The Greeks had their maenads. Women under the spell of Dionysius would dance all night and then rip small animals apart with their bare hands. The Balinese have the Monkey Chant. The Sioux had the Ghost Dance. Hippie counter-culture had the Grateful Dead and The Doors. The French and others have carnival.
Throughout human history, across the centuries and across cultures, people have come together to lose themselves in drink, dance, drugs, music, and ritual. We all want, it seems, to expand our boundaries and lose ourselves in the company of others.
Barbara Ehrenreich’s thoroughly remarkable Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy delves into the history of group ecstasy, its suppression by colonialists, church officials, and political elites, and what it means for us now as we struggle to hold together a society of individualists.
This sort of social history is where Ehrenreich truly excels. While recent work as an undercover journalist (Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch) have brought her writing to new audiences, one hopes they will move along with her to embrace this profoundly meaningful history of joy.
Euripides’ Bacchae, often described as the most inexplicable of plays, explores the tension between ecstatic experience and order as Pentheus the king and Dionysius the androgynous stranger face off in a farcical yet deadly power struggle.
This archetypal conflict of Pentheus and Dionysius echoes on throughout much of human history. As the increasing popularity of such events as Burning Man and the enduring appeal of storefront charismatic churches and small dark music venues attest, the historic victory of Pentheus, while significant, is never complete.
The depth of the European ecstatic heritage is perhaps best illustrated by the cooptation of Dionysian myth in the social construction of Christ. Dionysius, with his various festivals and close association with the benefits of wine, was the most wildly popular of the pagan deities, although Baal and Asheroth were popular as well for many of the same reasons.
Nor are depictions of the Dionysian limited to the New Testament. While the militaristic god that evolves throughout the Pentateuch was well suited to an imperial religion held by a surrounded people, every time the chosen folk got a little breathing room they’d go running right back to Baal.
A dozen or more centuries later, as class and hierarchy increasingly defined the social experience, the central role of dancing and celebration in the life of the community came under fire, and under the watchful eye of the Calvinists was nearly extinguished.
Ehrenreich traces the evolution of the suppression of community to the emergence of social hierarchy. In case after case, the pattern is the same: elites increasingly pulled back from popular celebration into more exclusive and careful gatherings of their own. As elites withdrew, the subversive aspects of carnival-like celebrations offered both the opportunity and organizing structure to parody and sometimes attack the upper classes. They became threatened, and gradually outlawed popular celebration.
As Europeans took their increasingly dour worldview abroad, the suppression of ecstatic ritual was a mere footnote to the wholesale extermination of entire civilizations. Yet, as in the case of American slaves, what was driven underground would often reemerge in less overtly threatening yet still subversive forms.
While Ehrenreich stops short of offering a blueprint for the restoration of collective joy, she offers the universalizing influence of festival as an antidote to the impoverishment of public life. Being responsible to one another, she says, begins with establishing emotional connection. Recovering joy isn’t just about loosening up and having more fun. It may be a matter of survival.