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Transcendence, Hope, & Ecstasy
A historical look at political passion and fun
Perhaps the best kept political secret of our time is that politics, as a democratic undertaking, can be not only fun, in the entertaining sense, but profoundly uplifting, even ecstatic. My generation had a glimpse of this in May 1968 and at other points in that decade, when strangers embraced in the streets and the impossible briefly seemed within reach. Insurgencies again and again engender such moments of transcendence and hope. People danced in the streets of Havana when Batista fled in 1959; 30 years later, they danced on the Berlin wall when East Germany succumbed to the democracy movement. There was revelry in Republican Spain in the 1930s, and drunken anarchy in St. Petersburg in 1917. In moments such as these, politics overflows the constraints of parties, committees, elections, and legislation and becomes a kind of festival.
Today, no one imagines that the political process might be a source of transcendent passion. Throughout the world, voter participation is declining, even in those places, like the former Communist countries, where multi-party elections should still be expected to possess the charm of novelty. Nothing underscores the emotional desiccation of the democratic process more than the American political conventions, which reached such a depth of tedium in 1996 that the television networks threatened not to return in 2000.
On the rare occasions when we encounter it today, political passion is likely to seem exotic, anachronistica remnant of some heroic past. A writer for Harpers, for example, attended a concert in Madrid last year commemorating the Lincoln Brigade, and reported: ... the place is on fire. The passion is palpable, a heavy intoxicating aroma you practically taste as you inhale... When Labordeta... starts into his Cancion de la Libertad (Song of Freedom), they [the audience] go nuts. They sing along, bouncing the roof of the stadium on its struts...Thousands of young fists pump the air. Everywhere people are weeping... Im having trouble not weeping myself, though for what Im not sureperhaps because political passion like this seems irretrievably lost in my life.
We dont have much of a vocabulary for this sort of experience, certainly not in English anyway. There are rich and nuanced ways of talking about the love between two people, ranging from simple sexual attraction to ecstatic communion and undying mutual commitment, but there are few words to describe the love, if it is that, that can unite thousands of people at a time. Community is the word we are most likely to reach for, but in the mouths of politically centrist communitarians (of whom Hillary Clinton is the best-known representative) it has become another code for the kind of moral conformity that conservative leaders are always promising to impose. Besides, great moments of political euphoria are not celebrations of pre-existing communities, but the creation of community out of masses of people who are, for the most, part, formerly unknown to each other. In the revolutionary crowd, old hierarchies and hostilities dissolve. Black and white marched together in the American movements of the 1960s; Catholics and Huguenots embraced in the French Revolution. United by a common goal and emboldened by the strength of numbers, we fall in love with total strangers.
Love is in fact that word that participants have used again and again to describe the transports of the revolutionary experience. The novelist Flaubert, who participated in the French Revolution of 1848, has a character caught up in the magnetism of the enthusiastic crowd...he shivered in an exhalation of immense love, of supreme and universal tenderness, as if the heart of all mankind beat in his chest. Very similarly, a witness to the Paris Commune of 1871 wrote: Embrace me, comrade, who shares my gray hair! And you, little one...come to me as well!...It seems to me that the very soul of the crowd now fills and expands my chest. Oh! If only death could get me, if only a bullet could kill me in this radiance of resurrection.
The boundaries of the ego dissolve, ones very body expands, in imagination, to contain the multitude. These are ephemeral feelings, but they can be preserved through art or preserved and amplified through ritual. In 1790, for example, the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille was celebrated throughout France with festivities that recreated the thrill of the original insurgency. The historian Jules Michelet reported that in the town of Saint-Andèol, the people...rushed into each others arms, and joining hands, an immense farandole [line dance], comprising everybody, without exception, spread throughout the town, into the fields, across the mountains of Ardéche, and towards the meadows of the Rhone; the wine flowed in the streets...
The sciences of human behavior have little to tell us about the experience of collective ecstasy. In the realm of psychology, Freud took his cues from the conservative French writer Gustave Le Bon, who viewed the behavior of the revolutionary crowd as dangerous and deranged. Freud acknowledged that the collective joy of the crowd was of a singular intensity: mens emotions are stirred... to a pitch that they seldom or never attain under other conditions; and it is a pleasurable experience... Nevertheless, he proceeded to squeeze these extraordinary feelings into the familiar Oedipal triangle of the nuclear family: Members of the crowd were displaying an extreme passion for authority, a thirst for obedienceto some leader who was only a stand-in for the dreaded primal father. The fact that insurgent crowds are, at least at the level of conscious experience, almost always engaged in the overthrow of traditional authoritieskings and dictators did not impress the great patriarch of Western psychiatry.
Contemporary sociology has little more to offer. In reaction to the reactionary perspective of Le Bon, American sociologists have tended to ignore the emotional aspects of social movements except in the case of racist and fascist groups, where the emotions in question are usually hatred and fear. As one dissenter from this tradition, the American sociologist John Lofland, wrote in the early 1980s: Historically, sociological scholars of collective behavior addressed crowd and mass phenomena that were dominated by one or another of three kinds of intense emotional arousal: fear, hostility, and joy. As the decades have gone by, the third element of this trinityjoyhas been gradually dropped out. Who now seriously speaks of ecstatic crowds, social epidemics, fevers, religious hysterias, passionate enthusiasms, frantic and disheveled dances...?
Instead, progressive political movements are analyzed as entirely rational undertakings in which people, motivated by ideologies, guided by organizational factors, and resisted by social structures, pursue their strictly instrumental goals. Meanwhile, the study of collective joy has been marginalized to crazes and fads.
In the absence of scholarly insight, our knowledge of collective excitement is a little like the Victorian understanding of sex. Victorian adults understood that human bodies could be coupled in ways that were, however unmentionable, often conducive to procreation. Many, if not most, of them must also have known, from their own experiences, that such couplings could be intensely pleasurable. But there was no way of talking about the joys of sex; the word orgasm, for example, did not enter popular usage until the mid-20th century. Similarly today: we know that large numbers of people can come together in ways that seem to us, as spectators, exciting and even intoxicating; and we know this because television is always bringing us riots, revolutions, and the hysterias of sports and music fans. But we have no vocabulary for the feelings that may inspire and be engendered by such events. Even those of us whose political identities were forged in great moments of insurgency remain, by and large, tongue-tied about the emotional depths of our involvement. We can talk about the issues, but not about the ecstasies.
Yet there is, in the European tradition alone, a hidden history of collective ecstasies waiting to be unearthed and put in a politically comprehensible context. Long before there were anything we would recognize as political movements, there were ecstatic movements of the oppressed, usually employing the language and symbols of religion. The ancient Greeks, for example, were familiar since Homers time with the phenomenon of maenadism, in which worshippers of Dionysos, almost exclusively women, periodically abandoned their domestic tasks to stream up into the mountains, where they drank wine, danced ecstatically into the night, and sometimes, it is reported, caught live animals, ripped them apart and ate them raw. It is difficult, of course, to determine how much the accounts of maenadism were distorted by the prejudices and fears of male contemporaries. But the scholarly consensus today seems to be that the maenads represented an actual historical cult with great appeal to womenwho were, of course, otherwise largely excluded from public life. If they could not literally rebel, they could at least enjoy the emotional release of these mock rebellions conducted in the guise of pious, though unorthodox, observances.
Europe experienced similar, though less ritualized, outbreaks, with the dance manias of the 14th and 15th centuries. Beginning in the wake of the Black Death that decimated Europe in the 1370s, troops of peoplealmost entirely drawn from the poorest classeswould ...form[ed] circles hand in hand, and appearing to have lost all control over their senses, continue[d] dancing...for hours together in wild delirium, until at length they fell to the ground in a state of exhaustion.
Priests were powerless to stop the dancers, who sometimes asserted that their dancing honored some particular saint, and sometimes that it was the result of a curse imposed in punishment for sin. Since the 19th century, the conventional scholarly explanation is that the dance manias must have been induced by some chemical poison, perhaps ergot, which is related to LSD and can contaminate crops of rye. But such explanations do not account for the well-known contagiousness of the manias, to which participants were readily recruited from bystanders in the streets. A better explanation may be that the manias represented a kind of proto-rebellion sparked in part by the Churchs campaign to suppress the ancient tradition of dancing in churchyards and even within churches themselves. The ecstatic ring-danceoccasionally spilling over into what the clergy saw as wanton revelryhad been a part of the tradition of Christian worship since at least the 3rd century, and part of pagan traditions before that. Barred, over time, from their traditional venues, the dancers took to the streets, where they often expressed their defiance openly by menacing or attacking priests.
Throughout the late middle ages, the Catholic Church bit by bit extirpated not only religious dances and millenarian sects, but the festive high-jinks associated with the Feast of Fools, in which priests themselves had once played a leading role. Squeezed out of religious settings, collective ecstasy could find expression only in the more secular setting of the carnival. In some ways, the European carnival of the late middle ages and early modern period represented an institutionalized form of dancing mania. People feasted, drank, and danced for days on end, usually in circles, lines, or groups of three. In addition, carnivals often featured sporting competitions, dramatic performances, elaborate costuming, and sometimes such un-Christian activities as animal sacrifice and worship of pagan goddesses. What amazes historians today is the truly prodigious amount of time devoted to such festivities: 16th century French peasants could expect to spend days amounting to a total of three months of the year, or an average of one day out of four, in carnival revelry. (In northern France, the annual celebration of a parish churchs founding would alone take about eight days.) In 17th century Spain, a contemporary estimated that a total of five months of the year were devoted to saints and observed with festivals.
It was the dissident Soviet writer Mikhail Bakhtin who rescued carnival from the historical margins, pointing out that it represented a ritualized rebellion against authority in all forms. In carnival, the poor created a utopian realm of community, freedom, equality, and abundance, marked by the inversion of all normal hierarchies: Men might costume themselves as women and vice versa, lay people dressed as clergy, kings, and priests were symbolically mocked. Interestingly, the same themes of ecstatic abandon and defiance of hierarchy appear in the carnival tradition worldwide, even in places apparently untouched by European influence. At the beginning of the 18th century, a Dutch visitor found Africans on the Coast of Guinea celebrating: ... a Feast of eight days accompanied with all manner of Singing, Skipping, Dancing, Mirth, and Jollity; in which time a perfect lampooning liberty is allowed, and Scandal so highly exalted, that they may freely say of all Faults, Villainies, and Frauds of their Superiors, as well as Inferiours without punishment so much as the least interruption.
As Bakhtin wrote ...Festive folk laughter...means the defeat of power, of earthly kings, of the earthly upper classes, of all that oppresses and restrictsat least for the duration of the festivities. Some scholars have challenged Bakhtins interpretation, pointing out that, far from being a true rebellion, carnival, after all, is a licensed affair in every sense, a permissible rupture of hegemony, a contained popular blow-off as disturbing and relatively ineffectual as revolutionary work of art. But carnival, considered as a popular art form, increasingly verged into outright rebellion as the modern era wore on. In 16th century France, festivities at Maras and Romans became cover for armed insurrections of the urban poor against the nobility. Similarly, 19th century Caribbean carnivals provided the setting for numerous slave rebellions. As the British scholars Stallybrass and White have written: It is in fact striking how frequently violent social clashes apparently coincided with carnival....to call it a coincidence of social revolt and carnival is deeply misleading, for...it was only in the late 18th and early 19th centuriesand then only in certain areasthat one can reasonably talk of popular politics dissociated from the carnivalesque at all.
The first recognizably political mass revolutions in the Westas opposed to the occasional carnivalesque excesses of earlier centurieswere the American and French revolutions of the late 18th century. In these, for the first time, we find the emergence of a hierarchy of revolutionary leadership, organized debates, and what the sociologists would finally regard as rational goals. But these early revolutions, deadly earnest as they were, also drew on the carnival tradition: American rebels danced around liberty trees derived from the maypoles that were so central to British and French folk festivities. French villagers used actual maypoles to serve as a sort of visual tocsin bell signaling the outbreak of revolt. There is no doubt, according to the French historian Mona Ozouf, of the privileged link between the maypole and collective joy, whether of the political or merely festive variety. In 1791, for example, farmers in Perigord set up maypoles in the public squares, attacked symbols of feudal power, and ripped the pews out of churches both with some violence, it was reported to the National Assembly in Paris, and in the effusion of their joy. So it is with some justice that Henri Lefebvre, the intellectual father of the French situationist movement of the 1960s, could proclaim, The revolutions of the past were, indeed, festivalscruel, yes, but then is there not something cruel, wild and violent in festivals? Just as, we might add, there is so often something festive about revolutions.
Certainly the authorities had begun to see something dangerous and even potentially seditious about popular festivities well before the 18th century age of revolution. Beginning in the 16th century, authorities throughout Europe had campaigned more or less systematically to suppress all forms of lower-class public entertainment, usually in the name of morality. Sports like football, which in medieval times had involved hundreds of players at a time, were banned, public drunkenness outlawed, even the wearing of masks prohibited. Traditional carnivals were denied their licenses to operate; dancing was attacked as lewd. In the long-term history from the 17th to the 20th century...there were literally thousands of acts of legislation introduced which attempted to eliminate carnival and popular festivity from European life...everywhere, against the periodic revival of local festivity and occasional reversals, a fundamental ritual order of western culture came under attackits feasting, violence, processions, fairs, wakes, rowdy spectacle and outrageous clamour were subject to surveillance and repressive control.
Underlying this repression was the fundamental shift toward industrial capitalism. The old calendar of festivities may have suited the seasonal rhythms of agricultural life, but had no place in a world ruled, for the first time, by the minute-hand of the clock. In the new, bourgeois scheme of things exemplified by emergent Protestantism, time was money and self-denial the cardinal virtue. Merchant and man-servant, banker and weaver alike, were expected to forego immediate gratifications for a life of disciplined labor and to reserve their sole day of rest, Sunday, for activities no more boisterous than hymn-singing. It was this centuries-long project of repression, historian Norbert Elias observed, that led to the Freudian notion that civilization could be achieved only at the price of spontaneity and ecstatic abandon. In other words, one could no longer look to other people as a possible source of pleasure and empowermentthey had become competitors or, worse, censors, on the watch for any sign of moral slippage. The self was now conceived as a sort of thick-walled kernel, insulated from all other selves, and to which the delirious self-loss of the festivity or festive revolt could only seem terrifying, like a kind of death.
From the start, the puritanical ethos of the emerging middle class put its stamp on that least puritanical of undertakingsrevolution. The apparently spontaneous, festive revolts of the peasantry and urban poor horrified the intellectual leaders of the French revolution, who undertook, like the clergy before them, to suppress carnivals and all other indecent forms familiar from the ancien regime. Revolutionary officials sought to replace the ill-planned festival, the secret, nocturnal festivals, the noisy festival, the revelry, the mingling of age groups, classes, and sexes, the orgy with bland spectacles dedicated, for example, to Reason. With Lenin, of course, the revolutionary tradition diverges absolutely from the older traditions of popular festivity. He wrote in fact of his gratitude to the capitalists for having disciplined the working classes into a kind of army, because the modern, Marxist-Leninist revolution was to be a kind of war. The leading actor in this grim new version of political change was the professional revolutionary, and his only passion, a cold, ascetic, drive-to-power.
In place of the suppressed communal pleasures of the medieval world, 20th century cultures offered two alternatives: the privatized pleasure of individual consumption, and the vicarious pleasure of mass spectacles. The idea that the deepest satisfactions could be found only in a private setting, among ones immediate family members, arose in the 19th century, when the tradition of carnival had been almost destroyed. A British preacher of the time urged that happiness ...does not consist in booths and garlands, drums and horns, or in capering around a May-pole. Happiness is a fireside thing. It is a thing of grave and earnest tone; and the deeper and truer it is, the more removed from the riot of mere merriment.
Accordingly, holidays like Christmas, which had once been celebrated in England with public dancing, feasting, drinking, and masquerading, retreated indoors to become cloyingly domesticated fireside things. With the emergence of a mass consumer culture in the 1920s, private enjoymentof meals, vacations, and entertainmentdecisively replaced the shared feasts and collectively engendered excitement of traditional festivities. Sexual love became a public obsession and the theme of every popular song and movie in part because it was the only remaining occasion for the ecstatic self-loss once found in the festive crowd.
At the same time, participatory festivals and sports steadily gave way to mass spectacles: Festivals, fairs, and carnivals were replaced by official parades, with the urban crowd serving only as audience. Popular sports became spectator sports, requiring no physical effort and offering no physical satisfactions. But the greatest spectacles of the 20th century have been militaristic in theme: May Day parades, Nuremberg rallies, and, most recently, a televised air war. Nationalism, along with its innocent sidekick sports fandom, provides our only routinely acceptable experience of submergence in some greater human unity, with the role of the patriot, like that of the fan, being only to cheer on cue. The engaged participantdancing, miming, mocking the authoritieshas been replaced by the passive spectator, the onlooker silent and amazed.
The same passivity extends now to the realm of politics, which, it is often noted, has become another spectator sport, and not usually a very gripping one at that. Even the most conscientious citizen finds her role reduced to consuming the political news, usually in solitude, and casting an occasional vote. If the elimination of participatory recreations is lamentable, the end of participatory politics is truly tragic: For what we know as the democratic process exists only because of revolutionary movements of the last 200 years, which in turn drew on a much older, pre-political tradition of lower class (and female) festivity. We have lost not only an ancient kind of pleasure, but the spirit of collective creativity which gave birth to democracy in the first place.
There are still Leninists among usthough they are today more likely to be conservatives than communistswho would argue that politics is best left to a specialized elite, far removed from the passions of ordinary people. But to move beyond the status quo, toward a genuine democratic renewal, we need social movements that allow for, and actively generate, the collective excitement of large numbers of people. Skilled labor and community organizers understand this, and attempt to build experiences of solidarity and empowerment into their organizing drives. Art, too, has a role to play in reviving the human capacity for joyous connection with others and the creative powers latent in those lost connections.
But passion and art cannot be reduced to mere instruments for the achievement of political goals. Even desperately poor people such as French peasants and workers in the 18th and 19th centuries and Mayan peasants in our own time have fought for far more than the redress of economic grievances. The slogan of striking American mill workers in the early 20th century was bread and rosesembracing both the means to live and the transcendent experiences that give life meaning. As Lefebvre wrote on the eve of 1968, the final clause of the revolutionary plan...is the Festival rediscovered and magnified by overcoming the conflict between everyday life and festivity... Which is to say that collective joy is not only a side effect of egalitarian political movements; it must ultimately be their goal: To institutionalize the festival, with its disorderly creativity and collective euphoria, as the principle of everyday life.