Transcendence, Hope, & Ecstasy


 

    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,
anachronistic—a remnant of some heroic past. A writer for Harper’s, 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… I’m having trouble not weeping
myself, though for what I’m not sure—perhaps because political passion like this
seems irretrievably lost in my life.”

    We
don’t 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, one’s 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 other’s 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:
“men’s 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 obedience”—to 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
authorities—kings 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 trinity—joy—has 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 Homer’s 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 women—who 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 people—almost entirely drawn from the poorest
classes—would “…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 Church’s campaign to suppress the ancient
tradition of dancing in churchyards and even within churches themselves. The ecstatic
ring-dance—occasionally spilling over into what the clergy saw as wanton
revelry—had 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
church’s 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 restricts”—at least for the
duration of the festivities. Some scholars have challenged Bakhtin’s 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 centuries—and then only in certain
areas—that one can reasonably talk of popular politics dissociated from the
carnivalesque at all.”

    The
first recognizably political mass revolutions in the West—as opposed to the
occasional carnivalesque excesses of earlier centuries—were 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, festivals—cruel, 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 attack—its 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 empowerment—they 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
undertakings—revolution. 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 one’s 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 enjoyment—of meals, vacations, and “entertainment”—decisively
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 participant—dancing, miming, mocking the authorities—has 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 us—though they are today more likely to be conservatives
than communists—who 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 roses”—embracing 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.