Shall We Dance?

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,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.