Joy Will Save The Planet


Ed O’Rourke

January 8, 2009

In the 1976-2006 period, there were 45,000 articles about depression but only 400 about joy.  Barbara Enrenreich in Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy examines public celebrations from the beginning to the present day.  Based on cave drawings, ritual dances go back to the Stone Age.  In the Middle East, the Old Testament describes a strong tradition with festive dances, usually with banquettes and wine.  In ancient Western culture, in Greece, Rome, Egypt, Asia Minor and Persia, many deities were centers of ecstatic cults. The word enthusiasm in Greek means to have God inside you.

 The wine god, Dionysus, was a much more accessible and democratic god than most other deities, open to both the humble and the powerful. The Roman religious practices reinforced aristocratic formality.  The tedious Roman rites stressed hierarchy and obedience making Roman gods always vulnerable to foreign gods who were more emotionally in touch with the people. The imported gods had a greater influence in marginal groups, such as women and slaves. Oriental cults with Iris, Cybele and Dionysus brought a nuanced political threat.  Dionysus was a universal god and potentially accessible to everyone everywhere. These cults offered a hedonistic vision based on egalitarianism offered immediate pleasures in human experience that were contrary to official religious that emphasized social inequality.

Christianity’s first two centuries were known for great emotion. St. Paul’s epistles refer to glossalalia (speaking in tongues).

With the saints’ feast days and celebrations before Lent (Marti Gras), the Catholic Church inadvertently invented the carnival.

The elites have always had inherent difficulties with traditional festivities and ecstatic rituals due to social leveling which temporarily dissolved rank.  It is difficult if not impossible to preserve regal dignity when crazy excited dancing starts. In the 13th century, church condemnations of dance increased in volume and intensity.

Repressing dancing may be interpreted as an attempt to repress popular pre-Christian traditions.  The church wanted to maintain monopoly power about human access to the divine.  If people thought they could communicate with God during ecstatic dance, they would have little use for Catholic authorities to help them.

Church authorities were certainly not amused with the Feast of Fools in which a mock social revolution took place with silly ceremonies making people a supposed Pope or bishop.  The church made major efforts to suppress this feast and was eventually successful.

Festival suppression was even more brutal with Calvinists and the emerging capitalists.  The working class had to be a disciplined force in factory work.   Farmers worked hard at different times, especially during harvests, but could rest some at other times.  On the other hand, factory work went on continuously all year around.  What was even worse for production schedule planning was “Saint Monday” with high absenteeism from workers recovering from Sunday’s activities or even continuing the activities.

Many have observed that capitalism and Calvinism rose at roughly the same time and were interrelated.  Calvinists saw the carnival as the gateway to Hell.  While medieval Catholics participated in carnivals to escape work, Puritans embraced work to escape terror.  The sociologist Max Weber thought that Calvinism’s main task was “destroying impulsive spontaneous pleasure.” He linked Calvinism and depression in general and this was certainly true in his own life.

Many have observed that capitalism and Calvinism rose at roughly the same time and were interrelated.  Calvinists saw the carnival as the gateway to Hell.  While medieval Catholics participated in carnivals to escape work, Puritans embraced work to escape terror.  The sociologist Max Weber thought that Calvinism’s main task was “destroying impulsive spontaneous pleasure.” He linked Calvinism and depression in general and this was certainly true in his own life.

In the 16th century, secular and church authorities began to fear and scorn public celebrations in which they had previously played a central role, now considering them vulgar or, more importantly, dangerous to the political structure.  Historians are ambivalent about the carnival’s political role: Did the carnivals present a profound challenge to the status quo or did they serve as an escape valve?  Since the carnivals co-existed with absolute monarchies for many centuries, my opinion is that they were escape valves.

A long time before the French Revolution, nobles and emerging bourgeois did not participate in public celebrations but conducted their own.  The elites had parties just as uninhibited as the poor with the probable exception of not having anything like the Feast of Fools.

Beginning in 17th century England, Europeans saw what we now describe as a depression epidemic.  Depression hit the old and the young with morbid apathy and constant terror that lasted months or years.  The Puritan writer, John Bunyan, Oliver Cromwell, poets Thomas Gray and John Donne along with essayist Samuel Johnson were the most famous English victims.   Nineteenth century famous people suffered from depression, among them Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, German sociologist Max Weber and American psychologist William James. William James saw the world as “remote, strange, sinister and terrifying.”  Today the World Health Organization ranks depression as the fifth cause of death and disability.

Barbara Ehrenreich wonders if declining opportunities to celebrate carnivals and traditional festivities are spiking the increasing bouts with depression. Considering access to television, video games, sports events, bars and drugs, is she missing something?  She thinks that urban life and the competitive market economy encourages a more anxious and isolated personality, more inclined to depression and mistrustful of social community pleasures.  Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community shows that Americans have been participating less in community events and social gatherings for many decades.  Television and a long commute contribute to this.  On the other hand, Twelve Step meetings are successful because people share their frustrations and joys. There is a shared community experience seldom found anywhere else.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, when Europeans were suppressing their traditional festivities, they collectively were participating in a global conquest.  They seldom appreciated any culture outside Europe.  They furiously opposed “native” community pleasures and rituals which they considered as hysteria, possibly being superstitious devil worship.  Europeans observers sometimes noticed suppressing carnivals and other festivities in Europe and repressing native rites everywhere.   The colonizers were horrified with natives’ apparent laziness and energy invested in ritual activities that they considered as superstitious.

In the 20th century, the Nazis and Fascists organized elaborate spectacles to reinforce party goals.  These were not festivals nor ecstatic rituals but highly orchestrated and minutely organized affairs.  Spectators were present only to look, applaud, salute and cheer.  There was no allowed spontaneous or independent activity.

Sporting events generate collective fervor because shouting, applause and merrymaking are not only permitted but expected.  People who go to the stadium welcome the opportunity to dress differently, paint their face, see, be seen, eat and drink with little moderation and sign.  They go to the game to participate in the crowd’s emotions.  Otherwise, they could watch on television or hear the game on the radio.

Human beings, unlike other primates, share pleasure with non-relatives.  Considering competition for water, oil, dwindling resources and jobs, this sociability seems out of place.  “In this divided world, there is no powerful group dedicated to defending the glories of the festival and dance.”   The social hierarchies in any system are threatened with the festival’s theme, the departure from the usual social roles, a brief utopia of egalitarianism, creativity and mutual love.

From my time in high school teaching, I see that authorities want docile passive audiences despite whatever professed propaganda that they look for active participation.  Maybe this has always been the case for education.  The docility came later in other places.  There were no benches in European churches until sometime in the 18th century.  It was only in the 19th century, that Western musicians performed before a seated audience.

Certainly, non-mainline Protestant churches can attribute significant growth to a warm, emotional atmosphere largely absent in the mainline churches.  Did the non- mainline churches learn from the black churches?

Considering that there are 2.4 billion people living in poverty, nuclear weapons, environmental degradation and global warming, human beings will have to pull together for the planet to survive.  I am hoping that the social justice, peace and the environmental communities along with the non-mainline Protestants can cobble together celebrations that will remind everyone that we are all in the same lifeboat.  Many will feel uneasy with some celebrations in the same way that white parents were uncomfortable with Elvis Pressley in the 1950s.  Celebrations will recognize the universe’s majesty, life’s sacredness and hope that may have little to do with the Bible and the sacraments.  They will include mitzvah (Jewish term for acts of human kindness). These celebrations will remind all, including free market fundamentalists, that we all float together or we all sink together.  Let us hope we can float and look forward, in Winston Churchill’s terms, to living in “broad sunlit uplands.”

Ed O’Rourke, a long time Houston, Texas resident and certified public accountant, now lives in Medellin, Colombia.

Barbara Ehrenreich, Una Historia de Alegría: El éxtasis colectivo de la Antigüedad a nuestros días. Piado, México City, 2008, 311 pages.

Translation from:

Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2006, 336 pages.