No Feasts without God

I think that the modern world may be defined by a sign I imagine standing in front of every town hall, public school, playground, ball field, courthouse, and capitol in the country: NO FEASTING.

Debaucheries and political rallies there may be. Parades too, though they have become rare since I was a boy, because purely secular feeling can hardly inspire a parade. And riots – mustn’t forget riots. But feasts, no.

I have just read Fyodor Abramov’s novella, The New Life: A Day on a Collective Farm (1963). Its deadpan exposure of the wastage, the confusions, and the hypocrisy of socialist agriculture shook the Soviet public. The reviewer for Time called it “a startling indictment of the apathy, discontent and frustrating failure of collective farm life that still exists after more than four decades of Soviet rule.” That it is – but whence cometh the apathy? I might rather ask, “Where are the feasts?”

There once was a church in the farm village that Abramov describes, but its spires have been taken down, and it is now used as a dance hall. “With ropes and to shouts of ‘hurrah,’” Musovsky, the chief of the kolkhoz remembers, “they had pulled down the crosses from the churches, adapted the altar to make a stage – and there was the club.”

But the building is getting shaky. They will need a new club, Musovsky says to himself, because otherwise the young people will leave the farm. A full day’s work, he says, wasn’t enough for them: “They wanted pleasure too.”

Pleasure they get there, of a sort, dancing to the strains of an accordion, when the brigadier shows up, a frustrated hard-working hard-drinking Communist woman, quite drunk, foul-mouthed, looking for female flesh. Her youth, Musovsky thinks, was swallowed up by the war, and now she lives flailing from work to vodka.

Such is Saturday night, after a bad week. The party officials – think of Human Resource departments – have ordered Musovsky to harvest the grain before the hay, even though the grain could wait while the hay, 170 acres of it, is lying unharvested and rotting in a week of hard rain. Musovsky spends his Saturday from morning to night going from house to house, trying to get the farmers to show up on the morrow for a day of work now that the rain has passed. They all say no.

The Soviets preserved the custom of the Sabbath without the religious devotion that inspired it. It was rest for the human machine. It could be overridden by orders from above. But nobody wants to do the work.

Anticipating the wrath of his superiors, Musovsky gives up and goes to the tearoom in despair. He wakes up at 11:30 the next morning with a hangover and only the vaguest notion of what he said or did at the tearoom. But when he goes out to the fields, he finds they are filled with men and women cheerfully working:

And in the meadow. . . .All that was happening there!

A multitude of white kerchiefs – far outnumbering the daisies; the heads of the peasants and the lads, heads of every color; and the urchins, like foals, tearing over green stubble of the reaped meadow. . . .Something about the scene reminded one of the early days of the [farm] when the village still seethed with a surplus of energy.

What has brought them out to work on Sunday morning? Conscience? Exuberance? Duty? Pity for their beleaguered chief? Not at all. Apparently, while he was drunk in the tearoom, Musovsky promised the peasants a 30 percent share of the farm’s profits. Money got them going – personal interest, as always.

They are hardly to blame. We must not think them greedy. The system has kept them as little more than serfs. They do not even have internal passports to travel at will through the country. So they are happy now. Some of them may earn enough to buy that luxury called a cow. But it is no feast.

Once, when I taught at Providence College, at that time obviously though not determinedly Catholic, I attended the graduation ceremony at which the valedictorian was to speak, along with the winner of that year’s award for teaching.

The valedictorian came first. He was one of the brightest and most cheerful students I have known, and he spoke about what he had learned in the same way as Dante spoke about Beatrice, leading him closer to Christ and the truth. It was beautiful.

Then came the professor, and she spoke in bad educational patois. She had no sense of anticlimax, because she had no sense of the festal occasion and of the speech she had just heard.

For there is no feast, said Josef Pieper, without the gods, no matter how dim the memory of their presence may be. By curious and happy coincidence, the very word feast, from Latin festa, is a cousin of Greek Theos, God. Their common root has to do with what is set apart as sacred.

Most of our countrymen have never known a feast. It is our duty then, if they will not attend our feasts, to bring our feasts their way, so that they may be drawn to them despite themselves.

Meanwhile, we should be aware of what in our time and place is the shabby secular club that Abramov described, and the peasants sweating on Sunday: not a congregation but a mob; not song but slogan-chanting and shouting; not your Sunday best but clothing and flesh as billboards; not prayer but political jargon, predictable, portentous, and vain; not the memory of saints or heroes, but their defamation, or the elevation of demagogues, knaves, and harridans to their place; not humility but humiliation of others, redounding upon the agents; not gratitude but the gnawing of an inner emptiness.

Bring the feast their way, while the law still permits us to do so.


*Image: We Will Beat the Enemy with our Bolshevik Harvest Gathering by A.G. Sittaro, 1941

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.