In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity by Josef Pieper, translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston (St. Augustine's Press, South Bend, Indiana, 1999; original copyright 1963, translation copyright 1965)
Sometimes it helps to take a second look.
I wasn't halfway through the first chapter before I was disappointed with In Tune with the World. It was my own fault: Despite the book's subtitle, I had been expecting practical suggestions for recovering festivity in a society where abundance is commonplace. (See New Year's Resolution #2: Rediscover Feasting.) However, when Pieper says "a theory of festivity," that is exactly what he means.
What's more, the first few pages put me off because Pieper seemed to be dividing our lives between work and festivity, with work pretty much defined as what men do to earn a living, and I kept thinking, "But you still expect the women to cook and clean for your festivals; if they separated their work from the feast, it wouldn't be much of one!" He was writing in the early 1960's, so I can't say he's free from that attitude, but there's much more to what he is saying, and my preconceptions definitely distorted that first chapter.
Before I had finished the book, however, I realized that it deserved re-reading for what it is rather than for what I wanted it to be. I'm not generally one to read books of philosophy—largely, I'll admit, because I find them hard going, and true to form, this 88-page book with relatively large print is not something to be read in one sitting, even for a fast reader like me. I had brought it to Switzerland to read and leave with Janet (it was, after all, her suggestion and her birthday present), but as with The Brain that Changes Itself, I soon realized I'd have to bring it home with me. There is only so much of this kind of writing I can take without my eyes glazing over:
Human acts derive their meaning primarily from their content, from their object, not from the manner in which they are performed. Play, however, seems to be chiefly a mere modus of action, a specific way of performing something, at any rate a purely formal determinant.
The text is well worth working through, however—perhaps several times. Here are a few points I was able to glean on the second reading. Because of all the quotations, the rest of the post is very long. I think they merit the time it will take to read them, or I wouldn't have made the effort to type them in, but the ideas are highlighted so you can indulge in "Festivity Lite" if you wish.
Festivity is a joyous affirmation: Everything that is, is good, and it is good to exist.
[S]uch affirmation [is not] shallow optimism, let alone...smug approval, of that which is.... [It] is not won by deliberately shutting one's eyes to the horrors in this world. Rather, it proves its seriousness by its confrontation with historical evil. ... [The Christian martyr]...never utters a word against God's Creation. In spite of everything he finds the things that are "very good"; therefore he remains capable of joy, and even, as far as it concerns him, of festivity. [O]n the other hand, whoever refuses to assent to reality as a whole, no matter how well off he may be, is by that fact incapacitated for either joy or festivity. Festivity is impossible to the naysayer.
To celebrate a festival means: to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole.
It is the nature of festivity to be non-utilitarian.
To celebrate a festival means to do something which is in no way tied to other goals, which has been removed from all "so that" and "in order to." True festivity cannot be imagined as residing anywhere but in the realm of activity that is meaningful in itself.
With the death of the concept of human activity that is meaningful in itself...[it] becomes a sheer impossibility to establish and maintain an area of existence which is not preempted by work. For there is only a single justification for not working that will be acceptable even to one's own conscience. That is, dedication of leisure to something meaningful in itself. It is more important not only "socially" but also on a higher human level to work than to kill time; and if we contrast the laboring society and its totalitarian planning for utility with a civilization dedicated mainly to entertainment, the former seems without question overwhelmingly superior.
The antithesis between holiday and workday, or more precisely, the concept of a day of rest, tells us something further about the essence of festivity. The day of rest is not just a neutral interval inserted as a link in the chain of workaday life. It entails a loss of utilitarian profit. In voluntarily keeping the holiday, men renounce the yield of a day's labor....The day of rest, then, meant not only that no work was done, but also that an offering was being made of the yield of labor. It is not merely that the time is not gainfully used; the offering is in the nature of a sacrifice, and therefore the diametric opposite of utility.
Extravagance is appropriate for festive celebrations. Here is a foreign concept that rings true. Surrounded by plenty, yet endowed with a great sense of thrift, it is hard for me in good conscience to be lavish—with money, calories, or enthusiasm—even for a celebration.
A festival is essentially a phenomenon of wealth; not, to be sure, the wealth of money, but of existential richness. Absence of calculation, in fact lavishness, is one of its elements. Of course there is a natural peril and a germ of degeneration inherent in this. The way is open to senseless and excessive waste of the yield of work, to an extravagance that violates all rationality.... But this potential perversion cannot be included within the definition of festivity.... [T]he fact remains that the paramountcy of a calculating, economizing mentality prevents both festive excess and festivity itself. In the workaday world all magnificence and pomp is calculated, and therefore unfestive.
True festivity is inseparable from religious experience. Pieper writes as a Christian, and clearly views Christian festivals as the highest and best of celebrations. Yet the theory of festivity he posits has its roots firmly in pagan, primitive, Jewish, Roman, and other practices as well, and the book is rife with quotations from sources many and varied. He would probably agree with the concept, which I first encountered in C. S. Lewis, that Christianity did not come so much to abolish the old religions as to fulfill them.
[T]o celebrate a festival is equivalent to "becoming contemplative, and, in this state, directly confronting the higher realities on which the whole of existence rests."...Bustle does not make a festival; on the contrary, it can spoil one....[A] special spice, essential to the right celebration of a festival, is a kind of expectant alertness. One must be able to look through, and, as it were, beyond the immediate matter of the festival, including the festal gifts; one must engage in a listening, and therefore necessarily silent, meditation upon the fundament of existence.
A festival without gods is a non-concept, is inconceivable. For example, Carnival remains festive only where Ash Wednesday still exists. To eliminate Ash Wednesday is to eliminate the Carnival itself. [This is nowhere so obvious to me as in Orlando, where the Universal Studios theme park "celebrates" Mardi Gras throughout Lent. It is an excuse for partying, or more accurately for profit-making, and nothing else.]
Secular as well as religious festivals have their roots in the rituals of worship. Otherwise, what arises is not a profane festival, but something quite artificial, which is either an embarrassment or...a new and more strenuous kind of work.
[F]estivals are doomed unless they are preceded by the pattern of ritual religious praise. That is the fire that kindles them. But it is that very thing—praise of God—which constitutes almost the entire content of Christian ritual....[A]ffirmation is the fundamental form of Christian liturgy. Christian liturgy is in fact "an unbounded Yea-and-Amen saying."...St. Augustine has defined worship in the same terms: "Worship takes place," he says, "by the offering of praise and thanksgiving." Indeed, the Church itself uses the name "thanksgiving" for the sacramental offering which is the source and center of all other acts of worship. The Mass is called and is eucharistia. Whatever the specific content of this thanksgiving may be, the "occasion" for which it is performed and which it comports with is nothing other than the salvation of the world and of life as a whole....Of course, everything depends on whether or not we think the historical world and human life are "made whole" or at any rate "capable of being made whole" by Christ. This is the all-important question....Christian worship sees itself as an act of affirmation that expresses itself in praise, glorification, thanksgiving for the whole of reality and existence.
The purpose and fruit of a festive celebration is an other-worldly phenomenon, which cannot be attained by effort, but only received as a gift.
Language harbors a variety of names for this phenomenon: renewal, transformation, restoration, rejuvenation, rebirth. But they all mean the same thing, even though it does not lend itself to clear definition and description. There are many ways in which the gift is experienced. It is recreation; it is, as Goethe put it, release from the pressure of daily obligation. Passing time stands still....Men are swept away from the here and now to utterly tranquil contemplation of the ground of existence; to happiness, as in absorption in beloved eyes. Everyday things unexpectedly take on the freshness of Eden; the world, again in Goethe's words, is "glorious, as on the first of days."
[T]he fruit of the festival, for which alone it is really celebrated, is pure gift; it is the element of festivity that can never be "organized," arranged, and induced. The will is bent on action; however easy it may seem, we have far less talent for relaxation, slackening effort, letting ourselves go, than for the hard task of work. To be sure, relaxation can be learned and practiced to a certain degree. But no amount of effort, no matter how desperate, can force festivity to yield up its essence. All we can do is prepare ourselves to receive the hoped-for gift; and perhaps the idea of "ritual purity"...should be rethought and recaptured. All these considerations, however, do not in any way nullify the nature of the gift, which is in no way pledged, predictable, or meritable, and descends only of its own accord. "In order for a festival to emerge out of human efforts, something divine must be added, which alone makes possible the otherwise impossible." This is an ethnologist's conclusion, but it applies not only to primitive peoples. It suddenly makes us realize the very real sense of the statement in both the Psalms and the Platonic Dialogue that the festival is the day God has made.
Thus, when a festival goes as it should, men receive something that it is not in human power to give. This is the by now almost forgotten reason for the age-old custom of men wishing one another well on great festival days. What are we usually wishing our fellow men when we send them "best wishes for Christmas"? Health, enjoyment of each other's company, thriving children, success—all these things, too, of course. We may even—why not?—be wishing them a good appetite for the holiday meal. But the real thing we are wishing is the "success" of the festival celebration itself, not just its outer forms and enrichments, not the trimmings, but the gift that is meant to be the true fruit of the festival: renewal, transformation, rebirth. Nowadays, to be sure, all this can barely be sensed behind the trite formula, "Happy holidays."
The fine arts are necessary, though not sufficient, for festive celebration.
[A] festival without singing, music, dancing, without visible forms of celebration, without any kind of works of art, cannot be imagined.
[T]he artistic act is like festivity itself, something out of the ordinary, something unusual, which is not covered by the rules governing the workaday world. This is true not only of the artist's creative act, which gives rise to the work of art, but also of the secondary act of the person who (for example) reads a poem poetically.
[T]he invisible aspect of festivity, the praise of the world which lies at a festival's innermost core, can attain a physical form, can be made perceptible to the senses, only through the medium of the arts.
[T]he fine arts keep alive the memory of the true ritualistic, religious origins of festivals when these begin to wither or be forgotten. And this memory may at some moment succeed in blasting open again the buried entrance.
On the other hand, the very overestimation of the arts can also obscure this knowledge.... [The arts] are not themselves the festivals. Rather, the arts, like pleasure itself, are derivative and secondary; they are a contribution, the adornment and medium of the festival, but not its substance. As soon as festiveness itself becomes unachievable, the arts are inevitably left without a home; their necessity and even their credibility fade away.... It is not too surprising that under conditions of tyranny the arts fall into the service of the political power and are subjected to utilitarian ends—quite often with the acquiescence of the artists themselves.... [H]omeless art looks for a new home.
Gloomy diagnosticians told us long ago that in an existence founded on negation, festivity becomes a caricature of itself.... If assent to the world can no longer be celebrated festively at all, then every one of the fine arts becomes homeless, useless, idle, unbelievable, and at bottom impossible. To be sure, such refusal can exist side by side with the greatest technical skill. That is precisely what complicates the matter. For wherever truth in form is achieved, no matter how "formalistic" it may be, there exists...in some sense harmony, concord with a pre-established image of order—and thus inevitably a grain of affirmation. Complete negation is necessarily formless; it presupposes the shattering of form; whereas negation proclaimed in perfect form is only a half-negation, inherently a contradiction of itself.
Unfestive, sham, made-up festivals will proliferate when true festivals are absent.
Worse than clear negation...is mendacious affirmation. Worse than the silencing and stifling of festivity and the arts is sham practicing of them.... [P]seudo-art is related in a variety of ways to pseudo-festivity. The sham is inherent in the fact that the affirmation and assent compatible only with true reality is falsified into a smug yea-saying, whose basic element is a desire to fend off reality, so as not to be disturbed, at any prices. A deceptive escape from the narrowness of the workaday utilitarian world is found in the form of entertainment and "forgetting one's worries." And the same mendacious message also reaches men through the medium of the pseudo-arts, whether trivial or pretentious, flattering or entertaining, or intoxicating like a drug. Man craves by nature to enter the "other" world, but he can attain it only if true festivity truly comes to pass. For it appears—but it is appearance only—that this other dimension of reality can be produced with ease and at will; it appears to stand at the disposal of the harried or bored man who needs "entertainment" and a "change."...But the man who by such devices is the more imprisoned within a workaday world now made amusing no longer misses real festivity; he does not notice the emptiness. And thus he even stops grieving over his loss—and the loss thereby is finally sealed.
[T]he place in life which should naturally be occupied by real festivity cannot remain empty. And when real festivals are no longer celebrated, for whatever reasons, the susceptibility to artificial festivals grows.
[T]hings have not reached their sorriest pass as long as men are concerned over the disappearance of the festive principle from life....[T]he grumblings of cultural critics and the plaints of pets are the very opposite of hopelessness. But when, unnoticed and almost unnoticeable, sham festivals foist themselves on men in place of true festivity...then the situation is really bad....
Naturally enough, in the past as well as in the present, the festivals most prone to such corruption have been those whose public character is unassailable. Even secularized society cannot—not yet—ignore Christmas. However, as everyone has observed , the real festival is almost disappearing behind the commercialized folderol that has come to the fore. The true content sometimes becomes distorted to a degree that is really grotesque. In Japan the opinion has been voiced in all seriousness that commercial advertising is not misusing the symbols of the Christmas festival, but rather that the Christian holiday has borrowed the various motifs so successful in the department store displays, in order to exert a more powerful influence on the public.
Compared with the falsification...of festivals already existing as institutions, the creation of completely new festivals...is a relatively unambiguous problem, although those closely involved may find it difficult to see through the illusion. Granted, all festivals are in some sense "made" by men...from the fixing of a particular calendar day to the specific forms.... While man can make the celebration, he cannot make what is to be celebrated, cannot make the festive occasion and the cause for celebrating. The happiness of being created, the existential goodness of all things, the participation in the life of God, the overcoming of death—all these occasions of the great traditional festivals are pure gift. But because no one can confer a gift on himself, something that is entirely a human institution cannot be a real festival.
This habit of inventing festivals took a serious turn only when, in the course of the French Revolution, entirely new festivals were initiated by the state. These were intended to displace and replace the traditional religious holidays....
The entire section on the French Revolution is worth reading; you'll never look at the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games in the same way again.
The fundamental vapidness of these artificial festivals is clearly exposed when we try to find out what they are actually celebrating. What is the object, the reason, the occasion? A phrase that recurs so constantly...as to be virtually a classic formula maintains that the people themselves are not only the "ornament" of the festival and its organizers, but also its object....[The phrase] goes back to Rousseau. The object of the festivals celebrated by "happy peoples," he says, is, "if you willl, nothing at all"; strictly speaking, however the people themseves are the festive spectacle....[W]hat is really being celebrated is human "happiness"....
There can be no festivity when man, imagining himself self-sufficient, refuses to recognize that Goodness of things which goes far beyond any conceivable utility; it is the Goodness of reality taken as a whole which validates all other particular goods and which man himself can never produce....He truly receives it only when he accepts it as pure gift.
[T]here remains the indestructible...gift innate in all men which impels them now and again to escape from the restricted sphere where they labor for their necessities and provide for their security—to escape not by mere forgetting, but by undeceived recollection of the greater, more real reality. Now, as always, the workaday world can be transcended in poetry and the other arts. In the shattering emotion of love, beyond the delusions of sensuality, men continue to find entrace to the still point of the turning world. Now, as always, the experience of death as man's destiny, if accepted with an open and unarmored heart, acquaints us with a dimension of existence which fosters a detachment from the immediate aims of practical life....Consequently, for the sake of what prospects there are for true festivity in our time, it is essential to resist the sophistical corruption of the arts, the cheapening of eroticism, [and] the degradation of death.
The core and source of festivity itself remains inviolably present in the midst of society....[T]he festive occasion pure and simple, the divine guarantee of the world and of human salvation, exists and remains true continuously....
The Christian...is convinced that no destructive action...can ever corrode the substance of Creation. "Miraculously founded and more miraculously restored," it cannot be corrupted by the "will to nothingness." Thus there always remains the "festive occasion" which alone inspires and justifies celebration. It remains in force, forever undiminished.
Warning: You can read In Tune with the World in under an hour, but the ideas you encounter therein may never leave you.