What do you mean, we've got to have fun?
This New Year, more than any other, the pressure will be on us all to have a good time. But what are we really celebrating this Millennium: a Christian event or an ancient, pagan tradition that dates back even further than 2,000 years? By Nick Lezard
Tuesday 28 December 1999
The obvious point about New Year celebrations is that they take place in winter, the time of Saturnalia, of licensed festivity that can look very much like debauchery. It is a time of inversion: the suspension of duty when work is particularly essential; being awake when you are normally in bed; defiant brightness in a darkened land. (It is no accident that the most spectacular way the Millennium is to be marked will be by the creation of a "river of fire" along the River Thames, the black body of water transformed into a ribbon of light.) We are in two minds whether we are celebrating a Christian event or a pagan tradition. Ancient Saturnalia revelled also in an inversion of the established political order: rulers became subjects, and subjects enjoyed, in token at least, the privileges of the rulers' authority. They could do, up to a point, what they liked.
This is already making our authorities uneasy. Their point, the limit of their idea of excess, is not the same as ours. However Tony Blair and Jack Straw enjoy themselves in private, the impression we get from their fiats is very much of people who do not indulge themselves inordinately and who strongly disapprove of those who do. Most of the time that does not bother us; for while we may in the past have vacillated between the extremes of Puritan rule and the dedicated hedonism of the Restoration court, these days, on the whole, we do not like the thought of people in control of nuclear arsenals getting blotto. (Or, in Boris Yeltsin's case, staying blotto.)
This year, the stakes are considerably raised. We are being told to have fun. Normally we do not have to be told. But now we are being urged to enjoy ourselves for a particular occasion, all at once, by the kind of people who would turn in their own sons for selling a small amount of a harmless but illegal drug enjoyed by citizens throughout the land.
Peter Mandelson, when organising the Dome's contents (after the liberal intelligentsia had undergone a collective fit of the vapours after his inspirational trip to Walt Disney World), has been quoted as saying that whatever is going to be exhibited beneath it, it will be "above all, fun".
Well, we'll see. I have just seen photos of two exhibits - a plastic shopping trolley and a washing machine that can take 50 per cent more clothes than a normal one, and if either of those is your idea of fun then I envy you, for the world must be a constant source of delight. AP Herbert's 1935 joke about the pomposity of government - in Uncommon Law: "People must not do things for fun. We are not here for fun. There is no reference to fun in any Act of Parliament" - wouldn't be funny now.
But you can sense the Government's unease, and not just because they so obviously distrust and maybe even dislike the people they govern (a particularly dismaying development after 18 years of official Conservatism). People are ornery: the collective mind is still not as sheep-like as we think it is, or as easily led as our Government would like it to be. And no man, as Samuel Johnson once remarked, is a hypocrite in his own pleasures. When we are having fun is one of the few times we are being honest with ourselves.
Besides, we are attracted by contraries, and fun contains great contradictions within itself. If fun is the release from duty, or obligation, then the obligation to have fun becomes a self-cancelling proposition in itself. ("Are we having fun yet?" being the sardonic rallying cry of people required to enjoy themselves.)
The problem is that we are still, nominally, living in a Christian culture. While it is debatable how much practical effect that has on our everyday lives, it still looms over us, in the background, and particularly so at this time of year. Christianity, as it is generally understood these days, has a problem with fun, and has had, not only since pre-Christian Sodom and Gomorrah got what was coming to them, but officially ever since St Augustine of Hippo confidently asserted that there was no "frivolous jollity" in paradise; having earlier prayed: "Give me chastity and continence - but not yet," he was as rigorous a prosecutor of revelry as any ex- smoker proselytising against the weed.
He was very unhappy with the idea that married couples could find sex pleasurable, for example, and, with the implicit backing of St Paul, helped to turn Christianity into the particularly joyless sect it has largely remained ever since. The English revolution of the 17th century was about power and politics, but it was also about religion, and, in particular, what constitutes seemly behaviour under its observance.
The Civil War was about fun as well as about the Divine Right. The lines, though, are never clearly inked in, and to be a Puritan did not invariably mean that you turned your nose up at common pleasures; sects such as the Antinomians excused themselves from all conventional morality - absolutely anything went - on the grounds that God could not have created any ignoble desires. Whatever you think about that, it is preferable to the rank hypocrisy of those fruity Borgia and Medici popes who would proclaim one thing and, behind closed doors, have parties that rewarded the man who ejaculated into the most courtesans in one night.
Which is, nevertheless, along the right lines, even if those in power invariably get the willies - as it were - at the thought of the common herd enjoying the same kind of pleasures that they revel in. Fun, or revelry, can be inordinately distasteful - degrading, even. Like Woody Allen's bon mot about sex being dirty, fun should be degrading, if you're doing it right.
All this should call to mind Dr Johnson's remark about turning ourselves into beasts occasionally in order to forget about the state of being human; and, in one sense, beasts are what we turn into when we are having fun. (Just think of the boys turning into donkeys in Pinocchio, as they learn to do nothing else but have fun on what the Disney film version renamed Pleasure Island, but was originally known as the Land of the Boobies - isn't it funny how the adult section of Disney World, the section you can get drunk in, is also named Pleasure Island.)
No one who owns a dog or cat can ever plausibly deny the animal capacity for fun; when we frolic, we are returning to a time before we got bogged down in rules, in civilisation. Dionysus, god of wine, madness and the theatre, would encourage his followers to become no better than animals, to the point, in Euripides' Bacchae, where his devotees tear people to shreds; Circe regularly made a point of turning unwary travellers into swine; and the offspring of Dionysus and Circe - what a lineage - Comus, the god of revelry, and so, the one we should really be raising our glasses to on 31 December, also rejoiced in turning people into animals. He also knew how to get a party going, if Milton's account is anything to go by. Milton is not the first person you think of when you try to arrange a hedonistic bash, but his Comus's speech to his revellers is as good as anything I have heard to serve as a motto for what we should be getting up to on New Year's Eve:
Meanwhile welcome Joy and Feast,
Midnight shout and revelry,
Tipsy dance and Jollity.
What hath night to do with sleep?
Night hath better sweets to prove,
Venus now wakes, and wakens Love.
Come let us our rites begin,
'Tis onely day-light that makes Sin
Which these dun shades will ne'er report.
Hail, Goddess of Nocturnal Sport ...
Come, knit hands, and beat the ground
In a light fantastic round.
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