When asked why he had never performed the pilgrimage to Mecca, the late Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz replied that he didn’t like crowds. Which sounds like a reasonable answer, although it likely contributed to the assassination attempt on him that took place several years later, when a Muslim militant stabbed the octogenarian man of letters in the neck. Luckily, Mahfouz (a) was in the presence of a doctor friend when the assault took place and (b) happened to live across the street from a hospital, so he survived, albeit with permanent injuries. But when I think of crowds, poor, irreverent Mahfouz is one of the first people who come to mind.
I also think of Elias Canetti, whose study Crowds and Power seems to be the last word on the subject. For Canetti, crowds are more than the sum of the people that compose them. They take on a mind of their own, and not a particularly reasonable mind. Crowds of people, like swarms of insects, are a source of horror, and he grimly points out that the largest crowd must surely be that of the dead, who vastly outnumber us.
Elias Canetti, wondering what the fuck is wrong with you people.
This horror of crowds is on full display in Alfred Hitchcock’s early silent classic, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, a scene of which I would like to explore without giving away major plot details, because it’s the sort of film whose plot twists should be appreciated fresh by first-time viewers. The movie revolves around a Jack the Ripper-style serial killer plaguing the streets of London, and in one critical scene, a man, who may be innocent, is already handcuffed and on the run from the police. He ducks into a bar for a quick drink, then leaves, and shortly thereafter the police show up and describe their suspect. The patrons of the bar recognize the man who just left and, taking the initiative from the police, they flood into the streets to lynch him themselves. The man comes to a fence and hoists himself over it, but his handcuffs becomes entangled in the spikes that top the fence, and he hangs there helplessly as the crowd amasses above and below and begins to assault him. It’s a deeply disturbing sight.
Victim of the crowd's fury.
Canetti prided himself on never joining groups, even benign-seeming groups, because all groups had within them the seeds of the crowd dynamic, the dissolution of individual will and individual moral responsibility. It’s hardly an original point to observe that people do horrible/idiotic things when they succumb to the mob mentality, but it’s a point that gets proven time and again. Just a few days ago, a crowd at my old alma mater, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, rioted because the school hockey team lost. Somehow they got it into their heads that: a team affiliated with our school has lost a game, ergo: we should start tipping over cars and assaulting police officers. Idiots. The sort of people who would do that can’t be trusted with important decisions that require the valuing of human life. Because they’re the sort of people who form lynch mobs. So, take a lesson from Hitchcock (or Canetti) and stay the hell away from crowds.