In what may be seen as a companion piece to her Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War (1997), social commentator Ehrenreich takes a long view of the human impulse to “seek ecstatic merger with the group,” an act that takes the form of dancing, feasting and artistic embellishment of the face and body.
Going back to the prehistory of our species, she speculates about the possible value of rhythmic dance and music in holding early human groups together, in boosting a group’s effectiveness against large prey. From there, she moves to what is known about ritual dancing in ancient China, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome. Ehrenreich compares the followers of Dionysus, whose worship involved frenzied dancing, with early Christians, who worshiped with singing, leaping and prophesying in tongues. But as early Christian communities became institutionalized, she reports, such enthusiastic behaviors were censured by ecclesiastic authorities, and by the 12th and 13th centuries, dancing was restricted to Church holidays and not permitted inside churches. Ehrenreich traces the status of traditional festivities through the 16th to 19th centuries, when they were increasingly being seen by the upper classes as wasteful of human labor. Calvin’s form of Protestantism condemned all forms of festive behavior, and among Muslims, the Wahhabi movement launched reforms condemning ecstatic forms of worship such as singing and dancing. Meanwhile, colonizing Europeans, encountering exuberant rituals among native peoples around the world, categorized them as superstitious, savage and repugnant. Analyzing the mass staged spectacles of the French Revolution and those of Nazi Germany, she sees the role of people reduced to mere audience. However, in rock-’n’-roll, she finds a rebellion against that reduced role, and in recent decades she sees a convergence of rock and major league sports, with fans becoming exhibitionists and participants, dressing up, painting their faces and dancing in the stands. The capacity for collective joy, she concludes, is encoded in our genes, and to suppress it is to risk “the solitary nightmare of depression.”
A serious look at communal celebrations, well documented and presented with assurance and flair.