From flâneurs to rallies, protests to parties, human beings are drawn to congregate. With social gatherings a possibility once again, Olivia Laing considers the crowd in art and literature
When I was very lonely in New York, one of the things that most comforted me was to wander up Broadway or along the East River, alone but in the company of thousands of strangers. Anonymised by the multitude, I felt the burden of my sorrow slide off me. It was a relief to be part of a whole, no longer agonisingly singular but a drop in what Walt Whitman once called “the rolling ocean the crowd”.
Until last year, the crowd was the trademark of the city. All through the day and night, people shoaled together, hurrying through streets, dawdling in parks, jostling at protests, concerts and football matches, like so many bees in a hive. Pre-pandemic, any film that wanted to kindle an atmosphere of eeriness needed only to show one of the world’s great cities empty of people to instantly convey disaster. From I Am Legend to 28 Days Later, the depopulated city is axiomatic of catastrophe.
Part of the fascist route to power was to convert the energy of the crowd into a disciplined force under the sway of a leader
Crowds are often punished by the state, especially when their presence is interpreted as a threat to social orderContinue reading...