Adam Ash

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Bookplanet: Barbara Ehrenreich fights for your right to party

Barbara Ehrenreich has exposed the underbelly of the American dream, but her new demand that we collectively brandish a native instinct for ecstatic public celebrations draws a T.O. shout-out of a different kind
Review of Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich
By Jessica Warner/

Once upon a time and far, far away, there were people who actually liked each other. They liked each other so much that they danced until they dropped. They also liked to eat with their fingers and beat drums, for they, unlike their pale and nervous descendants, were in touch with themselves and each other. They knew what we do not: the "thrill of the group deliberately united in joy and exaltation."

Then a stranger came to town. He was dressed in black. (In fact, he looked suspiciously like John Calvin). "This dancing must stop!" he said. "It is time for all you people to grow up." No sooner had he uttered these words than the dancers felt ashamed of themselves They stopped liking each other and started building bridges, composing symphonies, mastering higher mathematics and writing poetry. And we are all the poorer for it.

That, in short, is the premise of Barbara Ehrenreich's Dancing in the Streets: a History of Collective Joy . Whole forests have been felled to print Ehrenreich's books ( Dancing in the Streets is her 15th book and she is doubtless already hard at work on a 16th). Every once in a while there is a book that is so good that a little clear-cutting is to be forgiven. Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (not) Getting by in America was one such book, an example of participatory journalism at its finest.

But that was back when Ehrenreich was content to be a journalist. Now she wants to be something more: a thinker. She wants to write big books about the human condition, to build bridges to academic theory and maybe come up with one or two of her own in the process. She is trying, in short, to do for sociology what Barbara Tuchman did for history.

It is a laudable goal. Ehrenreich writes well and most sociologists do not, and if she can make sense of them to poor fools like me, tant mieux . The problem is that Dancing in the Streets falls just short of that goal. Ehrenreich is nothing if not honest – she always tells you when she is borrowing an idea from someone else – but the less discerning reader is still left to wonder how much of what she is saying is actually original, and whether the premise is a sound one.

Ehrenreich keeps telling us that we have lost something, that we have paid too high a price for being able to get in and out of subway cars without bursting into song and dance. How sad that we are able to walk down city streets "unsmiling, intent on unknown missions, wary of eye contact." If only we could "lose ourselves" in communal festivities and "reclaim our distinctively human heritage as creatures who can generate their own ecstatic pleasures out of music, color, feasting, and dance."

Whatever for? It is a major achievement that we are able to walk down the street without establishing eye contact and without jostling each other. This small adaptation allows the vast majority of us to get through the day without coming to blows.

Nor am I sad to see the passing of bear baiting, burning cats in cages (a great crowd pleaser in early modern Paris), the public execution of felons or putting cuckolds on donkeys and parading them through the village. Unless I am sadly mistaken, these were all once sources of communal joy, and to each I say good riddance.

Of course, one wonders whether Ehrenreich has been looking in the right places. I have never been inside an evangelical church, but I am told they are big on communal joy. If so, the thing Ehrenreich so bitterly mourns is more than alive and well. It is growing by the day.

There is an alternative: Crowds and Power , first published in 1960 as Masse und Macht . Its author, Elias Canetti, went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1981. Unlike Dancing in the Streets ,Crowds and Power will make your head hurt (at least it had this effect on mine). But it will also make your mind spin.

Perhaps I am being too harsh. But that's what happens when you are one of life's non-dancers. The next time a complete stranger approaches me on the street, waving an empty Starbucks cup in my general direction, I won't mumble something about not having any spare change: I'll tell him my dance card is full.

(Jessica Warner, a senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, is the author of Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason and The Incendiary: The Misadventures of John the Painter, First Modern Terrorist.)


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