Read Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. Barbara Ehrenreich by Barbara Ehrenreich Free Online
Book Title: Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. Barbara Ehrenreich|
The author of the book: Barbara Ehrenreich
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 24.82 MB
Edition: Granta Books (UK)
Date of issue: May 5th 2008
ISBN 13: 9781847080080
Read full description of the books Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. Barbara Ehrenreich:Barbara Ehrenreich is one of my hero authors because of her books Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. She has written a number of other books but these two address social issues that I find particularly compelling. They are also books where her writing is quite personal and succinct. On the other hand Dancing in the Streets hammers home its points by excessive repetition. For example, in the Introduction Ehrenreich writes a twenty page thesis on ceremonies that she considers celebratory in some way. Hardly any of these examples, and there are many, are unique. Most are of the same nature but in different cultural settings. She calls these ecstatic rituals. This point is made and made, then made again. Enough, Barbara, I get the point. She concludes “If we possess this capacity for collective ecstasy, why do we so seldom put it to use?”
In Blood Rites she explores the negative collective action of war. In Dancing in the Streets she looks in the other direction for positive examples. This takes the form of an academic thesis, like Blood Rites, with fifty pages of notes, bibliography and index. I am tempted to put both these books in the reference section of the library and only go to it when I am interested in seriously exploring the topics. These are not for bedside reading tables. I cannot celebrate Dancing in the Streets although from the catchy title I expect an enjoyable experience. But it is more represented by the serious subtitle A History of Collective Joy. And since so much of the book is devoted to the loss or absence of festivals, we might subtitle it The Loss of Collective Joy.
So, I guess, my reaction to the book really had to do with expectations. I was looking for something catchy and readable and I got a deep, serious viewpoint. I was hoping for the happy personal celebration of a sports victory of my home team but got the formal experience of the choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus.
“Go back ten thousand years . . .” Ehrenreich likes to start at the beginning with the prehistoric times. “We can infer these scenes from prehistoric rock art depicting dancing figures, which has been discovered at sites in Africa, India, Australia, Italy, Turkey, Israel, Iran, and Egypt, among other places.” With the help of modern anthropologists she can “infer” quite a bit and sometimes I wonder what came first, the conclusion or the inference. She sees “marching, chanting, dancing” everywhere she looks.
She spends many pages delving into Dionysian worship asserting that it wasn’t “fundamentally sexual in nature” challenging a common modern day assumption. On the other hand “With his long hair, his hints of violence, and his promise of ecstasy, Dionysus was the first rock star.” There is some conflict about sexuality in this statement given our current stereotype of rock stars! Furthermore, she explores the collapse of paganism beginning with the rise of Christianity. “In a world without Dionysus/Pan/Bacchus/Sabazios, nature would be dead, joy would be postponed to an afterlife, and the forests would no longer ring with the sound of pipes and flutes.” Far from that state, Ehrenreich sees Jesus as taking on many of the characteristics of Dionysus as one way to explain his rise to prominence and the effort of his followers to fit him into the world as he found it. The parallels between Jesus and Dionysus are striking as Ehrenreich lists them. She also observes that Jesus “was born into a Jewish culture that had embraced, to a certain extent, the pagan gods, especially Zeus and Dionysus.” The phrase “to some extent” may be a key to understanding the view Ehrenreich takes.
It is fair to say that first- and second-century Christianity offered an experience in some ways similar to that provided by the Greek mystery cults, and the “oriental” religions in Rome – one of great emotional intensity, sometimes culminating in ecstatic states. Christians . . . sang and chanted, leaped up to prophesy either in tongues or in normal speech, drank wine, and probably danced and tossed their hair about.
Having said all that and more, Ehrenreich is bold enough to say that “Generalization is unwise here . . .”! She goes on to explain the current Christianity as “diminished” from its Dionysian origins. The current conflict in the Church between speaking in tongues and patient listening, between ecstatic dancing and sedate sitting was in the front of my mind as I read this section. To accept the course of evolution (if I may use that word!) of the church as expounded by Ehrenreich requires an open mind and rather flexible beliefs. It mostly does not work if one is dogmatic.
Ehrenreich explores the reasons carnivals, large public parties, declined in frequency. One conclusion is that “Without question, industrial capitalism and Protestantism played a central role in motivating the destruction of carnival and other festivities.”
Although there is no answer to “the question of whether carnival functioned as a school for revolution or as a means of social control,” the book provides some gruel for thought.
Ehrenreich does occasionally drift off course. Sometimes the drift is interesting but only tangentially related to collective joy!
And it should be emphasized that the new concern to separate eating from excreting, and one human body from another, had nothing to do with hygiene. Bathing was still an infrequent, even – if indulged in too often – eccentric, practice, the knowledge that contact with others and their excreta can spread disease was still at least two centuries away.
In what seems to me to be another excursion into the barely related, Ehrenreich devotes a twenty page chapter to melancholy in the 1600s ascribing it as the 17th century version of our depression. What does this have to do with Dancing in the Streets?
If the destruction of festivals did not actually cause depression, it may still be that, in abandoning their traditional festivities, people lost a potentially effective cure for it.
What was the cure for melancholia in the late 16th and early 17th century? Eat, drink and be merry. Go to a festival! What, you say the festivals have been excluded from the churches and banished from the countryside? Oh my!
So what should we do in today’s modern or post-carnival era about depression?
I know of no attempts in our time to use festive behavior as treatment for depression, as if such an experiment is even thinkable in a modern clinical setting. There is, however, an abundance of evidence that communal pleasures – ranging from simple festivities to ecstatic rituals – have served, in a variety of cultures, as a way of alleviating and even curing depression.
And she goes on to give a number of examples suggesting in conclusion that we should not reject “one of the most ancient sources of help – the mind-preserving, lifesaving techniques of ecstasy.” Actually sounds like a prescription for a party is called for!
But the years of European expansionism sent somber folk out to conquer the world and end the festivities wherever they were encountered. We are still talking about loss of Dancing in the Streets. And then – Sieg Heil! – back come the massive crowds to adulate their fascist leaders. But are they experiencing joy or crowd psychology?
And then we are brought to the present time when Dancing in the Streets is brought to you by rock concerts indoors and then outdoors. And the thrill of the home run or goal or basket or great play or political victory can bring a crowd to their feet in collective celebration. We have lived this part of celebration and it brings the book to an ending where Ehrenreich ponders whether the days of carnivals will ever return with its ecstatic joy. The book has mostly related the extinction of carnival-like events over the centuries. Ehrenreich closes by saying that we need more chances “on this crowded planet, to acknowledge the miracle of our simultaneous existence with some sort of celebration.”
I didn’t find very much to jump up and dance to in this book. It is full of academic speculation and recollection. It seems to go back to the beginning of human life in a well researched canvas of vanishing planned and spontaneous collective joy. It is too much like a book that the professor might assign parts of for a sociology class.
Dancing in the Streets is similar to Blood Rites in its academic approach to the topic. And since I had already read Blood Rites, I was not crushed with disappointment to find the drone of an academic thesis. I just did not find excitement in either book. Lots of information, that’s for sure, but not much excitement. It wouldn’t make a very good movie either.
I just was not ready for so much more academia in Dancing in the Streets so I am giving it two stars: “It was OK.” I was hoping for something a little more user friendly. I also would have appreciated a few portions about how to find the path to more collective joy.
Read information about the authorBarbara Ehrenreich is an American journalist and the bestselling author of sixteen previous books, including the bestsellers Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. A frequent contributor to Harpers and The Nation, she has also been a columnist at The New York Times and Time Magazine.
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