This is an excerpt from the longer article “Festivity is not Partying” from the “Festivity” issue of Sword&Spade magazine. You can download the full spread of this article for free here.
Catholicism possesses a unique ability to bring things together that otherwise seem opposed. Two of those things are festivity and faith, as Hilaire Belloc famously put it in verse:
Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
What might seem odd to some, especially in post-Puritan America, is the apparent mix of a party (“laughter and good red wine”) and praising God (Benedicamus Domino is Latin, meaning “Let us bless the Lord.”) Some might even find it offensive to mix the two, because they have witnessed not a few family members or friends destroy their lives through partying.
But Belloc’s description here is not some truce or hybrid of two conflicting things – partying and praying – but the deeply Catholic truth of festivity. If we understand that word correctly, we will not make the mistake of calling festivity by the name partying. Partying is something altogether different from festivity. It is, in fact, opposed to what is meant by “feasting,” the root of the word festivity.
According to the Thomistic philosopher Josef Pieper, the idea of festivity can only be discussed in the broadest way, as something wildly potent and important, because it touches on reality itself. As he put it, festivity draws on “the whole of the world and of life,” and distortions of it become “grotesque.” To examine and consider them, we have to think of partying and festivity as two totally different responses to reality.
Partying: A Revolt Against Reality
As a defining image of partying, consider the classic Hollywood-produced high school or college party with loud music, promiscuity, drinking and drugs, and high hopes of spontaneous thrill – life “gone wild.” Such gathering may occur in the daytime, but darkness is preferred. We could also place here the more “adult” version of partying depicted so often in the famous “degenerate mansion” of a deceased magazine owner that appears more refined than the college frat party but at the core is simply a better funded and accoutered image of the same thing, like a silk smoking jacket on a pig.
For our purposes here I am using the verb partying to compare to festivity, and not merely the noun “party,” a simple gathering for fun or what have you. I am not talking about a joyful night or weekend with friends. By “partying” I am speaking of something that is more of a disposition, not just an event. “Going partying” is not the same as going to your niece’s birthday party, just like “going drinking” is not the same thing as having a drink with friends.
Partying attempts to suspend reality for a time in the name of fun. The thumping music, pulsing lights, drugs and alcohol intentionally overwhelm and redirect the senses so that we literally forget our day-to-day life. The act and habit of partying, when truly considered, reveals that the partier, in his heart, believes that reality is something worthy of escape. If partying is the remedy, the medicine to life, then our perception of life is very dark. Its essential drudgery must be “balanced out” by partying. Wouldn’t it be accurate to say that one who “goes partying” more and more very likely has more and more reason to escape reality and seek fleeting fulfillment?
Yes, it appears to be airier than that, happier even. But it isn’t. Carpe diem – seize the day! – is the chant, because if you don’t grip tightly the momentary pleasures of induced happiness the darkness of the whole of reality will close in and you’ll feel the void inside you. It looks upbeat (especially in those Hollywood depictions) but it is actually dark and low; those who have lived the partying life know this to be true. “It is the carpe diem religion,” said G.K. Chesterton, “but the carpe diem religion is not the religion of happy people, but of very unhappy people.”
Partying, because it views reality as something not good in its essence, is a form of destruction. It is a revolt against reality, and revolts are destructive by nature. Even the words used to describe a “good” party are essentially destructive and violent. As a party “rages” we “get smashed,” “hammered,” “trashed,” and “wasted” while we “tear the house down.” A particularly wild party is “on fire.” They can be a real “blowout” or “bash.” We can of course think of the classic example of some rock band destroying its hotel room for no apparent reason. The partier takes reality and smashes it in the name of fun as a revolution against the drudgery and lack of meaning of life itself.
Partying and Boredom
Another especially common excuse for partying is boredom. Modern boredom, however, is something different from older understandins of the word, as R.J. Snell explains in his book on Acedia, it is ‘different from the dullness, lassitude, and tedium people had no doubt been experiencing for centuries.’
We should note it is also related to Western modernity. Many studies have shown that young people from tribal ancestry only become “bored” and turn to, as the studies put it, “sense-seeking” and “substance abuse” (i.e. partying) after they embrace the materialism and spiritual vacuum of Western society.
Snell goes on to connect boredom to parties, and why we desire and despair of them, especially in their aftermath:
Recall the experience of enjoying yourself at a party that was by all accounts a success – the food was good, the music enjoyable, the companionship fine… Still, in the post-party reverie you conclude that you were bored the entire time, although you’re not sure why. In situative boredom you knew what bored you – the wait for the plain, the topic of conversation, the sales pitch. The party, however, did not prompt you to look at your watch or daydream of escape, but later you realize its emptiness… [The] party did not satisfy, it did not fulfill… It was fun, you enjoyed it, but there’s a strange remorse and listlessness afterwards, even a kind of repugnance at having gone, and especially for having thought it so enjoyable…
The hangover – figurative and actual – is an inevitable result of partying. If partying is done to counter the dark realities of life, then the end of a party will always have some sense of violence to it, of thrusting us back into the cold harshness of the purposeless “every day.” The party promised a fun diversion, not lasting fulfillment, so it isn’t to blame if you awake with that nagging question, “What have I done?” It gave what it had to give and offers no more. You expect to fly high on the wings of pleasure and land softly?
End of excerpt. From Sword&Spade issue “Festivity.”
Download (free) the full spread and article from the magazine (pictures, Chestertonian excerpt, etc.) here.