Parties were never on my mind more than when I wasn’t attending any. I avoided them for a couple of years, and my interest sharpened as a result. Parties were a very notable casualty of the beginning years of the coronavirus pandemic, though, it must be said, they were a pretty trifling one. Compared with the more than 1 million American lives lost, the lack of parties felt like something that was not worth grieving or complaining about. What is a party in the face of such anguish?
But there’s a sadness to be found in waiting for parties to resume. Multiple years spent under the shadow of the coronavirus have felt, at least to me, like years lived entirely within those last couple of hours before a party you’re throwing is scheduled to start—years of pacing, of overthinking certain details, of nervous questioning: Who will show first? Will anyone come? What’s worse, these feelings have intensified with time, developing sharper edges. Mild social anxiety has blossomed into full-fledged fear. A party, after all, is a gamble; it courts both opportunity and disaster. This is why some of us find parties thrilling. It’s also why many of us dread them.
I think, for example, of all the parties I have ever attended that I didn’t want to attend, or attended only to devote much of my time to questioning why I was there. Parties are supposed to present opportunities for celebration and joy, yet many are weighed down by other considerations, including those that arise from feelings of social responsibility. Sometimes a party is something we want, long for, and look forward to. But sometimes it can feel like something else: a duty, an obligation, even a punishment.
Throughout the first several hundred years of the word’s existence, party primarily referred to parts of a whole. It stems from the old French parti, which meant a “part, portion.” Later, the word party also came to refer to groups of people who had something in common, such as an opinion or a political cause. The history of the term is thus marked by a tension between communion and partition, with the word sometimes favoring one or the other side.
The history of parties is tangled up with a history of privilege, which is to say, of economic class. When we think of the great partyers of history, we tend to think of those who commanded opulence and wealth, like Marie Antoinette. These historic persons, true to party’s etymology, used their wealth to set themselves apart, to create space and erect fortifications between themselves and others. A party is a device to unite and join, but it is also one that can be used to create or reinforce conditions of separation. An invitation beckons to its target audience and, at the same time, announces to others that they are not welcome.
No wonder parties have the power to make us anxious. They are from their very roots, and even on the level of language, steeped in the stuff of anxiety.
Yet parties persist, in difficult times and even when they’re not supposed to. If parties may be viewed as high points of living—as apexes of hanging out—then it stands to reason that we might look to them when life proves particularly hard. But how does one do that? How is a person supposed to muster the energy and enthusiasm for a party when faced with all the immediate concerns presented by hardship?
The writer Henry Green offers a cautionary tale of how certain frivolous types of people use parties as a form of distraction. Written during the Great Depression, Green’s novel Party Going is about a fictional group of 20-somethings associated with the “Bright Young Things” set. This was a name given to real-life, elite revelers whose exploits filled the British tabloid magazines of the 1920s and ’30s. In Green’s novel, the group is on its way to a party, but becomes stranded at a London railway station on account of fog. They wait out the weather at the station hotel, where they gather in “desperate good humour” and try (but not too hard) to have a good time. That involves fending off a series of existential crises that result from not being at a party. The irony of the situation, of course, is that Green’s characters are all there together. They constitute a group, a faction, a party, in a technical and pure sense. But they are not where parties are supposed to take place for people like them, and this makes them miserable. They while away the hours in stylish despair, blocked from the aesthetic richness that they think makes life more meaningful or, perhaps, that shields them from the meaninglessness of the lives they have built for themselves.
Green’s snapshot of this era appears glitzy and composed, at least at first glance. His characters, who are essentially overgrown children, engage in witty debates about superficial concerns. They complain about the “tiresome” fog, viewing it as a personal affront to their plans, and one character considers the social acceptability of helping oneself to a host’s liquor and making a cocktail while that host is absent. But all that repartee serves to disguise feelings of social awkwardness and ineptitude. By the time the fog lifts and the trains start running again, the hours spent together in close quarters have caused many of their relationships to sour, making the prospect of the party they were bound for feel less attractive. Their party-going, Green suggests, has been revealed for what it is: a means of evasion. What they were really seeking, all along, was not a good time, or even a respite from the world of the Great Depression, but activity for activity’s sake, to keep them busy. Their ceaseless quest for distraction ends up exposing them to the vacuous truth of normal life.
But seen through the lens of a period such as the Great Depression, a good party may look not simply like a means of distraction but also like a survival mechanism. A party instills a pause that, sometimes, works to delay the inevitable and allows its participants to rest and plan. A party gathers people together and grants them temporary shelter within the space of that pause. A party cannot solve the problems of the world, of course, but it can be the spark that sets the fires of courage burning for the people who must face those problems.
Another way of saying this is that parties are about exercises in wishful thinking. We throw parties in order to fashion containers for the preservation of hope. Even the verb we use to encapsulate that action, throw, might suggest tossing a life preserver into open water. A party is a place to park our dreams. We stuff our parties full of the things that we desire most from the world: sex, desirability, social companionship, indulgence, freedom from consequences. Then we go back to the real work, which is the work of living, and we wait for the next one to come around.
Back when I was in college, I think our parties were all about hope. They were where we practiced and performed our skills as fledgling adults. They included elaborate themes and costumes because we were in Ohio, a place that forces a person to make her own fun, and also because dressing up is sacred to the work of performance itself.
I recall, for instance, one of the last parties I ever attended on campus. Some friends of mine had concocted a plan for a final costume party. Its theme was pointedly aspirational: Dress as the person you will be in 10 years.
Rain poured down that night, the sort of rain that used to bend the lilacs to the ground and scatter their blossoms across the campus sidewalks. I was dressed in all tweed, having cobbled together a Goodwill outfit. I showed up soaking wet, wearing what felt like 10 pounds of sopping wool. A friend of mine was dressed like a kindergarten teacher, in a smock that had finger paint smeared all over the front of it. Last I heard, she’s teaching preschool in Portland.
We were using these costumes of ours to communicate and advertise our hopes for the future. I hoped that in 10 more years, I would have realized my dream of being a college professor. I had dressed up as something I was not in order to reveal something that I wanted very badly, something I was scared of trying for, because it is a very terrifying thing to have to try.
At that party, I felt exposed, because I knew that I was announcing my intentions in a very public way. I had dressed in a heavy woolen three-piece suit, on a hot and stormy May night, not because I had ever seen a college professor of mine actually wear one but because I knew the outfit spoke in the way I wanted it to and said the things I was still afraid of saying out loud, to myself or anyone else. But my fears proved smaller than the seductions of hope. I wanted to gather with my friends, to squeeze into a dorm room one last time and bask in those collectively generated currents of optimism. I was using a performative gesture in order to feel the weight of the future in my hand, to test whether it might be possible after all.
That’s why we need parties, even as we might dread them. They force us to make time to envision our desires and aspirations. If parties are about fantasy, then to live without them means to live without routinized opportunities for collective fantasy-building. Back during the peak of social distancing, parties felt impossible—and, sometimes, so did the future. Moving forward, we’re going to have to work to reclaim both.
This article has been excerpted from Sheila Liming’s forthcoming book, Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time.