My friend Jeremiah sent me a link to the music video for the song “Dégénération,” by the French-Canadian band Mes Aïeux. In the video, an elderly Québécois farmer shovels dirt from a pile into a wheelbarrow before trudging deliberately down the furrows of a field to meet a slightly younger woman who scoops some into a bucket, spilling most. Hurrying down the row, she is met by a frantic young woman scrambling to fill her tiny rucksack before bolting onward, sometimes falling or dropping the bag, dumping the entire contents into the hands of a waiting, kneeling boy. While he receives only a tiny fraction of the soil from the barrow, and that only a pittance from the surplus from which the farmer draws, he discovers in the soil a picture of that same farmer, his ancestor. The boy then plants the picture back into the soil from which a small plant sprouts as the camera pulls back.
The sense of decline or degeneration down the generations is palpable, and the lyrics batter the claim repeatedly, with each stanza articulating a move from the great-great-great grandfather or mother down to the current generation. The first, maintaining the theme of soil, explains how the land was first cleared, then plowed, then turned a profit, then sold by “your father” who became an employee of the state (fonctionnaire), but you, “my boy,” have no idea what to do, although some strange desire for land is present from time to time.
So, too, with children and money. From the great-great-great grandmother’s fourteen children to the “accident” of your own birth to a mother who “didn’t want any” to your own abortions, despite your dreams of a “table surrounded by kids,” to the poverty of the past, relative ease of the boomers and your own despair, things are enervated and deracinated, torn from the soil, heritage, and meaning of mes aïeux (my ancestors).
For all that, though, the final verse captured me most, particularly after Jeremiah articulated his own sense of it. Your great-great-great grandparents, and their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren knew how “to celebrate,” (fêter) whether “swinging hard at parties” or even at the “disco,” but you “stay inside” to watch TV, even though the final words invite you to get up, dress up, and go dance, because “luckily in life some things refuse to change.”
“… ils savaient comment fêter”—they knew how to party, they knew how to celebrate. But it could also be they knew how to feast, or even, they knew how to keep a feast. Whatever their worth as translations, those last two options strike me as very rich notions, in part, because of the challenge posed by Nietzsche to his disenchanted contemporaries: “The trick is not to arrange a festival, but to find people who can enjoy it.” Or, as articulated by Josef Pieper, what are “the psychological prerequisites” for keeping a feast? What sort of people do we need to be?
Can we, now, keep a feast? Can we, now, enjoy one? Pieper works into the question, as he is wont to do, probing contemplation, telos, work, abundance, and so on, before quoting Nietzsche on the necessary condition for a fête, the reason why—“To have joy in anything, one must approve everything.” To celebrate anything, any particular moment of cause—a child, birthday, holy day, anything, “there has to be an absolutely universal affirmation extending to the world as a whole, to the reality of things and the existence of man himself.”
Such universal approval is hardly “shallow optimism” or “smug approval,” nor does it deny the tragic, but still festivity lives “in affirmation,” even the feasts for the dead depend on faith that “all is well with the world and life as a whole” or they would be meaningless and contradictory.
If this is right, then we cannot celebrate our way to joy, for if the conditions necessary to keep the feast are lacking we cannot engender joy, cannot en-joy the festival. Perhaps, then, the song is incorrect in claiming that “in life some things refuse to change.” Perhaps the great-great-great grandparents danced long into the night because they possessed the necessary conditions needed to celebrate, and perhaps your own dancing will not be a celebration so much as a letting off of steam, an entertainment, a distraction, a hook-up.
This past Friday, I was with several dozen members of my parish celebrating Oktoberfest. Lederhosen and dirndls were in ample supply, as was beer, a roasted pig, bratwurst, and oom-pah-pah, with dancing. I’m not much of a dancer, but I was moved to participate because of the delight of my children. My son (7) was so proud, so manly, so roosterish, as he lead his older (8) and younger (5) sisters around the floor. Never mind that he knew none of the steps, he danced out of joy. Most strikingly, my youngest (just 2) wove and bounced her way around, joining eyes and hands with other dancers somewhat willy-nilly. Hers was the way of affirmation, a deep and child-like sense that all was well, all was well, all manner of things were well, and thus she could keep the feast (célébrons la fête). She possessed the conditions of festivity and thus had joy.
In speaking to the host of the event, we remarked how many children were there (Catholic, you know), and how in years past he was asked if it was some sort of children’s thing. No, although he was glad it was thus not a drunken excess, but rather just an ordinary affirmation of life. The community had children because it affirmed life, and while no one had fourteen like the old grand-mères, there were a lot of kids dancing and eating and wrestling and shrieking with laughter. This was already within a community of affirmation, even when tragic, and even when incomplete, and that was enough for the community to want a festival, and that was enough, it seems, for the children to keep it well.
The next day, as the Eucharist was celebrated, I could not but think of the unity of faith and life, and how faith allows life to be entirely affirmed. Even how in these simple elements, gifts of God and the work of human hands, we affirmed the actual living presence of the One through whom the world was made.
We also kept the feast, and it was right and just (dignum et iustum est). And now we need to keep more feasts in the grand recovery and reconstitution of meaning that faces us all now.
Editor’s note: The image above entitled “The Marriage Feast at Cana” was painted by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo in 1675.