Saturday, October 10, 2009

John Waller, The Dancing Plague

I was profoundly disappointed in The Dancing Plague, though to be fair that probably has as much to do with my own sky high expectations for it as with the work itself.


You see, every once in awhile I get this heady urge to read something of the Middle Ages. Not historical fiction, but history, biography, something to give me a little taste, a little hint of what life might have been like. Across the classes -- high-born and low.

And Waller's book seemed to hold the promise of a delightful romp.

It's not poorly written. And he's gone absolutely batty with the endnotes (which are truly at the end of the book, 32 pages worth of them). Which, I suppose, should have told me something.

My main problem The Dancing Plague is that so little is actually known of the events in question: which is the outbreak of a mass compulsion to dance in the summer of 1518 in Strasbourg.

Now, I'm savvy, I've studied some history, I've done some historical research, I know we need to be wary of making assertions, and supposing too much, of fictionalizing our history, but Waller's style and approach to all of this is to qualify just about everything with "might" and "we can suppose" and similar constructions...

...but then to plunge undaunted into great detail as to the smells and sounds and feelings, even thoughts and movements, of bodies (individuals) and bodies (groups). It is maddeningly distracting at one level to continually read these qualifications, and at another level it simply makes no sense. If we can't suppose, let's not.

But that would have made for a much less salable book. To people like me. Who want to get a sense of the stuff, the smells, the sounds, the feelings, even the thoughts and the movements of the times.

Dance puppet, dance! I read the back of the book and did just that. Fool.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

For those interested in hearing Waller talk about what he is really interested in, and which he covers in more depth at the close of the book -- that is, the mind and its susceptibility to "mass hysteria" -- you can listen to him on The Leonard Lopate Show out of WNYC.