I didn’t watch the marriage ceremony of Prince William and Kate Middleton today. Frankly, I’ve been baffled the last few days (when the subject intrusively pushed itself into the realm of my involuntary attention) about the whole fuss about it. This afternoon, when by chance I did get to watch a couple of minutes of the spectacle, I was most amused by William’s increasing and by now apparent baldness, which offers Schadenfreude to common people like your blogger truly (not to mention that other guy), who cope with similar cosmetic problems.
So I’m pretty pleased with this article by Matt Soller Seitz on Salon.com, who points out the mind-numbing stupidity of the whole affair, particularly the fact that it is apparently watched by two billion people worldwide. Wtf. Of course, ‘critical’ articles like Seitz’s are about as predictable as the royal ceremony itself, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be said. Because the guy is right.
If you’ve been watching and drooling about this thing: please grow up.
I’m off, getting drunk in an orange lion-tailed jump suit on Queens Day.
The hours of breathless coverage about Britain’s monarchy played into our collective serf mentality.
So Prince William and Kate Middleton, now Duchess of Cambridge, are married. They exchanged vows before the Archbishop of Canterbury at Westminster Abbey on the morning of April 29, 2011, with planes roaring overhead and Union Jacks waving and hundreds of thousands of people in the London streets and millions upon millions upon millions of people watching on international television.
“It really is something special,” anchor Diane Sawyer said on ABC a few minutes after their first public kiss. Then she added a few minutes later, in a rundown of factoids, “He knows how to line dance!”
The moment capped four straight hours of continuous coverage on every major broadcast network and cable news channel. The news organizations never cut away except for commercials. And they managed to forgo those breaks when it seemed as if something exciting, or “exciting,” was about to happen – such as the newly-hitched royal couple’s first kiss, which was so brief that the TV organizations played it back in slow motion, and their second kiss, which presumably was an attempt to improve on the first one.
“I’m a hard-hearted old cynic, but I must admit I did shed a tear,” said ABC’s Buckingham Palace correspondent Nick Watt, who then stopped just short of taking credit for the chant in the crowd that pushed William and Kate to kiss a second time. “I’d like to think I played a small part in that,” Watt said, beaming.
I wish the royal couple the very best. They seem like nice people, truly. Fellow human beings, at the very least. And that’s why I hope that when in the unlikely event that they ever read this, that they won’t take it personally when I say that the coverage of this whole ceremony and its run-up was revoltingly obsequious and almost entirely devoid of news value, and so altogether bubble-brained that it makes me think that if there is such a thing as karmic payback for wrong priorities, we’re due for some major trauma.
As you read this, the big three morning shows — “Good Morning America,” “Today” and “The CBS Morning News” — are continuing to re-hash, analyze and replay the ceremony on tape while going live to various correspondents and experts in England and elsewhere. The morning shows usually run two hours — more if an affiliate takes their built-in spillover, but for the sake of argument let’s just say they did two hours’ worth, and add that to the overnight coverage, which ran four hours, bringing the total to six. And then let’s ask ourselves this question: When’s the last time the top guns of the American electronic media covered an event, any event, for six hours straight without any significant interruption, at any hour of the day or night?
The “rave” phenomenon is not confined to the twenty- or twenty-first century. According to this nice article at Frontier Psychiatrist, in sixteenth-century Europe the spectacle of throngs of people dancing madly in a trance (influenced by music as well as psychedelics) through the streets could be witnessed as well. In fact, the phenomenon seems to go back as far as the fourteenth century, the earliest dancing raves being reported in 1374.
Shows once again that attempts to repress this activity will always be ill-fated, heh.
Sometime in mid-July 1518 a woman stepped into one of Strasbourg’s streets and began dancing. Within a week another thirty four had joined her. By end of August, it is said that 400 people had experienced the madness, dancing uncontrollably around the city.
Local physicians were consulted. They excluded astrological and supernatural causes, declaring it to be a ‘natural disease’ caused by ‘hot blood’; treatment: more dancing. In an echo of the raves that would prove so popular five hundred years later, two guildhalls and an outdoor grain market were cleared so the afflicted could dance freely and uninterrupted. Musicians were provided.
When dancers began to die the governors rethought their strategy. A new diagnosis was made; the dancing was now attributed to a curse sent down by an angry saint. In contrition gambling, gaming and prostitution were banned and the dissolute banished. When this proved ineffective the dancers were despatched to a mountaintop shrine and divine intervention was requested. In the following weeks the epidemic finally abated.
The first major outbreak of dancing mania is thought to have taken place in Aachen, Germany on June 24 1374 after which it spread quickly through France, Italy, Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands. Outbreaks virtually always struck close to earlier similarly effected sites. Maastricht, Trier, Zurich and Strasbourg each experienced two or more episodes. Thousands of people danced in agony for days or weeks, screaming of terrible visions and imploring religious leaders to save their souls.
It seems unbelievable today, but there is no question that these epidemics did occur. Dozens of reliable chronicles from several towns and cities describe the events of 1374.
No consensus exists as to the condition’s aetiology. One theory is that sufferers had ingested ergot, a mould that grows on stalks of ripening rye and can cause hallucinations, spasms, and tremors. Epidemics of ergotism are known to have occurred in mediaeval Europe when people ate contaminated flour. But it is unlikely that those poisoned by ergot could have danced for days at a time and nor would so many people have reacted to its psychotropic chemicals in the same way. Others suggest that the dance was staged and part of a ritual of a banned sect, whose worship could take place under the guise of uncontrolled dancing. This explanation is questioned by those who believe that there is no evidence that the dancers wanted to dance, citing contemporaneous evidence that the dancers showed expressions of fear and desperation.
A convincing explanation comes from the historian John Waller who posits psychological distress as a predisposing factor, cultural contagion as a trigger and pious fear as a perpetuating factor. He considers that sufferers were predisposed to the trance like states by high levels of psychological stress commonplace due to the travails of the Middle Ages. The 1374 dancing plague, for instance, spread in the areas most savagely hit earlier in the year by the most devastating flood of the 14th century.
This in itself is not sufficient to explain why so many danced to their deaths. Here cultural conditioning is important: anthropological field studies and accounts of possession rituals show that people are more likely to enter a trance state if they expect it to happen and that entranced participants behave in a ritualistic manner shaped by the spiritual beliefs. In the times of the dancing mania there were common beliefs about wrathful spirits able to inflict a dancing curse. In this milieu once one particularly disturbed person started to dance others were likely to join.
The prolonged course of the epidemics were also shaped by prevailing belief. Alongside those who may have been truly entranced, numbers were swelled by many people who took part due to fear, or just to be like other people. Dancing was thought to be both the affliction and its cure, although this now seems almost certain to escalate rather than ameliorate. This central role of belief is also apparent in the speed with which epidemics abated once victims had prayed at appropriate shrines or had undergone elaborate exorcism rituals. Finally further evidence for supernatural belief’s central role is that the demise of dancing mania by the mid-1600 coincides with its fall from influence.
Dancing mania was confined to a specific period, but some have identified modern-day activities that display some of its characteristics. Raving features characteristics of dancing mania. For example, raves may involve activities that onlookers consider odd (such as partying all night), the use of drugs to bring on hallucinations, and participants who are part of a subculture. If we do accept the psychological distress explanation, then viewed from this distance perhaps dancing mania’s main message to us now is that symptoms of psychological distress and mental illness may not be fixed but can heavily influenced by the cultural environment and prevailing belief structures.
If you happen to be in London, this may be interesting. The Wellcome Trust has an exhibition running until February called High Society, exploring “the role of mind-altering drugs in history and culture”, which challenges “the perception that drugs are a disease of modern life”.
From ancient Egyptian poppy tinctures to Victorian cocaine eye drops, Native American peyote rites to the salons of the French Romantics, mind-altering drugs have a rich history. ‘High Society’ will explore the paths by which these drugs were first discovered – from apothecaries’ workshops to state-of-the-art laboratories – and how they came to be simultaneously fetishised and demonised in today’s culture.
Mind-altering drugs have been used in many ways throughout history – as medicines, sacraments and status symbols, to investigate the brain, inspire works of art or encounter the divine, or simply as an escape from the experience.
Exhibits will include: Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ manuscript, said to have been written after an opium dream; a hand-written manuscript by Captain Thomas Bowrey describing his crew’s experiments with Bhang – a cannabis drink – in 17th-century Bengal; a bottle of cocaine eye drops; and a hallucinogenic snuff set collected in the Amazon by the Victorian explorer Richard Spruce. The exhibition will also feature contemporary art pieces exploring drug use and culture, including Tracy Moffat’s Laudanum portrait series and a recreation of the Joshua Light Show by Joshua White and Seth Kirby.
Every society on earth is a high society. As the sun rises in the east, caffeine is infused and sipped across China in countless forms of dried, smoked and fermented tea. From the archipelagos of Indonesia and New Guinea through Thailand, Burma and India, a hundred million chewers of betel prepare their quids of areca nut, pepper leaf and caustic lime ash, press it between their teeth and expectorate the day’s first mouthful of crimson saliva. Across the cities of Thailand, Korea and China, potent and illicit preparations such as ya’aba, home-cooked amphetamine pills swallowed or smoked, propel a young generation through the double working shifts of economic boomtime, or burn up the empty hours of unemployment, before igniting the clubs and bars of the urban nightscape.
As the sun tracks across towards the afternoon, the rooftop terraces of Yemen’s medieval mud-brick cities fill with men gathering to converse and chew khat through the scorching heat of the day. Across the concrete jungles of the Middle East, millions without the means for a midday meal make do with a heap of sugar stirred into a small cup of strong black tea. As the working day in Europe draws to a close, the traffic through the bars of the city squares begins to pick up, and high-denomination euro notes are surreptitiously exchanged for wraps of cocaine and ecstasy.