Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich

Things were a lot brighter in the Dark Ages.

Western society spent a lot more time in the pursuit of fun. We’d all been having a good time since the earliest sprouting of civilization, but we eventually lost the knack of partying. When we lost it and why is the scholarly, but fascinating, latest work from this bestselling author.

Individuals have been getting down together since apes first swung in Africa, but it’s collective ecstasy that interests Barbara Ehrenreich: dancing, feasting, costuming and general bonhomie. She finds the first evidence for human group boogying in, yes, rock art, where prehistoric dancers had themselves depicted springing around together wearing elk masks.

The partying became heartier in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, where the love of communal ecstasy was an accepted part of religion. And Dionysus urged his Greek worshippers to dance and eat themselves into a state of joy, and many other similar deities did so down through the millennia. Ehrenreich notes that early Christianity itself was considered a “danced religion,” with entire communities expressing their unity through carnival-style dos. Islam experienced its own ecstatic movement in Sufism.

How long could the party last? For ages, but not forever.

The author writes that Christian church officials felt ecstasy directly connected the common man with God and threatened their authority since no professional intermediary was needed. So the Church began the systematic suppression of carnival in most of its forms and maypoles toppled all over Europe. The fun was over.

But joylessness came with a price. Ehrenreich produces evidence that a sense of personal and societal melancholy clouded most of Europe after the suppression of fests in the 16th century, depression that shows up in both the writings of great men and in the coldness of the Enlightenment. Celebrations no longer healed either society or people. The Robert Putnam “Bowling Alone” syndrome (in which individuals feel no sense of community connection) seeped into our culture because there was no community exultation.

The syndrome got worse until “there appears to be no constituency today for collective joy itself. In fact the very term collective joy is largely unfamiliar and exotic,” she writes. We live under a perpetual wet blanket.

Ehrenreich peppers her book with controversial insights, including her comparisons of Dionysus with Jesus. But each of her points is well-supported with research. And before readers can draw a sad sigh, she gives us reason to smile again.

She notes that “the rock rebellion” with its audience participation brought back collective joy to much of Western society. And she notes that even in the most repressed places sports celebrations (Tehran’s World Cup celebrations) let collective merriment triumph.

And not a moment too soon. Ehrenreich successfully argues that without communal fun, no one can celebrate a fellowship with mankind. It makes you want to step out, grab your neighbor and cut a rug.

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