Friday Book Club | Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy.

November 13, 2020

Friday Book Club | Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy.

May 29, 2023

Barbara Ehrenreich is a super-sober author. Her bestselling books include “Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream,” “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” “Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class,” and “The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed.”

As you can tell from these titles, she’s deeply (and darkly) political and the last word that might describe her - based upon her writing - is joyful.

That’s why I found this book of hers to be a revelation. As someone who named my boutique hotel company after the French concept of joy (Joie de Vivre) and was fascinated enough by collective effervescence to create a website dedicated to the world’s 300 best festivals (Fest300), I find the idea of communal joy to be pretty fascinating and I’m now working on a new book on this subject. When I’m writing a new book, I devour any literary gems on the subject and this book is full of great passages.

Drawing on a wealth of history and anthropology, Ehrenreich uncovers the deep origins of communal revelry in human biology and culture. She tells the fascinating story of Carnival and many other bacchanalian festivals that have Christian roots. What’s particularly resonant is how - with the backdrop of wars, plagues, and politics - ritual and revelry is revived against all odds.

Here are some of my favorite passages from the book that seem well-suited to our COVID era even though this book was written 15 years ago:

“There is no powerful faction in our divided world committed to upholding the glories of the feast and dance.” She continues later in the book, “Many millions of people around the world are engaged in movements for economic justice, peace, equality, and environmental reclamation, and these movements are often incubators for the solidarity and celebration so missing in our usual state of passive acquiescence. Yet there appears to be no constituency today for collective joy itself. In fact, the very term ‘collective joy’ is largely unfamiliar and exotic.”

“Suffering remains the almost exclusive preoccupation of professional psychology. Journals in the field have published forty-five thousand articles in the last 30 years on depression, but only 400 on joy.”

“Dancing is contagious; humans experience strong desires to synchronize their own bodies’ motions with those of others...they may experience a joyous ‘self-loss’ in the dance, or a kind of merger with the group.”

“Almost as soon as ecstatic rituals appear in the historical record, a note of ambivalence enters into the story, a suggestion of social tensions surrounding these rituals, and even violent hostility toward their participants.”

“The festivities that crowded the late medieval calendar can be understood as the fragments of what might have been a more joyous and participatory religion. People once danced, drank, feasted and performed dramas and burlesques within their churches; now they did so outside those churches in the festivities that still clung to, and surrounded each holy day. Scholars often mark the transition with a change in terminology - using the word ‘ritual’ for events held in the context of religious observance and the lighter-weight term ‘festivity’ for those outside of it...the result of the Church’s distancing itself from the festivities that marked its own holidays was a certain ‘secularization’ of communal pleasure.”

She cites Emile Durkheim who coined the phrase “collective effervescence” quoting him here: “Originally society is everything, the individual nothing...but gradually things change. As societies become greater in volume and density, individual differences multiply, and the moment approaches when the only remaining bond among the members of a single human group will be that they are all human.” The flip side of the heroic autonomy that is said to represent one of the great achievements of the early modern and modern eras is radical isolation, and, with it, depression and sometimes death.

“The capacity for collective joy is encoded into us almost as deeply as the capacity for the erotic love of one human for another. We can live without it, as most of us do, but only at the risk of succumbing to the solitary nightmare of depression. Why not reclaim our distinctively human heritage as creatures who can generate their own ecstatic pleasures out of music, color, feasting, and dance?”

How many weddings, graduation ceremonies, conferences, family reunions and birthday parties have been cancelled in 2020? The number is staggering in quantity, but even more excruciating when it comes to the emotional toll.

We long to gather. But it looks like none of us will be doing so in large groups until at least fall 2021, allowing enough time for the development and widespread dissemination of a vaccine for COVID-19. In the meantime, we reminisce about past gatherings and get inspired to create new celebrations. This new book I’m working on is a reminder about why gatherings matter.

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