“We are a group of eleven: five men, five women and a transgender. We have celebrated carnival together for years now and this year, again, we will start on Sunday 11:11 hrs,” says René Gabriels, assistant professor of philosophy at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, from Limburg (born in Maasniel) and passionate celebrant of carnival. Unfortunately, the kick-off is not as it normally would be in De Tribunal pub, but in a couple of friends’ houses simultaneously. “The cameras are all switched on, we have contact.”
The interview is in the Limburg dialect, Gabriels refuses to speak Dutch when the subject matter is carnival. Two days before, he sent a photograph of himself in his costume. “Did you not notice it? I am wearing underpants on my head; it has starch in it otherwise it wouldn’t stand upright.”
The question about which ‘pekske’ (outfit) he will be wearing next Sunday, he feels is a typical ‘Hollander’ (non-Limburger) question. And that is not favourable, judging by the face he pulls. “They don’t understand it at all, Hollanders think that those three days are all about boozing and sex.” Nothing could be further from the truth, Gabriels snorts meekly. He begins a lecture on the science of carnival: “Everything is fluid during carnival, codes are broken. Whether it is about male-female, body-spirit, laughing-crying, ruler-subordinate. We play a role and put on a mask in order to unmask. We finally take off our masks that we wear on a daily basis. Yes, everyone is acting the whole day long, authenticity is an illusion, Maastricht University is a large theatre, people are being exploited, young and old: the pressure of work is too high. Carnival is used to undermine power, you make fun of politics and those in power, just like keeping up appearances. It is grotesque, a blow-up of the body, but always with respect. In short: it is satire.”
Grinning he goes in search of his smartphone to find a photograph. It takes a while, “I have only had such a thing for nine months now”. Then he shows a photograph of a naked doll on a pedestal. “This is in my room and I carry this doll around with me during carnival. It is Martin Paul, our President. He is on the good side; he is more carnival-like than his predecessor Jo Ritzen. Even though he, maybe, never celebrates it. Ritzen is a social democrat, but he wasn’t social and wasn’t democratic. As minister of Education, he actually broke down democracy at universities. Paul is multicoloured, stands for pluralism, for multilingualism, I am doing research into that. But we shouldn’t be too correct with regard to the Executive Board, you can also make fun of those in power, that is why he is naked.” And no, he didn’t make the doll himself. “I am a happy loser. I would rather have been an artist than an average scientist.”
Only 400 words?
The interview is almost at an end. Gabriels seems disappointed, he has so much more to tell. Scornful: “Do you only have 400 words? You should dedicate a whole newspaper to carnival.” One more quote then: “Carnival is fun. My generation – over fifty – drinks for the fun of it, not to get drunk. We take drugs for our own pleasure. Contrary to the students, who take it to get a better grade.” Also: “During carnival you can speak the truth to people who don’t want to hear it. It shows that you can have a different attitude to life. I carry that experience with me even when these days have passed.”