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Barbara Ehrenreich


A History of Collective Joy

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Barbara Ehrenreich believes that a need for communal dancing, potentially leading to ecstasy, is deeply wired in the human psyche, and that the failure to engage in such activities is an important cause of many of our individual and collective ills. She traces the practice of communal dancing from its earliest beginnings in prehistory down to modern times.

Rock paintings from many parts of the world show groups of people dancing, often in lines or circles and often wearing elaborate costumes. There is, inevitably, a lot of guesswork involved in interpreting these depictions, but once we reach the period when written records begin, about five thousand years ago, we find plenty of evidence, both from documents and from art, for the widespread practice of dancing rituals. The god Dionysus is particularly associated with ecstatic transports and also with wine. Ehrenreich suggests that he may derive from the pattern of the wandering musician, and parallels still exist today. "With his long hair, his hints of violence, and his promise of ecstasy, Dionysus was the first rock star."

Almost as soon as written records of ecstatic rituals begin to appear, there is evidence of unease and even hostility to these activities. Society was becoming more organised, with the development of hierarchies and armies. This happened, for example, in both ancient Israel and Rome. Christianity in the first and second centuries probably had its ecstatic aspect and may have offered something similar to what was provided by the Greek mystery cults. People sang and chanted, jumped up to prophesy—sometimes "in tongues"—drank wine. and probably danced. But Paul's congregations were more restrained, and this version of Christianity came to predominate later, especially after the official adoption of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman empire after Constantine.

Even so, church services in the early Middle Ages were very different from what most Christians are used to today. There were no pews, and dancing in the church was common, often with the participation of the priest. But the ecclesiastical authorities disapproved and, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, they succeeded in displacing these unseemly performances outside the church. Eventually this led to the development of carnival—festive occasions that were, at least initially, linked to the Christian calendar.

Carnival and similar festivities were suppressed, as far as possible, by the Puritans, influenced by Calvinism. And although they revived later it was in a different form: it was increasingly the lower social classes who participated, while their superiors withdrew into more staid and unexciting forms of entertainment. There was thus a tendency for dancing and ecstasy-inducing rituals to become the province of the socially disadvantaged.

This trend became evident among the African slaves who were deported to the New World, where they used Christianity to develop their own rituals with African roots. African rhythms were imported in this way into modern Western popular music and continue to exert an influence in rock. I would myself instance Flamenco dancing, which developed among another minority population of (Indian) immigrants, the Romanies, and exemplifies many of the features that Ehrenreich cites as characteristic: group participation, complex clapped rhythms, elaborate costumes, and the valuing of skilled individual performances.

Ehrenreich believes that the widespread existence of depression in modern societies is, at least in part, due to the relative absence of communal dancing as a path to ecstasy. She finds that, for centuries, there has been an opposition between the natural inclination to carnival and the wish of the state to discipline and stratify society. Today, religion is often used as a surrogate for communal ecstasy, but it doesn't work very well; instead of rhythmic physical movement in a group, it consists in persuading oneself to adopt a belief by an effort of the imagination.

The capacity for collective joy is encoded in us almost as deeply as the erotic love of one human for another. We can live without it, as most of us do, but only at the risk of succumbing to the solitary nightmare of depression. Why not reclaim our distinctively human heritage as creatures who can generate their own ecstatic pleasures out of music, color, feasting, and dance?
I don't know of any evidence to show that dancing is protective against depression. But I think that Ehrenreich draws attention to an important component of religion that is often neglected by both defenders and detractors. Particularly in Christianity there has been too much emphasis on belief. It is no doubt significant that the religious forms that are most alive in Britain today are those that involve a lot of singing and audience participation, with a minimum of intellectual content.

25 September 2010

%T Dancing in the Streets
%S A History of Collective Joy
%A Barbara Ehrenreich
%I Granta Books
%C London
%D 2007
%G ISBN 978-1-86207-954-0
%P 320pp
%K sociology

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