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Dancing with the Devil


Last week I reviewed New York Times science reporter Nick Wade’s new book, The Faith Instinct here on NRO. Razib Khan has just posted his own review over at

A note on that “ecstatic communal dancing” that was such a feature of the hunter-gatherer ur-religion, and that I predicted might make a comeback in the religion of the future. Razib reminds us in his review that such dancing was regarded as a threat to order when urban societies came up, and largely disappeared from religious ceremonies. The very constrained, bourgeois societies of the European industrial age separated it from religion altogether and tamed it down into the stateley minuets you see in TV period dramas. When the real thing wells up, sensible people bolt their doors. So perhaps it can’t be allowed in any society organized on a large scale. We’re stuck with Dancing with the Stars.

Here is Charles Dickens, a very sensible person, in Chapter 3.v of A Tale of Two Cities, showing us with extraordinary vividness how those primal group behaviors can be yoked to political purposes.

There could not be fewer than five hundred people, and they were dancing like five thousand demons. There was no other music than their own singing. They danced to the popular Revolution song, keeping a ferocious time that was like a gnashing of teeth in unison. Men and women danced together, women danced together, men danced together, as hazard had brought them together. At first, they were a mere storm of coarse red caps and coarse woollen rags; but, as they filled the place, and stopped to dance about Lucie, some ghastly apparition of a dance-figure gone raving mad arose among them. They advanced, retreated, struck at one another’s hands, clutched at one another’s heads, spun round alone, caught one another and spun round in pairs, until many of them dropped. While those were down, the rest linked hand in hand, and all spun round together: then the ring broke, and in separate rings of two and four they turned and turned until they all stopped at once, began again, struck, clutched, and tore, and then reversed the spin, and all spun round another way. Suddenly they stopped again, paused, struck out the time afresh, formed into lines the width of the public way, and, with their heads low down and their hands high up, swooped screaming off. No fight could have been half so terrible as this dance. It was so emphatically a fallen sport — a something, once innocent, delivered over to all devilry — a healthy pastime changed into a means of angering the blood, bewildering the senses, and steeling the heart. Such grace as was visible in it, made it the uglier, showing how warped and perverted all things good by nature were become. The maidenly bosom bared to this, the pretty almost-child’s head thus distracted, the delicate foot mincing in this slough of blood and dirt, were types of the disjointed time.

This was the Carmagnole.


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