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Dionysian rave

Dancing in the Streets A History of Collective Joy Barbara Ehrenreich Metropolitan Books: 322 pp., $26

January 07, 2007|Mark Coleman | Mark Coleman is the author of "Playback: From the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money."

IN the 21st century, most people have experienced at least a watered-down version of what author Barbara Ehrenreich calls collective joy. Many are susceptible to flashes of communal ecstasy in stadiums or auditoriums, nightclubs or public parks, at concerts and dances and sports events. Participation in such familiar -- not to say cliched -- rituals can spark a vague but intensely pleasurable group consciousness. Feeling that we're part of something bigger than ourselves is something that doesn't happen as often as it should, according to Ehrenreich.

In "Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy," she spends nearly as much time mourning the absence of ecstatic rituals in modern times as she does taking note of their fantastic past: Greek mystery cults, Roman emasculation rituals, self-flagellation fads, "dancing priests" and their rowdy flocks, bawdy anti-clerical burlesques and medieval dance manias. The history of collective joy as related here is lurid and alluring.

In Ehrenreich's telling, dance has been a key element in this group behavior almost from the start. Ancient hunting rituals, for example, included rhythmic movements meant to intimidate the prey. "Taken individually, humans are fragile, vulnerable, clueless creatures," she writes. "But banded together through rhythm and enlarged through the artifice of masks and sticks, the group can feel -- and perhaps appear -- to be as formidable as any nonhuman beast. When we speak of transcendent experience in terms of 'feeling part of something larger than ourselves,' it may be this ancient many-headed pseudocreature that we unconsciously invoke."

Combining thorough research with her tart, skeptical eye, Ehrenreich constructs a vivid narrative of early Christianity and "deliberately nurtured techniques of ecstasy." By the Middle Ages, these fervent rituals were a regular feature of peasant life. "[O]ne out of every four days of the year was an official holiday of some sort, usually dedicated to a mix of religious ceremonies and more or less unsanctioned carryings-on," she writes. "So, despite the reputation of what are commonly called 'the Middle Ages' as a time of misery and fear, the period from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century can be seen -- at least in comparison to the puritanical times that followed -- as one long outdoor party, punctuated by bouts of hard labor."

Of course, it didn't take long for church authorities to target these celebrations as breeding grounds of heresy (not to mention the attendant sexual promiscuity and property damage). "Nothing is more threatening to a hierarchical religion than the possibility of ordinary laypeople's finding their own way into the presence of the gods," Ehrenreich notes. "The absolute incompatibility of Jesus and Dionysus -- or more generally, Christianity and the old ecstatic religions -- was a tenet of later Christian theology, if not 'Western' thought more generally."

In her bestselling book "Nickel and Dimed," Ehrenreich documented the day-to-day lives of minimum-wage workers. So it's no surprise that "Dancing in the Streets" focuses on the sociological effect of the festive ritual rather than its spiritual thrust: "Whatever social category you had been boxed into -- male or female, rich or poor -- carnival was a chance to escape from it," she writes. Throughout, she is less concerned with personal transcendence than with political transformation -- the revolutionary potential embedded in ecstatic practices. With characteristic frankness, she identifies the suppression of community rituals and festivals as her larger theme. But her anti-authoritarian edge serves the book's first half far better than it does the second.

Ehrenreich's rhetoric reaches a fever pitch in her description of France in 1790; she gets caught up in the public celebrations on the first anniversary of the revolution, and her unabashed intellectual enthusiasm electrifies these pages. "With the shared wine and food, the dancing that wound through whole cities and out into the fields, this has to have been one of the great moments, in all of human history, to have been alive."

Perhaps inevitably, after that peak a somewhat jaded air creeps in. Ehrenreich angrily points to the cruel legacy of colonial rule and its decimating effect on local religions. She contends that "Europeans generally found themselves in furious opposition to the communal pleasures and rituals of the people whose lives they intruded upon."

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