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Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton is the author of the novel Social Creature (Doubleday, 2018) and the nonfiction book Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (Public Affairs, 2020). She is a contributing editor at The American Interest and a columnist for Religion News Service.

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 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.

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.

 

These two elements together render Good Parties inherently democratic.

The very premise of a Good Party—that all who are here are welcome, and thus already in some sense trusted—makes redundant the grasping and pernicious questions (“What do you do? Where are you from? How are you important?”) of the good party’s wickedest counterpart: the networking event.

The Good Party never undermines its guest list. It is never snobbish in crafting that list in the first place. Everybody who is present is important. They are important because they are here. It is the first principle from which all other aspects of the Good Party must proceed.

The Good Party understands, too, that what we might call worldly social hierarchies—of class, of race, of birth, of fashionable types of power—result from our own sinfully warped categories of cognition; a Good Party demands that we rather remake our social bonds, to expand our sense of family, of “in-group,” of us, to include all those who would participate in a spirit of love.

The Good Party never undermines its guest list. It is never snobbish in crafting that list in the first place. Everybody who is present is important. They are important because they are here. It is the first principle from which all other aspects of the Good Party must proceed.

A Good Party challenges us to know people anew, to come to know them within a setting where friendship, rather than formal status, is paramount. It makes strangers into friends, to be sure, but it is also—in the best sense—makes friends into strangers; encourages us to look at them with newer, clearer vision. A silly dress code, a game of snapdragon, a drunken singalong to show tunes, all these provide the opportunity for those we love to show us new sides of themselves. I once developed a whole new affection for a friend of many years’ standing upon seeing him show up to a “fruits”-themed party dressed as a lemon peel in a Martini glass.

 

This sense of the carnival, in turn, helps us know one another more deeply.

This is not because, as Erving Goffman might have it, we are always playing roles—that we are different people in the boardroom and at the bar, and that there is no inherent self. Nor is it because there is some primordial or authentic self that is somehow stymied by the ordinary course of social relations—that we can only be, or see, our “true” selves outside of more formalized social contexts. Rather, it is because, at a gathering of friends, a miniature polis of people united by no fact other than friendship, be it of personal affection or shared affinity toward some good (and it is in practice all but impossible to separate the two), we are able to most carefully turn our faculties of attention to those we love. Because a party has no telos other than itself, no productive goal or clear outcome, it allows us to pay closer attention to those we love, as they are; it allows us, in turn, to be vulnerable to those who love us. When we celebrate joyfully with one another, in this liminal space, we are also seeing those we love as they really are.

In this, the Good Party is transgressive. I do not mean transgressive in the sense that a merely raucous debauch is transgressive (which is to say: aesthetically only, and fundamentally not at all). The transgression of a Good Party is not defined by anonymous sex or wanton drunkenness or rampant drug use, nor by any other kind of onanistic hedonism, but rather by the reimagining of how we know another, outside worldly categories. The carnival aspect of a Good Party allows us to consider the world anew: to question from a loving distance what parts of “real life” are actually real, and which only convention.

Which parts of the world, in other words, could stand to be more like parties.

 

My husband and I are now vaccinated. We will resume, as soon as is prudent, the hosting of parties. But in their absence, as I have reckoned with missing them, I have come to think with more reservations about the difference between Good Parties and Bad ones, about the ones that point to the promise of the new Jerusalem and the ones that simply reproduce the worst of what the world already is, about the ones we go to to be photographed at, and the ones we go to so that other people might transform us; the ones I miss and the ones life is better without. In the post-COVID order, I hope parties will be many and plentiful. But I hope, with more clarity than I once did, that they will also be Good.