04 October 2013

Scattered fragments on crowds, equality

The following are some dispersed reflections on three literary scenes that've been bouncing about my skull lately. This post is an attempt to verbalize their collisions. 

I don't have an argument or an opinion. Proceed at your own risk.


* * *

Toward beginning of Book V of The Faerie Queene – the Book of Justice in Edmund Spenser's sprawling Renaissance epic – the knight Artegall encounters a giant high atop a hill, holding an enormous balance. A crowd has clustered "thicke" around him, as he threatens to "reduce vnto equality" all things, leveling mountains and raising valleys in the most biblical fashion.

The knight Artegall, ever about the status quo, is shocked and disturbed. "Thou that presum'st to weigh the world anew, / And all things to an equall to restore," he chides the giant, "In stead of right me seemes great wrong dost shew"; for of course God has already weighed out the world for us in its perfection. And who are we to want to change it? Stay the course; "heauenly justice" will reveal itself to us foolish mortals in due time.

In one gloriously communistic screed, the giant utterly refuses:

Thou foolishe Elfe (said then the Gyant wroth)
  Seest not, how badly all things present bee,
  And each estate quite out of order go'th?
  The sea it selfe doest thou not plainely see
  Encroch vppon the land there vnder thee;
  And th'earth it selfe how daily its increast,
  By all that dying to it turned be?
  Were it not good that wrong were then surceast,
And from the most, that some were giuen to the least? 
Therefore I will throw downe these mountaines hie,
  And make them leuell with the lowly plaine:
  These towring rocks, which reach vnto the skie,
  I will thrust downe into the deepest maine,
  And as they were, them equalize againe.
  Tyrants that make men subiect to their law,
  I will suppresse, that they no more may raine;
  And Lordings curbe, that commons ouer-aw;
And all the wealth of rich men to the poore will draw.

This is a remarkable pair of stanzas. This won't end well for the giant, we know that much; he's too much of a threat to the political order of the poem. But Artegall tries to debate him nonetheless. "The hils doe not the lowly dales disdaine; / The dales doe not the lofty hils enuy," the knight reasons. God "maketh Kings to sit in souerainty; / He maketh subiects to their powre obay"; who is the giant to try to change natural hierarchies?

A literal weighing of words ensues, but it's too late for the giant. This isn't a war of words, but of wills – more specifically, of who gets the right to have a will. And with one swift shove, Talus, Artegall's iron killing robot, shoulders the giant off the mountain, breaking both his body and his balances. "So was the high aspyring," Spenser concludes, "with huge ruine humbled."

By all logic, the scene should end there. The threat is contained, political order is restored, Artegall and Talus can go on their merry way. But it doesn't. The crowd – that "vulgar" group that had "cluster[ed] thicke" about the giant "like foolish flies about an hony crocke" – revolts:

They gan to gather in tumultuous rout,
And mutining, to stirre vp ciuill faction,
For certaine losse of so great expectation.
For well they hoped to haue got great good,
And wondrous riches by his innouation.
Therefore resoluing to reuenge his blood,
They rose in armes, and all in battell order stood.

Not only do they revolt, but their willingness to stand up for the giant leaves Artegall at a loss. He's a noble knight; he can't fight a "lawless multitude." He sends Talus to inquire.

Which lawlesse multitude him comming too
In warlike wise, when Artegall did vew,
He much was troubled, ne wist what to doo.
For loth he was his noble hands t'embrew
In the base blood of such a rascall crew;
And otherwise, if that he should retire,
He fear'd least they with shame would him pursew.
Therefore he Talus to them sent, t'inquire
The cause of their array, and truce for to desire.

Of course, the killing machine Talus can only "inquire" with brute force. He swats the multitude away like flies:

But soone as they him nigh approching spide,
They gan with all their weapons him assay,
And rudely stroke at him on euery side:
Yet nought they could him hurt, ne ought dismay.
But when at them he with his flaile gan lay,
He like a swarme of flyes them ouerthrew;
Ne any of them durst come in his way,
But here and there before his presence flew,
And hid themselues in holes and bushes from his vew.

Toppling a singularly teetering mass of a giant is easy: one push, and he's over. Rooting out a scattered flock of discrete entities is infinitely harder, indeed nigh on impossible for a knight whose primary m.o. is brute force. Ultimately, the same politics that disdainfully reduces the crowd to a "rascall crew" and a "lawlesse multitude" endows it with its capacity to resist; for in a system that regulates through social hierarchy, there's an immense amount of power in anonymity. Which is to say: ballooning idealism destroys the giant, yes – but it also gives dispersed, unaffiliated peoples a reason to aggregate, to transform themselves into a pack, a "crew." When they return to a state of hidden dispersal at the end of the canto, it's as a newly configured multiplicity, held in relation to each other by the same idealism that destroyed the giant. The world of the poem – the ideas that fuel it – can't fully eradicate them, or contain the threat they present to a political system that turns out to be as dangerously unstable as the giant's idealism.

* * *


* * *

There's another scene I've been thinking about a lot lately, this one from D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love. When I first read this novel years ago, I loved it – I thought Lawrence created women characters with a subtly not often found in modernist novels. I've since re-read the book twice and, as so often happens, I think the younger me was clueless; there are few things I like now in any of Lawrence's women. The ones who aren't simpering fools use their own sexual self-importance to manipulate the idiot men who surround them. But, that aside, my copy still holds a paper clip on a page from the chapter "Breadalby," in which a few characters are having a debate about equality.

"If," said Hermione at last, "we could only realise that in the spirit we are all one, all equal in the spirit, all brothers there – the rest wouldn't matter, there would be no more of this carping and envy and this struggle for power, which destroys, only destroys."

After a brief but awkward silence, Birkin, who has a history with Hermione, refutes her brutally:

"It is just the opposite, just the contrary, Hermione. We are all different and unequal in spirit – it is only the social differences that are based on accidental material conditions. We are all abstractly or mathematically equal, if you like. Every man has hunger and thirst, two eyes, one nose and two legs. We're all the same in point of number. But spiritually, there is pure difference and neither equality nor inequality counts. It is upon these two bits of knowledge that you must found a state. Your democracy is an absolute lie –  your brotherhood of man is a pure falsity, if you apply it further than the mathematical abstraction. We all drank milk first, we all eat bread and meat, we all want to ride in motor-cars –  therein lies the beginning and the end of the brotherhood of man. But no equality. 
"But I, myself, who am myself, what have I to do with equality with any other man or woman? In the spirit, I am as separate as one star is from another, as different in quality and quantity. Establish a state on that. One man isn't any better than another, not because they are equal, but because they are intrinsically other, that there is no term of comparison. The minute you begin to compare, one man is seen to be far better than another, all the inequality you can imagine is there by nature. I want every man to have his share in the world's goods, so that I am rid of his importunity, so that I can tell him: 'Now you've got what you want – you've got your fair share of the world's gear. Now, you one-mouthed fool, mind yourself and don't obstruct me.'"

Here, Birkin seems to accuse Hermione of the same mistaken notion of "equality" that gets the leveller giant shouldered off a cliff: namely, she thinks equality is fundamentally quantitative, a matter of balancing the books. But leveling mountains and raising valleys and even distributing wealth doesn't make us "equal," Birkin argues, at least not in any meaningful sense of the word. In fact, over-emphasizing our quantitative differences oddly short-circuits the narrative of "equality" for Birkin, since it is precisely our otherness from each other that forces us to recognize our "spiritual equality," which is in fact a space of "pure difference" devoid even of the concept of equality.

When we talk about "access" or "transparency" or "building community" in projects of all sorts, I sometimes think about Birkin. Providing all individuals a point of entry – whether through a book, a website, a public meeting, a petition, whatever – is a form of mathematical equality; it doesn't get us to the kind of social connections, human connections, that enable us to look at each other as meaningful because of the insuperable inequality of our various positions. Not only does it not get us there, it isn't even – for Birkin, at least – a step in the right direction. It's a distraction.

* * *

Still, there's that balance-wielding giant. Were it not good that wrong were then surceast, / And from the most, that some were giuen to the least?

It's hard to argue with a question like that, as Artegall found out. It's a question that anticipates the objections of the Birkins of the world, the knights who've got theirs, so what matter the multitude's disenfranchisement? "Heauenly justice" will prevail. The giant himself can't survive – his idealism is quite literally too big for its own good – but, as the multitude's dispersal shows, he can't quite be destroyed, either. In the nameless figures who "hid[e] themselues in holes and bushes," away from the gaze of Talus, his utter rejection of all but the most equivalent of communisms persists, anachronistically taunting Birkin: your "spiritual equality" is only as good as the material inequalities that continue to render it worthless.

* * *

Sometime in July 1648, at the height of what would become known as the Second English Civil War, an anonymous pamphlet entitled The Faerie Leveller began circulating in London. In it, the editor reprints the egalitarian giant episode of The Faerie Queene, prefaced with instructions on how to read Spenser's verse – originally published in 1590 – not only as "altogether Allegoricall," but as foretelling (and perhaps even enacting) future royalist victories over the Levellers.

In other words, the egalitarian giant's communistic screed was reprinted as Royalist propaganda against the a mid-seventeenth century communistic movement that rebelled against the enclosing of the commons. The pamphlet was then circulated as evidence of idealism's false hope. You can try to push mountains all day, it taunts, but the knight always wins.


"They [the Levellers] were discryed long agoe in Queene Elizabeths dayes," the pamphlet notes, "and then graphically described by the Prince of English Poets Edmund Spenser, whose verses then propheticall are now become historicall in our dayes." To prove Spenser's prophecy becomes history, the editor provides a "key" for interpreting the work, casting King Charles as Artegall, the King's forces (or Gregory the Executioner) as Talus, and of course Oliver Cromwell as the giant. Rather than foreclosing possible interpretations, this historical framing tries to elucidate the correct one for its own particular moment, thereby helping in "the undeceiving of simple people, too apt to be induced into an high conceipt and overweening opinion of such Deceivers [the Levellers], and too ready to be seduced by their specious pretences of reducing all to a just equality." Anagrammatic rearrangements of titles – "Oliver Cromwell" as Com' our vil' Leveller; "Parliaments Army" as Paritie mar's al men – participate in this "undeceiving" by revealing the enemy's "true" nature.

By crystallizing the open emblems of Spenser's late-sixteenth-century verse into historically-specific figures, The Faerie Leveller brings the hidden meaning of its source text forth into its own present, even as it calls upon that present – composed of individual readers, embroiled in a war whose chances looked increasingly grim for the royalist cause – to reenact the "propheticall" narratives of England's past.

* * *

Leveling at its maximum is like the stillness of death, where one can hear one's own heartbeat, a stillness like death, into which nothing can penetrate, in which everything sinks, powerless. One person can head a rebellion, but one person cannot head this leveling process, for that would make him a leader and he would avoid being leveled. Each individual can in his little circle participate in this leveling, but it is an abstract process, and leveling is abstraction conquering individuality. 
// Søren Kierkegaard

* * *


* * *

There's another literary crowd that's been lurking on the edges of my mind lately: the eerie group of crash-gawkers in Ray Bradbury's "The Crowd." The first to the scene of every car accident, they hover around the victim, crowding him, "sucking and sucking on the air a man needs to live by":

They crowded and jostled and sucked and sucked all the air up from around his gasping face until he tried to tell them to move back, they were making him live in a vacuum. ... It was all a very silly, mad plot. Like every accident. He squealed hysterically at the solid wall of faces. They were all around him, these judges and jurors with the faces he had seen before. Through his pain he counted their faces.

If violence scatters the Faerie Queene's lawless multitude, here it pulls the crowd together like a magnet, drawing dispersed individuals into a tight and eerily threatening knot. It's a strange kind of torture they enact; for, although they aren't responsible for the accident itself, they seem to enable the victim's death by moving his or her body, sucking up all the air with their incessant, prodding opinions. "That crowd always came so fast, so strangely fast," the narrator notes, "to form a circle, to peer down, to probe, to gawk, to question, to point, to disturb, to spoil the privacy of a man's agony by their frank curiosity."

We later learn the recurrent members of the crowd are all dead people who were killed in accidents themselves. It's a detail I wish Bradbury had left for the imagination, as it makes the crowd too explicable, too knowable as ghosts or spirits or posthumous entities; when the thing that attracts me to the image of the crowd is its unknowability, and the power that gives it. If we re-think the crowd as an assemblage of anonymous entities that cluster around an accident, we discover the violent side of the crowd: it gobbles you up like the Blob, replacing individual vitality with the zombie-like death of being a member of a pack. We also discover a bridge between the end of the egalitarian giant episode and Birkin's rant; for Bradbury's crowd seeks the ultimate form of equality – death, the state that levels us all to extreme and profound material sameness.

"And that's the way it's been since time began, when crowds gather. You murder much easier, this way. Your alibi is very simple; you didn't know it was dangerous to move a hurt man. You didn't mean to hurt him."

No comments: