On Debauchery, Decadence, and Halloween

By Jens Tamang

Every year a group of aging hippies throw a massive Halloween party in the secluded hill town of Montague, Massachusetts. The owner of the mansion on said estate offers, among other things, a potluck, a concert, a tree swing, a bon fire and a drum circle. This year, one of the more compelling elements was the candle-lined pathways that led to secluded areas where I found people either smoking kush or having sex. As I watched an elderly couple scurry out of the woods half clothed I was perplexed and mildly unnerved: I thought these kinds of pagan ritual were only something about which we academics read. I looked on in disbelief at the abundance of people on acid passing joints left and right, the food and drink abounding, and the nymphs hanging from tree vines asking me if I wanted to “come play.” At one o’clock in the morning however, party was cut short-as most good things are-by the police.

Why? Someone invited the kids.

They showed up around midnight with beer and brawn. As they poured in through the front gates I could almost smell the text messages heralding the “totally awesome party” spreading through electronic space like a diarrhea in a daycare. These kids did not arrive in costume. They heckled the crowd, partook of the potluck tables without contributing to it, and drank all the booze. As the sound of breaking bottles echoed ominously through the woods it became clear to me that what was once a good thing had been overrun by my own kind-snotty college students.

Normally I would be quick to support the debauchery of my fellow teenagers. They have a talent for underscoring the puritanical sensibilities of “old farts,” which has essentially become a semantic stand-in for the more descriptive “bourgeoisie.” I observed, that night, a mass of young people take advantage a group of aging hippies (granted: aging hippies with trust funds) and the safe space they had created for the consumption of drugs and alcohol.
Where was the disconnect? Should the hippies have Seen It Coming? Or do we hold the teenagers accountable for being %#[email protected]? And most importantly, is there a preferable mode of partying that we can cultivate at Macalester.

The short answer is, “NO.”

The long answer is that there exists a conflation of debauchery with decadence that leads Macalester students astray. We overvalue the hyper-masculine mode of partying, the ones the cops can smell, and this reflects our shallow understanding of ritual. In the case of Montague, it almost felt as though a bunch of hammered jocks had crashed an X fueled love-fest, an experience the more seasoned partiers of Macalester can surly attest to.

But what exactly is the difference between debauchery and decadence? In the first place, both are connected, it seems, to nature. Pagan decadence has been a symbol of the “organic society” as far back as you want to trace it. Theorists such as Baron de Montesquieu and Edward Gibbon would argue that the organic metaphor of decadence became best articulated in ancient Rome.

Smooshing culture and nature together, however, causes major problems. When we apply “the natural” to the specifically “cultural” we get stupid teenagers: I am an animal and so I must drink and party hard enough to behave like one. After Oscar Wilde, a cultural “performer” of sorts, it became clear that decadence was the application of social customs to human necessity. Decadence is, in short, the recognition of that necessity within a universe that might smite us at any moment.
Debauchery is tragic: the drunk-kid breaking a window is essentially the fallen king, shaking his fists at the sky, realizing that he never had any control over his fate from day one. Decadence is comedic: a reconciliation with uncertainty through being fabulous(!).

Decadence, for our purposes here at Macaleser, is a far more complex understanding of “partying.” While debauchery is masturbatory, decadence has a purpose in society. Nobody cares about your emotional problems, but everyone loves it when you look spiffy.

When we party at Macalester we shouldn’t do it to blow off steam all over someone else’s property. We party to cultivate that steam, to rejuvenate the happiness the academy vampirically sucks away. Debauchery only requires that we are sour and lonely and stupid and bitter; anyone can walk into a random party and break things, but it is the genius who uses finesse.

In closing, I’d like to point out the obvious critique that decadence is aristocratic and therefore evil. Again, what a shallow understanding of decadence, for how many wealthy, paternalistic students do you know who take it upon themselves to vandalize property? That’s the true aristocratic entitlement. Decadence is just a synthetic fur coat and a box of Franzia.