R29 Book Club: Is It So Wrong To Dance?

bookclumembedPHOTO: COURTESY OF RIVERHEAD HARDCOVER.
Now that you've finished reading Peter Matthiessen's In Paradise (the book we've been following this month on the R29 Book Club — see previous posts here), you know about The Dancing. That is to say, the moment when the entire story pivots, and, undoubtedly, the one that will spark the most controversy.
Advertisement
Ostensibly, the reason so many characters — Rabbi Jim Glock and Anders Stern in particular — take issue with the spontaneous breakout of primal, joyful dancing during the retreat at Auschwitz is because it is indecent and disrespectful. In the same way that we bristle at teenage funeral selfies, there is a general understanding in society that expressing any kind of happiness in a sad or tragic setting is indicative of some deep moral ineptitude. And, I fully admit to being part of the bristling as the author of this article.
But, as some commenters pointed out under that article, we can't expect to control or even understand the way others process grief. Last Thanksgiving, I attended the funeral of a friend's father, and I cried nonstop during the service. But, that sadness was, oddly, trimmed with almost giddy laughter and joyful moments. Some of those joyful moments came afterward, while sitting shivah at my friend's family home. It was, by all accounts, one of the more raucous parties I have attended outside of college. Everyone was not only remembering a wonderful life but also reveling in the togetherness of it all.
On the train up to Westchester, though, my friends and I experienced a different kind of emotion. I wouldn't call it happiness or joy — more like coping. We were giddy in the way that you get crazy and silly after a really heavy cry. We were making jokes and laughing and screaming on the MetroNorth. Was that just as inappropriate as the dancing was in In Paradise? I think it might have been. At the time, I suspected as much.
After reading that scene and its aftermath, I have a slightly different perspective on my experience and on grief in general. First of all, while funeral selfies still make me feel odd, I am definitely more acutely aware now of the strange forms sadness can take. I also believe there are two possible ways to interpret the almost celebratory dancing of Olin and friends at Auschwitz.
One interpretation is that it is simply a celebration of humanity and our capability to enjoy life, things that are both validated and made that much more important in contrast to the dark, gory tragedy of abandoned baby shoes and scratches on the wall. It's not disrespectful; it's more like a reassurance of our greatest weapon against such horror, which is recognizing the humanity around us and expressing it outwardly. That's what I experienced at the shivah.
Advertisement
The other, less rosy interpretation is that The Dancing was a method of pushing out an unbearable sadness. Is it understandable? Yes. But, the people in Auschwitz could not push that deep misery away, and I'm not sure I feel it's appropriate to take advantage of the ability to do so as a bystander, even if that is the reality of our lives now, looking back. I think that's why we joked and laughed on the train so much. And, while everyone does deal with these things in their own way, in retrospect, I almost wish I had stayed silent for those few hours. It seems appropriate now to force yourself to deal with the sadness that will stay with my friend's family forever, uncomfortable as that is.
Thank you for following along with book club this month — I'd love to hear both your thoughts about the book and how, if at all, it changed your own perceptions of the cycle of grief.
Advertisement

More from Books & Art

Back in the early 1970s, Pierre Le Guennec was Pablo Picasso's handyman and electrician. Le Guennec had such a good relationship with the artist that he ...
J.K. Rowling, the reigning queen of the Wizarding World, has a present for you. That present is a quiz in which Pottermore will select your patronus. We ...
I do not recognize Mara Wilson when she arrives at an ice cream shop in Brooklyn, wearing a red dress and a sweep of black eyeliner. When she says hello...
Vanessa Bayer of "SNL" interviews author Jessi Klein
In honor of National Support Teen Literature Day, we've collected the best books to pick up if you're in the mood for a little young adult lit. YA has only...
There are some books you pick up because you know they'll be tear-jerkers, and you're not opposed to a good cry. Then there are the books that sucker-punch...
It's been a big year for the Winnie the Pooh characters. This summer, the original stuffed animals the literary characters are based upon (who reside in ...
Whether rooted in reality or a glamorized rom-com, job stereotypes make it easy to assume the voices behind most runway reviews, PR pitches, and cover ...
Even if you're not actually going back to school, there's something about September air that makes it feel as though it's time to go buy pencils and ...
As long as books have existed, there have been people trying to stop people from reading them. And though the practice is widely condemned, it is also ...
If you're anything like the R29 crew, chances are you spend a lot of time engaged with a screen during the day. So maybe the last thing you want to do ...
Fans of Zayn Malik that wish he would (finally, at the ripe old age of 23) release an autobiography will soon have that wish granted. The former ...
Julianne Moore is mainly known for her work on the big screen. But the actress also happens to be an author, nine times over — her children's series, ...
In Cameroonian-born author Imbolo Mbue's debut novel, an immigrant family struggles to claim their own iteration of the American Dream. Ultimately, they ...