Today, the Russkies celebrate Радоница, the day of joy, which falls on the Tuesday after Saint Thomas Sunday. It is the day to remember the departed in light of Christ’s resurrection and triumph over death. Христос воскресе!
Last week, the Observer linked to a video quite appropriate for the day:
Now, that’s Ghanaian exuberance during Eastertide!
First and foremost, the video displays, in the somewhat idiosyncratic way of West Africans, the joy of Pascha and of that most wonderful Paschal troparion. There is nothing in world like the celebration of Pascha. For a more classically European interpretation of this happiness, consider Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Светлый праздник.
Second, reality is obstinately dismissive of our polite attempts not to notice patterns among human groups. Westerners have long thought of blacks in general and of West Africans and their descendants in particular as exemplars of Dionysian Man. A species of Rousseau’s noble savage, this sometimes Numinous Negro deserving of Delphic reference or occasionally happy go lucky living rebuke to the neurotic control freak (and sometimes the two combined, as with the holy fool shaman) reappears in literature, film, and song. Of course, there is no shortage of Dionysians among the people who gave us the origin of the term, and the holy fool shaman appears in as diverse places as Russia and Japan, but perhaps Dionysian elements are truly more preponderant among the children of Cush.
The Matrix trilogy provides a good example from popular culture. “Zion,” or the flesh and blood human society in the movies, consists mostly of blacks. The name is numinous enough in that it invokes spirituality, and old Negro spirituals, but the cultural life of the people, when they are able to be people, is depicted as strikingly Dionysian. Their worship and their celebration recall Bacchic orgies. My friend Andrew remarked that people so restrained in an Apollonian world—the world of machines and of the Matrix, counteract the imbalance through Dionysian excess in their distinctly human life. I think that this is why the Wachowski brothers populated Zion with blacks. Moreover, the Oracle manifests herself as the wise old black woman, wherein there is little subtlety regarding numinal status. Some critics said that blacks were predominately cast because they are currently perceived as cool or because their hue matches l’esthétique noire of the films. While such may have some merit, I think that the Dionysian explanation is the most significant. The Negro remains the modern West’s Dionysian model, and the estimation appears to be based on experience.
This topic embarrasses our current crop of right thinking people because they have a some inexplicable dogmatic belief in human homogeneity—except, of course, when they are touting the glories of diversity. Well, consistency is not a human strength. It is positively outré to notice that American blacks indulge in exhibitionism and hamminess more than any other ethnic grouping, just as one is not to notice, I suppose, the characteristics of the Tiger Mom’s cubs. Whether such tendencies result from nature or nurture is besides the point, though I happen to believe that both play a part. Human differences, and differences in human population groups, are very real, very obvious, and very relevant to how we manage our lives.
A few years ago, I commented on American black religious worship in “Steve Harvey and Dionysian Protestantism”:
There is something very Dionysian in several strains of American Protestantism—and we cannot simply attribute this to the “excitability of the colored folk” as some people claim who are not familiar with religious traditions born from or heavily influenced by the spiritual feverishness of the Great Awakenings. If you have ever been to lily white charismatic congregations, you feel the same energy—the same rush to lose oneself in the mob—in the “One” of the moment.
I do not think that my present observation undercuts the post’s point about charismatic Protestantism, though it is possible that more Dionysian religious sects may be more attractive to more people in black populations. In “The Contrast of Orthodox Worship,” I juxtapose this Dionysian excess with traditional Orthodox worship. Are these Ghanaians importing their Dionysian proclivities to Orthodoxy, just as sub Saharan African Christians often import fetishes, beliefs about witchcraft, and bodily mutilation in their religious syncretism? It seems so, but the Church has always transformed and “baptized” indigenous cultures. The Gospel hallows the pagan vision just as it fulfills the Hebraic law, though time is needed for digestion and absorption to occur. Besides, there is plenty of room in the diverse expression of the Church for Paschal dancing, and it is superbly fitting. With David, Romanos, and the Wesley brothers, they celebrate in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in their heart to the Lord.
At least, we don’t have the Latin hippies’ liturgical dance; that is beyond the pale!
We must also be careful about too quickly attributing the Paschal dance train to orgiastic African roots. Pentecostalism is rampant in Africa, and it is quite possible that the Orthodox Ghanaians in the video converted from a charismatic Protestant background. We all bring baggage.
Human beings are endlessly fascinating. Happy day of rejoicing, and memory eternal to the departed!