Examining the impulse toward communal celebration, from ancient Greece to the present day
Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy
By Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan, 320 pp., $26
Best known as the liberal activist whose books "Nickel and Dimed" and "Fear of Falling" champion the exploited working poor and the threatened middle class, Barbara Ehrenreich is in fact a protean polymath.
For starters, there's the persuasive feminist author of "For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts' Advice to Women" and "Witches, Midwives , and Nurses: A History of Women Healers."
And the intrepid interpreter of society's most persistent nemesis: "Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War."
Did I mention that Ehrenreich is a PhD biologist and published novelist as well? This formidable intellect, author-editor of 14 books, is nothing if not ambitious.
Nowhere was Ehrenreich's penchant for rushing in where academic specialists tiptoe more evident than in "Blood Rites." Here she dared what others might consider impossible -- to offer an overarching theory explaining the human propensity for making war. Its origins, she asserted, lay not in original sin, Darwinian survival of the fittest, Marxian economic materialism, or even testosterone, but in our primeval memories of being hunted and eaten by large animals. Once prey, we eventually learned how to be predators. Perpetual defense evolved into perpetual offense. However controversial, her thinking was bold, her research impressive.
The author's new book, "Dancing in the Streets ," is a kind of companion piece to that earlier book. It's not simply that she's again fearlessly tackling a big subject, scavenging among history and anthropology to make points. It's that her theme, people joining together in public, communal ecstasy, amounts to the positive flip side of going to war.
Ehrenreich's touchstones for this kind of experience range from Dionysian religious rites in ancient Greece, to Carnival in medieval Europe, to the rock concerts of our era. Each is marked by an ecstatic explosion of group singing, dancing, feasting, costuming, gender and class reversal, mockery of authority , and a loosening of hierarchy.
For the West, Dionysus stands as the fountainhead of ecstasy. This god of wine presided over forest rites, "orgeia," where devotees danced themselves into a trance state. For the humble and women, this divinity had an accessible, democratic appeal that later generations might call Christ-like. (The author emphasizes that both were wandering charismatics and healers who endured martyrdom.)
Though the evidence is sparse, Ehrenreich believes that early Christianity was likewise charged with exultant singing, dancing , and speaking in tongues. Only with institutionalization and alignment with the state were ecstatic elements expunged from Christian worship. Newly enshrined, according to a fourth-century divine, were the virtues of "modesty instead of laughter, wise contemplation instead of intoxication."
But the people's desire for unfettered revelry could not be denied. So the medieval church reached an accommodation in Carnival, which embraced both religious and secular festivities. Mass could coexist with Mardi Gras-like parades, bear-baiting , and the Feast of Fools. Never before or since has public celebration been so central to Western society.
What, Ehrenreich wants to know, has happened in the meantime? Is collective joy simply incompatible with the rise of capitalism and industrialization? She hopes not. Otherwise, she fears we will have lost a sense of loving community that makes us uniquely human. We will suffer a hard-to-describe but palpable "emotional emptiness."
Very much a product of the '60s, the author was cheered by the Dionysian spirit that erupted in that era's rock concerts, happenings , and be-ins. But now she regards it as "marginalized," flickering only in storefront churches of the poor and music clubs of the young.
Ehrenreich distinguishes, correctly, between the "spectacles" of Nazi rallies and rock's "festivities." The former, designed to manipulate the masses, were carefully scripted to reinforce Nazi rule. The latter, though manipulative, broke down barriers between artist and audience, encouraged new ecstatic dance forms and rebellion against '50s conformity.
In making her argument, Ehrenreich sidesteps what she knows is the most typical experience of collective ecstasy today: big-time sports. She spends an entire chapter among chanting, face-painted, uniform-clad, alcohol-besotted, rock- and rap-drenched football and baseball fans, but can't seem to relate.
For this obvious non-fan, part of the problem is that she doesn't care about what's happening on the field. Part is the rampant, hold-your-nose commercialization. Part is the way that sports events are co-opted to legitimate hyper-patriotism and militarism.
The emotional emptiness that the author believes plagues modern society might be expressed as a yearning for spirituality. She writes glowingly of the tribal rituals that Western colonizers encountered, and misunderstood, all across the globe. But like sports, religion is ultimately terra incognita. Otherwise, how could she write that Protestant fundamentalism is "profoundly hostile to the ecstatic undertaking. . . . by and large, a cold and Calvinist business"?
Collective joy is all around us, to be sure. It's just not her type of collective joy. Why ignore Halloween parades, the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, the hosannas that greet returning soldiers, and Mardi Gras itself?
Ehrenreich is beset by a dilemma of her own making. Her book's topic is so unwieldy and ill-defined that it's easy to go off on tangents. Watch how she suggests that 17th- century Europe's "epidemic of melancholy" was due, in part, to the decline of public celebrations. No wonder she quickly backs off this dubious hypothesis.
"Dancing in the Streets" is ambitious yet frustrating, fascinating yet quirky, thought-provoking yet irritating. You can have fun arguing with it on every page.
Dan Cryer is a freelance writer in New York.