Cover image for Dancing in the streets : a history of collective joy
Title:
Dancing in the streets : a history of collective joy
ISBN:
9780805057232
Edition:
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Metropolitan Books, 2007.
Physical Description:
320 p. ; 25 cm.
Summary:
Cultural historian Ehrenreich explores a human impulse that has been so effectively suppressed that we lack even a term for it: the desire for collective joy, historically expressed in ecstatic revels of feasting, costuming, and dancing. She uncovers the origins of communal celebration in human biology and culture. Although 16th-century Europeans viewed mass festivities as foreign and "savage, " Ehrenreich shows that they were indigenous to the West, from the ancient Greeks to medieval Christianity. Ultimately, church officials drove the festivities into the streets, Protestants criminalized carnival, Wahhabist Muslims battled ecstatic Sufism, European colonizers wiped out native dance rites. The elites' fear that such gatherings would undermine social hierarchies was justified: the festive tradition inspired uprisings and revolutions from France to the Caribbean to the American plains. Yet outbreaks of group revelry persist, as Ehrenreich shows, pointing to the 1960s rock-and-roll rebellion and the more recent "carnivalization" of sports.--From publisher description.

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Summary

Summary

From the bestselling social commentator and cultural historian, a fascinating exploration of one of humanity's oldest traditions: the celebration of communal joy
In the acclaimed Blood Rites , Barbara Ehrenreich delved into the origins of our species' attraction to war. Here, she explores the opposite impulse, one that has been so effectively suppressed that we lack even a term for it: the desire for collective joy, historically expressed in ecstatic revels of feasting, costuming, and dancing.
Ehrenreich uncovers the origins of communal celebration in human biology and culture. Although sixteenth-century Europeans viewed mass festivities as foreign and "savage," Ehrenreich shows that they were indigenous to the West, from the ancient Greeks' worship of Dionysus to the medieval practice of Christianity as a "danced religion." Ultimately, church officials drove the festivities into the streets, the prelude to widespread reformation: Protestants criminalized carnival, Wahhabist Muslims battled ecstatic Sufism, European colonizers wiped out native dance rites. The elites' fear that such gatherings would undermine social hierarchies was justified: the festive tradition inspired French revolutionary crowds and uprisings from the Caribbean to the American plains. Yet outbreaks of group revelry persist, as Ehrenreich shows, pointing to the 1960s rock-and-roll rebellion and the more recent "carnivalization" of sports.
Original, exhilarating, and deeply optimistic, Dancing in the Streets concludes that we are innately social beings, impelled to share our joy and therefore able to envision, even create, a more peaceable future.


Author Notes

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of "Blood Rites"; "The Worst Years of Our Lives"; "Fear of Falling", which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, & eight other books. A frequent contributor to Time, Harper's, Esquire, The New Republic, Mirabella, The Nation, The New York Magazine, she lives near Key West, Florida.

(Publisher Fact Sheets) Political activist and writer Barbara Ehrenreich was born in Butte, Montana on August 26, 1941. She studied physics at Reed College and graduated in 1963. She received a Ph.D. in Cell Biology from Rockefeller University in 1968. Rather than pursuing a career in science, however, she decided to focus on social change.

Ehrenreich has written columns and contributed articles to publications including Time Magazine, The Progressive, The New York Times, Mother Jones, The Atlantic Monthly, Ms, The New Republic, Harper's Magazine, and The Nation. She taught essay writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley in 1998 and 2000.

Ehrenreich has written many books, with 2001's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America and 2005's Bait and Switch, The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream both becoming New York Times bestsellers. Nickel and Dimed examines working-class poverty, while Bait and Switch discusses white-collar unemployment. Her next bestseller was in 2014 with Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything.

In 1998 Ehrenreich was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association, and she received the Nation Institute/Puffin Foundation Prize for Creative Citizenship in 2004.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 7

Publisher's Weekly Review

It is a truism that everyone seeks happiness, but public manifestations of it have not always been free of recrimination. Colonial regimes have defined spectacles as an inherently "primitive" act and elders harrumph at youthful exultation. Social critic and bestselling author Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) teases out the many incarnations of sanctioned public revelry, starting with the protofeminist oreibasia, or Dionysian winter dance, in antiquity, and from there covering trance, ancient mystery cults and carnival, right up to the rock and roll and sports-related mass celebrations of our own day. "Why is so little left" of such rituals, she asks, bemoaning the "loss of ecstatic pleasure." Ehrenreich necessarily delineates the repressive reactions to such ecstasy by the forces of so-called "civilization," reasonably positing that rituals of joy are nearly as innate as the quest for food and shelter. Complicating Ehrenreich's schema is her own politicized judgment, dismissing what she sees as the debased celebrations of sporting events while writing approvingly of the 1960s "happenings" of her own youth and the inevitable street theater that accompanies any modern mass protest, yet all but ignoring the Burning Man festival in Nevada and tut-tutting ravers' reliance on artificial ecstasy. That aside, Ehrenreich writes with grace and clarity in a fascinating, wide-ranging and generous account. (Jan. 10) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Booklist Review

At a time when social scientists are lamenting the loss of a sense of community, Ehrenreich offers an absorbing look at the joy of life expressed in communal rituals of dance and celebration. From cave drawings through the celebrations of weddings, religious rites, healing, and war preparations of various cultures to modern carnivalization of sports celebrations, she traces the appeal of synchronizing individual movements to a group. Western culture, with little understanding of the ecstasy of love expressed in group celebrations, has looked on such celebrations as primitive hysterics and banned them among African slaves, Native Americans, and other cultures. But Ehrenreich details a long history of such celebrations in European cultures, from the festivals of Dionysus to those of medieval Christians. She also explores other cultures' reactions to dance celebrations they viewed as somehow socially or spiritually subversive, whether it's Protestants banning carnivals or Wahhabist Muslims frowning on ecstatic Sufism. Given the social nature of humans, Ehrenreich is optimistic that the drive to civilize will never fully eliminate the impulse for group celebration. --Vanessa Bush Copyright 2007 Booklist


New York Review of Books Review

"TAKE me out with the crowd," goes the old baseball song. "I love this crowd," repeats the classic standup comic. Every lecturer knows: the larger the group, the more they become an event for themselves, heightening the attention, the laughs or the emotions. At our national political conventions, people wear silly hats and bob up and down to music so stupid it is a parody of music, in order to "demonstrate" a political feeling. Participating in a demonstrative crowd gives joy, as being a mere spectator cannot. Even in a culture where recorded performance has become central, people crave the live event, largely for that group joy. Barbara Ehrenreich wants to affirm the value of ecstatic group celebration. She aligns it with the old precolonial, precapitalist, pre-Christian religions, and with Carnival. The dancing meant by her title has ancient roots; it precedes streets. It also goes beyond them in the modern stadium, where sports and music, watching and performing, all merge. The kind of celebration Ehrenreich celebrates is communal though ungoverned, and anti-hierarchical though ancient. In the god Dionysus she sees a liberating force needed but resisted by modern Western society. She finds Bacchic group joy in carnivals and maypoles, in the dancing rituals of Africa and the Americas, in the French Revolution and in the face-painting of sports fans. This is an important subject: how much will the human traditions of ecstatic dance, group celebration and Carnival preserve autonomy and help preserve the dignity of individuals? How much will those traditions and our universal, intuitive response to them, be manipulated and co-opted in the interests of uniformity or corporate profit or authoritarian control? Is culture already crippled by a dearth of free communal joy? How much is the celebrating crowd a release valve for energy, how much a potential focus of energy? And what sort of energy? Ehrenreich identifies these issues, and is ardently on the right side of them. A research journalist, not a thinker or artist, she doesn't much illuminate them. Her strength, as demonstrated by previous books about low-paying work ("Nickel and Dimed") and war's emotional appeal ("Blood Rites"), is her reporter's nose for subject and information. She assembles juicy quotations, like Martin Luther on dancing: "I can't bring myself to condemn it, unless it gets out of hand and so causes immoralities or excess. ... So long as it's done decently, I respect the rites and customs of weddings ... and I dance, anyway!" The double-chinned Luther of Cranach's portrait, cutting a seemingly incongruous peasant jig, harks back to prehistoric forces. Similar forces helped drive the eclectic Hau-hau cult of the Maori in 1864. The Hau-hau resisted colonial injustices under British rule. Deconverting from Christianity, they also incorporated bits of it into their rapturous poledance. Ehrenreich quotes a description of their songs as "an extraordinary jumble of Hebrew, English, German, Greek and Italian." On the other side - as Ehrenreich sees it, continuing the voice of Dionysus' antagonist Pentheus, the young king who resists the god in Euripides' "Bacchae" - here is a Nazi directive for Third Reich dance bands, dug up by Michael Golston (presumably not a pseudonym for Mel Brooks): "On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) or in solo performances (so-called breaks) be tolerated; so-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10 percent syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the music of the barbarian races and conducive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs)." This comical passage helps support Ehrenreich's distinction between the costuming, shouting, dancing, ritual behavior, atavism and collective exultation that she approves of and similar elements in Hitler's Nuremberg rallies. The fascist event, she says, is a "scripted" spectacle and those attending "did not assemble spontaneously but were rounded up." A spectacle audience is passive, unlike the rapturously participating crowd at the maypole or the slave revolt (or at Ehrenreich's preferred parts of the French Revolution). Carnival mocks authority, and is spontaneous. Thus, fans who wear costumes or dance and sing at contemporary sporting events are "carnivalizing" the event. Such pro-carnival distinctions, with their good-hearted sympathy for the demotic, the colonized, the neglected, the repressed, are extremely vulnerable to counterargument. Even a reader eager (as I am) to prefer carnival over hierarchy will wince at Ehrenreich's blurry, prefatory disclaimer: "Not every form of 'irrational' group behavior will be considered here; panics, crazes, fads and spontaneous 'mob' activities do not fall within our purview. Lynchings - or, for that matter, riots - may generate intense excitement and pleasure in their participants, but the focus here is on the kind of events witnessed by Europeans in 'primitive' societies and recalled in the European carnival tradition." Quotation marks suggest the writer's need for a straw man who misuses words like "irrational" or "primitive." The passage continues to defend the ecstatic group events: "These were not spontaneous outbreaks of 'hysteria,' as some Europeans tended to imagine; nor were they occasions for the suspension of all inhibitions and a general 'letting go.' The behavior that seemed so 'savage' and wild to Western observers was in fact deliberately planned, organized, and at all times subject to cultural rules and expectations." For fascist events, people "did not assemble spontaneously"; but in another context it is the authentic carnival events that "were not spontaneous outbreaks." Ehrenreich's absolute separation between kinds of crowd behavior - the brutal utterly unlike the benign, the fascistic utterly unlike the anticolonial - wobbles. Nevertheless, she effectively evokes the evils of colonialism from this cultural viewpoint. There is a world of shame and sadness in the African expression she cites for conversion to Christianity: to have "given up dancing." And ordinary good sense acknowledges her general point: the Nuremberg-style rally is not a peasant wedding, and the maypole is not the lynching tree. But good sense also recognizes that the two kinds of crowd cannot be utterly different in psychology. This is not a scholarly treatise, but a book to read for quotes, examples and anecdotes. Ehrenreich's project may be limited, but it is not wrecked, by a warmed-over quality in borrowings from Max Weber, or a breezy equivalence of Wahhabism and Calvinism. Conceptual and logical matters are not the main problem. Style is. How should one write about wild, mass ebullience? Here is a sentence from Ehrenreich's chapter "The Rock Rebellion": "A good part of the frisson of early rock lay in the rhythmic and often sexually suggestive movements of the performers - grinding their hips, thrusting their pelvises, rolling their shoulders, leaping and falling on the floor - 'rocking,' in short, as a way of announcing that the 'new' music was inseparable from creative, free-form, heat-driven motion." And this: "Rock's contribution was to weigh in decisively on the side of hedonism and against the old puritanical theme of 'deferred gratification.'" Or this, from her chapter on sports: "In a stadium or at an arena, the audience has been expected for decades to leap up from their seats, shout, wave, and jump up and down with the vicissitudes of the game." This language - having rock "weigh in," phrases like "'rocking,' in short" and "vicissitudes of the game" - fails to evoke its subject, except maybe by contrast. Sometimes an interesting idea collapses into a puddle of dead metaphors and weary cadences: "The rise of social hierarchy, anthropologists agree, goes hand in hand with the rise of militarism and war, which are in their own way also usually hostile to the danced rituals of the archaic past." THIS pop anthropology lacks fizz. There's a yearning, wistful gap between Ehrenreich's celebration of inebriated dance and her term-paper prose. In that yearning, she disregards the double, ambiguous nature of Dionysus, the deity she calls "the first rock star." Possibly, her writing indicates a flinching, less than complete apprehension of that shape-shifting Lord of Misrule. Dionysus seems to embody a force rightfully needed and rightfully feared. Is the abandon of his worshipers humanizing or dehumanizing - or human? Bacchic energy can overthrow tyranny, and it can tyrannize. In her pages on rock, Ehrenreich just barely mentions the Dionysian landmark of Woodstock - and says nothing about the calamity a few months later of Woodstock's evil twin, Altamont, where an 18-year-old black man was killed. He was kicked and beaten, as well as stabbed multiple times by a member or members of the organization contracted to keep order and guard the stage: the Hell's Angels, a name that suits the double nature of Dionysus. Which is to say, the double nature of us humans. In the "Bacchae" of Euripides, Dionysus leads the queen Agave to join the Bacchae - and in a frenzy of delusion, she tears her son Pentheus into bloody pieces, then carries his head as a trophy. After Agave has come to her senses, and realizes what she has done, Dionysus speaks. "I am Dionysus. I am Bacchus," he says (in the C. K. Williams translation). He proclaims that the horrors he has brought Thebes could have been prevented "if you had understood your mortal natures." "Dancing in the Streets" takes an honorable, faltering step in that direction. Ehrenreich finds Bacchic group joy in carnivals, maypoles, African dancing, the French Revolution and the face-painting of sports fans. Robert Pinsky is the author, most recently, of "The Life of David."


Choice Review

According to Ehrenreich, a noted writer on popular culture, there is an innate tendency on the part of humankind to celebrate in a communal setting. This inclination has been present from the beginning, as the book's narrative shows. The institution of carnival dates from the period when the church began to look askance at collective expressions of ecstasy after the Middle Ages. Thereafter, at least in the West, the advent of the Reformation/Counter-Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the rationalism of the Enlightenment, Puritanism, middle-class Victorianism, and the Freudian branch of psychiatry that elevated the superego above the id and libido all worked against "dancing in the streets" or other forms of collective joy. Beyond Western society, the colonization and imperial rule imposed by Europe and its offshoots between the 16th and 20th centuries often led to the suppression of public festivities as a threat to existing hierarchy, as did the actions of Wahhabists in Islam against Sufism. Yet, in spite of discouragement from above, human joy on a communal level persists, as the book demonstrates, whether in rock and roll, mass sports, or even in political protest. Summing Up: Recommended. All levels/libraries. N. C. Rothman University of Maryland University College


Guardian Review

For at least 10,000 years the human race has, at regular and officially sanctioned intervals, abandoned the hard diurnal grind of work and taken to the streets. Accompanied by drums and pipes, in masks and costumes, people, often hand in hand and usually in circles, sang and danced, faster and faster, until a climactic state of shared bliss was attained. Then, much invigorated, they returned to work and everyday life. This habit persisted until around the 13th and 14th centuries; it was finally stamped out, in the west, by the 17th. Why this should have happened, and what the consequences have been, are the matter of Barbara Ehrenreich's witty and quizzical new book, a follow-up to her devastating study of war, Blood Rites . It is, by contrast with that dark book, essentially an affirmation of the ability of human beings to regulate themselves - if, that is, they are allowed to. No one quite knows how those first recorded festive processions, so vividly recorded on pottery and in cave drawings, came about, though it has been plausibly surmised that they may have been designed to scare marauding animals. But this defensive activity quickly proved to have a striking side-effect: the exhilaration of the group moving and singing as one produced an experience of collective joy that was both pleasurable and therapeutic and different in kind from verbal communication. The ecstatic emotion engendered was perceived by its participants as a direct experience of god, unmediated by priests or interpreters. The revellers' gods - Dionysos, Krishna and Pau - especially attracted women and working people to them; their joyful rituals were essentially demotic, and inevitably drew down on themselves the disapproval of the clerical and civic establishment. Priests and monarchs have ever been the foes of genuine popular celebrations. Ehrenreich chronicles the early church's systematic attempts to remove the Dionysian elements from their services - dancing, singing, speaking in tongues, the tossing of freely flowing hair. Free expression was discouraged; pews were installed to compel worshippers to control themselves, and their possessed brethren were duly evicted on to the streets. Dance manias erupted at various points in the 13th and 14th centuries and dance itself was deemed the devil's work. The church dissociated itself from its own former joyous demeanour, offering instead ritual, solemnity, high aesthetics. Ehrenreich traces the sudden explosion of carnivals and popular festivals in the 15th century to the suppression in the churches of the more exuberant forms of worship, and makes a very striking point: the separation of the divine connection from carnival made it a merely hedonistic exercise, essentially devoid of meaning. Not, however, without point. It became the great creative outlet of the people. Both carnival and the Feast of Fools, in which social roles were reversed and wild behaviour briefly allowed free rein, had initially been endorsed by church and state as being useful safety valves; the endorsement was soon enough rescinded, but not before the people had taken over. Great festivities were planned, dreamed of, reminisced about: costumes were made, floats built, routines rehearsed. Carnival, in Goethe's words, was "a festival that is not really given to the people, but one that the people give themselves". That sort of autonomy was intolerable. The church moved decisively, confining festivities to Sundays, whereupon, "in a classic catch-22", as Ehrenreich says, it prohibited all recreations and sports on the Sabbath. Capitalism and its handmaiden, Puritanism, were on the rise. Max Weber famously analysed the need of the former for a strong, disciplined workforce; to this Ehrenreich strikingly adds the adoption of guns by the military as a further constraint on the proletarian population (from which the armed forces were of course drawn). To make effective use of their new weapons they needed to be relentlessly drilled. The traditional compensations of military and naval life - alcohol, women, carousing, brawling - were now proscribed, not only in Europe but also in China and, somewhat later, under the Wahhabist influence, in the Arab world. Meanwhile, in the west, the sense of society as a single body was decaying with the rise of that new entity, the self, and its attendant anxieties about the opinions of others and fears of loss of individual identity. Melancholy, or more baldly, depression, Ehrenreich notes, grew fourfold, at least partly as the result of the abandonment of collective festivities with their "mind-preserving, life-saving techniques of ecstasy". Christian missionaries wrought havoc among conquered peoples by depriv ing them of long-established customs that effectively maintained psychic and social balance within the group; tribal song and dance were ruthlessly repressed. The very phrase used by the South African Namaqua tribe for "one who converts to Christianity" was "one who has given up dancing". In the west in the 19th and early 20th centuries, festivities had been replaced by spectacles, whether concerts at which the audience sat mute and motionless, or huge organised events such as the rallies of Hitler and Mussolini at which the spectators, scarcely less well-drilled than the marching soldiers they beheld, were reduced to utter passivity. Later in the century, football and, especially, in Ehrenreich's view, rock, represented the revolt of the audience, a reclamation of creative participation and life- enhancing abandonment to rhythm and flow. But, she somewhat gloomily reports, crafty old capitalism has reclaimed both of these, leaving only the illusion of ecstatic release. Neither Ehrenreich's tone nor her method is academic. She covers her vast terrain comprehensively yet incisively, casting her net sometimes perhaps a little too wide but often landing delicious detail at the same time as more strictly germane matter. (She reports, for example, the hilarious attempts of the American Life Application Study Bible to subvert Christ's manifest socialism: "This way of living is different from communism because 1) the sharing was voluntary; 2) it didn't involve all private property; 3) it was not a membership requirement in order to be a part of the church.") Her lightness of touch is commendable, because the story she has to tell is in many ways a dismaying one. Dancing in the Streets suggests that with the disappearance of carnival we have lost a crucial part of the human experience, though she is understandably unable to propose what form the healing collective joy she so vividly describes might take in our 21st century dystopia. Simon Callow's Orson Welles: Hello Americans is published by Jonathan Cape. To order Dancing in the Streets for pounds 15.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875. Caption: article-callow.1 Priests and monarchs have ever been the foes of genuine popular celebrations. [Barbara Ehrenreich] chronicles the early church's systematic attempts to remove the Dionysian elements from their services - dancing, singing, speaking in tongues, the tossing of freely flowing hair. Free expression was discouraged; pews were installed to compel worshippers to control themselves, and their possessed brethren were duly evicted on to the streets. Dance manias erupted at various points in the 13th and 14th centuries and dance itself was deemed the devil's work. The church dissociated itself from its own former joyous demeanour, offering instead ritual, solemnity, high aesthetics. Ehrenreich traces the sudden explosion of carnivals and popular festivals in the 15th century to the suppression in the churches of the more exuberant forms of worship, and makes a very striking point: the separation of the divine connection from carnival made it a merely hedonistic exercise, essentially devoid of meaning. Neither Ehrenreich's tone nor her method is academic. She covers her vast terrain comprehensively yet incisively, casting her net sometimes perhaps a little too wide but often landing delicious detail at the same time as more strictly germane matter. (She reports, for example, the hilarious attempts of the American Life Application Study Bible to subvert Christ's manifest socialism: "This way of living is different from communism because 1) the sharing was voluntary; 2) it didn't involve all private property; 3) it was not a membership requirement in order to be a part of the church.") Her lightness of touch is commendable, because the story she has to tell is in many ways a dismaying one. Dancing in the Streets suggests that with the disappearance of carnival we have lost a crucial part of the human experience, though she is understandably unable to propose what form the healing collective joy she so vividly describes might take in our 21st century dystopia. - Simon Callow.


Kirkus Review

In what may be seen as a companion piece to her Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War (1997), social commentator Ehrenreich takes a long view of the human impulse to "seek ecstatic merger with the group," an act that takes the form of dancing, feasting and artistic embellishment of the face and body. Going back to the prehistory of our species, she speculates about the possible value of rhythmic dance and music in holding early human groups together, in boosting a group's effectiveness against large prey. From there, she moves to what is known about ritual dancing in ancient China, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome. Ehrenreich compares the followers of Dionysus, whose worship involved frenzied dancing, with early Christians, who worshiped with singing, leaping and prophesying in tongues. But as early Christian communities became institutionalized, she reports, such enthusiastic behaviors were censured by ecclesiastic authorities, and by the 12th and 13th centuries, dancing was restricted to Church holidays and not permitted inside churches. Ehrenreich traces the status of traditional festivities through the 16th to 19th centuries, when they were increasingly being seen by the upper classes as wasteful of human labor. Calvin's form of Protestantism condemned all forms of festive behavior, and among Muslims, the Wahhabi movement launched reforms condemning ecstatic forms of worship such as singing and dancing. Meanwhile, colonizing Europeans, encountering exuberant rituals among native peoples around the world, categorized them as superstitious, savage and repugnant. Analyzing the mass staged spectacles of the French Revolution and those of Nazi Germany, she sees the role of people reduced to mere audience. However, in rock-'n'-roll, she finds a rebellion against that reduced role, and in recent decades she sees a convergence of rock and major league sports, with fans becoming exhibitionists and participants, dressing up, painting their faces and dancing in the stands. The capacity for collective joy, she concludes, is encoded in our genes, and to suppress it is to risk "the solitary nightmare of depression." A serious look at communal celebrations, well documented and presented with assurance and flair. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Library Journal Review

From Dionysian festivities to danced religion in the Middle Ages to sports, carnivals, and rock'n'roll, humans like to get together and party, claims the author of Blood Rites-which tracked our tendency to get together and fight. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Introduction : Invitation to the Dance When Europeans undertook their campaigns of conquest and exploration in what seemed to them "new" worlds, they found the natives engaged in many strange and lurid activities. Cannibalism was reported, though seldom convincingly documented, along with human sacrifice, bodily mutilation, body and face painting, and flagrantly open sexual practices. Equally jarring to European sensibilities was the almost ubiquitous practice of ecstatic ritual, in which the natives would gather to dance, sing, or chant to a state of exhaustion and, beyond that, sometimes trance. Everywhere they went--among the hunter-gatherers of Australia, the horticulturists of Polynesia, the village peoples of India--white men and occasionally women witnessed these electrifying rites so frequently that there seemed to them to be, among "the present societies of savage men . . . an extraordinary uniformity, in spite of much local variation, in ritual and mythology."1 The European idea of the "savage" came to focus on the image of painted and bizarrely costumed bodies, drumming and dancing with wild abandon by the light of a fire. What did they actually see? A single ritual could look very different to different observers. When he arrived in Tahiti in the late 1700s, Captain Cook watched groups of girls performing "a very indecent dance which they call Timorodee, singing the most indecent songs and using most indecent actions . . . In doing this they keep time to a great nicety."2 About sixty years later, Herman Melville found the same ritual, by then called "Lory-Lory" and perhaps modified in other ways, full of sensual charm. Presently, raising a strange chant, they softly sway themselves, gradually quickening the movement, until at length, for a few passionate moments with throbbing bosoms, and glowing cheeks, they abandon themselves to all the spirit of the dance, apparently lost to everything around. But soon subsiding again into the same languid measure as before, the eyes swimming in their heads, join in one wild chorus, and sink into each other's arms.3 Like Captain Cook, Charles Darwin was repelled by the corroborree rite of western Australians, reporting that the dancing consisted in their running either sideways or in Indian file into an open space, and stamping the ground with great force as they marched together. Their heavy footsteps were accompanied with a kind of grunt, by beating their clubs and spears together, and by various other gesticulations, such as extending their arms and wriggling their bodies. It was a most rude, barbarous scene, and, to our ideas, without any sort of meaning.4 But to the anthropologists Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen, a similar Aboriginal rite was far more compelling, perhaps even enticing: "The smoke, the blazing torches, the showers of sparks falling in all directions and the masses of dancing, yelling men formed a genuinely wild and savage scene of which it is impossible to convey any adequate idea in words."5 It was this description that fed into the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim's notion of collective effervescence: the ritually induced passion or ecstasy that cements social bonds and, he proposed, forms the ultimate basis of religion. Through the institution of slavery, European Americans had the opportunity to observe their own captive "natives" at close range, and they too reported varying and contradictory responses to the ecstatic rituals of the transplanted Africans. Many whites of the slave-owning class saw such practices as "noisy, crude, impious, and, simply, dissolute,"6 and took strong measures to suppress them. The nineteenth-century absentee owner of a Jamaican plantation found his slaves doing a myal dance, probably derived from an initiation rite of the Azande people of Africa, and described them as engaged in "a great variety of grotesque actions, and chanting all the while something between a song and a howl."7 Similarly, an English visitor to Trinidad in 1845 reported disgustedly that on Christmas Eve, it seemed as if, under the guise of religion, all Pandemonium had been let loose . . . Drunkenness bursting forth in yells and bacchanalian orgies, was universal amongst the blacks . . . Sleep was out of the question, in the midst of such a disgusting and fiendish saturnalia . . . The musicians were attended by a multitude of drunken people of both sexes, the women being of the lowest class; and all dancing, screaming and clapping their hands, like so many demons. All this was the effect of the "midnight mass," ending, as all such masses do, in every species of depravity.8 Other white observers, though, were sometimes surprised to find themselves drawn in by the peculiar power of such African-derived rituals and festivities. Traveling in the mid-nineteenth century, Frederick Law Olmsted observed a black Christian service in New Orleans and was swept up by the "shouts, and groans, terrific shrieks, and indescribable expressions of ecstasy--of pleasure or agony," to the point where he found his own face "glowing" and feet stamping, as if he had been "infected unconsciously."9 Clinton Furness, a traveler to South Carolina in the 1920s, reported a similar experience while watching an African American ring-shout, or danced form of religious worship. Several men moved their feet alternately, in strange syncopation. A rhythm was born, almost without reference to the words of the preacher. It seemed to take place almost visibly, and grow. I was gripped with the feeling of a mass-intelligence, a self-conscious entity, gradually informing the crowd and taking possession of every mind there, including my own . . . I felt as if some conscious plan or purpose were carrying us along, call it mob-mind, communal composition, or what you will.10 On the whole, though, white observers regarded the ecstatic rituals of darker-skinned peoples with horror and revulsion. Grotesque is one word that appears again and again in European accounts of such events; hideous is another. Henri Junod, a nineteenth-century Swiss missionary among the Ba-Ronga people of southern Mozambique, complained of the drums' "frightful din" and "infernal racket."11 Other Catholic missionaries, upon hearing the African drumbeat announcing a ritual event, felt it was their duty to disrupt "the hellish practice."12 Well into the twentieth century, the sound of drumming was enough to spook the white traveler, suggestive as it was of a world beyond human ken. "I have never heard an eerier sound," a young English visitor to South Africa reports in the 1910 novel Prester John. "Neither human nor animal it seemed, but the voice of that world between which is hid from man's sight and hearing."13 In the introduction to his 1926 book on tribal dancing, the writer W. D. Hambly pleaded with his readers for a little "sympathy" for his subject. The student of primitive music and dancing will have to cultivate a habit of broad-minded consideration for the actions of backward races . . . Music and dancing performed wildly by firelight in a tropical forest have not seldom provoked the censure and disgust of European visitors, who have seen only what is grotesque or sensual.14 Or, in many cases, may have elected not to see at all: When the intrepid entomologist Evelyn Cheeseman tramped through New Guinea in search of new insect species in the early 1930s, she showed not the slightest curiosity about the many native "dancing grounds" she passed through. At one village she and her bearers were asked to leave because there was to be a feast and dance that evening, which were tambu, or forbidden, for outsiders to witness. Cheeseman was miffed by this glitch in her plans but comforted herself with the thought that "it is of course well known that it is not particularly desirable to stop in a strange village when the natives are being worked up to their usual frenzy of devil worship."15 Particularly disturbing to white observers was the occasional climax of ecstatic ritual, in which some or all of the participants would, after prolonged dancing and singing or chanting, enter what we might now call an "altered state of consciousness," or trance. People caught up in trance might speak in a strange voice or language, display a marked indifference to pain, contort their bodies in ways seemingly impossible in normal life, foam at the mouth, see visions, believe themselves to be possessed by a spirit or deity, and ultimately collapse.* A missionary among the Fiji Islanders described such a trance state as "a horrible sight,"16 but it was sight that was not always possible for the traveler to avoid. In her 1963 survey of the ethnographic literature, the anthropologist Erika Bourguignon found that 92 percent of small-scale societies surveyed encouraged some sort of religious trances, in most cases through ecstatic group ritual.17 In one of the many accounts of trance behavior among "primitive" peoples, the early-twentieth-century German scholar T. K. Oesterreich offers this, from a white visitor to Polynesia. As soon as the god was supposed to have entered the priest, the latter became violently agitated, and worked himself up to the highest pitch of apparent frenzy, the muscles of the limbs seemed convulsed, the body swelled, the countenance became terrific, the features distorted, the eyes wild and strained. In this state he often rolled on the earth, foaming at the mouth.18 Promiscuous sex was at least comprehensible to the European mind; even human sacrifice and cannibalism have echoes in Christian rite. But as the anthropologist Michael Taussig writes, "It's the ability to become possessed . . . that signifies to Europeans awesome Otherness if not downright savagery."19 Trance was what many of those wild rituals seemed to lead up to, and for Europeans, it represented the very heart of darkness--a place beyond the human self. Or, what was worse--a place within the human self. In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad's narrator observes an African ritual and reflects that it was unearthly, and the men were--No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it--this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity--like yours--the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of their being a meaning in it which you--so remote from the night of first ages--could comprehend. And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything.20 To Europeans, there was an obvious explanation for the ecstatic practices of native peoples around the world. Since these strange behaviors could be found in "primitive" cultures almost everywhere, and since they were never indulged in by the "civilized," it followed that they must result from some fundamental defect of the "savage mind." It was less stable than the civilized mind, more childlike, "plastic," and vulnerable to irrational influence or "autosuggestion."21 In some instances, the savage mind was described as "out of control" and lacking the discipline and restraint that Europeans of the seventeenth century and beyond came to see as their own defining characteristics. In other accounts, the savage was perhaps too much under control--of his or her "witch doctor," that is--or as a victim of "mob psychology."22 The American political scientist Frederick Morgan Davenport even proposed an anatomical explanation for the bizarre behavior of primitives: They had only a "single spinal ganglion" to process incoming sensory signals and convert them into muscular responses, while the civilized mind had, of course, an entire brain with which to assess the incoming data and weigh the body's responses.23 Hence the susceptibility of the savage to the compelling music and visual imagery of his or her culture's religious rituals--which was regrettable, since "the last thing the superstitious and impulsive negro race needs is a stirring of the emotions."24 But if they thought about it, many Europeans must have realized that the group ecstasy so common among "natives" had certain parallels within Europe itself. For example, Catholic missionaries setting out from France after the 1730s would have heard about the heretical Parisian "convulsionary" cult, whose customary style of worship featured scenes as wild as anything that could be found among the "savages." While the assembled company redoubled their prayers and collectively reached extreme heights of religious enthusiasm, at least one of their number would suddenly lapse into uncontrolled motor activity . . . They thrashed about on the floor in a state of frenzy, screaming, roaring, trembling, and twitching . . . The excitement and the disordered movements, which might last for several hours, usually proved highly contagious, with certain convulsionaries apparently serving as a catalyst for the onset of various bodily agitations in others.25 Later catalogers of "primitive" ecstatic behavior, like T. K. Oesterreich, recognized a more mundane European analogue to the bewildering rites of "savages" in the familiar tradition of carnival, where otherwise sober people costumed themselves, drank to excess, danced through the night, and otherwise inverted the normal staid and Christian order. "It must . . . be admitted," he wrote, "that civilized people show a high degree of autosuggestibility in certain circumstances. By way of example we may quote the peculiar psychic intoxication to which in certain places (e.g., Munich and Cologne) a large part of the population falls victim on a given day of the year (Carnival)."26 Critics of the traditional European festivities sometimes drove home their point by imagining the colonial encounter in reverse, with a "savage" registering shock at the behavior of European carnival-goers. In 1805, for example, a founder of the Basle Bible Society published a brochure entitled Conversation of a Converted Hottentot with a European Christian During Carnival Time, in which the "Hottentot" concludes that Basle is partially inhabited by "barbarous non-converted heathens." At the end of the nineteenth century, a similar pamphlet featured a visiting "converted Hindu," who confides that the wild doings at Basle's Fastnacht festivities put him in mind of "the idolatrous feasts and dances of my fellow-countrymen who are still heathens."27 It was among their social inferiors, however, that Europeans found a more immediate analogue to the foreign "savage." By the eighteenth century, the anthropologist Ann Stoler writes, "strong parallels were made between the immoral lives of the British underclass, Irish peasants, and 'primitive' Africans."28 The English saw parallels between their own lower classes and Native Americans: "Savage slaves be in great Britaine here, as any you can show me there."29 Similarly, a mid-nineteenth-century visitor to rural Burgundy, in France, offered the caustic observation that "you don't have to go to America to see savages."30 And who were those people whose revels disrupted whole cities during carnivals in Germany, France, England, and Spain? By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they were likely to be peasants and the urban poor, with respectable folk doing their best to stay indoors during these dangerously licentious times. So when the phenomenon of collective ecstasy entered the colonialist European mind, it was stained with feelings of hostility, contempt, and fear. Group ecstasy was something "others" experienced--savages or lower-class Europeans. In fact, the capacity for abandonment, for self-loss in the rhythms and emotions of the group, was a defining feature of "savagery" or otherness generally, signaling some fatal weakness of mind. As horrified witnesses of ecstatic ritual, Europeans may have learned very little about the peoples they visited (and often destroyed in the process)--their deities and traditions, their cultures and worldview. But they did learn, or imaginatively construct, something centrally important about themselves: that the essence of the Western mind, and particularly the Western male, upper-class mind, was its ability to resist the contagious rhythm of the drums, to wall itself up in a fortress of ego and rationality against the seductive wildness of the world. Copyright (c) 2006 by Barbara Ehrenreich. All rights reserved. Excerpted from Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.


Table of Contents

Introduction: Invitation to the Dancep. 1
1 The Archaic Roots of Ecstasyp. 21
2 Civilization and Backlashp. 43
3 Jesus and Dionysusp. 57
4 From the Churches to the Streets: The Creation of Carnivalp. 77
5 Killing Carnival: Reformation and Repressionp. 97
6 A Note on Puritanism and Military Reformp. 119
7 An Epidemic of Melancholyp. 129
8 Guns Against Drums: Imperialism Encounters Ecstasyp. 155
9 Fascist Spectaclesp. 181
10 The Rock Rebellionp. 207
11 Carnivalizing Sportsp. 225
Conclusion: The Possibility of Revivalp. 247
Notesp. 263
Bibliographyp. 283
Acknowledgmentsp. 303
Indexp. 305