘The Act of Creation,’ Arthur Koestler states that humour “must contain one ingredient whose presence is indispensable: an impulse, however faint, of aggression or apprehension.” This assertion, controversial in its time, provides a condensed reformulation of insights presented earlier by Sigmund Freud, Eugene Victor Wolfenstein, and other psychoanalytic thinkers.

Subsequent analyses of humour have confirmed the veracity of Arthur Koestler’s formulation. There can be no doubt that humour derives at least some of its impact from its aggressive character. Teasing, for example, provides an outlet for personal criticism. As a genre, teasing is a form of “permitted disrespect,” an ingredient essential to what anthropologists and folklorists know as the joking relationship.

Almost half a century ago, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown defined this relationship as “a relation between two persons in which one is by custom permitted, and in some instances required, to tease or make fun of the other, who in turn is required to take no offence” has shown that the person who teases walks a delicate tightrope. To remain on good terms with the victim, the speaker must know well his or her target. This means assessing which personality traits are safe subjects for ridicule and which are not. It also means understanding the conditions and context under which ridicule can take place, without creating offence. Similarly, ethnic humour, sexual humour, and political humour all have prominent deprecatory themes. All kinds of witticism — that is, verbal narratives with a humorous punchline — invariably include aggressive content. They may be either self-effacing or, alternatively, function to comment negatively on some despised outside group. In either case, the narrator must select theme and audience carefully, in order for the joke to be perceived as humorous and listeners’ feelings to remain unscathed.

Rituals, religious or secular, are among the most prominent occasions for the release of aggression through humour. The ritual itself provides a safe frame by dictating the specific form of humorous expression and occasions on which it can emerge. Aggressors and victims are stipulated in advance so that everyone — actors and audience alike — knows more or less what will transpire and when. To be sure, effective humour always contains an element of surprise. Teasing or joke telling falls flat without it. Clown figures, among the most common bearers of humour in religious ritual, need to innovate and improvise in order to produce laughter. Gestures, actions, and words are only funny if they are perceived to be spontaneous. And yet, in the context of ritual, spontaneity is always contained by predetermined rules as to form, content, and timing. These rules provide safe boundaries, which assure that aggressive sentiments will be contained and not seriously threaten the social and political order. Occasionally, however, as with Carnival, the action breaks through invisible barriers and produces rebellion, or, at the very least, enhanced awareness of prevailing injustices.

Mortuary rituals, on the face of it, would seem inappropriate occasions for the expression of humour. However, anthropologists and folklorists have long been aware of what we might call “counter-intuitive instances,” in which jocular inversions are intrinsic to the proceedings. Anita Jacobson-Widding reminds us, for example, that throughout sub-Saharan Africa a “funeral is a complete inversion of prescribed and normal social behaviour. The hierarchical order, controlled behaviour, and the prudish etiquette of normal social life are transformed at funerals into the chaos of people shouting, embracing one another, rolling on the ground, tearing their clothes off, performing ritual jokes, and excelling in obscenities.” In Madagascar, we are told, the “most striking aspect of Malagasy funerals is the bawdy and drunken revelry enjoined on the guests. Malagasy participants state that these lively events are necessary because the deceased is in transition. He or she is isolated and lonely and needs to be amused and entertained.” Europe provides comparable examples. Carroll Quigley states that, in traditional Scandinavia, a wake “was often an opportunity for courtship. In medieval Europe, most notably Ireland, mourners engaged in drinking, smoking, storytelling, song and dance, and mockery.” Through the middle of the twentieth-century, in fact, Irish wakes were major occasions for jocularity and amusement, including practical jokes involving the animation of corpses.

In Mexico, particularly rural Mexico, ritual humour is a well-known feature of annual celebrations involving the veneration of saints. Much less has been written about humour in Mexican mortuary ritual, with the exception of one notable event: the Day of the Dead celebrated on November 1st and 2nd each year. The Day of the Dead really consists of two Days of the Dead: All Saints Day (November 1st) and All Souls Day (November 2nd), both standard Roman Catholic feast days. This occasion, which exists outside of the framework of religious orthodoxy, also forms part of the overall cycle of events. Throughout this season, especially during the final week of October and the first week of November, humour, in both literary and artistic forms, pervades daily life. Calaveras is the main idiom through which humour is communicated.

Calaveras, which literally means “skulls,” is the term the Mexicans use to refer, first of all, to the famously whimsical craniums made of sugar, candy, and papier-mâché that are sold in markets and on street corners throughout this season. Artistic Calaveras such as these is used to decorate home altars, family gravesites, and storefront windows. When made of sugar paste (alfeñique), chocolate, or amaranth seed dough (“tzoalli”), they are also eaten. Calaveras are often customized by being inscribed on the forehead with the name of a friend or relative. In this form, Calaveras are presented as gifts to the people whose names appear on the skull. (There is a famous photograph of artist Frida Kahlo de Rivera, lying on her deathbed, staring at a Calavera that bears her name.) It is hard to imagine a more graphic representation of combined humour and aggression than that embodied in this type of Calavera (see Kristin Congdon on iconic Calaveras in this volume).

Another form of Calavera, less famous outside Mexico, is literary. It is, in essence, a humorous epitaph, dedicated to the “memory” of a living personage. The literary Calavera is always written in rhymed verse and often organized into quatrains. Though Calaveras nowadays are generally short — four to twelve lines at most — they can vary from simple couplets to epics stretching several pages in length. A good example of a two-liner comes from the Veracruz newspaper, La Opinión. On November 3rd, 1912, the editor published a Calavera in honour of a long-forgotten political figure, Don Angel C. Colina: “Dicen que se ha muerto entero por defender a Madero” — “They say that he died wholly because he defended Madero.” The poet normally dedicates a Calavera to a friend or a relative, whose name provides the title of the epitaph.

Although, as we shall see, Calaveras are sometimes complementary, they are usually bitingly satirical and mock the victim’s weaknesses through humorous teasing. Friends and relatives occasionally present Calaveras to one another during the Day of the Dead. However aggressive they might seem, short verses of this sort almost always operate to reinforce friendships and other social ties. They are joking relationships. By presenting a Calavera to a friend or relative, the poet implies that there exists such a strong bond between the two that not even a mocking jab at the victim’s weaknesses will threaten the relationship. In turn, by accepting the Calavera with good humour, the victim states in essence that he or she feels so close to the poet that the bond can well withstand an innocent personal jab.

The principal form of Calavera is the published Calavera, which appears at the end of October and beginning of November in newspapers and periodicals throughout the nation. Ever since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, enterprising writers and artists have taken the opportunity of the Day of the Dead to produce broadsides and small magazines exclusively devoted to the dissemination of these sometimes clever, sometimes corny epitaphs. The authors of Calaveras are generally anonymous. Anonymity, which is surely an intentional editorial decision, enhances the impression that the authors of these mocking verses express generally held opinions. The verses come to be perceived as the voice of the people.

One recent innovation is Calavera contests, sponsored by newspapers throughout the Republic. Poems are solicited from readers and the winners are published under a byline. One winning contribution to the nationally distributed newspaper Reforma (November 1st, 2000) is a Calavera dedicated “to las Calaveras.”

It might seem paradoxical, even perverse, that a sacred occasion such as the Day of the Dead should give rise to anticlerical sentiment. However, literary Calaveras, such as the one reproduced above, constitute part of a Bakhtinian, carnivalesque anti-rite. They are just one of many manifestations of the profane which emerge as the counterpoint to sacred actions and belief. The Day of the Dead awakens contradictory emotions and allows them to flourish simultaneously.

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