What Folk Culture Taught Me about Friendship and the Good Life

by Monica Bushling


 

I have always hated parties.

Maybe I was born with a natural aversion to fun. Probably. And drinking. And fun people drinking.

At any rate, good, sober company—emphasis on the sober—that’s my personal brand of “fun,” even if few others adopted it. But when you think about the plethora of unsavory connotations attached to words like “alcohol” and “partying,” is it any surprise some of us end up among the skeptics?

Now, before you denounce me completely, I’ll say that my fun-sucking opinions has softened, at least a bit.

A man I respect highly, Roger Scruton, makes a daring but attractive argument in his book, Culture Counts: that—well, that culture really does count, by which he means specifically “high” culture. It counts because without it, we would be a nation of hillbillies (or tasteless robots) who know nothing about the fine things in life, what is worth preserving and what is just plain garbage.

Basically, it’s impossible to argue against Dr. Scruton’s point. But there is a problem with taking it as an absolute. Not that he is necessarily suggesting we should throw all our U2 albums and reruns of Friends out the window (although he might very well sympathize with that idea), but it is certainly not difficult to get that impression from the way he constructs his defense of “high culture.” Regardless, I simply want to put out there—at the risk of being tarred and feathered by the cultural elitists—that there may be a lot more wiggle-room in the general idea of “culture” than many would admit. And I think I can say that pretty fairly, as someone who has worked hard to earn a reputation as “cultured.”

We at liberal arts universities love boasting our knowledge of what is good, true, and beautiful, and we assume these things are inextricably intertwined with our highest cultural achievements. Yet I’ve never heard anyone describe what that actually looks like. Is it a good book and a glass of wine? Getting married and having kids? Eating organic? Is there a manual for any of this?

At a time when I felt like I was floundering in my search for the good life, I stumbled across a piece of it where I least expected to find it. And it wasn’t in Bach or Belloc or Beef Wellington. I found it, instead, in the folk customs of Slovakia.

My visit to this rather obscure country (not to be confused with Czechoslovakia, which, by the way, isn’t a country anymore) occurred as part of the 2015 Free Society Seminar, which meets every summer in Bratislava. (I could go on indefinitely about how wonderful the lectures were, but for the sake of brevity, let me just drop one word for now: APPLY.) FSS is essentially a week in paradise for conservative Christian intellectuals. What makes it different from most seminars, though, is the way it marries the so-called high and low culture, on one hand, and philosophy and experience on the other. Such qualities may just be an accident of the way the seminar is organized; nevertheless, the attending professors and students taught me something I hope never to forget: that sometimes, it’s OK to be a little silly. Because humans kind of are ridiculous creatures, when you actually stop to think about it.

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Woodcarving of Juraj Jánošík by Władysław Skoczylas, legendary hero in Slovak folklore

True enough, “folk” culture may not be synonymous with “pop” culture, which comes with its own batch of problems. But we can probably all agree that it is a far cry from the Prague Philharmonic. Slovakia, it is believed, has more folk songs than are to be found among any other people. (Most of them have to do with desperate young lovers throwing themselves into a river.) Even so, these cruder cultural expressions of a particular people are part of Culture, just as is high culture. I would even put my money on folk, if not popular or common, culture being just as important as the high in one sense. If it sounds crazy, maybe it’s because we’re thinking about the matter too abstractly, or too narrowly.

Let’s approach this beast from another angle. Virtue, as one philosopher proposed (any guesses who?), is impossible to achieve alone. And sometimes, the best way to come together in the pursuit of the good is by retreating from the solitariness to which pure intellectual judgments often lead. When we see ourselves for what we truly are—inherently social creatures—and live accordingly, we discover the virtues of courage, kindness, and humility, and with them, true friendship.

I encountered these things, as I said, not solely by reading about them (as you now are), nor by withdrawing into myself (as I now am). Instead, I tasted them in handmade pirohy and local beer and felt it in the harmony centuries-old song and dance can bring to a room. There are situations in which the high points of culture are simply out of reach: for example, when you find yourself in an eight-hundred-year-old mine or on a bus in the middle of nowhere (in both instances with a guitar). I mean, we’re talking about the bulk of daily life here, not the 120 years it took to build St. Peter’s. At such times, what matters most is people: the recognition that I, too, am a human, with human emotions and an inescapable need for company.

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Pirohy (or pierogi) are traditional dumplings found in many forms throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

At the FSS salaš dinner, a traditional peasant feast that was held on one of our last nights, I found myself surrounded by two rather uncomfortable human realities: namely, dancing and alcohol. These words may grate against sensitive puritanical American ears, but try to remember that they mean something very different to Europeans. On the contrary: Americans drink to escape; Slovaks, to become more human. But the most horrifying shock to my system was that I actually kind of liked the sweaty, reveling mob spinning around the floor—not to mention the way enough Borovička can make amateurish music sound halfway decent. Suffice it to say, I never thought I would be caught dead on a dancefloor, much less have fun dancing.

In Slovakia, many things are different. For the most part, to Slovaks, there is a very clear distinction between “friends” and “acquaintances” (contrary to what Facebook would have us believe), much more so than even in the U.S. The latter group include those with whom you discuss great literature over a (modest) glass of Merlot. But these, as enjoyable and rewarding as they may be, are at heart utilitarian or, at the most, pleasure-bringing relationships, unless they are tethered to something deeper. Real friendships are built on mutuality, something from within that instills complete trust in each other. That’s why you can’t be a true friend if you aren’t willing to loosen up a little every once in a while. If it isn’t heresy to say so, while the high road may hold up tradition over the centuries, it won’t necessarily show you or me the way to the good life.

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Spiš Castle in Slovakia

Slovakia has shown this to be the case in its enduring art and beauty. Though a land spangled with magnificent churches and ancient castles, these gems were hidden from view while the region sweated out the Cold War for half a century. What made it possible for the Slovak people to emerge as a unified nation after such hardship and oppression? Their religion, their spirit—but also, I think, each other. When they were not building churches, they were living out the lives of their parents and grandparents. Even today, friendship and folk festivities remain prevalent in the instruction of the current generation—and they are the ones on whom the future rests. In a bizarre way, high culture is dependent for it survival on the resilience of its folksy younger siblings.

Nowadays, you could hardly tell the strength of the effort to stifle a people so vibrant and full of life, or who are still so rooted in folk tradition—and proud to be so. This applies to young and old alike. Somehow, the Slovak people never lost touch with their roots, but kept them alive in song and dance, within their communities, and through the simple virtue that binds them together.

I don’t know where all this leaves us, speaking for Americans in general. It is possible I’ve stretched something very personal beyond its relevance, but I don’t believe so. Although we may find ourselves in a different position, that doesn’t mean the quest for the good is so totally different. In every developed civilization (barring the possibility of a society of robots), there will inevitably be some mix of both high and low culture, of ideals and sentiments. And that’s not a bad thing by any means. So na zdravie—cheers—and seriously, lighten up a little. You’ll be surprised at how much good can come from it.


Cover photo: Children Dancing in a Ring by Hans Thoma

Woodcarving of Juraj Jánošík accessed through Wikipedia

Photo of traditional pierogi by Silar (Wikipedia)

Photo of Spiš Castle by Ronnie Macdonald (Flikr)

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