The midway brings the child’s life into a new focus and reminds children when to be fearless. We need to help our children seek out the risks that make them stronger. And we need a carnival where adults can also learn to laugh. Today, perhaps more than before, we need the carnival to show us our limits and help us push these to new levels. So, next summer, when the carnival comes to town, make a beeline for the midway. Plan your own carnival collision. For a few bucks and the grit to climb on board, you can step away from the perpendicular and find new footing in the preposterous. And in 50 years you can tell your grandchildren how dangerous life used to be before virtual-reality computer simulations replaced today’s mechanical contrivances.
Life, we are often told, used to be a lot tougher than today. The specifics of this claim change across the decades, but the message is clear: we don’t face the same kinds of challenges others used to, and somehow we are less able because of this. From fending off saber-tooth tigers with spears, to building homesteads out of virgin forests, to making a living in mines and factories before the advent of unions, we are always reminded that the everyday dangers and troubles of our elders and their elders were somehow more significant than those we face today.
When our elders tire of reminding us of this, they sometimes also remember that discipline, patriotism, manners, indeed civility itself have somehow disappeared from everyday life. And, while there is mostly hindsight romance in these pronouncements, there is also a sincere seed of worry: where do we learn today how to face the dangers that still might rise to challenge us as individuals and as a society?
Few would argue that these old risks to life and limb or the paternalism of the premodern family need to be revived just to keep us on our toes, or from stepping on those of our betters. Our lives are significantly different from those of our ancestors. Today, we do not want to be told what to do, but rather we seek a historically unprecedented level of independence as our natural right.
And yet, despite our claim on independence, mutual dependence is the underlying condition of our social life. When pushed, we must admit to our own softness, to our lack of survival know-how, and to our near total dependence on others (and also on machines) for almost everything we do. Sociologists have posited that this juxtaposition of radical independence with an equally fundamental mutual dependence must create a deep well of fear in each of us. This fear they call angst (the German word for “fear”), and if we don’t feel this, they argue, we probably should.
This angst is the terror of knowing that our lives depend on a host of strangers, and that the lives of these strangers are similarly dependent, and that society, this Ship of Fools, has nobody actually at the helm. Fortunately, its antidote is quite simple: you find a challenge and meet it, then go on to find another. After a while you realize that you can be strong and still depend on others. For decades, the carnival midway presented us just such challenges, and in meeting these we learn how to trust in ourselves. The carnival is not the only, nor the final, venue for learning trust, but it may be one of the first we encounter, and it might just lead us to try others. The carnival is just a small step off the perpendicular. From there you are on your own. And that is precisely the point.
Before about 1960, most people didn’t just go to the midway, they collided with it, and in that moment they found out more about themselves than years of school could tell them. There were tests at the carnival that didn’t come with a study guide, trials that reached an unavoidable verdict. Failures and triumphs in equal measure. And not all the tests were physical.
The carnival in its first 50 years was also the province of the bizarre. One essential quarter of this realm was the freak show. The freak show’s spectacle of human diversity-from physical deformity to ethnographic titillation-fed a voyeuristic hunger in the assembled crowd of “townies” (otherwise known as “marks”) raised on a daily diet of God-fearing normality. The naked misery on display, at once repelling and intriguing, generally reinforced the sense of superiority that even the generally poor, mainly rural, and mostly white townies might summon as their birthright. While some of the bodies on display achieved an odd measure of celebrity—Tom Thumb performed for the Queen of England—most of the “freaks” in the shows simply had nowhere else to go.
By the end of the 1960s, when hundreds of thousands of young Americans called themselves freaks and when television brought home a world of otherness, and when social programs allowed folks who might formerly have been employable only as freaks to find work and dignity in other occupations, the midway gave up its freak shows. At about the same time, many of the actual physical challenges—the games of strength and agility—were eliminated because of insurance issues (broken wrists heal slower than busted piggy banks). With the decline in variety acts at carnivals due to the lure of television, the abandonment of freak- and sex shows and games of strength stripped the midway of its adult entertainment. And so today, adults at the midway no longer collide with visions and machines that can push them beyond their limits. Today the carnival is strictly for kids, no matter how old they are.
The carnival is today a vestige of those rites-of-passage that gave sure measure to a growing child’s adult aspirations. While the midway was always as gendered as the rest of society, today its challenges are open to all. Young girls and young boys, little Kaitlins and Dustins all have the opportunity to satisfy the need to find and hold onto a sense of physical accomplishment.
When they are older, these Kaitlins and Dustins find new challenges at the midway. Here is where the first kiss is stolen, the first thigh revealed, and where budding muscles show. Bodies thrown together in a cage of spinning metal explore one another without intention or shame. And back on the ground, someone always wins the game, to the attention and admiration of the other hopefuls. This brief moment of fame, a jolt of victory, is for some the only chance at this elixir.
Our Carnival Future
Today, even more than in the early part of the twentieth century, our lives surround us with safety nets that let us forget where the dangerous boundaries lie. We live in bubbles of civil liability and social responsibility. And so, the same sociologists who worry about angst also raise warning flags about the extent to which everyday life is today sequestered from much of society’s actual workings-most particularly from life’s biological facts (illness, madness, death, and birth), but also from the unpleasant facts of mass production (slaughterhouses, strip mines, clear-cut forests, sweatshops, etc.).
Hiding from these facts does no more to solve the problems they represent than avoiding seeing a doctor will make that mysterious lump go away. There are finalities around us we need to see. Curiously, at the same time we hide from the circumstances most intimate to our personal lives, an impersonal world of violent spectacles is brought into our homes. Daily we are presented with televised visions of terror, violence, inhumanity, and war: all happening somewhere else to people we have never met—visions that should be more terrifying than any rubber monster at a midway house of horrors. And then television melodramatics—from daytime soaps to sensationalistic talk shows—simply remind us that other people have lives more interesting than ours.
No wonder it seems that we’ve lost the means to find the far edge of our own emotions and abilities and so shrink back further into the comfort of feeling and trying less than we might. Apart from the sudden terror of crime and car crashes, we encounter so few direct challenges to our bodies and emotions that two new fears are born: a fear of risk more profound than risk itself, and a dread of spontaneous emotional expressions.
Elsewhere, I discussed carnival laughter and humanity’s long affair with the carnivalesque. Here we need to admit that even this laughter cannot overcome our fears the first time. Like most things worthwhile, the laughter that conquers fears also takes practice, and relies on a personal history of acquiring certain skills.
The upside is that we can get better at this, with the carnival midway as our laughter boot camp. It may not always be pleasant at the time, but when we tackle carnival risks, we signal a desire to strengthen our own emotions, and we gain an awareness of both our vulnerability and our invincibility. Taking a chance at the carnival is a small first step toward knowing where and when to take other chances, how to laugh when the game is lost, and that there is always another chance to win.
The midway brings the child’s life into a new focus and reminds children when to be fearless. We need to help our children seek out the risks that make them stronger. And we need a carnival where adults can also learn to laugh. Today, perhaps more than before, we need the carnival to show us our limits and help us push these to new levels.
So, next summer, when the carnival comes to town, make a beeline for the midway. Plan your own carnival collision. For a few bucks and the grit to climb on board, you can step away from the perpendicular and find new footing in the preposterous. And in 50 years you can tell your grandchildren how dangerous life used to be before virtual-reality computer simulations replaced today’s mechanical contrivances.