A requiem for the circus

During their final tour, Daniel and I went to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus. It struck me, as we watched, that the goals of the circus were the complete opposite of everyday life. "This place is a circus," we say. "That politician is a clown." Being cool means not exerting any more effort than is needed, not getting too excited about anything. In a circus, they run around like chickens with their heads cut off, and blast lights and sound strongly enough to stun the tired-looking elephants. They are "making a spectacle of themselves." In real life, we have airport lines to give the appearance of safety; the circus has tightropes to give the appearance of danger. In real life we try to avoid appearing the fool, but that's the job description for a clown. Anything embarrassing, funny-looking, or awkward is fair game.  It's the Feast of Fools. A fatal criticism for any a piece of clothing is "that makes me look like a clown," but garish excess is the order of the day at the circus. Compare the anonymous black and grey uniform of the New York street to the colorful, besequinned clashing of a circus leotard.
The freaks were never a part of the circus as I experienced it, but it's all the same-- what would normally be shameful or isolating was there put on display, shared as something to be admired. When the people point and stare, the circus counts that as a win.
Even, perhaps, the accusations of mistreatment of animals was more based on the unnaturalness of their being taught to perform, their lack of dignity when they were made to parade around to get their reward, than a thoughtful concern over animal suffering (which would be better expressed in ending animal disease or parasites in the wild, for example). But unnaturalness and lack of dignity are the order of the day at the circus, for humans as well as animals.
The new circuses try to incorporate some style, some beauty, some poetry and art and authenticity into their show. And they are undeniably more successful selling tickets with that approach. But I can't help thinking that they are missing the point-- anything that moves towards cool is moving away from the essence of the thing.
It's not a coincidence that the insult "geek" was originally a term for a circus performer. Think Comic Con: they dress up in brightly colored clothes, over-the-top, inappropriate clothes, and celebrate childishness and humor and spectacle. Superheros themselves dress like circus performers (Superman looks like a strongman, Robin like an acrobat) and perform similar stunts, leaping to impossible heights and swinging through the air. And their devotion to this, like Olympic athletes or concert pianists, is admirable. Like Batman, they have trained their bodies to do the impossible, with strength and reckless courage that the rest of us can only gawk at. Meanwhile, the real world is Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent.
To look at everything respectable, grown-up, and fitting-in, and say "That's not what I want" and walk in the opposite direction-- that demands its own kind of respect. After all, there's another group of people that paint their faces, and have wild hair, and get up on a stage full of lights and colors and make fools of themselves. We call them rock stars.


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