Barbara Ehrenreich defines her “mission” in writing this book as being “to speak seriously of the largely ignored and perhaps incommunicable thrill of the group deliberately united in joy and exaltation…. The focus here is on the kinds of events witnessed by Europeans in ‘primitive’ societies and recalled in the European carnival tradition.” Writing a history of something “perhaps incommunicable” presents obvious difficulties since participants seldom or never wrote about their joy, much less its extreme manifestation in ecstasy.
Yet it is a fact that all peoples living in small isolated groups dance together on festival occasions and devote much effort both to preparing for festivals and participating in them, often to the point of physical exhaustion. And as Ehrenreich persuasively demonstrates, vestigial expressions of collective dance-like behavior still crop up in our sports arenas and pop music concerts. The capacity for generating collective joy and a warm sense of commonality by feasting, dressing up, singing or shouting, and rhythmically moving together is still very much alive; and Ehrenreich’s second reason for writing her new book is to ask, “If we possess this capacity for collective ecstasy, why do we so seldom put it to use?” She explains:
I will approach these questions historically, following the long, drawn-out struggle over ecstatic rituals from ancient times to the present. Everyone is vaguely aware of the decline of community human societies have endured in the last few centuries, a development many social scientists have analyzed in depth. Here we are looking at a much sharper, more intense form of pleasure than anything implied by the word community, with its evocations of coziness and small-town sociability. The loss of ecstatic pleasure, of the kind once routinely generated by rituals involving dancing, music, and so on, deserves the same attention accorded to community, and to be equally mourned.
Ehrenreich follows Nietzsche in fixing on the worship of Dionysus as the archetypical example of ecstatic ritual in ancient times:
Far more than most of his fellow deities, Dionysus was an accessible and democratic god, whose thiasos, or sacred band, stood open to the humble as well as the mighty…. What the god demanded, according to Nietzsche, was nothing less than the human soul, released by ecstatic ritual from the “horror of individual existence” into the “mystic Oneness” of rhythmic unity in the dance.
But Dionysiac ecstasy, especially among women, challenged established religious, political, and military hierarchies and was strenuously repressed among the Romans as well as by worshipers of Yahweh. Ehrenreich sums up the collision as follows:
So it is tempting to divide the ancient temperament into a realm of Dionysus and realm of Yahweh—hedonism and egalitarianism versus hierarchy and war…. A feminine, or androgynous, spirit of playfulness versus the cold principle of patriarchal authority….
But this entire dichotomy breaks down with the arrival of Jesus…. Jesus gave the implacable Yahweh a human face, making him more accessible and forgiving. At the same time, though—and less often noted—Jesus was, or was portrayed by his followers as, a continuation of the quintessentially pagan Dionysus.
Ehrenreich supports this surprising assertion with a whole chapter comparing the early worship of Jesus with the older worship of Dionysus. She finds several striking convergences. Both were “wandering charismatics,” with “special appeal to women and the poor.” In addition, “both are associated with wine,” sons of a father-god and of a mortal mother, healers, persecuted by secular authority and even had similar symbols—“fish for Jesus, the dolphin for Dionysus.” She elaborates:
Rounding out their shared bohemian perspective, both were scornful of the toil and striving that take up so much human energy…. Both, in fancier words, upheld what has been called a hedonic vision of community, based on egalitarianism and the joyous immediacy of human experience….
There is one more parallel between Jesus and Dionysus. Long before Jesus’ arrival, Dionysus had himself become a god of personal salvation, holding out the promise of life beyond the grave…. To “lose oneself” in ecstasy—to let go of one’s physical and temporal boundaries—is to glimpse, however briefly, the prospect of eternity.
And Ehrenreich believes that during the first two centuries of Christian history, ecstasy was never far from gatherings of the faithful: “They sang and chanted, leaped up to prophesy either in tongues or in normal speech, drank wine, and probably danced and tossed their hair about.”
But enthusiasm “in the original sense of being possessed by a deity” troubled many early Christians and when bishops and deacons emerged as recognized Church officers, most of them sought to “crack down on religious dancing, especially by women.”
And when the community of believers could no longer access the deity on their own, through ecstatic forms of worship, the community itself was reduced to a state of dependency on central ecclesiatical authorities…. But it was to take many centuries before large numbers of Christians came to accept this diminished form of Christianity.
As a result, “Christianity remained, to a certain extent, a danced religion” until reform efforts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries established a new compromise. “Simply put, the laity could dance on Church holidays…; they just could not do so in churches.” The consequence was the rise of secularized carnival celebrations that “drained festivities of moral content and ecstatic insight” but “also gave people ownership of and control over them.”
Mockery of authorities came to play a prominent role in carnival celebrations and riotous drunkenness sometimes followed. Whereupon, Ehrenreich tells us, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries,
At some point, in town after town, throughout the northern Christian world, the music stops. Carnival costumes are put away or sold; dramas that once engaged the town’s entire population are canceled; festive rituals are forgotten…. The ecstatic possibility, which had first been driven from the sacred precincts of the church, was now harried from the streets and public squares.
She regards the suppression of festive ecstasy as an incalculable loss to ordinary people. Among the factors promoting that loss, she mentions capitalism, Protestantism, the new capability of common soldiers to slaughter armored knights by firing guns from a safe distance, and the rise of self-conscious good manners among courtiers and other members of the privileged classes. She makes no effort to choose among these factors nor does she try to analyze their interaction.
Instead she dedicates a chapter to “An Epidemic of Melancholy,” which started in England and spread throughout northern Europe in the seventeenth century. It is true that melancholy became a fashionable affliction after 1621, when Robert Burton published his Anatomy of Melancholy, and other writers often suffered from it or referred to it in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But as Ehrenreich herself points out, Hippocrates knew of it in ancient Greece; and medieval confessors called it by its Latin name, acedia. “So melancholy, in some form, had always existed—and, regrettably, we have no statistical evidence of a sudden increase in early modern Europe.” Yet she still asserts:
The immense tragedy for Europeans, I have argued, and most acutely for the northern Protestants among them, was that the same social forces that disposed them to depression also swept away a traditional cure…. They had completed the demonization of Dionysus begun by Christians centuries ago, and thereby rejected one of the most ancient sources of help—the mind-preserving, lifesaving techniques of ecstasy.
The final chapters of the book deal with (1) European imperial efforts to suppress ecstatic dancing and drumming among Africans and other native peoples, as well as among slaves of African descent in the Americas; (2) militarized nationalist spectacles in France, Germany, and Italy; (3) the rock rebellion in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States; and (4) the carnivalizing of sports since the 1960s around the world.
Ehrenreich dislikes nationalist and fascist rituals but sympathizes with more contemporary versions of Dionysiac exuberance, and emphasizes their connection with African ecstatic traditions. Yet her account is pervaded by a sense of the evanescence and marginality of contemporary versions of ecstasy. In her conclusion she declares:
There is no obvious reason why festivities and ecstatic rituals cannot survive within large-scale societies…. Modern Brazil still celebrates carnaval; Trinidad preserves its carnival. Today’s nonviolent uprisings, like Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, invariably feature rock or rap music, dancing in the streets, and “costuming” in the revolution-appropriate color. There is no apparent limit on the number of people who can celebrate together.
Yet who really cares? She protests:
The family is all we need, America’s ostensibly Christian evangelists tell us…. But if anything represents a kind of evolutionary regression, it is this. Insofar as we compress our sociality into the limits of the family, we do not so much resemble our Paleolithic human ancestors as we do those far earlier prehuman primates who had not yet discovered the danced ritual as a “biotechnology” for the formation of larger groups. Humans had the wit and generosity to reach out to unrelated others; hominids huddled with their kin.
She concludes: “There appears to be no constituency today for collective joy itself. In fact, the very term collective joy is largely unfamiliar and exotic.” Nonetheless,
The urge to transform one’s appearance, to dance outdoors, to mock the powerful and embrace perfect strangers is not easy to suppress.
And why, in the end, would anyone want to? The capacity for collective joy is encoded in us almost as deeply as the capacity for 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?
—as a samba school she encountered two years ago practicing for carnaval on a beach in Rio de Janeiro so triumphantly did before her eyes.
Ehrenreich’s history of the decline and fall of joy and ecstasy among Europeans and their heirs in America is a dramatic tale, and deals with a dimension of human experience that historians and social scientists have seldom considered. I am thoroughly convinced that she is right in arguing that the sentiments aroused by prolonged participation in rhythmic dance and song (as well as by military drill) had profound importance in human history. In particular, dance was what allowed our remote (indeed, as she does not recognize, our pre-human) ancestors to form larger and more cooperative bands than contemporary chimpanzees are capable of sustaining.
I also believe that larger groups sustained by dance opened the path to grammatical speech, making us fully human and capable of acting together on the basis of agreed-upon meanings. These can be shared by indefinitely large numbers of persons, like the 300 million Americans who agree today that the US government exists and should be obeyed, at least most of the time. I also agree with her in thinking that festive dancing aroused warm feelings of commonality among the participants throughout human past, dissolving grievances and soothing frictions of every kind with incalculable benefit to all concerned.
But such feelings are not the same as the ecstasy Ehrenreich makes so much of. Emotions aroused among groups of dancers may perhaps revive fetal memories of the rhythmic swoosh and swirl we felt when floating in our mother’s womb as she walked or ran. That was a time when we made no distinction between self and environment, when fear and deprivation were still unknown to all of us, and when comforting warmth and serenity everywhere prevailed. At any rate a pleasurable boundary loss as one merges into the swirl of fellow dancers is the best that words can do to describe what happens; and that resembles what we can only guess about prenatal consciousness. But among postnatal humans, we can be sure that when the immediate excitement of dance subsides, a powerful emotional residue tends to remain—to wit, a much-strengthened fellow feeling with those who shared in the dance.
I also agree with Ehrenreich in thinking that the cessation of festive dancing is a regrettable loss. In the small Connecticut community where I now live, such dances survived into the 1930s, managed by volunteer firemen and their wives. But community square dances dwindled and came to an end when radio and TV brought new forms of entertainment within reach, and many outsiders, who knew nothing about old-fashioned folk dancing, bought summer and retirement homes here. Efforts to revive community dances in the 1990s failed, so like most other Americans we now “barely know our neighbors,” as Ehrenreich puts it.
With so much basic agreement, I wish I could also say that Barbara Ehrenreich’s book is a satisfactory guide to the history she addresses. But her vivacious exploration of her theme seems to me disappointingly partial in several ways.
She is partial first of all in concentrating almost wholly on Europe and, for recent decades, the United States. She does make some brief and provocative remarks linking military drill with Wahhabi and other military-religious movements of reform within Islam, and even mentions drill in ancient China. She also offers snatches of information about the impact of nineteenth-century collision of European imperialists with native esctatic practices around the globe, especially upon transatlantic African populations. But she makes no effort to investigate Islamic, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, shamanistic, or other non-European ecstatic traditions. Instead she is content to label ancient, medieval, and modern instances of ecstatic dancing as Dionysiac, whether or not the participants had ever heard of that ancient deity. But in fact the worshipers of Dionysus were only one of several competing religious groups in ancient Greece that indulged in dance and sometimes provoked ecstasy; and we know very little about them. Euripides’ play The Bacchae is the principal written text that survives, and how much he knew about what really happened among Dionysus’ female devotees is open to question, to say the least.
Indiscrimate reliance on the term “Dionysiac” misleads Ehrenreich in another way, for she entirely neglects ecstatic dancing among worshipers of Yahweh. Yet the biblical books of Samuel and Chronicles make it clear that wandering bands of young men occasionally achieved ecstasy, making music with “a lyre, a tambourine, a flute and a harp” and “prophesying ecstatically” (I Samuel 10:5). Before and after Samuel recognized him as king, Saul joined these prophets, scandalizing many of his contemporaries when “he even stripped off his clothes, and he also prophesied ecstatically before Samuel, and fell down and lay naked all that day and all night” (I Samuel 19:24). David also danced naked before the Lord on occasion (II Samuel 7:20–21).
The prophetic companions of Saul and David, along with “everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was embittered”(I Samuel 22:2), became the soldiers who allowed them to create the Kingdom of Israel (1020–961 BCE) at roughly the same time as the worship of Dionysus was spreading through Greece. The biblical record also suggests that military success in slaughtering Amalekites and other neighboring peoples allowed many of the landless prophets and other distressed young men to acquire fertile fields and abandon their wandering, ecstatic style of life. But individual prophets remained, and some, like Nathan, turned prophecy in the name of Yahweh in a new direction by publically denouncing King David’s sin of taking another man’s wife into his harem (II Samuel 1: 1–12, 25).
Prophetic ecstasy in Israel was as powerful in binding young men together and giving meaning to their lives as anything that occurred among the maenads worshipping Dionysus in the mountains of Greece; and the literary records in the books of Samuel are much fuller and more nearly contemporary than anything Euripides offers. Indeed the prophetic tradition descending from the time of Saul and David and redirected against unjust exercise of power by Nathan and other subsequent prophets was eventually enshrined in Jewish and Christian sacred scripture; so it has a far better claim to centrality in European thought and practice than the Dionysiac Jesus that Ehrenreich ingeniously, but, I think, implausibly, proposes.
More particularly, her claim that ancient “temperament” (whatever that means) was characterized by polar opposition between a “feminine, or androgenous, spirit of playfulness” associated with Dionysus and Yahweh’s “cold principle of patriarchal authority” is plainly wrong. Dionysus and Yahweh were local, relatively inconspicuous gods at first, and when Yahweh achieved centrality with the spread of Christianity the record of prophetic ecstasy from the time of Saul and David and its subsequent transformation into demands for social justice came with Him.
It is true that dancing in Christian churches persisted into the fourth century and beyond. No less a figure than Saint Ambrose of Milan (d. 387) once declared: “He who dances the spiritual dance, always moving in the ecstasy of the faith, acquires the right to dance in the ring of all Creation”, i.e., in Heaven.1 Saint Augustine (d. 430) was horrified by sexual arousal among dancers, yet expressed a grudging tolerance for the holy dances Ambrose had praised.2
In time, as Ehrenreich explains, Augustine’s views prevailed, even though secularized versions of carnival dancing still persist in some Roman Catholic cities, while local village dances continue to persist throughout Christendom and around the entire globe. So the eclipse of community dancing is not nearly as complete as Ehrenreich assumes, owing to her focus on the urban scene in Europe and America.
Indeed it seems probable to me that dancing and ecstasy may have an important future among the hundreds of millions of immigrants now flocking to the world’s cities. Their discontents are real; the solace of dance, music, spectacle, and preaching—political, religious, or both—is just as real as ever. Fanatics and pied pipers are almost sure to develop followings just as their counterparts did in ancient Israel, in Greece and Rome, and in other parts of the agrarian world, wherever cultivable land ran short so that large numbers of young persons could not marry and achieve full adult status as they came of age. Frustrations among the children of recent urban immigrants are comparable, since, like their landless predecessors, they too have difficulty in finding satisfactory jobs and achieving fully adult status.
This brings me to a final dissent from Ehrenreich’s views. It seems to me that ecstasy through dance is far more costly than she admits. Unless I am mistaken, deprivation in everyday life is what drives dancers to ecstasy. Like drugs, ecstasy provides temporary release from their distress. Indeed, shamans sometimes combined drugs with dance to achieve ecstasy; and the same combination often showed up among rock and rollers of the twentieth century.
Deprivation may be sexual or social. It may arise from a deficiency of love and kindliness in family and other face-to-face relationships. Or it may reflect harsh treatment at the hands of host populations of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. Shortages of food and other bodily needs can seldom come into play, since ecstatic dancing requires strenuous physical exertion, and weak, starving people simply cannot afford to expend what little energy they have in such a fashion.
What really sustains human society is not ecstasy but the milder forms of intensified sociality that collective dance provokes. Villagers who did much the same sort of work, and ate much the same sort of food, found it easy and natural to expend surplus food and energy in festive dancing. Before that, bands of hunters and gatherers did the same. That was the human norm, not ecstasy; and the sort of dancing that was widely practiced carries none of the violent taint that inheres in ecstasy.
For as Ehrenreich admits, Dionysiac worshipers also killed animals and even people. A maenad’s murder of her husband is the theme of Euripides’ tragedy, and however dubious its historic accuracy may be, it suggests that worshipers of Dionysus were capable of sudden acts of violence against fellow humans, as the ecstatic prophets of Yahweh undoubtedly also were. Frustration, ecstasy, and violence are, it seems it seems to me, closely linked. Ehrenreich, however, yearns for the return of ecstasy, without admitting its close association with deprivation and violence.
To be sure, ecstasy can be routinized and at least partially controlled. Shamans of central Asia routinely achieved ecstasy through dance, and when they recovered normal consciousness dispensed advice and guidance from the spirits with whom they claimed to have conversed while entranced. But when everyone knows ahead of time what to expect, feigning such ecstasy is easy. A genuine state of excited unconsciousness is difficult to achieve on demand and impossible to maintain for long. Ecstasy among Pentacostalists and other contemporary ecstatic sects is transitory.3 I even suspect that instutionalized forms of religious ecstacy, such as prevailed among shamans, was often a bogus spectacle, in part or in toto.
This view is reinforced by an event I happened to witness in Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago about forty years ago. One day a company of about thirty Turkish dervishes of the Mehlevi order showed up to dance in the chancel of that Christian edifice in front of a considerable number of quasi-pious Turks from throughout the city, together with a few merely curious spectators from the university community like myself.
The dervishes were clad identically in long gray garments. They filed in and then began to circle their pir, or leader, to the sound of unfamiliar, rather stately, music, and continued to do so for a long, long time. Each dervish revolved as he danced so their skirts spread out to form decorous gray cones. No signs of unusual excitement appeared until suddenly the whole group fell to the floor face down at the feet of their master, and the ceremony was over.
I came away sure that the final collapse was not spontaneous. The dancers may have been tired, but they had not all suddenly been seized by ecstasy as their collapse implied. Centuries before, and in a more propitious environment, ecstasy among the Mehlevis may have been genuine; in Chicago it was pretense—or, as my Turkish colleague Professor Halil Inalcik called it, blasphemy.
The only other time I encountered religious ecstasy was in New York. At that time, a black preacher, known as Father Divine, had established several “Heavens” in shabby quarters of the city. I was a graduate student staying at International House near the Columbia campus; and when notice of a trip to one of Father Divine’s Heavens was posted, I signed up.
When the time came, a bus delivered our small party to the nearest Heaven in Harlem. We were expected, and our reception was cordial. Before sitting down to dine with the inhabitants of the Heaven, we were conducted to seats in front of a stage where a small brass band was belting out rhythmic hymn tunes. The audience responded by standing up, clapping, singing, and dancing in place. Most were black, but some whites had joined Father Divine’s following, so our party was not overly conspicuous. After a few minutes, ecstasy set in among some members of the congregation.
I particularly remember how a large black woman two rows in front of me raised her hands over her head, began speaking in tongues—making a shrill, ullulating sound—and then fell back upon her chair before tumbling to the floor. She was most certainly in ecstasy, entirely unaware of her surroundings.
But a white man in charge of the band promptly interrupted the music and began to preach instead. Excitement subsided, people sat down again, and the fallen woman soon raised herself and resumed her seat. After a while the band began to play once more, but before any more outbursts of ecstasy occurred Father Divine himself arrived from another Heaven and we all sat down to dinner.
Father Divine quickly took his seat at the head of the long table. He did not eat himself, but blessed dish after dish by ceremoniously thrusting a large serving spoon into it, whereupon they were passed from hand to hand along both sides of the table until they were emptied. The food was simple but filling, and when the meal was over we departed without witnessing how cleaning up and going to bed may have been managed.
But the way Father Divine’s white deputy had aroused ecstasy and contained it by turning the music on and off seemed to me both deliberate and effective. Like early Christians, Father Divine’s followers probably interpreted ecstasy as a sign that the Holy Spirit had entered the body and taken command of the worshiper, and for those so blessed at least a temporary relief from their woes surely ensued. Such signs of exceptional holiness were probably admired—even reverenced—by Father Divine’s followers.
But too much ecstasy among too many would be sure to disrupt the good order and cooperative work that sustained the inhabitants of Father Divine’s Heaven, and his deputy must have been well aware of that possibility. His deliberate manipulation kept ecstatic enthusiasm safely restrained—whatever his own belief or disbelief may have been.
A book that leaves out so much does not live up to Ehrenreich’s subtitle A History of Collective Joy. Yet for many readers her shrewd observations about nationalist rallies, the rock rebellion, and recent raucous behavior among sports crowds will make the book worth reading. Here are samples of her insight:
We can conclude, then, with some confidence, that the nationalist spectacles of the modern era—from the official festivals of the French Revolution to the fascist mass rallies of the 1920s and ’30s—were a sorry substitute for the traditional festive gatherings they replaced. This failure had nothing to do with ideological content…. It was the medium that failed: the endless parades, the reviews of the troops, the exhortatory speeches…. As a species of entertainment, the nationalist spectacles seem to have fallen rather short of the mark. They were, for one thing, utterly solemn events.
But “rock and roll,” she says, “reopened the possibility of ecstasy or at least a joy beyond anything else the consumer culture could offer.” Nonetheless, before long its
commercialization had a debilitating effect…. Quite apart from its employment as a marketing tool, rock’s sheer ubiquity may have had an even greater taming effect simply by severing its life-giving connection to physical participation and collective pleasure.
Her account of fan participation in recent sports events concludes with a similar regret:
But if the carnivalization of sports represents a kind of victory for the fans—a chance to party and break free of the traditional passivity of the spectator role—it was not a victory for the same kind of fans who created modern spectator sports in the first place. Obviously, few working class fans can afford to travel to soccer matches in distant countries, and the price of a ticket to a home game rose precipitously in the 1990s….
Whether the festive atmosphere of the games will survive this demographic change remains to be seen. In the last few years, the wealthiest fans have signaled their distaste for the ongoing carnival by withdrawing into their own closed-in skyboxes or luxury suites….
She mourns these recent instances of evanescence and decay without surrendering hope of renewed effervescence. But as I said before, throughout the book she overlooks the costs of the ecstasy she yearns for, and makes no distinction between what I think of as normal forms of community dancing that did so much to sustain small communities throughout the human past and its frenetic, ecstatic manifestations that were always relatively rare and fraught with possibilities of disruptive violence. Her blindness to the full range of ecstatic behavior cripples a book that nonetheless draws attention to a much neglected dimension of human emotional needs and capacities.
September 27, 2007
Eugene Louis Backman, Religious Dances in the Christian Church and in Popular Medicine (London: Allen and Unwin, 1952), p. 29. ↩
Backman, Religious Dances in the Christian Church, pp. 33–34. ↩
See Felicitas D. Goodman, “Disturbances in the Apostolic Church: A Trance-Based Upheaval in Yucatan,” in Felicitas D. Goodman, Jeanette H. Henney and Esther Pressel, Trance, Healing and Hallucination: Three Field Studies in Religious Experience (Krieger, 1974), pp. 231ff. ↩