The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 20, 2019

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Culture? What Culture?
Anthony Esolen - 01/05/09

This is part four of a symposium on contemporary conservatism hosted by ISI at Yale in November, 2008. Find the previous installments here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three.

One of the roaringest scenes in English comedy happens at a kind of Renaissance Punch-and-Judy show. [1] It’s Saint Bartholomew’s Day, and the good folk of London have gathered for an earthy and merry celebration called Bartholomew Fair, complete with quack salesmen, young lovers trying to outwit their parents, men about town playing some fine practical jokes, an enormous foul-mouthed she-bear of a woman named Ursula, afflicted with the colic and selling roast pig, and a Puritan blowhard pinned with the great name Zeal-of-the-Land Busy. There’s a puppet show, too, wherein the classical tales of the lovers Hero and Leander are jumbled up with those patterns of self-denying friendship, Damon and Pythias. Naturally, it’s set on the shores of the Thames, and Leander is the son of a dyer, and Hero’s a bit of a tart. Their dialogue features such flights of amorous poetry as these, from Hero:

O Leander, Leander, my dear, my dear Leander,
I’ll forever by the goose, so thou’lt be my gander.

To which Leander replies in kind:

And sweetest of geese, before I go to bed,
I’ll swim over the Thames, my goose, thee to tread.

“Treading,” you may know, is what Master Sparrow does to Miss Sparrow, when the showers of April and the warm west wind set their hearts a-fluttering. But then Damon and Pythias arrive, and when they see Leander kissing Hero, they cry out that she’s a whore, Hero responds by inviting them to do something not mentionable in polite society, and before you know it the puppets are all pummeling one another about the heads.

Something has to resolve the chaos, so the god descends from on high—and it really is in this case a deus ex machina, on handles and strings. It’s Dionysus, of course, dressed up as a schoolmaster, upbraiding Damon and Pythias. Then all at once Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, the Puritan, bursts through the audience of the puppet show to put an end to the festivities. “Down with Dagon!” he cries, as if he were Samson tied to the pillars of Gaza, ready to bring the theater down upon the heads of the Philistines. “Down with Dagon! ’tis I, I will no longer endure your profanations!” But there’s a happy end to this attempt at the destruction of culture. For Busy is enticed into an argument on the merits of play-acting by the puppet Dionysus, and loses. The climax comes when Busy repeats a standard criticism of Tudor and Jacobean plays, performed by troupes of men and boys, “for the male among you,” he intones, “putteth on the apparel of the female, and the female of the male.” You lie, says Dionysus—for puppets are neither male nor female, and to prove it he lifts his garment for all the world to see. “Be converted, be converted!” he cries to the Puritan. “Let it go on,” says Busy, “for I am changed, and will become a beholder with you.”

I have said there was a happy end to the attempt to destroy that culture; I am not sure there will be, or has been, a happy end to the attempt to destroy ours. Sixty years ago, in Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Joseph Pieper wrote that western Europeans were rapidly forgetting what it meant even to possess a culture at all. [2] His reasons, I believe, are borne out by the wild scene I have just described. Let us ask what makes that scene possible, or rather what makes anything like what it portrays impossible to find, anywhere in the west today.

Let’s look at the biggest and most obvious thing first, because, since it is so big and so obvious, it is the easiest to miss. Ben Jonson’s play is called Bartholomew Fair, because it is celebrated on Saint Bartholomew’s Day, and it is a fair. Anything may happen at a feast or a fair. In fact it is the feast, properly speaking, that clears room for a fair. One of the objects of modernity, Pieper suggests, has been to turn us all into proletarians; I shall have more to say about this soon. But, suggests Plato in the Laws, it is only in the feast that man can stand up with shoulders unbowed and dwell in the light of the gods. [3] Or, to glean wisdom from the Old Testament, it makes no sense for us to be delivered from bondage in Egypt, only to fall into the deeper bondage of an existence without aim, without God to praise, and the feast that attends the praise. So, says the Lord to Moses,

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. (Ex. 20:8–11)

Note that it is not mere inactivity that the Lord commands of his people. Otherwise why should he command that even their resident strangers and their servants should do no work, either? If the purpose of the sabbath is to rest the machine called the body, that purpose can be attained on any day of the week, regardless of what anybody else is doing. It is precisely the nature of a feast, rather, that everyone be invited to it, and that it be directed towards something beyond the work of the other days. In other words, God reminds his people that their work itself is to partake of the exuberance, the freedom, of the feast; it is the Sabbath of praise for which the world was made.

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