An Academic View on the Right to Party

Author Barbara Ehrenreich

hide captionAuthor Barbara Ehrenreich argues the time has come to give collective joy its due.

From ancient Greek Bacchanalias and Roman Saturnalias to tailgating and Mardi Gras, we humans like to party. Throughout history, public revelry has had its critics. The Victorian world saw it as vulgar pageantry, the stuff of "savages" and the underclass. The academic world, for the most part, ignored it.

Author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich talks about her new book Dancing in the Streets, in which she gives a history lesson on collective joy and explains why humanity engages in large, ceremonial celebrations and why the upper classes have tried — and often still try — to suppress it.

Excerpt: 'Dancing in the Streets'

Cover of 'Dancing in the Streets'

Introduction: Invitation to the Dance

When Europeans undertook their campaigns of conquest and exploration in what seemed to them "new" worlds, they found the natives engaged in many strange and lurid activities. Cannibalism was reported, though seldom convincingly documented, along with human sacrifice, bodily mutilation, body and face painting, and flagrantly open sexual practices. Equally jarring to European sensibilities was the almost ubiquitous practice of ecstatic ritual, in which the natives would gather to dance, sing, or chant to a state of exhaustion and, beyond that, sometimes trance. Everywhere they went — among the hunter-gatherers of Australia, the horticulturists of Polynesia, the village peoples of India — white men and occasionally women witnessed these electrifying rites so frequently that there seemed to them to be, among "the present societies of savage men... an extraordinary uniformity, in spite of much local variation, in ritual and mythology." The European idea of the "savage" came to focus on the image of painted and bizarrely costumed bodies, drumming and dancing with wild abandon by the light of a fire.

What did they actually see? A single ritual could look very different to different observers. When he arrived in Tahiti in the late 1700s, Captain Cook watched groups of girls performing "a very indecent dance which they call Timorodee, singing the most indecent songs and using most indecent actions... In doing this they keep time to a great nicety." About sixty years later, Herman Melville found the same ritual, by then called "Lory-Lory" and perhaps modified in other ways, full of sensual charm.

Presently, raising a strange chant, they softly sway themselves, gradually quickening the movement, until at length, for a few passionate moments with throbbing bosoms, and glowing cheeks, they abandon themselves to all the spirit of the dance, apparently lost to everything around. But soon subsiding again into the same languid measure as before, the eyes swimming in their heads, join in one wild chorus, and sink into each other's arms.

Like Captain Cook, Charles Darwin was repelled by the corroborree rite of western Australians, reporting that

the dancing consisted in their running either sideways or in Indian file into an open space, and stamping the ground with great force as they marched together. Their heavy footsteps were accompanied with a kind of grunt, by beating their clubs and spears together, and by various other gesticulations, such as extending their arms and wriggling their bodies. It was a most rude, barbarous scene, and, to our ideas, without any sort of meaning.

But to the anthropologists Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen, a similar Aboriginal rite was far more compelling, perhaps even enticing: "The smoke, the blazing torches, the showers of sparks falling in all directions and the masses of dancing, yelling men formed a genuinely wild and savage scene of which it is impossible to convey any adequate idea in words." It was this description that fed into the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim's notion of collective effervescence: the ritually induced passion or ecstasy that cements social bonds and, he proposed, forms the ultimate basis of religion.

Through the institution of slavery, European Americans had the opportunity to observe their own captive "natives" at close range, and they too reported varying and contradictory responses to the ecstatic rituals of the transplanted Africans. Many whites of the slave-owning class saw such practices as "noisy, crude, impious, and, simply, dissolute," and took strong measures to suppress them. The nineteenth-century absentee owner of a Jamaican plantation found his slaves doing a myal dance, probably derived from an initiation rite of the Azande people of Africa, and described them as engaged in "a great variety of grotesque actions, and chanting all the while something between a song and a howl." Similarly, an English visitor to Trinidad in 1845 reported disgustedly that

on Christmas Eve, it seemed as if, under the guise of religion, all Pandemonium had been let loose... Drunkenness bursting forth in yells and bacchanalian orgies, was universal amongst the blacks... Sleep was out of the question, in the midst of such a disgusting and fiendish saturnalia... The musicians were attended by a multitude of drunken people of both sexes, the women being of the lowest class; and all dancing, screaming and clapping their hands, like so many demons. All this was the effect of the "midnight mass," ending, as all such masses do, in every species of depravity.

Other white observers, though, were sometimes surprised to find themselves drawn in by the peculiar power of such African-derived rituals and festivities. Traveling in the mid-nineteenth century, Frederick Law Olmsted observed a black Christian service in New Orleans and was swept up by the "shouts, and groans, terrific shrieks, and indescribable expressions of ecstasy — of pleasure or agony," to the point where he found his own face "glowing" and feet stamping, as if he had been "infected unconsciously." Clinton Furness, a traveler to South Carolina in the 1920s, reported a similar experience while watching an African American ring-shout, or danced form of religious worship.

Several men moved their feet alternately, in strange syncopation. A rhythm was born, almost without reference to the words of the preacher. It seemed to take place almost visibly, and grow. I was gripped with the feeling of a mass-intelligence, a self-conscious entity, gradually informing the crowd and taking possession of every mind there, including my own... I felt as if some conscious plan or purpose were carrying us along, call it mob-mind, communal composition, or what you will.

On the whole, though, white observers regarded the ecstatic rituals of darker-skinned peoples with horror and revulsion. Grotesque is one word that appears again and again in European accounts of such events; hideous is another. Henri Junod, a nineteenth-century Swiss missionary among the Ba-Ronga people of southern Mozambique, complained of the drums' "frightful din" and "infernal racket." Other Catholic missionaries, upon hearing the African drumbeat announcing a ritual event, felt it was their duty to disrupt "the hellish practice." Well into the twentieth century, the sound of drumming was enough to spook the white traveler, suggestive as it was of a world beyond human ken. "I have never heard an eerier sound," a young English visitor to South Africa reports in the 1910 novel Prester John. "Neither human nor animal it seemed, but the voice of that world between which is hid from man's sight and hearing." In the introduction to his 1926 book on tribal dancing, the writer W. D. Hambly pleaded with his readers for a little "sympathy" for his subject.

The student of primitive music and dancing will have to cultivate a habit of broad-minded consideration for the actions of backward races... Music and dancing performed wildly by firelight in a tropical forest have not seldom provoked the censure and disgust of European visitors, who have seen only what is grotesque or sensual.

Or, in many cases, may have elected not to see at all: When the intrepid entomologist Evelyn Cheeseman tramped through New Guinea in search of new insect species in the early 1930s, she showed not the slightest curiosity about the many native "dancing grounds" she passed through. At one village she and her bearers were asked to leave because there was to be a feast and dance that evening, which were tambu, or forbidden, for outsiders to witness. Cheeseman was miffed by this glitch in her plans but comforted herself with the thought that "it is of course well known that it is not particularly desirable to stop in a strange village when the natives are being worked up to their usual frenzy of devil worship."

Particularly disturbing to white observers was the occasional climax of ecstatic ritual, in which some or all of the participants would, after prolonged dancing and singing or chanting, enter what we might now call an "altered state of consciousness," or trance. People caught up in trance might speak in a strange voice or language, display a marked indifference to pain, contort their bodies in ways seemingly impossible in normal life, foam at the mouth, see visions, believe themselves to be possessed by a spirit or deity, and ultimately collapse.

A missionary among the Fiji Islanders described such a trance state as "a horrible sight,"1 but it was sight that was not always possible for the traveler to avoid. In her 1963 survey of the ethnographic literature, the anthropologist Erika Bourguignon found that 92 percent of small-scale societies surveyed encouraged some sort of religious trances, in most cases through ecstatic group ritual. In one of the many accounts of trance behavior among "primitive" peoples, the early-twentieth-century German scholar T. K. Oesterreich offers this, from a white visitor to Polynesia.

As soon as the god was supposed to have entered the priest, the latter became violently agitated, and worked himself up to the highest pitch of apparent frenzy, the muscles of the limbs seemed convulsed, the body swelled, the countenance became terrific, the features distorted, the eyes wild and strained. In this state he often rolled on the earth, foaming at the mouth.

Promiscuous sex was at least comprehensible to the European mind; even human sacrifice and cannibalism have echoes in Christian rite. But as the anthropologist Michael Taussig writes, "It's the ability to become possessed... that signifies to Europeans awesome Otherness if not downright savagery." Trance was what many of those wild rituals seemed to lead up to, and for Europeans, it represented the very heart of darkness — a place beyond the human self.

Or, what was worse — a place within the human self. In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad's narrator observes an African ritual and reflects that

it was unearthly, and the men were — No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it — this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity — like yours — the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of their being a meaning in it which you — so remote from the night of first ages — could comprehend. And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything.

To Europeans, there was an obvious explanation for the ecstatic practices of native peoples around the world. Since these strange behaviors could be found in "primitive" cultures almost everywhere, and since they were never indulged in by the "civilized," it followed that they must result from some fundamental defect of the "savage mind." It was less stable than the civilized mind, more childlike, "plastic," and vulnerable to irrational influence or "autosuggestion." In some instances, the savage mind was described as "out of control" and lacking the discipline and restraint that Europeans of the seventeenth century and beyond came to see as their own defining characteristics. In other accounts, the savage was perhaps too much under control — of his or her "witch doctor," that is — or as a victim of "mob psychology." The American political scientist Frederick Morgan Davenport even proposed an anatomical explanation for the bizarre behavior of primitives: They had only a "single spinal ganglion" to process incoming sensory signals and convert them into muscular responses, while the civilized mind had, of course, an entire brain with which to assess the incoming data and weigh the body's responses. Hence the susceptibility of the savage to the compelling music and visual imagery of his or her culture's religious rituals — which was regrettable, since "the last thing the superstitious and impulsive negro race needs is a stirring of the emotions."

But if they thought about it, many Europeans must have realized that the group ecstasy so common among "natives" had certain parallels within Europe itself. For example, Catholic missionaries setting out from France after the 1730s would have heard about the heretical Parisian "convulsionary" cult, whose customary style of worship featured scenes as wild as anything that could be found among the "savages."

While the assembled company redoubled their prayers and collectively reached extreme heights of religious enthusiasm, at least one of their number would suddenly lapse into uncontrolled motor activity... They thrashed about on the floor in a state of frenzy, screaming, roaring, trembling, and twitching... The excitement and the disordered movements, which might last for several hours, usually proved highly contagious, with certain convulsionaries apparently serving as a catalyst for the onset of various bodily agitations in others.

Later catalogers of "primitive" ecstatic behavior, like T. K. Oesterreich, recognized a more mundane European analogue to the bewildering rites of "savages" in the familiar tradition of carnival, where otherwise sober people costumed themselves, drank to excess, danced through the night, and otherwise inverted the normal staid and Christian order. "It must... be admitted," he wrote, "that civilized people show a high degree of autosuggestibility in certain circumstances. By way of example we may quote the peculiar psychic intoxication to which in certain places (e.g., Munich and Cologne) a large part of the population falls victim on a given day of the year (Carnival)." Critics of the traditional European festivities sometimes drove home their point by imagining the colonial encounter in reverse, with a "savage" registering shock at the behavior of European carnival-goers. In 1805, for example, a founder of the Basle Bible Society published a brochure entitled Conversation of a Converted Hottentot with a European Christian During Carnival Time, in which the "Hottentot" concludes that Basle is partially inhabited by "barbarous non-converted heathens." At the end of the nineteenth century, a similar pamphlet featured a visiting "converted Hindu," who confides that the wild doings at Basle's Fastnacht festivities put him in mind of "the idolatrous feasts and dances of my fellow-countrymen who are still heathens."

It was among their social inferiors, however, that Europeans found a more immediate analogue to the foreign "savage." By the eighteenth century, the anthropologist Ann Stoler writes, "strong parallels were made between the immoral lives of the British underclass, Irish peasants, and 'primitive' Africans." The English saw parallels between their own lower classes and Native Americans: "Savage slaves be in great Britaine here, as any you can show me there." Similarly, a mid-nineteenth-century visitor to rural Burgundy, in France, offered the caustic observation that "you don't have to go to America to see savages." And who were those people whose revels disrupted whole cities during carnivals in Germany, France, England, and Spain? By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they were likely to be peasants and the urban poor, with respectable folk doing their best to stay indoors during these dangerously licentious times.

So when the phenomenon of collective ecstasy entered the colonialist European mind, it was stained with feelings of hostility, contempt, and fear. Group ecstasy was something "others" experienced — savages or lower-class Europeans. In fact, the capacity for abandonment, for self-loss in the rhythms and emotions of the group, was a defining feature of "savagery" or otherness generally, signaling some fatal weakness of mind. As horrified witnesses of ecstatic ritual, Europeans may have learned very little about the peoples they visited (and often destroyed in the process) — their deities and traditions, their cultures and worldview. But they did learn, or imaginatively construct, something centrally important about themselves: that the essence of the Western mind, and particularly the Western male, upper-class mind, was its ability to resist the contagious rhythm of the drums, to wall itself up in a fortress of ego and rationality against the seductive wildness of the world.

Science Confronts the Ecstatic

With the rise of the social sciences, and especially the anthropology of the 1930s and thereafter, Westerners began to view the ecstatic practices of non-Westerners in an ostensibly more open-minded way. Words like savage and primitive dropped from the ethnographic vocabulary, along with the notion that the people who had once borne these labels represented a biologically less evolved form of Homo sapiens. Medical science could find no differences in the brains of the former primitives to account for their different behavior; colonialists necessarily observed that yesterday's "savage" might be today's shopkeeper, soldier, or servant. As humanity began to look more like a family of potential equals, Westerners had to concede that the ecstatic behavior found in traditional cultures was not the hallmark of savage "otherness" but the expression of a capacity that may exist, for better or for worse, in all of us.

By the 1930s, anthropologists had begun to think of the rituals of small-scale societies as functional, meaning in some sense rational. Humans are social animals, and rituals, ecstatic or otherwise, could be an expression of this sociality, a way of renewing the bonds that held a community together. In the functionalist anthropology that reached full bloom in the 1940s and '50s, many of the formerly bizarre-seeming activities of native peoples were explained in this way: as mechanisms for achieving cohesiveness and generating feelings of unity. Americans tried to achieve the same thing through patriotic and religious rituals; the "natives" simply had a different approach.

But right up to our own time, even the most scientific and sympathetic observers have tended to view the ecstatic rituals of non-Western cultures with deep misgivings, when they choose to view them at all. A certain distaste for the proceedings infects the anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano's 1973 description of ecstatic rites conducted by the Hamadsha brotherhoods of Morocco. "The drumming, by this time, was beginning to have a dulling effect on me," he reported, "and the music of the ghita an irritating one... The smell of all the hot, close, sweating bodies was stifling."

Or consider a curious silence in the anthropologist Victor Turner's famous study of "the ritual process." Perhaps more than any other anthropologist of the mid-twentieth century, he recognized collective ecstasy as a universal capacity and saw it as an expression of what he called communitas, meaning, roughly, the spontaneous love and solidarity that can arise within a community of equals. In The Ritual Process, Turner admitted to an initial "prejudice against ritual" and tendency to discount "the thudding of ritual drums." Setting out to correct this oversight, he launched a detailed study of the Isoma cult ritual of the Ndembu people, which he introduces to the reader as consisting of three parts. The first two parts, which involve the manipulation of symbolic objects, are described in great detail and subjected to a thorough structuralist analysis. But the third and final phase, the Ku-tumbuka, or "festive dance," which one might imagine was the climax of the entire business, is never mentioned again. Apparently Turner decided to skip that part.

Turner's theories have been widely credited with giving ecstatic — as well as merely spontaneous and unruly — group behavior a legitimate place in anthropology. In fact, it was a marginal and second-rate place he offered it. To Turner, the central thing about a culture was its structure, meaning, essentially, its hierarchies and rules. The function of ecstatic ritual, he proposed, was to keep the structure from becoming overly rigid and unstable by providing occasional relief in the form of collective excitement and festivity. But only very occasional relief. The thrills of communitas had to be "liminal," or marginal, in Turner's scheme; otherwise social breakdown might ensue, "speedily followed by despotism." Hence his irritation with the hippies of his own mid-1960s American culture, who, in his description, employed "'mind-expanding' drugs, 'rock' music, and flashing lights... to establish a 'total' communion with one another," and who imagined that "the ecstasy of spontaneous communitas" could be prolonged into a routine condition. This "Edenic fantasy" seemed utterly irresponsible to Turner, who — apparently not noticing that many of these hippies were involved in subsistence agriculture and other productive ventures — reminded his reader that we do have to worry about "the supplying of humble needs, such as food, drink, clothing." Echoing the conventional Western cultural bias toward individualism, he added that it's a good idea to keep a certain "mystery of mutual distance" between individuals.

Other anthropologists turned to psychology to explain the extravagant rituals of non-Western peoples. Where European and American travelers had once seen savagery, they now saw mental illness, perhaps even nutritional in origin; Crapanzano wondered whether the Hamadsha ecstatics might be suffering from a calcium deficiency. The most frequent diagnosis was hysteria, a term invented to describe the neurotic symptoms of upper-middle-class Viennese women near the turn of the century, but now blithely applied to Haitian villagers, Sri Lankan peasants, and anyone else whose behavior defied rational analysis. Alfred Métraux, the renowned ethnographer of the ecstatic Haitian tradition of Vodou, or voodoo, thought that "the symptoms of the opening phase of trance are clearly psychopathological. They conform exactly, in their main features, to the stock clinical description of hysteria." And in a 1981 book on female ecstatics in Sri Lanka, another anthropologist judged that "many of these women are, in a purely clinical sense, hysterical."

In very basic ways, psychology was ill-prepared to shoulder the burden anthropologists tried to throw its way. The new science aimed at a universal theory of human emotion and personality, but its theories were derived entirely from studies of the various compulsions, phobias, tics, and "neuraesthenias" afflicting affluent, urban Westerners — disorders that seemed to have no counterpart among "primitives" in their native lands. Not only was the science of psychology narrowly culture-bound; its emphasis on pathology largely precluded any careful study of the more pleasurable emotions, including the kind of joy — growing into ecstasy — that was the hallmark of so many "native" rituals and celebrations. In the psychological language of needs and drives, people do not freely and affirmatively search for pleasure; rather, they are "driven" by cravings that resemble pain. To this day, and no doubt for good reasons, suffering remains the almost exclusive preoccupation of professional psychology. Journals in the field have published forty-five thousand articles in the last thirty years on depression, but only four hundred on joy.

There was one form of pleasure that deeply interested psychologists, from Sigmund Freud on, and that was sexual pleasure. If the festivities and ecstatic rituals of "primitives" had routinely culminated in sexual acts, either public or private, psychology might have been more comfortable with them. The music, the excitement, the close-packed bodies could then all be understood as aphrodisiacs, allowing people to throw off their normal restraints. This is in fact how many Westerners chose to interpret the rituals they observed anyway — as indecent, wanton, and surely sexual in aim.

Some ecstatic rituals did indeed include sexual acts — most commonly pantomimed — or at least ended with couples drifting off together in the night. The Australian corroborree, for example, sometimes featured sexual intercourse of a deliberately "incestuous" kind; that is, involving men and women of the same tribal subunit, which is normally taboo. But even in that case, sex was only part of the proceedings, and by no means the grand climax, so to speak. More commonly, ecstatic rituals were rather chaste undertakings, involving women and men of all ages, following careful scripts, and serving a function that is perhaps best described as "religious." The self-loss that participants sought in ecstatic ritual was not through physical merger with another person but through a kind of spiritual merger with the group.

Sexual ecstasy usually arises among dyads, or groups of two, but the ritual ecstasy of "primitives" emerged within groups generally composed of thirty or more participants. Thanks to psychology and the psychological concerns of Western culture generally, we have a rich language for describing the emotions drawing one person to another — from the most fleeting sexual attraction, to ego-dissolving love, all the way to the destructive force of obsession. What we lack is any way of describing and understanding the "love" that may exist among dozens of people at a time; and it is this kind of love that is expressed in ecstatic ritual. Durkheim's notion of collective effervescence and Turner's idea of communitas each reach, in their own ways, toward some conception of love that serves to knit people together in groups larger than two. But if homosexual attraction is the love "that dares not speak its name," the love that binds people to the collective has no name at all to speak. Communitas and collective effervescence describe aspects or moments of communal excitement; there is no word for the love — or force or need — that leads individuals to seek ecstatic merger with the group.

Freud, the patriarch of Western psychology, was unprepared or unwilling to shed any light on the subject. It is doubtful that he ever witnessed, much less experienced, anything in the way of collective ecstasy. He was aware of the European tradition of carnival, for example, but saw it through the usual prejudices of his class. In a letter to his fiancée, Martha Bernays, he agreed with her that the behavior of the lower-class revelers at the town fair in Wandsbeck was "neither pleasant nor edifying," especially when compared to the more acceptable and bourgeois pleasures of "an hour's chat nestling close to one's love" or "the reading of a book." In his theoretical work too, he could see nothing very edifying about the emotions linking people in groups or, as he put it, crowds. As the anthropologist Charles Lindholm writes, Freud was much taken with the "expansive and intoxicating self-loss" accompanying the love between two individuals, while "in his discourse on the group the emphasis remains on guilt, anxiety and repressed aggression." What people found in the crowd, Freud opined, was a chance to submit to a leader playing the Oedipal role of "primal father" — a "witch doctor," presumably, or demagogue.

In Freud's scheme of human affinities, there was only one kind of love: the dyadic, erotic love of one individual for another. This is the problem he set forth in Civilization and Its Discontents: "The antithesis between civilization and sexuality [derives] from the circumstance that sexual love is a relationship between individuals in which a third can only be superfluous or disturbing, whereas civilization is founded on relations between a considerable number of individuals." Unfortunately for civilization, Freud could not imagine a kind of love binding such larger groups of persons. Eros, he said, could unite people two by two, but "he is not willing to go further." Hence the excitement of groups could only be derivative of the individuals' dyadic love for the group leader; never mind that ecstatic groups, of the kind observed in "primitive" ritual, often had no leader or central figure at all.

But Western psychology was disabled from comprehending the phenomenon of collective ecstasy in a more philosophically profound way as well. Psychology, almost by definition, focuses on the individual self; its therapies are aimed at bolstering that self against the force of irrational or repressed emotion. But the self is itself a parochial concept, far more meaningful in early-twentieth-century Cambridge or Vienna than in the distant outposts of nineteenth-century European colonialism. As Luh Ketut Suryani and Gordon Jensen, ethnographers of Balinese ecstatic ritual, observe: "The sense of being in control of one's self is prominent and highly valued in Western personality and thought. This trait is not characteristic of the Balinese, whose lives have in the main been controlled by their families, their ancestors, and the supernatural."

To the "self"-admiring Western mind, any form of self-loss — other than the kind associated with romantic love — could only be pathological. And that is how modern psychology has tended to categorize it. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (fourth edition), or DSM-IV, the standard psychiatric guide to mental disorders, lists something called depersonalization disorder, which involves a feeling of being "detached from, and as if one is an outside observer of, one's mental processes or body." As Lindholm comments, the psychological model for understanding collective ecstasy "is strongly value loaded. It assumes that the desire for self-loss must be a result of antisocial and regressive id drives." Those dancing, exulting practitioners of ecstatic ritual may have thought they were communing with the deities, building community solidarity, or even performing acts of healing. But in the eyes of Western psychology, they were only manifesting the symptoms of their illness.

One might expect that sociology, which ordinarily deals with groups larger than two, would have some insights to offer into the phenomenon of collective ecstasy. But where psychology found only illness and irrationality, sociology has tended, in recent decades anyway, to go too far in the other direction, interpreting group behavior as an entirely rational and self-interested undertaking on the part of each participant. The scores of sociological articles on crowd behavior published since the 1960s display an almost exclusive focus on such relatively dry matters as "the structure of the group... its pattern of recruitment, its ideology and its contradictions, the mechanisms used to gain commitment, and the maintenance and evolution of the group within a given social context." As a result, according to Lindholm, we get no sense of "the excitement of participation in an ecstatic group." Another dissenter from the conventional view, the sociologist John Lofland, demanded of his fellow scholars in the early 1980s: "Who now seriously speaks of 'ecstatic crowds,' 'social epidemics,' 'fevers,' 'religious hysterias,' 'passionate enthusiasms,' 'frantic and disheveled dances'?"

Techniques of Ecstasy

That is my mission in this book: to speak seriously of the largely ignored and perhaps incommunicable thrill of the group deliberately united in joy and exaltation. Not every form of "irrational" group behavior will be considered here; panics, crazes, fads, and spontaneous "mob" activities do not fall within our purview. Lynchings — or, for that matter, riots — may generate intense excitement and pleasure in their participants, but the focus here is on the kinds of events witnessed by Europeans in "primitive" societies and recalled in the European carnival tradition. These were not spontaneous outbreaks of "hysteria," as some Europeans tended to imagine; nor were they occasions for the suspension of all inhibitions and a general "letting go." The behavior that seemed so "savage" and wild to Western observers was in fact deliberately planned, organized, and at all times subject to cultural rules and expectations.

When later Westerners studied indigenous rituals in a relatively nonjudgmental way, they learned that such rituals and festivities were far from spontaneous in their timing, for example. The occasion might be a seasonal change, a calendrical event, the initiation of young people, a wedding, funeral, or coronation — in other words, something that could be anticipated for weeks or months and carefully prepared for. Appropriate foods had to be gathered and prepared in advance; costumes and masks designed; songs and dances rehearsed. These were group efforts, the result of careful and sober planning.

Furthermore, even at the height of the supposed frenzy, cultural expectations guided behavior, determining the special roles of the sexes and age groups, and going so far as to regulate that "wildest" of experiences — trance. In some festive settings — meaning those that can be construed as relatively secular or recreational — trance does not occur and is not expected to. In others, such as certain West African–derived religious rites or !Kung healing rituals, the achievement of trance is welcomed as a mark of spiritual status and is sought with great discipline and concentration. Each ecstatic ritual, as the ethnographers who followed the colonialists learned, was specific to its own culture, endowed with different meanings to its participants, and shaped by human creativity and intellect.

Yet for all the local variations, there are certain commonalities, or at least common ingredients, that can be found in ecstatic rituals and festivities worldwide and throughout the ages. As Turner observed, "Each kind of ritual, ceremony, or festival comes to be coupled with special types of attire, music, dance, food and drink... and, often, masks, body-painting, headgear, furniture and shrines." These ingredients of ecstatic rituals and festivities — music, dancing, eating, drinking or indulging in other mind-altering drugs, costuming and/or various forms of self-decoration, such as face and body painting — seem to be universal. Other common, but not universal, ingredients, especially of longer and more elaborate events, include processions, religious rituals involving the manipulation of sacred objects, athletic and other contests, dramatic performances, and comedy, generally of a mocking or satirical nature. But the core elements are, again and again, the dancing, the feasting, the artistic decoration of faces and bodies.

Darwin could find no "meaning" in the Aboriginal rites he witnessed, and meaning is indeed a hard thing for cultural outsiders to ascribe. People have employed the same constellation of activities — dancing, feasting, costuming, et cetera — in pursuit of very different ends. Some of these rites are recognizably religious, in the sense that they aim to evoke the presence of a deity or deities. Others, like the !Kung rituals, are understood by their participants to serve an almost medical function, whether or not a deity is enlisted. Still others seem to be "merely" recreational, if we are safe in assuming that the distinctions between religion, healing, and recreation carry over from Western culture to others. Anthropologists have tended to believe that they do, and draw a line between ritual and festivity, with the former being seen as having religious or healing functions, whereas "festival designates occasions considered to be pagan, recreational, or for children." But it is not clear that this distinction between ritual and festivity, religion and recreation, is always meaningful to the participants. A Georgia slave recalled that other slaves used to say of their church services or "meetings" — and please forgive the patronizing rendition of dialect in my source here — "I like meetin' jus' as good as I like a party."

In this book, I will observe the anthropological distinction between rituals and festivities as much as possible, but the emphasis will be on the phenomenon itself — the group activities of dancing, feasting, and so on — and the feelings they seem to inspire. Whatever the stated meaning of the ritual — to contact the deities, celebrate a wedding, or gear up for war — this same constellation of activities has been used again and again to achieve communal pleasure, even ecstasy or bliss. Why these activities and not others? We will return to this question in the next chapter, but for now, the simplest answer is that these are the activities that work. That through millennia of experimentation, humankind discovered what the historian Mircea Eliade, in his analysis of shamanistic rites, termed techniques of ecstasy.

The question that motivates this book originates in a sense of loss: If ecstatic rituals and festivities were once so widespread, why is so little left of them today? If the "techniques" of ecstasy represent an important part of the human cultural heritage, why have we forgotten them, if indeed we have? I will approach these questions historically, following the long, drawn-out struggle over ecstatic rituals from ancient times to the present. Everyone is vaguely aware of the decline of community human societies have endured in the last few centuries, a development many social scientists have analyzed in depth. Here we are looking at a much sharper, more intense form of pleasure than anything implied by the word community, with its evocations of coziness and small-town sociability. The loss of ecstatic pleasure, of the kind once routinely generated by rituals involving dancing, music, and so on, deserves the same attention accorded to community, and to be equally mourned.

This sense of loss has, in my case, a personal dimension. Intellectually, the roots of this book lie in a prior book, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War. In that book I explored the dark side of human collective excitement, as expressed in rites of human sacrifice and war. As I ventured into the less destructive kinds of festivities that concern us here, I recognized emotional themes I had encountered decades ago, at rock concerts, informal parties, and organized "happenings." I suspect that many readers will have similar points of reference — whether religious or "recreational" — for the material in this book, and will be willing to ask with me: If we possess this capacity for collective ecstasy, why do we so seldom put it to use?

Books Featured In This Story

Dancing in the Streets
Dancing in the Streets

A History of Collective Joy

by Barbara Ehrenreich

Hardcover, 320 pages | purchase

close

Purchase Featured Books

  • Dancing in the Streets
  • A History of Collective Joy
  • Barbara Ehrenreich

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: