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    Pierre Auguste Renoir Luncheon of the Boating Party

    On Good Parties

    At a good party, with food heaped high and all manner of people in silly costumes, bonds of friendship become the building blocks for communal life.

    By Tara Isabella Burton

    February 12, 2024
    • Alexander Mackenzie

      I'm far from being a party person but having read this article I rather wish I was more open to having people over. It's clear a lot of good can be done. So to those who have this gift, more power to you! Ps. A Place At The Table by Jo Swinney is a book that challenged me in a similar way.

    • Gary

      I’m on board with David’s comments, and also thank you, Tara!

    • David

      Ah! What a lucid and refreshing article...on such an important topic! As St. Paul has called himself the least of the apostles, I could qualify as the least "party material" person in my part of the world. But, Ms. Burton, your article stirs a deep and untapped longing in my soul to engage in Joy willingly and freely! Thank you!

    This article is an excerpt from Breaking Ground.

    A few years ago, in the middle of a surprisingly sedate breakup conversation, I tried to explain what it was I wanted out of a relationship, out of marriage, out of life. It wasn’t simply that we weren’t right for each other, I tried to say; it was that our relationship didn’t lend itself to a certain kind of openness, to love of the world. What I wanted out of a partnership, I said – though clumsily – was to be standing together, around an enormous table, with piles of food heaped high, with prosecco free-flowing, with all manner of ragtag people, in all their particular strangeness, in silly costumes and vintage furs, showing up, unbidden and welcome, at the door.

    “You’re breaking up with me,” he said, astounded, “because I won’t cohost parties with you?”

    He wasn’t wrong, not exactly. Nor was he right.

    I am susceptible to frivolity. I know this about myself. I love beauty; I am weak to surfaces; I am apt to mistake eccentricity for character. I drink more than I should. I love overdressing; I love staying up past midnight; I love breakfasts at all-night diners, and the Irish coffees you order when you can’t decide whether it’s night or morning.

    And I love parties.

    I love going to parties; even more, I love hosting them. I love madcap dress codes; I love taking people’s coats and making piles of them on the bed. I love the lightness of meddling in people’s evenings, in sitting them next to strangers, in reminding them what they have in common. I love refilling people’s drinks. I love convincing them to put back down their coats, to stay another hour, to take a few more biscuits for the road.

    At various times, and for various reasons, I have been suspicious of this tendency. I have wrestled with the ease with which my love of a good time can curdle into a kind of aesthetic puppeteering, under which my guests become not people but social acquisitions: their introductions bylines. But over the past year and a half, as our parties have taken place – if at all – over Zoom, I have come to appreciate the raucous lightness of in-person gathering in a new way.

    Far from being frivolous (and, in many ways, because of its seeming frivolousness), the party – at least what I want to call a Good Party – offers us a vision of an affective polity, rather than an ideological or disengaged one. It is a practice for living.

    A Good Party is a place where bonds of friendship, fostered in a spirit of both charity and joy, serve as the building blocks for communal life overall. The wedding feast, that abundant banquet of Christian life, is always prefigured in the convivial symposium of friendship.

    The kingdom of heaven, when it comes, will be a very Good Party.

    Good Parties don’t merely offer us the opportunity to gather with those we love. Rather, more importantly, they teach us how to love. Good Parties foster the virtue of loving well. Good Parties improve, too, our moral vision. They teach us to see ourselves, and one another, differently. We learn to see ourselves as part of a community: one defined not by hierarchy or even shared affinity, in the capitalist-consumer sense, but simply by our love for one another. Our presence – rather than any of our accidental qualities, our jobs or our family status or even our hobbies – renders us a unified body. Before there is procedural politics, there is the truth of the social life: the fact that we cocreate, through our bonds of love, our sense of us, what formal politics institute.

    The Kingdom of heaven, when it comes, will be a very Good Party.

    The Good Party understands that what it means to live in common, in the abstracts elucidated by political theology, can never be divorced from our embodied experience of being with, and loving, other people. It understands that friendship – the family of love, rather than blood or birth – is at the heart of the Christian political life.

    The polis is not something out there, a problem for other people to solve, but rather something we learn to do here and now, together. The work of being with one another, of loving one another, of making one another at ease, of gently correcting one another when we err – all this might differ in degree, but not in kind.

    Parties, after all, are different from other social gatherings in two major respects.

    First, because they are by nature special: the time carved out for a party is always orthogonal to the rhythms of everyday life. For all that parties often commemorate certain events in “real life,” the space of a party itself is always a little bit liminal; all parties, however sedate, have a touch of the carnival about them, a sense that certain forms of social etiquette (and, vitally, hierarchy) need not apply.

    People sipping wine at an outdoor summer party

    Pierre Auguste Renoir Luncheon of the Boating Party (public domain)

    Second, and perhaps more importantly, parties (at least good parties) are different because they are useless. Or, more precisely, the usefulness of a party doesn’t consist of a purpose outside itself. It is not a coworking day in a café, a choir rehearsal, or even a church service. Rather, a Good Party’s concern is always exclusively with itself: with gathering qua gathering, with the fostering of social bonds. We become closer to those with whom we are already close; we foster, in turn, the relationships of people whom we, the hosts, may know well, but who may not know each other; we invite, too, newer acquaintances into a wider community.

    The Good Party understands that what it means to live in common, in the abstracts elucidated by political theology, can never be divorced from our embodied experience of being with, and loving, other people.

    It is for this reason that parties are, properly considered, a practice: in the sense of the word Alasdair MacIntyre offers us in After Virtue: a “coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.” Tic-tac-toe is not a practice, MacIntyre tells us, but chess is. As is football.

    As are parties.

    Not all parties, of course, are Good Parties. There are parties that exist primarily to offer us what MacIntyre might call external goods (fine booze, promising career or social-climbing opportunities, a set of flattering Instagram photos). These kinds of gatherings – networking events, snobbish would-be “salons,” and drunken bacchanals alike – I consider Bad Parties. A party that has as its end some temporal goal, the individual social or economic success of its host or its guests, cannot be a Good Party. Neither can a purely decadent rager – a party that exists to provide its individual guests with immediate sensual or erotic pleasure, but never engages its members as anything but an aggregation of individual consumers.

    Neither can a party that is designed for those who have come to “see and be seen” – offline or online. Nor a party whose guest list is carefully curated to include only people of a particular cultural stratum, or who possess necessary social capital. Good Parties, after all, are never snobbish.

    A Good Party, by contrast, whether silly (funny dress code!) or serious (discussing late modernity in the corner), exists primarily for itself. (At Good Parties, Instagram photos are banned.) Its virtues are what MacIntyre would call internal: it fosters in its attendees the same qualities of charity, of kindness, of appreciation for one another, of openness and vulnerability and effervescence, that are themselves the party’s aims. The guests of a Good Party will, by nature of invitations, have something in common (friendship with the host, say, or at least with someone present); yet no quality is required in us but our willingness to show up, our openness to being at a party in the first place, and to learning from those around us how to participate in joy.

    Read the rest of “On Good Parties” by Tara Isabella Burton

    Contributed By taraisabellaburton Tara Isabella Burton

    Tara Isabella Burton is an author, a columnist for the Religion News Service and a contributing editor at the American Purpose.

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