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On Collective Ecstasy,
This review is from: Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy (Paperback)
Starting back at the dawn of time and bringing the reader up to the present, Barbara Ehrenreich charts the history of collective joy in her recently published book "Dancing in the Streets". The book itself isn't one that's easy to pigeon-hole, in part a work of synthesis, it brings into close focus those fragments of information we have from the past that relate to her subject matter. It also reflects, and speculates on, the expressions of collective joy and ecstatic rituals which are broadly defined as festivals, carnivals, holidays and fairs in which the participants actually participate, as opposed to spectacles of where one just gawps and which reached their hellish epitome with the Nazi rallies of the 1930's.
The earlier section of the book which deal with the pre-historic times are necessarily speculative, one activity that appears frequently in cave paintings would appear to be groups of early men and women dancing. Moving onto the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans Ehrenreich has a greater amount of evidence available and looks at the differences between Roman and Greek (and others) attitudes to collective joy. Her reading of Euripides Bacchae reveals an early example of the tension between the rulers and the ruled with regard to over exuberant festivities. In this case the King is torn to pieces during the annual festival in the Greek world where women ran riot, danced, hunted animals with their bare hands and ate them raw. The King was mistaken for a lion.
The book progresses through time, including speculation on how much of Dionysus practices were taken assimilated by the early Christians, and moves on to later accounts of ecstatic, communal dancing in Churches and the conflicts that emerged between the religious hierarchy who frowned upon this from the late middle ages onwards, and those who fought to maintain the practice. Ehrenreich also ponders a number of questions, whether the function of communal ecstatic rituals was to strengthen community solidarity; how Calvinism and Industrial Capitalism hardened rulers attitudes to the carnivals, fairs and festivals of the lower orders; the increasing albeit anecdotal emergence of depression (or melancholy) as a phenomena as these influences take hold and the opportunities for a community to get together and let it all go gradually disappear. As we move on to more recent times the material becomes increasingly familiar (free rock festivals, etc) though still of interest.
As in all Ehrenreich's writing the prose is energetic, clear, frequently funny and aptly playful, and holds a wealth of (often quite unexpected) information about the apparent human need for ecstatic rituals and festivities involving feasting, masking and dancing that can generate intense pleasure without the need for organized entertainment or the intervention of authorities. A fascinating and rewarding book that I would heartily recommend to all but the most dedicated of kill-joys.