Friday, October 19, 2018

Dancing in the Streets

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.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Wild Free and Happy Sample 02

[Note: This is the second sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild Free & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 196 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.] 

Our Tree Critter Ancestors

The dawn of life on Earth began maybe four billion years ago, with the emergence of single-celled beings, the common ancestors of all forms of life, including us.  Let’s fast forward to around 65 million years ago, when our first primate ancestors came into existence, not long after dinosaurs moved off the stage.  These critters were squirrel-sized, and lived high above the ground in the humid tropical rainforests of Mother Africa.  They were probably insectivores, furry little hunters that dined on the delicious flesh of bugs and grubs.

Arboreal (tree-dwelling) primates had little need for a powerful sense of smell like most terrestrial (ground-dwelling) animals have.  What they needed was excellent stereoscopic vision, via forward oriented eyes that provided accurate depth perception, so they could scamper and leap through the branches without mishap.  Being able to perceive colors made it easier to find ripe fruit, which was a primary food source.  Even today, bright red objects attract our attention.

Their hands and feet evolved into forms fine-tuned for grasping bark, vines, and branches, with toes and fingers tipped with nails, not claws.  Fingers were long and curved, wrists freely rotated, and shoulder joints were flexible.  An acute sense of touch and a sharp mind helped them excel at airborne acrobatics.  Humans retain a number of these arboreal traits.

Our ancestors were tree-dwellers for most of the 65 million year saga of primates.  A look in the mirror shows clear evidence of this heritage.  Most primate species today remain partly arboreal.  Humans are the only living primates that are fully terrestrial.  Large male gorillas do not sleep in the trees, but the other gorillas do.

In the rainforest, food was available year round, so our ancestors enjoyed an easy life.  Living amidst a cornucopia of organic fruit, nuts, insects, and assorted tree critters, they could live happily without tools, fire, cooking, cell phones, or psych meds.  The climate was comfortable, so there was no need for clothing.  A simple tree nest was all they needed.  It was a wonderful way of life, while it lasted.  They only used renewable resources, and they left no permanent scars on the forest.  Like all other animals at the time, they had a way of life that was genuinely sustainable.

Shift to the Savannah

Climate change is a trickster that takes great delight in periodically pulling the rug out from under stable ecosystems, and watching them scramble to survive.  It’s an exciting roller coaster of hot and cold, wet and dry, calm and stormy.  Species that can’t adapt to changing conditions go extinct, creating opportunities for other species to fill their ecological niche.  The show of life must go on.

Long, long ago, in Mother Africa, the climate was warm and moist, home to the magnificent rainforests in which primates evolved.  Later, around five million years ago, as glaciers grew in the Northern Hemisphere, the climate in African rainforests began to shift to cooler and dryer.  By two million years ago, lush rainforests were far smaller, largely replaced by expanding savannahs (grasslands with scattered trees).  If it wasn’t for climate change, you might be sitting naked on a branch today, wild, free, and happy in a lush rainforest paradise, nibbling on fruit with your friends and family, in a clean, healthy, sustainable world.

As the rainforests shrank, our tree-dwelling ancestors were something like tadpoles in a puddle that was drying up.  Many species of arboreal critters went extinct, but not all of them.  The ancestors of chimps, bonobos, gibbons, and orangutans were able to remain in the forest and avoid extinction, while baboons, gorillas, and our ancestors took a deep breath, moved to the ground, and tried to adapt to a new way of life.

On the savannah, our early ancestors were weird looking, funny smelling undocumented immigrants, attempting to survive in a habitat for which evolution had done little to assist them.  Their limited speed, size, and strength were serious drawbacks.  They were newcomers in a grassland neighborhood where most of the long-term residents had been coevolving for millions of years.  The new neighborhood included numerous large carnivores that were strong, fast, and equipped with sharp claws and fangs.  They specialized in weeding out the injured, sick, elderly, immature, and inattentive.  Many of our ancestors became organic cat food.

To survive, our ancestors used several defensive strategies.  They lived in groups, where many eyes were constantly paying attention to the surroundings.  When someone noticed a threat, loud calls were made to alert the gang, and the predator lost the advantage of surprise.  Sometimes they mobbed hungry predators, aggressively assaulting them.  Other times they quickly scattered in every direction.  The ancestors were careful to be as invisible as possible.  They chose sleeping places that offered the most security.  As a result of their cleverness, luck, and risky choices, an enormous number of ground-dwelling primates survive today.

Rainforests have high biodiversity, they provide a pleasant home for huge numbers of species.  Savannahs support far less biodiversity but, unlike dense forests, they provide excellent habitat for many large animal species.  A square mile of rainforest contains tons of biomass in its trees, far more than a square mile of grassland, but grassland can produce more new biomass every year, primarily during the wet season.  This nutritious vegetation, which includes high-energy seeds, grows close to the ground, a convenient location for grazing animals. 

The biological productivity of grasslands (savannahs, prairies, and steppes) encouraged the emergence of large herds of herbivores and their predators.  When our ancestors moved to the ground, evolution had not equipped them for hunting large game, or escaping from speedy carnivores.  They had two options, adapt or go extinct.