That horrible crowd [B&W]


The hinterland of Fantasy stretches wide, giving the reader ample playground to roam and discover the richness of its territory. But no matter how fantastic a story gets, the fantasy reader will always encounter themes that are oddly familiar. When a character in the classic horror novel “The Shining” goes on a violent rampage after drinking too much alcohol, the reader gets a pretty lesson about the villainy of alcoholism. When you learn that the classic film “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” was written during the Cold War, it takes little imagination to picture collectivistic Soviets prancing down the main street of Des Moines.

Literary fantasy can’t help but affect the ways that we paint the human picture. And when we look for lessons on the human predicament in literature, we find that the two worlds — of fantasy and reality — are actually not very far apart. Graham Swift had it right when (in the novel “Waterland”) his protagonist defined “man” as a story-telling animal. The philosopher Donald Davidson got it right when he insisted that any successful communication presupposes that we already share a wide swath of shared facts. Reality soaks into narratives because intelligibility presupposes familiarity. The utterly strange, the completely alien, is not a part of a story. It is the unmaking of stories.

I am most interested in the crossroads where fantasy and reality meet. We can call this crossroads Philosophy: for philosophy has always concerned itself with the reality behind things, and (like the best literary critics) goes about explaining that reality using logic and reasoned argument. In this post I’m going to focus on the genre vaguely known as ‘dark fantasy’, where supernatural happenings occur, sometimes sexual, sometimes grotesque, and always always strange. It is fitting, then, that we should spend time to talk about the weirdest kind of people: strangers in a crowd.

Many cultures, especially Anglo-American ones, appreciate the value of personal space. People in an elevator will try to stand as far apart from each other as they can. When given a chance, men using a restroom will pick the urinal on the far side and never the one in the middle. If you make eye contact with other adults in a crowd while waiting for the bus, you should expect to receive an embarrassed look, a quick glance in the other direction, and a bit of shoe-gazing.

In these cultures, most people learn to avoid eye contact as they grow older. As children, we’re told over and over that we should resist contact with strangers: by our parents, by our teachers, and by creepy public service announcements in between our Saturday morning cartoons. The distrust of others is trained into us for our own protection.

Ignoring the risk of ethnocentrism, Elias Canetti thinks that we have an irresistible impulse to be afraid of strangers. From Crowds and Power: “There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown… Man always tends to avoid physical contact with anything strange. In the dark, the fear of an unexpected touch can amount to panic… All the distances which men create round themselves are dictated by this fear. They shut themselves in houses which no one may enter, and only there feel some measure of security…” So, if Canetti is right, then people fear being touched by strangers because they fear the force of the unknown. Strangers are unknowns, and that is why we avoid them.

Immanuel Kant agrees that we ought to fear the unknown. “[Knowledge] is the island of truth, surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean, the region of illusion, where many a fog-bank, many an iceberg, seems to the mariner on his voyage of discovery to be a new country… But before venturing upon this sea… it will not be without advantage to cast our eyes upon the chart of the land that we are about to leave, and to ask ourselves, firstly, whether we cannot rest perfectly contented with it”. The imagery he uses in the passage is suggestive – the unknown is a vast space that is full of icebergs that we might crash into. (Granted, it’s hard to imagine a stoic figure like Kant being really afraid of anything — in a contest, one imagines that the icebergs would be afraid of him. Still.)

On first blush, it seems that our lesson from Canetti and Kant is to be unnerved by the unknown. But that would be the wrong conclusion to draw. After all, people engage in crowding all the time, at any rock concert or soccer game: they participate, they cheer, they bump into each other and give noogies and rub shoulders and all the rest of it. In the context of public events, strangers become familiars. The terror of the crowd turns into a feeling of the sublime.

So there is an intimacy to crowding that, from a distance, is treated with hostility and terror; but from close-up, as comfort. Perhaps the transformation between terror and the sublime is most explicitly expressed by the grim short story, “Man of the Crowd”, by Edgar Allen Poe. In it, the reader is confronted with the character of a vacant old man. This man is driven to be in the presence of crowds at all times, who suffers when alone, and constantly roams the London streets, trying to find the companionship of the thrall. Leave it to Poe to have written a dark fantasy about every possible thing we might ever be afraid of.

But why does this happen? Canetti explains: “It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched. That is the only situation in which the fear changes into its opposite… The reversal of fear of being touched belongs to the nature of crowds. The feeling of relief is most striking where the density of the crowd is greatest” (15-16). Hence, it is not just that people start to trust each other through familiarity: they are there to achieve a common purpose, a common elation, which Canetti calls “the discharge”. The bigger the crowd, the more “striking” the discharge.

Hence, some crowds tend to desire expansion, like a virus infecting a population. This kind of crowd, the open crowd, “wants to seize everyone within reach… it does not recognize houses, doors or locks and those who shut themselves in are suspect…” (17) If we are to put accent on these passages, then it sounds as though Canetti would want us to think of crowds as being like The Blob, rolling across the urban landscape, absorbing hapless citizens along the way.


We can have a lot of fun disassembling Canetti’s attitude. As mentioned from the outset, Canetti’s work seems like it’s powered by a combination of ethnocentrism and anti-populism. Canetti’s argument also appears to be a product of its times. Contemporary writers like James Surowiecki (author of The Wisdom of Crowds) have come to the defence of crowds by arguing that aggregate opinion is statistically much more reliable than the lone voice. Surowiecki uses the term “crowd” in an idiosyncratic way, to describe the decisions of a population of individuals deciding independently.

First thing’s first: if we think that Canetti was trying to explain to us how the nastiness of crowds is an important part of the human picture, then we’d pretty much have to say that he was wrong. The image of a horrible crowd as being zombie-like, of being like The Blob, is unique to certain neurotic Anglo-American populations. We have no reason to think that it is part of the human condition. But once you put aside some of his more illustrative quotes, and look at how his account actually works, you find that Canetti’s account of social crowding is not horrified by all crowds at all. Strictly speaking, his account is just as consistent with banal and ordinary social interactions of groups — flash mobs (“quick crowds”), religious sermons (“slow crowds”), union strikes (“prohibition crowds”), bureaucratic institutions (the “closed crowd”), and parades (the “open crowd”). So, putting aside some of his darkly fantastic rhetoric, it really might tell us something interesting about the human picture.

Second, on the subject of ethnocentrism: there’s no denying that Canetti, the author of Auto-Da-Fé, had anti-populism on his mind. You can think of him as ethnocentric in the sense that he was a product of his times. But this wasn’t a fault that you can attribute to his overall outlook, since people with a different point of view were also ethnocentric. Consider the musings of the horror writer HP Lovecraft: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” This is a nice passage, because it perverts Kantian language to deliver an opposite sentiment: the unknown is comforting, and to be preferred over horrible truths. I think a case could be made that Lovecraft had an opposite opinion on crowds, as well. In the Lovecraftian stories, the worst of all evils (from the deep! Cthulhu! Etc!) show up in the remote bumpkin towns and islands upon the distant horizon, far away from the throngs of citizens in urban areas. Lovecraft was scared of everything except what he thought of as civilization: sociable white men of letters. Back full circle: Lovecraft’s attitude was informed by Anglo-American ethnocentrism.


Going by Surowiecki’s definition of “crowds”, then, Lovecraft must love certain kinds of crowds: the kinds that populate Miskatonic University. If we can see ethnocentrism occupying both sides of the case, then that indicates that we ought to blame the times these authors were writing in. Both authors were haunted by the darkest fantasies that their eras could provide, but I think they force us to go in different directions.

Adapted from an essay originally published on Butterflies and Wheels, with gratitude to Ophelia Benson.

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