Around January 1st Medieval Christianity celebrated the Feast of Fools, a celebration that merits a closer look. During most of the year the church preached its congregation fellowship, restrain and earnestness in the social, religious, and personal aspects of their lives. However, during the Feast of Fools these principles were thrown out the window and people celebrated; the clergy would parody itself preaching spoof sermons, playing dice on top of the altar, addressing prayers to vegetables, seeking to have sex with anyone who’d acquiesce, etc. Yet, the feast was not just for kicks and giggles, it was seen as necessity. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, aside from being a superb thriller, may teach us why the Feast of Fools was and is a necessity.
Released in 2011 and directed by Tomas Alfredson, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy tells a story of the British secret service during the height of the Cold War. Yet, while anyone who sees the film should talk about the intricacy of the plot or the actors’ superb performances, you should take a closer look at Smiley’s memory of the Circus’ Christmas party.
The viewer sees the Christmas party as one of Smiley’s (Gary Oldman) flashbacks. Alfredson frames this party in two ways: as the ideal past and as a carnival of sorts. The viewer first catches a glimpse of the party after a somewhat sentimental moment when Smiley questions his former coworker Connie (Kathy Burke). She sees the party as the epitome of the “old circus”(‘circus’ being the code word for the secret service), which was full of “[her] boys.” Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves – there’s food and dance, enough liquor to make all these spies forget their secrets and everyone singing Sammy Davis Jr.’s The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World! It is the past as Connie wishes to remember it. Yet, as the film progresses the party shifts frames and carnivalesque inversion kicks-in.
Carnivalesque inversion describes the reversal of social norms and roles during a carnival. Consider the carnival in The Hunchback of NotreDame when the people of the city crown Quasimodo – usually shunned for his appearance. This moment in literature embodies the carnivalesque essence. The Christmas party in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy also suspends the regular social custom and hierarchical structure. During the party, everyone is equal, and the world turns on its head. Santa Claus in a Lenin mask makes an appearance, yet, instead of following regular social procedure and shunning him, people celebrate him. Santa-Lenin proceeds to lead all these people who fight against the U.S.S.R on a daily basis to sing the U.S.S.R’s national anthem, which everyone joyfully recites. Why show this?
The Christmas party flashback (something that only appears in the film not the book) illustrates how important it can be to have a release every once in a while. It strengthens interpersonal relations, which is why it’s Connie’s ideal past, and in the same way that the party inserts a little bit of humor into a serious film, so does the party insert a little joie de vivre into the lives of all these agents who appear to seldom have it. Furthermore, rather than strengthening your personal beliefs, being in a carnival allows you an opportunity to be on your enemy’s side – understand your enemy a little better and, thus, respect him a little more. This is the reason for the Feast of Fools: “let one’s freak flag fly.” And in the same way the carnivalesque inversion strengthens social customs and expands one’s mindset, so does it lend more charm the social rituals and everyday occurrences of our ordinary lives.
As the New Year approaches with the secure calm that only time has, perhaps we should remember to be a little and unabashedly foolish. It is good, it’s healthy, and, ultimately, necessary. Alain de Botton discussing the Feast of Fools remarks that
“In 1445, the Paris Faculty of Theology explained to the bishops of France that the Feast of Fools was a necessary event in the Christian calendar, ‘in order that foolishness, which is our second nature and is inherent in man, can freely spend itself at least once a year. Wine barrels burst if from time to time we do not open them and let in some air. All of us men are barrels poorly put together and this is why we permit folly on certain days.”
If you haven’t been foolish enough in 2012, be a little more foolish in 2013.