Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, September 10, 2010

Improvable Feasts

by Alain de Botton

Harper's Notebook (August 2010)

Whereas the Bedouin who surveys a hundred miles of empty sand will crave company and can psychologically afford to offer each stranger a warm welcome, his urban contemporaries, at heart no less well meaning or generous, must in order to preserve a modicum of balance live without any acknowledgment of the millions of human beings eating, sleeping, arguing, copulating, and dying only inches away. Modern society does not help us to put forward our more dignified sides. The public spaces in which we typically encounter others - commuter trains, jostling pavements, shopping malls, escalators, restaurants - conspire to throw up a demeaning picture of our collective identity. It can be hard to keep faith with humanity after a walk down Oxford Street or a transfer at O'Hare.

Our capacity to hold on to the concept that every person is necessarily the center of a complex, precious individuality is placed under potentially unbearable stress in the degraded settings where our meetings with our fellow citizens unfold. To interrupt the anonymity of a park with a remark on the pleasantness of the season will usually appear either insane or louche.

We do our best to shield our senses and retreat into private cocoons. We wield our technology - our cars and our computers, our Internet deliveries and our credit cards - to spare us all but minimal contact. Sealed away from crowds, we let the media teach us what other segments of humanity are like and, as a consequence, cannot help but expect that all strangers will be murderers, swindlers, vain celebrities, crooked politicians, and pedophiles, a trend that reinforces impulses to trust only those very few individuals who have been vetted for us by preexisting networks of family and class. Capitalism is committed to fracturing and dissolving our communal ties; it would rather we didn't know our neighbors, lest they detain us on the way to work or make us less likely to seek comfort from our loneliness through the purchase of new cushions. Its desired citizen relies on the companionship of BBC World and The Economist, the nourishment of room service, and the contents of a roller case in an airport hotel in Abu Dhabi or Shenzhen.

Formerly, we got to know people because we had to ask them for as well as offer them help. Charity was an integral part of pre-modern life. It was almost inevitable that one would, at some point, have to request money and be asked for some in turn in a world without a health system, unemployment insurance, public housing, or consumer banking. To be approached by a sick, frail, confused, homeless, or lost person did not immediately inspire one to look the other way and assume that one could pass on the responsibility to a government agency. Theologically, the capacity to respond to the distress of others was held to be central to one's claim to being a true Christian. Saint Thomas Aquinas placed at the center of his list of virtues that of misericordia, the capacity to dissolve the barriers between people and feel the pain of others as acutely as if it were one's own.

What lessons could a secularist interested in the spirit of community extract from the rituals of religion? One unlikely suggestion is that they might be applied to the widespread, often ineffectual, and disappointing practice of eating with people.

Lest this sound entirely peculiar, we should recall that what we now know as the Eucharist began as a meal, an occasion when early Christian communities would put aside their work and family commitments and gather together around a table (typically laden with wine, lamb stew, and unleavened bread) in order to commemorate the Last Supper. These acquaintances would talk, pray, and renew their commitments to Christ and to one another. Like the Jews with their Sabbath meal, early Christians understood that it is when we satiate our bodily hunger that we are most ready to direct our minds to the needs of others; they knew how to connect ambitious ideas to the diffuse feelings of warm satisfaction that follow the ingestion of a well-marinated stew. These gatherings became formalized under the name of Agape (love) feasts and were regularly held by Christian communities in the period between Jesus' death and the Council of Laodicea in 364 AD. It was only complaints about the excessive exuberance of some of the feasts that eventually led the Church to ban them and suggest that the faithful should eat at home with their families and only thereafter gather for a symbolic - spiritual rather than literal - carnal banquet, which we know today as the Eucharist.

Our frequent failure to properly connect eating with conviviality is manifest in modern restaurants, institutions that pay much lip service to the notion of companionability and yet rarely do more than proffer a simulacrum of it. The noise and activity of urban restaurants typically suggest a refuge from anonymity. With people in such close proximity, laughter ringing into the night air, we may trust that the barriers between ourselves and others will be eroded and our more heartfelt experiences shared and affirmed. But in reality, the restaurant makes no moves to present us to one another; it has no mechanisms for dispelling our mutual suspicions or for dissolving the clans into which we are segregated. We leave the restaurant much as we entered it, the venue merely reinforcing existing distinctions between friend and stranger. Like so many venues in the modern city (nightclubs, bars, art galleries), the restaurant rubs us up against people yet does nothing to connect us to them - as if we had forgotten that real community has precious little to do with just cohabiting a confined space. At our tables, we overhear anecdotes of our fellow diners and yet discover nothing of their souls. At best, our latent curiosity will find issue in a glance at someone's graceful face or, more often, their tempting side order.

The restaurant does not take what might be happening between diners as its responsibility. It understands its role to be strictly practical, limited to the arrangement of cutlery, the synchronized arrival of dishes, and the collection of crumbs. Religions, by contrast, are aware that our minds are unusually receptive to instruction at and through meals. The moments spent during the ingestion of food are especially propitious to moral education. It is as if the prospect of a bowl of zucchini fritters or a plate of gravlax and buttered toast can seduce us into showing some of the same generosity to others that the table has shown to us.

Religions know enough about our sensory, non-intellectual dimensions to be aware that we cannot be kept on a virtuous track simply through the medium of words. They know that our capacity to be kindhearted will be significantly enhanced if, along with homilies, they give us something to eat. They know they have a captive audience that is likely to accept a trade-off between ideas and nourishment - and so they turn meals into extended, subtly disguised ethical lessons. They will stop us just before we have the first sip and insert a thought that can be swilled down with the rich liquid like a tablet. They will use foods to represent concepts: for Christians that bread is the sacred body; for Jews at Passover that the dish of crushed apples and nuts is the mortar used by their enslaved predecessors to build warehouses for the Egyptians; for Zen Buddhists that the cups of slowly brewing tea are tokens of the transitory nature of happiness in a floating world.

Religions do not stop at introducing us to one another. They are also interested in what goes wrong inside groups once they are formed. It has been the particular genius of Judaism to focus on anger: how easy it is to feel, how hard it is to express, and how frightening and awkward it is to appease in others. We find the religion's response in Yom Kippur, one of the most effective mechanisms for the resolution of social conflict ever devised.

Falling on the tenth day of Tishrei, shortly after the beginning of the Jewish year, the Day of Atonement is a solemn and critical moment in the Hebrew calendar. According to Leviticus, Jews must break off from normal family and commercial activities and "humble" their souls. In practice, after mentally reviewing the preceding year, observers of the holy day identify those toward whom they have been unjust. They must then seek out all those they have frustrated, angered, discarded casually, and betrayed - and offer their fullest contrition. It is God's will and a rare chance for forgiveness. "All the people are in fault", says the evening prayer, so "may all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst".

Jews are advised to look up their colleagues, to sit with their parents and children, to send letters to acquaintances and lovers and ex-friends overseas, and to recollect their moments of temper, infidelity, cowardice, greed, and nastiness. In turn, those to whom they apologize are meant to recognize the sincerity and effort their erstwhile wrongdoers evince; rather than let bitterness well up once more, they must be ready to forgive, aware of the extent to which their own lives are similarly blemished.

The Day of Atonement has the great advantage of making the concept of saying sorry look like it came from somewhere else, the idea neither of the wrongdoer nor of the wronged. It is the day itself that makes us sit and talk about the evening six months ago when you lied and I shouted and you accused me of insincerity and I made you cry, an incident neither of us can quite forget but that we can't quite mention either, and that has been slowly corroding the trust and love we once had for each other. It is the day that has given us the opportunity, indeed the responsibility, to stop talking of our usual business and to reopen a case we pretended to have put out of our minds. We are not satisfying ourselves, we are obeying rules.

So worthwhile does the Day of Atonement seem, it is a pity there should be only one in the year. A secular world could without fear of excess adopt a version of the day to mark the start of every new quarter.

At the heart of so many religious rituals are antisocial feelings - aggression, lechery, envy, unbearable sadness. Expressed without restraint, they could break societies apart, yet repressed with equal passion they could end up overwhelming the sanity of individuals. The ritual is hence a mediating force (usually justified by supernatural sanction) between the demands of the individual and those of society. This controlled purgation demarcates a time and place where the demands of the self may be honored without running amok, and yet through which longer-term harmony and survival of the group can be ensured.

Religions are wise in not expecting their members to deal with emotions on their own. They know how shocking emotions can be and hence how difficult it is for us to find a way unaided to tell our mothers that we are furious or our children that we envy them or our spouses that we want to have sex with our friends. So they give us special days and roundabout ceremonies under the cover of which these troubling feelings can be processed. They give us lines to say and songs to sing in order to carry ourselves across the treacherous regions of our psyches and deliver us to the other side.

Belonging to a community is both very desirable and not very easy. In their understanding of this tension, religions are greatly more mature than those secular political theorists - nostalgists for bygone communal days - who wax lyrical about the villages of old but ignore the inescapably tragic aspects of social existence. Religions teach us to be polite, to honor one another, to be faithful and sensible, but they also acknowledge that if they require only these things of us, they will sunder our spirit. They therefore accept the debt that goodness, faith, and sweetness owe to their opposites.

At least, medieval Christianity understood. For most of the year it preached solemnity, order, restraint, fellowship, earnestness, a love of God, and sexual decorum - and then, at New Year's, it unleashed the festum fatuorum, the feast of fools, and for several days the world was upside down. Clergy played dice on the altar, brayed like donkeys instead of saying "Amen", had drinking competitions in the nave, farted to the Ave Maria, and delivered spoof sermons based on parodies of the Gospels (The Gospel According to the Chicken's Arse, perhaps, or The Gospel According to Luke's Toenail). After drinking tankards of ale, they held their holy books upside down, burned excrement instead of incense, and urinated out of bell towers. They tried to marry donkeys, tied giant woolen penises to their vestments, and held boozy orgies on the altar.

But none of this was just a joke. It was sacred, a parodia sacra, designed to make sure that for the rest of the year things would be the right way up. In 1444, the Paris Faculty of Theology explained to the bishops of France that the feast of fools must remain an indispensable part of Christianity,

in order that foolishness, which is our second nature and is inherent in man, can freely spend itself at least once a year. Wine barrels burst if from time to time we do not open them and let in some air. All of us men are barrels poorly put together ... This is why we permit folly on certain days: so that we may in the end return with greater zeal to the service of God.

If we want well-functioning communities, we cannot focus only on social virtues. We must also find a place for antisocial ones. We shouldn't banish feasting and debauchery to the margins, to be mopped up by police and frowned upon by commentators. We should give chaos pride of place once a year or so, an occasion on which we're able to be released from the two great pressures of secular adult life: to be rational and to be faithful. We should be allowed to talk gibberish, tie giant woolen penises to our vestments, and head out into the night to disappear with a stranger and copulate randomly and joyfully, and then return the next morning to our partners, safe in the assurance that it was nothing personal (no more than our apologies on the Day of Atonement), that it was the feast of fools that made us do it. A good community knows just how much there is in us that doesn't really want community - or at least can't handle it all the time. If we have our feasts of love, we must also have our feasts of fools.


Alain de Botton is the author, most recently, of A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary (2009). His essay "Arrivals" appeared in the May 2010 issue of Harper's Magazine.

Bill Totten