Party Politics

Party Politics

Dancing in the Streets is a history of outbreaks of collective joy from Dionysus to the Grateful Dead.


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.

Dionysus is really an early version of the Freudian unconscious, a place of both hideous trauma and bounteous creativity. He is both Eros and Thanatos, ecstasy and the death drive in a single body. He has the lethally seductive appeal of what Jacques Lacan called jouissance, a concept that the late psychoanalyst’s representative on Earth, Slavoj Zizek, translates as “obscene enjoyment.” It is the fearful pleasure that springs from the dissolution of the ego. Abolishing the divisions between isolated individuals, which is what the Dionysian cult seeks to achieve, involves liberating a blissful force of libido. Yet since this means relaxing the ego’s control over the obstreperous id, it also releases a terrifying violence. Dionysus is not only rock star but terrorist. In seeking to suppress Dionysus, however, the pigheaded ruler Pentheus, portrayed in Euripides’s play The Bacchae, turns into a monstrous mirror image of his enemy. It is a suitable allegory of Bush and bin Laden.

Dancing in the Streets is really a Fall narrative. Once upon a time there was public ecstasy; then capitalism and Calvinism conspired to rout it. Charisma gave way, as it generally does, to bureaucracy. Ecstasy and Enlightenment failed to hit it off. In the eyes of an emergent middle-class order, popular festivity was that most scandalous and opaque of all activities, that which is done purely for its own sake. All over Europe, revelry was stamped on. The Catholic bishops of Ireland, Ehrenreich may be intrigued to hear, refrained from banning Irish dancing, but only because (1) it was patriotic, (2) the dancers keep their arms rigidly by their sides and (3) it is so physically taxing that it leaves you little energy for erotic activity.

Like most Fall fables, this one cuts a few conceptual corners; but it is full of fascinating vignettes all the same. We learn, for example, of the dance mania that gripped parts of Europe in the Middle Ages. In Utrecht 200 people danced on a bridge and refused to stop until it collapsed, drowning all the dancers. Dancing manias in Italy were often blamed on the bite of the tarantula; hence tarantella. As street dancing was censored, a great wave of melancholia–what we would now call depression–swept over Europe from the seventeenth century onward.

There is a perceptive chapter on how fascist rallies sought to manufacture a vicarious form of collective joy, and an account of how rock music triumphantly succeeded where fascism dismally failed. “That was a real Dionysian festival,” remarked one participant of a Grateful Dead concert. Yet the true form of communal festivity of our time is surely sport, to which Ehrenreich devotes her final chapter. She has some interesting things to say about how English football fans in particular have “carnivalized” the game with their painted faces and Bakhtinian brawling; but the point remains largely unconvincing. Sport is one of the most formidable adversaries of the political left, one that offers ordinary people a uniquely powerful alternative to political engagement: cherished traditions, camaraderie, strenuous competition, a glittering pantheon of heroes and heroines, factual erudition, aesthetic appreciation, technical prowess and a good deal more. It is all rather more entrancing than the average cell meeting. The bad news for baseball-loving leftists is that they are going to have to choose…

In the end, Dancing in the Streets is not just a history of festivity, one that packs a remarkable amount into its relatively slim compass, but a timely political meditation. Ehrenreich has no Sound of Music illusions that “hand-holding or choral dancing will bring world peace and environmental healing.” Indeed, she rightly sees that “festivities have served at times to befuddle or becalm their celebrants.” Yet the absence of such communal affirmation in our cutthroat, atomistic social orders is profoundly disquieting. The French Situationist Guy Debord described late capitalism as the society of the spectacle but also as a society without festivals. One of the few poor parodies of a community on offer today is the family, which as Ehrenreich scornfully observes represents an evolutionary regression: “Humans had the wit and generosity to reach out to unrelated others; hominids huddled with their kin.” The more the United States slaughters complete strangers, the more the word “family” becomes a choked sob in its throat.

There are, to be sure, other manufactured forms of community available. In Britain, one of the most noxious is known as the monarchy. In the United States there is a mythical entity known as “America”–a word used far more often in the country than, say, “Wales” is in Wales or “Italy” is in Italy. Above all, of course, there is nationalism, which next to religion is the most powerful, successful form of communality ever invented.

The publicity material for this book speaks of it obtusely as a “deeply optimistic study.” (It also refers to men and women united in “joy and exhalation,” perhaps with the idea of passing around a joint in mind.) This is not, quite properly, an optimistic book. For all its grave anxieties, however, it ends on a mutedly positive note. For a traditional combination of festival and political militancy has raised its head again in our own time, and its name is the antiglobalization movement. Whatever other complaints one may have about it, it doesn’t lack a sense of humor. And whatever qualities one might praise in the Jacobins or Bolsheviks, a sensuous joy in life is certainly not among them.

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