I was intrigued when our book group selected Dancing in the Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich. It’s a history of collective joy and ecstatic ritual — stuff that’s pretty rare in the land of the glowing screen people. Studying humankind’s long transition from wild and free to robo-consumers, it’s easy to perceive gradually advancing emotional decay. Cultures slid further away from intimate connections to the family of life, and human societies grew from small clans of friends and family into sprawling megalopolises inhabited by millions of strangers.
In Colin Turnbull’s lovely book, The Forest People, the Mbuti Pygmies were beautiful people who thrived in a Congo rainforest. They did not worship invisible deities, because that required a vivid imagination. Instead, they had profound reverence and respect for their forest, which was not invisible, and gave them everything they needed. This love often inspired song, dance, and jubilation. Paradise was where their feet were standing. Turnbull wrote that the Pygmy “likes to laugh until tears come to his eyes and he is too weak to stand. He then sits down or lies on the ground and laughs still louder.”
In The Mbuti Pygmies, Turnbull spoke fondly of Father Longo, a Catholic missionary. Pygmies had no word for evil. “In order to convert them, then, he would first have to teach them the concept of evil, and that he was not prepared to do.” He left them unmolested.
I had great hopes for Ehrenreich’s book, because it was a very neat idea. I imagined a book to help us remember how essential it was, for health and sanity, to spend our lives in intimate daily contact with the family of life, in a thriving undefiled ecosystem — the mode of living for which we evolved. The book didn’t quite do this. Its time window was the era of civilization, beginning with brief glimpses of Canaanite orgies, and the lusty Dionysian cults of Greece. The main focus was on Europe in the last 500 years.
For most, life in medieval times majored in backbreaking drudgery and poverty. Folks avoided insanity by taking breaks for festive gatherings — carnivals where people wore costumes and masks. There was singing, dancing, drinking, and good-natured mockery of their superiors. The struggles of daily life were left behind, as peasants and nobles joined together, rolled down their socks, and dissolved into a sweet whirlwind of joyful noise and ecstatic celebration.
There were big cultural changes when puritanical cults appeared on the stage, with their fanatical intolerance. Calvinism descended like a hard frost on fun. Pleasure was of the devil. Festivities were banned. The music stopped. Get back to work! Naturally, this led to an epidemic of morbid melancholy (depression).
Over time, multinational salvation-oriented religions drove wedges into cohesive social relationships. Believers were encouraged to regularly contemplate their shortcomings, and worry about where their souls would reside in the afterlife. There was increased focus on “me,” the individual, and less on “us,” our community. With the rise of individualism came “isolation, loneliness, a sense of disengagement, loss of vitality, and a feeling of burden because reality had no clear meaning.”
Then came the age of colonization, when this injured mindset spread to distant lands, forced its beliefs on others, and destroyed their cultures. Missionaries were rigid, racist, domineering, and intolerant — dour and cheerless people who never laughed. Savages were no longer allowed to practice their traditional ecstatic rituals, because they were devil worship. Joy became a mental illness.
Ehrenreich wrote in 2007, but her chapter on the rise of fascist nationalism could have been written this morning. Following their defeat in 1918, Germans were down and out. Hitler revived their spirits with mysticism, color, and pageantry. Hitler was a masterful performer and bullshit artist who entranced vast crowds with his highly animated oratory, repeatedly shouting slogan after slogan. Thousands roared back, “Sieg heil!” [LOOK]
The Nazis built an enormous stadium at Nuremberg, and held annual gatherings in it. Around the perimeter, 130 antiaircraft searchlights were aimed straight up into the night, creating an awe-inspiring circular colonnade of light beams. Folks were spellbound by the sight of thousands of soldiers, in crisp new uniforms, goose-stepping with astonishing precision, to the thundering drumbeats.
Like the Pied Piper, Hitler tried to unify and lead all good Germans to a heroic racially pure Teutonic utopia. On the streets, gangs of roughneck brown shirts with swastika armbands aggressively harassed the socialists, Jews, and other undesirables. The swing music of racially inferior Negroes was banned. Radio and cinema reinforced the Third Reich’s message — make the Fatherland great again.
Military spectacles were a powerful way to manipulate crowds. The barrage of high energy nationalism whipped them up. But being orderly spectators was far less interesting than enthusiastically participating in singing, dancing, and merrymaking. Nazi events were heavily policed. Eventually, the parades and speeches got boring.
After the Hitler show was reduced to rubble, Ehrenreich discussed two new fads that seemed like modern attempts to revive ecstatic rituals — rock music, and sporting events. In the ’60s, the Western world seemed to snap out of its brittle Puritan trance, get up, and dance. White kids discovered what black folks had known for a long time — tune into the beat and shake those hips. Letting yourself go led to ecstatic experiences. At Beatles concerts, the music was often drowned out by the intense screaming and shrieking of thousands of girls.
At football and soccer games, crowds quit being passive spectators. Events took on carnival characteristics. They put on costumes with their team colors, and painted their faces. There were synchronized crowd movements, chants, dancing, feasting, and singing. Eventually, the crowds got so loud and distracting that the players on the field complained. Over time, games began to increasingly take on aspects of nationalistic military spectacles. There were marching bands, precision drill teams, celebrities, loud music, flag waving, national anthems, and fireworks.
Modern psychology is focused on self-control, being a dependable human resource in an industrial society. Old fashioned communal festivities were focused on escape from routines, losing the self, and becoming one with the soaring ecstasy of big joy. I wish that Ehrenreich had invited Jacob Grimm into her story. Long, long before the plague of Puritans, Europeans had deep roots in their ancestral lands, places that were spiritually alive with sacred groves, streams, mountains, animals, and fairies. In Teutonic Mythology, Grimm described annual German bonfires:
“At all the cities, towns, and villages of a country, towards evening on the first (or third) day of Easter, there is lighted every year on mountain and hill a great fire of straw, turf, and wood, amidst a concourse and jubilation, not only of the young, but of many grown up peoples. …Men and maids, and all who come, dance exulting and singing, hats are waved, handkerchiefs thrown into the fire. The mountains all round are lighted up, and it is an elevating spectacle, scarcely paralleled by anything else, to survey the country for many miles round from one of the higher points, and in every direction at once to see a vast number of these bonfires, brighter or fainter, blazing up to heaven.”
At Midsummer, there were wheels of fire rituals. “A huge wheel is wrapt around with straw, so that none of the wood is left in sight, a strong pole is passed through the middle, and is grasped by the guiders of the wheel. At a signal… the wheel is lighted with a torch, and set rapidly in motion, a shout of joy is raised, and all wave their torches on high, part of the men stay on the hill, part follow the rolling globe of fire as it is guided downhill to the Moselle. …Whilst the wheel is rushing past the women and girls, they break out into cries of joy, answered by the men on the hill; and inhabitants of neighboring villages, who have flocked to the river side, mingle their voices in the universal rejoicing.”
In the old days, white folks still knew how to party like Pygmies.
Ehrenreich, Barbara, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2007.
Grimm, Jacob, Teutonic Mythology, 4 vols, 1883, Reprint, Peter Smith, Gloucester, Massachusetts, 1976.