Western liberals who are besotted with the Other should read E.M. Forster’s mischievous little novel Where Angels Fear to Tread. The well-bred young English heroine of this tale runs off with a rather roughneck young Italian, to the horror of her priggish, xenophobic, stiff-necked family. Yet just as the reader is relishing the family’s discomfort, an equally discomforting realization begins to dawn. The young Italian turns out to be an appalling brute. The parochially minded prigs were right after all.
Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing in the Streets refuses to fall for the romance of the Other, though its subject–popular festivity versus puritanical order–might well have tempted her to. What we have instead is an admirably lucid, level-headed history of outbreaks of collective joy from Dionysus to the Grateful Dead. It is a book that investigates orgy but declines quite properly to join in. For one thing, it recognizes in its impressively unromantic way that most carnivalesque activity over the centuries has been planned rather than spontaneous, rather as rock concerts are today. For another thing, unlike the more dewy-eyed apostles of dancing in the streets, it recognizes that popular carnival has a darker, violent dimension. In wisely agnostic manner, Ehrenreich refuses to take sides in the debate about whether carnival is a licensed displacement of popular energies (“There is no slander in an allowed fool,” remarks Olivia in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night), or whether it is a case of the plebeians rehearsing the uprising.
There is, to be sure, some evidence for the latter view. In eighteenth-century England and Revolutionary France, the masks, indecent parodies, musical cacophonies and outlandish costumes of street festivals often provided a convenient cover for insurrectionary activities. In rural England, the maypole became a political sign as well as a festive one. In France, where the tight-lipped Jacobins denounced popular festivities as barbarous, pigs were dressed as noblemen and monkeys as bishops. Even when it didn’t cloak illegal intent, carnival was all about mocking the powerful. At festivals in pre-Famine Ireland, men dressed as nuns and priests would mimic frenetic sexual intercourse, then return meekly to their pious everyday duties.
On the other hand, as Ehrenreich notes, noblemen could sometimes be found pitching in with the populace in the general cavorting, which rather punctures the assumption that the revelers were Bolsheviks with pigs’ bladders. On the church-sanctioned Feast of Fools, clergymen themselves would blasphemously burlesque sacred ceremonies. In Britain’s annual Notting Hill carnival, the largest in Europe, the police take a break from harassing blacks and Asians and dance genially along with them, no doubt on the express orders of their superior officers.
The roots of carnival run back at least as far as the ancient Greek god Dionysus–an enormously popular figure with hordes of ecstatic, mouth-foaming female followers whom Ehrenreich describes as “the first rock star.” (“Fan,” of course, derives from “fanatic.”) Like Jesus, who as the book illustrates has a dash of the Dionysiac cult about him, Dionysus had a special appeal to women and the poor. Both figures offered ease instead of labor, teaching the sound doctrine that work is the curse of the drinking classes. Ehrenreich sees that this god of wine, dance, song, equality and liberation is a less attractive figure than that alluring list of qualities makes him sound. As she points out, he was a source of both terror and ecstasy, though if she had read a remarkably cheap, extraordinarily illuminating book titled Holy Terror, written by the present reviewer, she might have been able to unpack this paradox a little more.