The Decline and Fall of Public Festivals

In The Nation, Terry Eagleton reviews Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing in the Streets.

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.