Party Poop: Week #21 of 52 Mini-Essays Project
On hostessing, guesting, and being Clarissa Dalloway
Topic Idea: Dory Nason
The opening of Anna Karenina is (justifiably) one of the most famous in literary history: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But I want to put in a plug for the opening of War and Peace, which begins with a party. It’s a clever device for introducing a lot of characters at once and orienting the reader to the new world she is going to inhabit for the next (god help her) 1300 pages. In this case we immediately meet our hostess, “the well-known Anna Pavlovna Scherer, maid of honour and favourite of the Empress,” and a few other key personages, including the central characters Prince Andrei and Pierre. More importantly, Tolstoy introduces the methodology of the novel: a cross-hatching between sections devoted to war and others depicting the domestic concerns of those back home. What says “peace” more than a party?
Yet a good party is also a little combative, a little like a battlefield campaign—and Anna’s is no exception. A consummate hostess, she attends assiduously to her duties and monitors the conversation and comfort of her guests:
As the foreman of a spinning-mill when he has set the hands to work, goes round and notices, here a spindle that has stopped or there one that creaks or makes more noise than it should, and hastens to check the machine or set it in proper motion, so Anna Pavlovna moved about her drawing-room, approaching now a silent, now a too noisy group, and by a word or slight rearrangement kept the conversational machine in steady, proper and regular motion.
Tolstoy not only demonstrates that great hostesses are kind of like great managers (and great generals), but is also sensitive to the unvarying rhythms of a large party: the opening chapters of the novel begin “Anna Pavlovna’s drawing-room was gradually filling”; “Anna Pavlovna’s reception was in full swing”; and “having thanked Anna Pavlovna for her charmante soirée, the guests began to take their leave.” Germination-burgeoning-decay-death: a life cycle in miniature. And as with any successful party—and any successful novel opening—repercussions from this gathering continue to reverberate for days, weeks, and chapters to come.
Virginia Woolf takes the opposite approach in Mrs Dalloway: the party that closes that novel reverberates backward in narrative time to affect everything that comes before. The novel takes place over the course of a single day, which Clarissa devotes to preparing for her gathering; I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that her obsessing over the arrangements is the beating heart of the narrative. Clarissa’s approach to party-throwing is the exact opposite of Anna Pavlovna’s: she frets, she over-thinks, she is convinced it will be a failure, she disappears into the other room for so long that her guests wonder where she’s gone. (“Oh dear, it was going to be a failure; a complete failure, Clarissa felt it in her bones.”) Ask a 20-year-old emo undergraduate what Mrs Dalloway is about and he’ll likely say the tragic suicide of the shell-shocked WWI veteran Septimus Warren Smith; ask a neurotic middle-aged literature professor and she’ll say it’s about worrying that your guests won’t get along.
To say that I lean toward the Clarissa Dalloway side of the hostessing spectrum would be like saying that Vlad the Impaler was a little moody. Scott and I have been married for 21 years, which means that together we have thrown 8,764 parties.1 A love of entertaining was clearly one of the first things that drew us together as a couple. (Your standard pre-marital counseling program does not include “Philosophy of Parties” as one of its central categories, but I think it should. Scott’s and my mutual love of party-throwing has balanced out other areas of serious incompatibility in our relationship, like “Philosophy of Drawer Closing” and “Philosophy of Who Should Drive.”2) But while we share a love of hosting, and are also very much on the same page when it comes to other people’s parties—always say yes, always go, always split apart at the door and circulate separately—we have very different temperaments with regard to planning and preparing. Because I am a fundamentally anxious person whose core self has been cobbled together through years of therapy, I am pretty fucked up about party-throwing. It’s almost like a compulsion: I can’t not do it (which means the pandemic really threw me for a loop3), but at the same time I am incapable of being relaxed about it. Just like Clarissa Dalloway, I tend to agonize over everything: Should we have a party? When should we have the party? What kind of party will the party be? Whom shall we invite to the party (i.e., jumbo, medium, intimate)? Will people come to the party?
Each of these questions—all of which are easily answered with calm centeredness by less apprehensive people, such as my spouse—contains a rich trove of sub-questions worthy of intense anxiety in their own right. For example, “Will people come to the party?” contains, like a neurotic Matryoshka doll, the nested worries “When will people come to the party?” and “When will people leave the party?” One of the last soirées I threw on my own, shortly before meeting Scott, was a medium-jumbo grad school rager (more drugs than booze, everyone left with someone they just met, the neighbors called the cops) and the only thing I really remember about it was that the doorbell rang at precisely 8:00 on the dot, the party’s “official” starting time. (In other words, I wasn’t expecting anyone until 9:45.) It was my friend Pete, clutching a bottle of bourbon in a paper bag. “I hate waiting for the first guests to arrive and worrying that no one is coming,” he explained. “I figured you’re probably the same.” I fell weeping on his breast in gratitude.
“Peter! Peter!” cried Clarissa, following him out on to the landing. “My party to-night! Remember my party to-night!” she cried, having to raise her voice against the roar of the open air, and, overwhelmed by the traffic and the sound of all the clocks striking, her voice crying “Remember my party to-night!” sounded frail and thin and very far away as Peter Walsh shut the door.
The flip side of the “It’s Thirty Minutes Past the Start Time and No One Is Here Yet Oh My God No One Is Coming I Have No Friends” anxiety is the “How Long Can I Get People to Stay?” conundrum. The official rule is that with each passing decade of life, your guests will shave 1.5 hours off their party departure time, so once you’re all in your 40s and 50s it’s a struggle to get people to stay past 11:00 p.m. Unless you keep moving the start time earlier and earlier, by the time everyone’s ready for a nursing home your get-togethers will be only 15-20 seconds long.4 Another problem with middle-aged parties is that everyone tends to leave en masse, as if they had all simultaneously heard a loud, sonorous bell signaling the official end of the festivities. Suddenly there’s a pause in the conversation; everyone cocks their head slightly toward the east; one guest checks his watch and notices that it’s 10:58. “Welp,” someone will say, “I’d better get going,” and the next thing you know there’s a line of guests 30 deep waiting to pluck their coats off the bed. “You don’t aaaaallllll have to go,” you may plead, slightly desperately. “There’s plenty of food left! We have Cards Against Humanity!” but it will be of no use. Like a call to daily prayer, the To Bed! To Bed! Your Life is Passing By! bell cannot be ignored. The leaden circles dissolve in the air.
If you are lucky, your core besties will not only come to the party early, but will also hang around after the coat-plucking brigade to help ease you back into normal life: the “After Party,” as my friend Trish has dubbed it. When you’re younger the After Party will consist of more booze and/or drugs and a second wind; when you’re older it’s when everyone hydrates. But either way, the key elements are the same: Assessment of the Success of the Party; Gossip about What Happened at the Party; Brainstorming for the Next Party. (Cleaning up is strictly taboo. That is what you do the next morning, alone, in your robe.) If everything goes exactly right there will be an impromptu dance session to You Tube videos. But this is a precious and rare event that you should never expect to happen. It’s impossible to force it. When it comes to the After Party—as with life—it’s best to practice the philosophy of the open hand. Virginia Woolf wisely ends Mrs Dalloway in the middle of Clarissa’s soirée, just as she has recovered from her period of anxious withdrawal to rejoin her guests.5 We never learn whether anyone stays late to stretch out on the carpet and dish about how Sally Seton has really lost her looks.
It’s difficult to explain to people like my spouse—the Anna Pavlovnas of the world—why I insist on throwing parties even though it brings me such anxiety. I suppose the short answer is that it also brings me intense joy. First of all, I love parties and so having one is a guarantee of getting to attend one.6 Second of all, I love making people happy—and I particularly love feeling responsible for, and getting credit for, that happiness. Canapés, a punch bowl full of whiskey sours, and a 90s dance mix seem like a pretty easy way to help ease our fellow travelers’ way through this vale of tears.
That said, party-throwing is also my way of periodically checking in with my development as a Buddhist and realizing that I still suck. I am now Clarissa Dalloway’s age, and I continue to agonize over whether anyone will come, obsess over the food, and worry that different groups won’t mix well. But at least I know what my work is; I can see clearly all the ways in which I need to let go. I know that the party should be a pure gift, given freely. It should not be about the giver. Occasionally I manage that high-wire act, for just a few moments, and then I get a glimpse of freedom.
The curtain with its flight of birds of Paradise blew out again. And Clarissa saw—she saw Ralph Lyon beat it back, and go on talking. So it wasn’t a failure after all! it was going to be all right now—her party. It had begun. It had started. But it was still touch and go. She must stand there for the present.
Okay, not quite that many—but if I had to give an educated guess, I would say somewhere between 30 and 150, depending on how you define “party.” Pavlovna/Dalloway-type affairs with formal invitations and punchbowls full of a signature cocktail? Probably around 30 or 40. As for smaller gatherings of 8-12, I would guess another 100 or more.
Just now I went into Scott’s study, where he was taking a quick nap after a hard day, and demanded that he immediately tell me what my most annoying habit was, “for my essay.” He groggily responded, “Waking me up when I’m napping?” So I guess we can also add “Philosophy of Nap Sanctitude” to this list.
Yes, poor me. Closing in on 700,000 dead in the U.S. as of this writing, and I actually just wrote in an essay that the pandemic kept me from having parties. We all have our crosses to bear.
Of course, there is always brunch, or Day Drinking Made Respectable for Middle-Class White People.
I have to confess that I usually do this periodically throughout my own parties. I often find hosting so intense that I have to withdraw for little five-minute breathers a few times throughout the evening. I wish I could say it’s to stare dreamily at an aging neighbor across the way and formulate poetic thoughts about mortality, but I’m usually just splashing water on my face or peeing.
I have never—not even once—regretted going to a social event of any kind. And yet I always find the first 10 minutes after walking into a party utterly hellish. “This was a giant mistake,” I invariably think. “Why am I here?” Ten minutes later, without fail, I’m in the zone and having a great time. “What a great group of people!” I invariably think. “I’m so glad I came.”