Howard Jacobson: Sorry, Naomi, we can't dance the world better


'I too once danced in a ring." The line isn't mine, though I have often felt it belongs to me.

All expressions of regret for time past seem like mine, but I am especially susceptible to the "I too once" cadence. I too once frolicked in Arcadia. "I was adored once, too," Sir Andrew Aguecheek says, and I feel he's speaking my words. There isn't space here to work out why the collocation of "I" and "too" and "once" is so evocative. It just is.

It's more complicated with the ring, because I never did dance in one. So remembering the time "I too once" is doubly upsetting. I simultaneously miss the dancing in a ring and the fact that I never did. Never wanted to, always lacked the communal impulse that makes men and women march (and a ring is just a march set to music), always feared and hated rings even as I wondered why I was unable to join one. You could say that, in my inability to decide whether it was principle that stopped me, or diffidence dressed up as principle, I was dancing in a ring of my own making – a solitary ring in which I held hands only with myself.

The line in question, anyway, is from Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. It comes where he is describing dance as the political expression of a longing for ecstatic unanimity – the young "in the joy of their play" confronting the police "in the gloom of their ambush" – and imagines the dancers finally rising like birds over Wenceslaus Square, "their ring the very image of a giant wreath taking flight". A flying wreath – think of that. The deathliness of joy.

I was reminded of this flying wreath when I read what Naomi Wolf had to to say the other day about the means "Occupy" should employ to maintain the moral high ground. In my own column last week I declared solidarity with the Occupiers' outrage against the way things are, so long as they don't fall into the trap of telling me how they would make them better. The common wisdom has it that you can't protest against the existing order of society unless you have a rational programme for changing it. "So what are you proposing instead?" every shock jock in the land will challenge any protester foolish enough to get sucked into the debate.

That they are not obliged to propose anything, my friend and fellow columnist Matthew Norman persuaded me in the course of a long lunch recently. "If I don't like this ox cheek I complain about it to the waiter," he said. "I don't then have to tell him where the chef went wrong or how he could prepare it better the next time. My protest is not dependent on my being able to cook an ox cheek myself."

If only Naomi Wolf had been with us to feel the truth of that. But she wasn't; she was at home, or in a tent, writing her manifesto. And with the first words of that manifesto the faith I had in the movement for which she offered to be speaking began to leak away. "This single global family," she writes – meaning all of us who aren't the "1 per cent corporatocracy" – "just wants a peaceful life." Come again. Does the simple fact of our differing from the corporatocrats make us a family? As for just wanting a peaceful life – just! – do we recognise our little global – global! – family in that description?

Already you can hear the orchestra tuning up, preparatory to the occupiers taking hands and dancing in a ring. How long before "joy" is invoked? Barely long enough to hope it won't be. First kids are invited to sleep over, for this is a movement of the childlike at heart who want nothing but peace (ah, those peace-loving kids), then teach-ins are organised (what is it about the idea of a "teach-in" as opposed to a "class" or simply being "taught" that is so demoralising?), and finally, "Musicians should bring instruments, the vibe should be joyful and positive."

A good try – offering to dilute the religiosity of "joy" with the hipness of "vibe", but joy will always be joy, and in this context that joy is bound to be the sort Kundera anatomises with such deadly understanding of nostalgia. The joy of false smiles, simulated laughter and feigned innocence. What joyfulness presupposes is that once the angels are in control, the world can be hymned into a shape that makes sense. That shape is the circle, and while there will always be those for whom a tent, a teach-in and dancing in a ring are the confutation of all evil (they are the people who were to be seen floating above Wenceslaus Square, like a flying wreath), there are many more who might want to support "Occupy" but whose experience has led them to understand the world less angelically. The lamb is all very well, but who made the tiger?

Enough "Odes to Joy". May I propose a "No to Joy"?

Not only can we not dance the world into a simpler place, we would not want to live in it if we could. We need angels but we need the devil too. Occupiers: take my advice. Forget the musicians. Forget the singing. Bear inscrutable countenances, cultivate scepticism, describe what is with withering and irrefutable scorn. And leave the kids at home.

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