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Dionysus down

Barbara Ehrenreich’s equivocal history of joy

Prince famously sang, “Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1999.” Perhaps he should have made it 1499, because, according to Butte native Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, we haven’t had much real fun since the early stages of modern capitalism at the dawn of the 16th century. While that certainly is a bummer, Ehrenreich’s latest book is no buzzkill. Rather, it’s a thoroughly researched and much-welcome argument on behalf of ritualized communal ecstasy—by which she means possession of the soul by rakish, egalitarian gods who promote the sort of revelry that is, generally speaking, bad for the Gross Domestic Product.

But if ragers and raves negatively impact the bottom line, think of how detrimental wanton merrymaking would have been to early humans who should have been reserving their calories for hunting and warding off predators. Yet, party on they did. And they—we—survived. Dancing in the Streets begins with a review of the evolutionary function of dance, traces the many incarnations of Dionysus in early civilization, and then chronicles the onset of despair that accompanied capitalism and the growth of the modern economy. The commentary in these portions of the book will fascinate nonspecialists interested in anthropology, Greek and Roman history, the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Experts in these fields may learn nothing new, but I suspect the precision and scope of Ehrenreich’s research and some of her bold assertions will impress.

Her best moments occur when she examines the centralized repression of joy. With the growth of cities and the rise of factories came a radical diminishment in both the number of feast days (more than 100 in many feudal societies) and the space available for celebrations. Furthermore, at public festivities the masses were often called upon to be spectators—of a royal procession, perhaps, or even some sort of punishment—rather than participants in dancing rituals. Ehrenreich points out that synchronous body movement, costumes and masks momentarily erase class divisions while, on the other hand, watching the powerful perform further emphasizes the distinction between the haves and the have-nots. This may sound like Sociology 101, but Ehrenreich defends these broad claims with a precise account of the end of swashbuckling, the rise of table manners among the aristocracy (including the decline of farting and falling asleep at the table), and the first official diagnoses of melancholy, which by the start of the 17th century she argues was an epidemic in England. In the midst of this analysis, Ehrenreich poses a simple but poignant question: “Could this apparent decline in the ability to experience pleasure be in any way connected with the decline in opportunities for pleasure, such as carnival and other traditional festivities?”

Unfortunately, as Ehrenreich’s study approaches contemporary America, her observations become decidedly less astute and her normally incisive prose gets breezy. Writing about the history of rock ‘n’ roll and its connection to ecstatic African rituals, she notes, “One way to expand the festival into an ongoing community was to take to the road and go from one concert or festival to another. ‘Deadheads,’ fans of the Grateful Dead, formed a floating community that followed the band from city to city ‘in elderly bread vans and decommissioned school buses painted with rust primer and furnished with curtains and the kind of mattresses that are chucked under lampposts at 3 a.m.’” Why Ehrenreich feels the need to quote a source here is anybody’s guess, but odder still is the false crescendo she reaches at the end of the chapter when she closes her argument with uncharacteristic banality: “People of course continue to seek pleasure through shopping, drinking, and forms of prepackaged entertainment that are mildly engaging at best. But the news is out, and has been at least since the 1960s: We are capable of so much more.”

The analysis remains cursory in the following chapter when Ehrenreich examines sporting events. Discussing American football she remarks, “More elaborately, American fans had, by the 1950s, started the day hours before the game with tailgate parties in the arena parking lots, usually featuring grilled meats or regional specialties.” She proceeds to discuss the wave and sports bars. Like the bit about the Grateful Dead, this information might have a place in a history textbook published 100 years from now, but encountering it here in this antiquated voice is almost comical. I imagine an elderly orientation staffer telling a bunch of frat boys about keg stands or a middle-school teacher breaking the news to students that there’s a bunch of really cool stories about a kid named Harry Potter.

As an admirer of Ehrenreich’s work, reading the end of this book was like watching a favorite slugger whiff in a big spot or catching Bob Dylan on an off night. But the flat contemporary notes do not undermine Ehrenreich’s larger historical argument: global capitalism and collective ecstasy are, very likely, mutually exclusive. Modern technological entertainments such as iPods and YouTube may be nifty, but Dionysus can hardly possess you in the great green fields of cyberspace.

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