Dies Festus

by Justin Clemens


Although the academic conferences dry up like a desert pool, the literary festivals never end. From Adelaide and Alice Springs to Woollahra and the Whitsundays, it’s a perpetually-effervescing celebration of writing of all kinds. Whether you’re into poetry or prose, digital writing or graphic novels, romance, sci-fi, horror, crime, comic extravaganzas, theatricals, screen-writing, non-fiction, creative non-fiction, uncreative writing, business-writing, medical-writing, science-writing, adult or children’s literature, emerging, aging, dead or unborn writers, art books, rare books, common books, no books, Indigenous or Jewish writers, the country, the coast, or the city — there’s a festival for you. In August alone, you could trip through Bendigo to Byron Bay to Brisbane, from Mackay to Mudgee to Melbourne, and not be done with all the excitement.

Confronting this pan-banging charivari, I always feel I’m coming down with Long Anticipated Festival Fatigue Syndrome (LAFFS). Can I really take one more panel discussion on ‘science and religion’? Can I sit through another pre-scripted ‘interview’ with an eminent foreign tweeter? How many more cheerless and protracted readings can I submit myself to? Will I even make it to the end of the day, let alone the end of the month? As the poet Michael Farrell once confessed to me, ‘I’m just trying to take it one festival at a time.’ If only that were possible.

There was a moment in the 1980s when cultural theorists — partially due to their dazzlement by newly-translated tracts of Mikhail Bakhtin — were moved to extol the allegedly populist or radical aspects of traditional carnivals. You could barely leaf through a journal or browse an academic shelf without being brow-beaten by a febrile paean to the allegedly transgressive nature of the risus paschalis (the days when laughter was permitted in church) or one of its close relatives. Yea, it were verily risus all round in those heady days. In Bakhtin’s own words: ‘The Middle Ages, with varying degrees of qualification, respected the freedom of the fool’s cap and allotted a rather broad license to laughter and the laughing word. This freedom was bounded primarily by feast days and school festivals. Medieval laughter is holiday laughter.’[1] Parody, travesty, inversion, obscenity — all these entered the hallowed circle of insurrectionary quasi-populism to be blessed in the festive dance by the angelic chorus of the bourgeois-baiting professoriat, the Saints Calendar become a showbag-toting Triumph of Corporate Acronyms.

One thing scholarly celebrants rarely seemed to mention about such celebrations was the possibility that people might have undertaken them as unwelcome, dreary, or exhausting tasks. No, it was all about the uproarious political and social games of arsy-versy, of mad people usually excluded from town being allowed back in on special days to crap on the church altar, or the intense crypto-revolutionary affects of drunken mob violence. The philosophical obsession with Orphean sparagmos (‘rending’) runs pretty deep in high-end European culture. Hence G.W.F. Hegel intones in his famous ‘Preface’ to the Phenomenology of Spirit that: ‘The True is thus the Bacchanalian revel in which no member is not drunk; yet because each member collapses as soon as he drops out, the revel is just as much transparent and simple repose.’[2] Friedrich Nietzsche renovates the famous opposition between the ‘Dionysian’ and ‘Apollonian,’ whereby the former leads to a destruction of the principium individuationis ‘under the influence of the narcotic draught.’[3] As Charles Baudelaire somewhere puts it, ‘get drunk, get drunk, and never pause for rest!’

It’s the never pausing I emphasize here. As the critic Dominic Pettman points out in his reflections on the current age, After the Orgy: ‘Fatigue…. is one of the fundamental notions in response to modernity.’[4] Pettman’s title is itself a riff on an obscene witticism of Jean Baudrillard; to wit, what do you do when you’ve already done it all at the orgy? If I had the energy, I’d probably push Pettman’s point even further. The problem today isn’t just the fatigue of the post-, but the enervation of the pre-. Worse still — given the contemporary domination of time by festivals — it’s pre-, post-, and inter-, all at once. The festivals just don’t stop coming, but I just can’t keep (it) up.

The word ‘festival’ — meaning ‘a time of festive celebration,’ ‘a musical performance or series of performances at recurring periods,’[5] etc. — enters English from Old French festivel around the beginning of the 15th century. Festivel itself derives from mediaeval Latin festivalis, which goes back in turn to festivus, and thence to festus. In their 1879 Latin Dictionary, Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short give the etymology for festus as deriving from Sanskrit, bhas, shine, which becomes the ancient Greek ϕα-, ϕαινα. Festus means ‘of or belonging to the holidays (in opp. to the working-days), solemn, festive, festal, joyful, merry.’[6] I want to point to four significant features of this definition. The first is that it is linked to the power of appearing of light (of which more shortly). The second is the opposition between the festive moment and the working week, which to some extent corresponds to the distinction between otium and negotium. The third is the seeming contradiction between solemnity and joy. The fourth is the programmed recurrence of the event itself, at once a one-off and an always-coming-back.[7]

The Sanskrit-Greek root deepens the levels of significance: ϕαινα translates as ‘to bring to light,’ ‘to make appear,’ ‘to manifest,’ but also ‘to inform against,’ ‘to indict, impeach.’[8] Martin Heidegger makes a big deal of this etymology, turning it into the legitimating backstory for the philosophical project of phenomenology:

The Greek expression ϕαινομενον, to which the term ‘phenomenon’ goes back, is derived from the verb ϕαινεσθαι, which signifies ‘to show itself.’ Thus ϕαινομενον means that which shows itself, the manifest. ϕαινεσθαι itself is a middle-voiced form which comes from ϕαινω — to bring to the light of day, to put in the light. Φαινω comes from the stem ϕα—, like ϕως, the light, that which is bright — in other words, that wherein something can become manifest, visible in itself. Thus we must keep in mind that the expression ‘phenomenon’ signifies that which shows itself in itself, the manifest.[9]

Manifestation, Heidegger hastens to add, is therefore not simply appearance or appearing, which is struck by a division between what appears and what remains inapparent. A festival is the light that lights itself, manifestation as such, the apparition of a god.[10] But it is also to be called to a place of trial and judgement.

You can see the paradox. At once non-work, yet a kind of sacral labour; merry, yet solemn; excessive, yet regulated; an event, yet a repetition. Here, Sigmund Freud is characteristically precise: ‘A festival is a permitted, or rather an obligatory, excess, a solemn breach of a prohibition. It is not that men commit the excesses because they are feeling happy as a result of some injunction they have received. It is rather that excess is of the essence of a festival; the festive feeling is produced by the liberty to do what is as a rule prohibited.’[11] (It is also striking how often Freud talks about holidays in his letters). It is presumably for similar reasons that Walter Benjamin, in the course of discussing the ‘fear, revulsion and horror’ that urban crowds inspired in their early spectators, invokes the paintings of James Ensor. Ensor, Benjamin remarks, ‘liked to put military groups in his carnival mobs, and both got along splendidly as the prototype of totalitarian states, in which the police make common cause with the looters.’[12] Festival is not only an obligatory and excessive transgression, then, but one which bespeaks a politics of moralized social control. Today, universal festerfication might also be questioned as to its contribution to environmental degradation: its carbon trail alone thrashes about like a demon’s tail in the choking cerulean.[13]

But is this really the case for writers’ festivals, of all things? We live in a culture in which the form of the festival has taken on grotesque disproportions. The moniker ‘writer’ is now of such broad application that persons who have the most tenuous or obsolete connection with writing, such as Boris Johnson or Clive Palmer, are often given centre stage and big billing; and where film directors, media editors, radio hosts, installation artists, interest group-advocates, random business-people and so on, are regularly stacking the slots alongside more traditional, um, writers. I’m not complaining about the expansiveness of such a development. I’m noting the dissimulating principle or, if you prefer, the principal driver of this expansion.

Let’s put this another way. The One God of our Time — Money, basically — now manifests Itself in Itself as the ceaseless concatenation of countless festivals. In this concatenation, the form of the re-presentation — ‘festivity’ itself — overwhelms any and all particular contents. We, its flagging slaves, from exalted Directors to humble Attendees, exhaustedly comply with the injunction to transgressive enjoyment as the appalling duty it is. Have fun out there.

[1] M.M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. M. Holquist, trans. C. Emerson and M. Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 107.
[2] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller with Analysis and Foreword J.N. Findlay (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 27. See also Hegel’s analysis of the emergence of the cult frenzy in ancient Greece, pp. 437-453, under the heading of ‘Religion in the Form of Art.’
[3] F. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, trans. C.P. Fadiman (New York: Dover, 1995), p. 3.
[4] D. Pettman, After the Orgy: Towards a Politics of Exhaustion (Albany: SUNY, 2002), p. ix.
[5] See the Oxford English Dictionary Online.
[6] C.T. Lewis and C. Short, A Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879).
[7] Gilles Deleuze makes the point that ‘This is the apparent paradox of festivals: they repeat an “unrepeatable.” They do not add a second and a third time to the first, but carry the first time to the “nth” power,’ Difference and Repetition, trans. P. Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 1. For his part, Hans Georg Gadamer offers a theory of lived temporality that is itself dependent upon the festival: ‘To the essence of the festival belong, therefore, a time or place that is festive. This essence is revealed in an exemplary fashion in the return of festivals. It is however not the case, as Gadamer rightly notes, that a festival is said to return because it enters a particular order of time, but rather the other way around — the ordering of time occurs due to the returning of the festival,’ J. Grondin, ‘Play, Festival, and Ritual in Gadamer: On the theme of the immemorial in his later works,’ in H.G. Gadamer and L.K. Schmidt (eds.), Language and Linguisticality in Gadamer’s Hermeneutics (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2000), p. 46.
[8] See entry in Liddell and Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), pp. 853-4.
[9] M. Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962), p. 51.
[10] Jacques Derrida notes that: ‘One will never separate the coincidence of the ray of the sun and topographical inscription: phenomenology of religion, religion as phenomenology, enigma of the Orient, of the Levant, and of the Mediterranean in the geography of appearing. Light (phos), everywhere that this arkhè commands and commences discourse, and gives the initiative in general (phos, phainesthai, phantasma, therefore spectre, etc.), as much in philosophical discourse as in the discourse of a revelation (Offenbarung) — or in revealability (Offenbarkeit), of a more originary possibility of manifestation,’ Foi et Savoir (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2000), p. 15.
[11] S. Freud, Totem and Taboo, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XIII (1913-1914), trans. J. Strachey et al. (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1955), p. 140.
[12] W. Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. H. Zohn, intro. H. Arendt (London: Fontana, 1992), p. 170.
[13] This is where the genius of Georges Bataille meets its contemporary limit and apotheosis: even he, who analysed the rationality and necessity of expenditure for the health of any organism or system, didn’t go so far as to imagine the contemporary development of global capitalism to the point that it now knowingly and aggressively assaults its own conditions of existence, threatening much of the planet’s conditions for life. Certainly, Bataille would hardly be surprised by this development. See G. Bataille, The Accursed Share, 3 Volumes, trans. R. Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1988/1991).

Photo credit: ‘The Peasant Dance’ by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, taken from Wikipedia