Far From the Madding Crowd?

There’s something about urban crowds, about hordes of people in the city, in public. There’s nothing like it, never will be. I miss it. I miss being amongst people, lots of them. After months of lockdowns and isolations, I know I’m not the only one, that a lot of other people miss other people, too, miss diversity and colors, shapes and faces, movement and dynamism, stuff that kindles our imagination, that challenges us, that makes modern life tick, worth living; many friends have told me likewise, and many people have told my friends likewise as well.

Far from the madding crowd? I’m not so sure. That might’ve once been an ideal in people’s heads, and still is for some; and, of course, a lot of people have sought this ideal out, fled cities for what they perceive as the relative safety and harmony of smaller towns and countryside, to say nothing about its affordability. Still, many others who’ve isolated themselves, who’ve become solitary citizens, are reassessing whether a life cut-off is a deep-down human impulse.

But the concept of “far from the madding crowd” holds a persuasive sway over our collective psyche. We probably have the English novelist Thomas Hardy to thank for that—his Far from the Madding Crowd, I mean, published in 1874, Hardy’s acclaimed masterpiece and first literary success. There Hardy riffed on Thomas Gray’s poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” an 18th century lyric classic, much admired by T.S. Eliot, with its gentle meditation on the quietness of English rural life, on the forgotten dead in a graveyard: “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,” wrote Gray. “Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;/ Along the cool sequester’d vale of life/ They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.” Yet Hardy’s book, a sunny one for him, with an atypical happy ending—Bathsheba finally succumbs to loving Gabriel and marries him—is nonetheless unsettling, not quite what we might think it is.

Was Hardy ironizing? Likely, insofar as his is a text full of erotic energy and macabre scenes (like the corpses of a mother and baby), lulling unsuspecting readers out of any pastoral complacency or Victorian prudery. In fact, far from the madding crowd has plenty of “ignoble strife”; and “the cool sequestered vale of life” is but a proxy for repressed violence and despair. With its fire and thunderstorms, its life-threatening elemental eruptions, its shooting, Far from the Madding Crowd might even be a staple read for our COVID age, bringing us closer to why madding crowds are so vital to being alive in the first place.

In an odd sense, it was far from the madding crowd where I began yearning for ignoble strife more than ever, for more noisy tenor to the quiet, secluded life I’d hitherto been compelled to lead. (I say “compelled” while recognizing the privilege of being able to withdraw.) In early summer, 2021, after the first lockdown eased, I got into my car and drove to Hay-on-Wye, a famed “book town” in Powys, South Wales, right on the English border. The village is packed with used bookstores; they’re literally everywhere, and in pre-COVID times Hay-on-Wye was renowned for its jammed literary festivals and vibrant bookfairs. The couple of days I spent worming its stores and thumbing its books, everything was eerily quiet, as if the end of world were nigh, soon about to happen. And I often found myself alone in the stacks, communing quietly with characters in the text, much as I’d been doing for months at home.

A disused movie theater now houses the Hay Cinema Bookshop, the town’s oldest book haven, founded in 1965, a vast two-floor emporium of used, remainder, and antiquarian books, of all genres. If the 200,000-odd volumes inside don’t grab you, then outside, in a couple of gray steel containers, its bargain section will, with an array of sell-off and damaged books, many gems going for a pound. In amongst them, I discovered a text that had a strange effect on me; not because of its writing but for what was on its cover. At first, I was appalled that someone would cast off such a handsome copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s A Life in Letters, a big-formatted Penguin book published in 1998. Within its leaves is some marvelous correspondence between the author of The Great Gatsby and his young daughter Scottie, then a student at Vassar College. “Some time when you feel very brave and defiant,” dad Scott wrote, “and haven’t been invited to one particular college function read the terrible chapter in Das Kapital on ‘The Working Day,’ and see if you are ever quite the same.” Elsewhere, Fitzgerald reminds his daughter “that Marxism doesn’t concern itself with vague sophistries but weds itself to the most practical mechanics of material revolution.”

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But these golden nuggets about Fitzgerald’s radical politics didn’t grip me quite like the beautiful glowing Azur of Raoul Dufy’s cover, a sweeping impressionistic vista of Nice, France, painted in 1926 from on high, from Castle Hill, with the city’s famous Promenade des Anglais curving around the Mediterranean’s Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels), disappearing into the distance at Cannes. There were palm trees and people, carriages and boats, sea and a yellowed-domed Casino (before it and its pier burned down)—an allure and romance that Dufy makes throb with his delicate brush. Some involuntarily memory had suddenly been activated in my brain. I wanted to go there, desperately, to Nice, wanted to enter this shifting scene, feel its energy, absorb people by the sea, remembering how, long ago, in the early 1980s, on a backpacking vacation, I’d once strolled down the Promenade des Anglais. Now, I needed to return, had to return.

Miraculously, two months later, in August, in the height of summer, fully vaccinated, I was there again, back on a Promenade des Anglais flocked with people and boiling hot. I was walking along what must be one of Europe’s greatest public spaces, stretching four miles from Quai des États-Unis (United States Quai) to Nice Airport, hugging a coastline and a sea the colors that Dufy’s paint hadn’t exaggerated. It was as if the sun were burning away people’s fears, cleansing the air of virus, lulling everybody, perhaps, into a false sense of collective security. All of us were mingling along the vast promenade that rich English Victorians had constructed.

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Since the late eighteenth-century, aristocratic Brits had been coming to Nice, chasing the sun in winter; and in 1820 some proposed paving a walkway along its Mediterranean seafront. The Holy Trinity Anglican Church, headed by Reverend Lewis Way, coughed up funds, and by 1860 the magnificent iconic promenade bore the name of its Anglo benefactors. In recent years, walkway space has increased, getting widened at the expense of traffic flows; dedicated bike lanes have also been put in place, to the degree that, now, “La Prom” brings together every walk of life—buskers and ramblers, flâneurs and artists, roller-skaters and baby-strollers, wide-eyed tourists and seasoned locals, old and young alike—all moving and chatting, sitting and playing in a giant open-air democracy by the sea. It felt like uninterrupted liberty to move, to linger, to simply sit on one the promenade’s many fixed chairs and people watch, confirming William H. Whyte’s homily about urban life: that the most fascinating thing for people in public is to observe other people in public.

To suck in its balmy, salty air, to imbibe its crowded vibe, was to photosynthesize amid an ocean of people. Strolling along, I felt like a character from Edgar Allan Poe, from his Man of the Crowd—although I was pretty sure this sensibility wasn’t exclusive to me nor to men alone. We were all somehow “People of the Crowd.” “For some months I had been ill in health,” Poe had his protagonist tell us, “but was now convalescent.” For some months, we’d all been ill in health, and now, here, the lucky ones, were convalescing together, trying to recover from an illness that had shaken us to our existential core, that still might shake us to the core.

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“Merely to breathe was enjoyment,” Poe’s hero says. “I felt a calm but inquisitive interest in everything.” Again, I knew what he meant, think a lot of others on the Promenade des Anglais knew what he meant, too. “Dense and continuous tides of population were rushing past…and the tumultuous sea of human heads filled me with a delicious novelty of emotion.” Soon, our man of the crowd contemplates, as I contemplated, “with minute interest the innumerable varieties of figure, dress, air, gait, visage, and expression of countenance.” We were all “refusing to be alone,” as Poe might have said. Maybe we were men and women yearning to be close to the madding crowd, dreaming of becoming part of it.

In Vieux Nice—the city’s old town—throngs of people jostled one another, and energy levels were just as high as densities. In confined spaces, like lining up for ice cream at Gelateria Azzurro, along the narrow rue Sainte-Réparate, or grocery shopping at Cours Saleya’s daily market, mask-wearing became more common. On these occasions, it’s easy to understand why crowds and city streets have so kindled the French literary imagination, becoming as much part and parcel of the French vie quotidienne as baguettes and red wine. In “Crowds” (Les Foules), from Le spleen de Paris (1862), Baudelaire said “a singular intoxication” awaits everyone who knows how “to take a bath in the multitude.” Himself an avid admirer (and translator) of Edgar Allan Poe, Baudelaire likens this experience to a “universal communion,” to a profane joy, the “feverish pleasure” of people discovering one another on a packed street. True enough. On the other hand, might we wonder whether Baudelaire’s ideal of losing oneself in the crowd requires, under COVID, a more cautious reading: mightn’t intoxication now be deadly, a feverish pleasure that poses grave dangers of losing yourself forever?

***

Epidemiologists say COVID-19 “is primarily transmitted person-to-person by close contact through respiratory droplets.” The scholarly journal Communication Physics (August 23, 2021) confirms, however, that “the role of population density is an open question with evidence for and against its influence on epidemic spreading.” The journal adds that “merely the density of contacts, while relevant at a neighborhood level, isn’t enough to explain the mechanisms of spread.” In similar vein, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (September 2021), which features a detailed COVID study from Malaysia, reckons that population density is a factor in the spread of disease yet caveats and riders remain. Density alone doesn’t answer the fundamental question as to why there’s a “chaotic spread of disease at the population level.”

Other studies highlight positive correlations between COVID and the “compactness of people.” Yet here again, there’s no consensus on the direct effect of population density on numbers of virus cases. The Malaysian survey showed that in districts with more than 250,000 inhabitants, and with a density of more than 500 persons per square kilometer, approximately 1.5 people were infected with COVID—which is to say hardly any more than in less densely populated areas. Each time the population density increased by 1 individual per square kilometer, there was a tiny increase of 1.38 in the active COVID cases. The study said attack rates of the epidemic in some instances were higher in smaller districts than larger ones, a feature borne out in parts of China, suggesting there are “proxy drivers of contact rates.”

The World Bank, too, not long ago released findings on the role of density and the spread of COVID, saying there’s no direct causality between the two. “Density matters, but not much.” The world’s most densely populated cities in East and South-East Asia—e.g., Seoul, Tokyo, and Shanghai—have had very low levels of infection compared with sprawling U.S. cities. In China, cities with the highest infection rates were those with relatively low population densities, in the range of 5,000 to 10,000 people per square kilometer.

In New York, the first wave of COVID killed more than 20,000 in a few months. Nobody knew what was happening. It seemed like a nightmare from the Middle Ages, black plague striking down everybody. How could people protect themselves? Run away? Pray for deliverance? People panicked, justifiably. Was it New York’s openness, America’s gateway to the world, with too much human coming and going, that sparked mass infection? Was it the city’s uniquely high population density, like Manhattan’s whopping 27,000 people per square kilometer, together with its reliance on mass transit mixing? Or was it lifestyle, that New Yorkers always dined out and rarely stayed in? Maybe it was some combination of all these things? (Some of the city’s highest infection rates turned out to be in lower density Staten Island.)

As it transpired, Big Apple denizens soon wised-up, began protecting themselves, started wearing masks, got vaccinated. Then came vaccine passes and more enlightened public health precautions. Ever since, the city has fared well on the health front, better than other places in America, better than many low-density cities like Dallas, even better than many small towns and rural areas. The city has gone on to suffer less COVID deaths than elsewhere in America, making it one of the nation’s safer places for human life and limb.

All of which poses the question: are dense cities per se the problem when it comes to COVID? Maybe we should reframe this question: Is there any such thing as per se when we talk about cities? Aren’t cities reflections of what is happening in our society, for better or worse? Don’t our economics and politics get inscribed in city life, flourish in cities, get intensified in cities, oftentimes plague cities? To attribute causation to cities in themselves, in other words, is to fetishize the city, is to misinterpret how cities are both reflectors and shapers of wider social and cultural processes. Sometimes cities exacerbate social woes; elsewhere they might be palliative or even curative for those woes. It all depends. To give up on cities, to run away from them, to wag the finger at them, in other words, strikes me as problematic. We need a different conversation about cities and our society, and about our society in cities.

High-density crowds, of course, are one of the great virtues of cities, perhaps the greatest virtue, the innumerable encounters between different people, and the sociability that prevails from this diversity. Sometimes sociability doesn’t prevail; conflict rules—social breakdown and separation. Yet maybe the dilemma of COVID urbanism isn’t so much about crowd avoidance as crowd management, about how one responds to the crowd, in the crowd, how people act toward one another, respect (or disrespect) one another (through mask-wearing, social distancing, etc.), how people understand themselves as people in public, not as individuals simply doing what you like amongst people. How do democratic institutions respond to crowds, how do they manage (or mismanage) crowds, nourish a general will while guarding against the flouting of individual rights? Something crucial in any crowd management is to differentiate between crowds and crowding, especially overcrowding. What we’re talking about here is overcrowding that scars everyday urban living for many people.

Overcrowding is different to density; the two terms shouldn’t be used interchangeably since they’re distinguishable. Overcrowding can be just as palpable in low-density areas as in high-density ones; and high-density doesn’t necessarily equate to overcrowding. Plenty of the world’s richest neighborhoods—like Manhattan’s Upper East Side or Monte Carlo—are mega-dense yet certainly not overcrowded (Monte Carlo is second on the world’s densest urban roster, and perhaps the wealthiest, with a 32 percent millionaire population!). Overcrowding is where households have more occupants than rooms (excluding bathrooms), and where people can’t avoid close contact with each other. As a lot of multi-occupants tend to be poorer, and their jobs more menial, they don’t have the luxury of homeworking, either. And even if they did, they’d have nowhere at home to work. Occupants come and go at all hours, depending on work shifts, and expose themselves and their housemates to people at large, to greater risk of infection.

A study in Chicago found no correlation between population density and COVID infection rates (see “In Chicago, Urban Density May Not Be to Blame for Spread of the Coronavirus,” ProPublica, April 30, 2020). But what it did find was a direct link between overcrowding and infection. “The communities hardest hit by the virus in Chicago,” the report says, “are low-density black and Hispanic neighborhoods, including ones where economic decline and population loss have caused more people to live in the same household.” In Englewood, a Chicago neighborhood hit especially hard by the 2008 housing market collapse, foreclosures and dwindling affordable stock have left less-resourced denizens with few options. Home ownership is off-limits; ditto high-rental units. So many people, particularly younger people, are forced to live with relatives, with parents or aunties and uncles who, decades ago, could muster the means to buy into the city’s housing stock. “There’s a lack of basic life essentials in the community,” one local politician says. “This is the culmination of decades of disinvestment.” “This is not about disparities in behavior or preventable cases of COVID, where, if people just knew more information, they’d be social distancing.” “It’s really a sad tale of people who know what’s coming, but there’s nothing they can do about it unless you give them housing or get them out of this predicament.”

Even before COVID struck, the Guardian warned of “Shoebox Britain,” of “how shrinking homes are affecting our health and happiness” (October 10, 2018). Britain’s speculatively induced housing crisis has pushed more and more people into homes that are shrinking and multi-occupied. The slicing and dicing up of houses and office buildings has been ongoing for a while, recalling the dark, Dickensian era of tenements and rookeries, only it’s 21st-century style. The walls are closing in for many people and there’s no way out, especially during a pandemic. Home offers no escape, no refuge, no haven in an anxious world. Only confinement, engineered by market-driven expansion, resulting in a sense of isolation and claustrophobia inside that’s almost as hazardous to human health as the outside. It is overcrowding spawned by inequality, by greed; an introverted low-density overcrowding, economically manufactured, far-removed from the extrovert delights of the high-density crowd.

“Shoebox Britain” slams decades of neoliberal urban policies. Successive government ministers (irrespective of political persuasion) have relaxed planning regulations and encouraged more and more housing development that’s rarely “affordable.” Developers and landlords always find loopholes in these regulatory changes, for corner-cutting and boosting profits. Meanwhile, local authorities, desperate for alternatives to their dwindling housing stock, have little choice but to steer needy residents over to these exploitative private landlords. And given there are few resources to monitor the quality of accommodation, it’s invariably squalid, a threat to physical as well as mental health.

Curiously, Britain’s neoliberal cities have had “lockdown” policies well before anybody heard of COVID. For years, rogue landlords and developers have been converting—locking-down—single-family homes into tiny apartments for housing benefit claimants. By including a token shared facility, like a minuscule kitchen, these developments are treated as internal apartment-shares and planning permission can be by-passed. The rental streams generating from six crappily constructed studios is exponentially greater than a three-bedroomed share in the same property. And it’s the taxpayers who line the landlord’s pockets, because the state is effectively picking up the rental tab. Is this “warehousing” of human life ever likely to protect anybody under COVID? Is it ever likely to enhance human wellbeing, post-COVID? It’s hard to imagine, unless something changes, unless greater space, affordability, and dignity can be established in urban living. Cities need to thrive on collective use-values, not wither as privately appropriated exchange-values.

***

Since time and immemorial, debates have unfurled about the relationship between density and crowding and the health of city dwellers. More insightful past commentators, like social psychologist Jonathan Freedman, argue that density and crowding are neither good nor bad. Instead, says Freedman, in his still-valuable Crowding and Behavior (1975), crowding and density intensify the effects of preexisting social situations, much as COVID has intensified preexisting social situations. High-density crowding does have effects on people; yet these effects depend on other factors in the situation. High-density, says Freedman, might cause people to be friendlier but also less friendly, just as crowding might produce great mutuality as well as greater malaise. Crowding can be negative when it creates its dialectical other of isolation and stress, when overcrowding is pressured and forceable; yet crowding might elsewhere mean the vitality of having many people about, constant “eyes” on busy streets (as Jane Jacobs liked to emphasize) that ensure social interaction and neighborhood safety.

If a social situation is bad, says Freedman, when people feel cut off and vulnerable, economically deprived, high density will likely aggravate an already fraught situation. Poorer people often feel powerless, subject to forces beyond their control, and living in a badly maintained high-rise with hundreds of peers might exaggerate feelings of uninhabitability. In this context, density and crowding, rather than poverty and inequality, are conveniently blamed for any social pathology. Conversely, if the situation is structured so that people aren’t cut-off or withdrawn, and a building or neighborhood nurtures positive feelings of empowerment and collaboration, cheerier outcomes might ensue. Better things might even get encouraged by high-density crowding.

This was always William H. Whyte’s central point in his pioneering The Last Landscape (1968), a book that boldly makes “the case for crowding.” (Since his bestseller from the late fifties, The Organization Man, “Holly” Whyte had consistently been a thorn in the side of conventionality; he was also a staunch early advocate of Jane Jacobs, helping kickstart her career.) Whyte says official U.S. land policy, as elsewhere, has invariably been contra higher density; “decentralist” by nature, with the primary thrust of “moving people outward; reducing densities, loosening the metropolis, and reconstituting its parts in new enclaves on the fringe.”

But Whyte isn’t advocating stacking everybody up in giant towers. High-density, he says, doesn’t mean only high-rise; actually, a tight-knit patterning of low buildings can exhibit surprisingly high rates of people per acre, sometimes even greater than twenty-story towers placed apart, where interstitial spaces are frequently empty and institutional, hardly inviting for lingering or leisure. They’re wastes of space, dead zones. Whyte wants to fill them with vitality, with healthy congestion. Here he similarly draws the distinction between “overcrowding”—too many people per room—and density—the numbers of people per acre. “Overcrowding does make for an unhealthy environment,” Whyte reckons, whereas “high density may or may not.” Besides, he says, everyone is always bemoaning the bad consequences of overcrowding; but what, he wonders, about “undercrowding”? “Researchers would be a lot more objective if they paid as much attention to the possible effects on people of relative isolation and lack of propinquity. Maybe some of those rats they study get lonely too?”

The thesis is challenging in an age of COVID, where crowding has aided the proliferation of infection rates while at other times has offered an antidote, the potentiality of a mutual aid, bulwarking the spread of infection. Unsurprisingly, apart from the deadly effects of physical illness, COVID has traumatized people’s psychological wellbeing, too. Medical practitioners now speak of a “second pandemic,” the chronic anxieties and depressions afflicting populations, especially those witnessing high body counts. The phenomenon has stimulated a lot of research into how lockdowns have disrupted communities and heightened loneliness, impacting hardest upon people already socially, economically, and medically vulnerable. The evidence is clear enough: social distancing has stressed mental health; yet it has unfolded differently in high-density neighborhoods compared to those where conditions of “undercrowding” and “overcrowding” persist.

Up and down the UK, resident groups and community associations, in conjunction with legions of volunteers, have forged “COVID-19 Mutual Aid Groups,” stepping in to provide practical and emotional support in neighborhoods where government and private sector programs haven’t reached. Sociability here has bolstered mental health, helped counteract so-called “corona-related loneliness.” What’s happened in Britain is typical of what’s happened everywhere across the globe: an upsurge in community and voluntary activism, a “social cure” to pandemic fallout, having ordinary citizens resolve their own problems collectively. Notably, communities who’ve coped best with COVID tend to be more cohesive and selfless; residents there have a stronger sense of belonging and place attachment. And frequently, they’re located in densely populated urban areas. High-density neighborhood propinquity seems to accord more opportunities for mutual aid. The experience of a collective fate has led to a collective bonding that tries to change this fate.

A British study called “The Mental Health Benefits of Community Helping During Crisis,” published in The Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology (April 5, 2021) discovered that for enhancing wellbeing “unity is essential.” Their findings suggest that, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, crowding doesn’t so much spread infection as provide a social prophylactic to counteract it. Another study from Italy (“COVID-19 in Our Lives,” Journal of Community Psychology, December 20, 2021) reiterated the point, adding how a “feeling of responsibility” to protect the community was also consistent with an adherence to nationwide social distancing policies. A sense of belonging, in short, together with a sense of responsibility, enabled individuals and groups “to look at uncertainty, both dampening it and managing it.” “If a person’s tie with a community includes the feeling of responsibility for what happens,” the study said, “individuals will feel the desire to act and reflect on what to do to maintain a connection with their community.”

Research carried out in Spain on “The Role of Sense of Community in Harnessing the Wisdom of Crowds” (Journal of Business Research, November 12, 2021) echoed these takeaways. But here the notion of “crowding” assumes another inflection. For the crowds in question are virtual, and constitute people who participated in “crowdsourcing,” in the “co-creation” of knowledge. They’re individuals communicating and collaborating with each other via online groups. The concept being that in times of COVID emergency, the “collective mind” can generate greater wisdom and mobilize itself more effectively. It was precisely this hypothesis that Spanish researchers wanted to test out, examining the efficacy of a sample of virtual communities who’d “achieved a high level of social interaction when face-to-face communication wasn’t possible.”

Social media, they say, drew together various “stakeholders,” and “allowed crowds to launch online communities, sharing feelings and information and even contributing to the resolution of individuals’ concerns and problems, eventually reducing feelings of loneliness and promoting positive values.” It’s not clear the extent to which these virtual communities might ever be converted into actual offline associations, doing practical work in kind, post-COVID, rather than just over the airwaves, on computer screen. Does the immaterial ever materialize into real place-based crowdsourcing? Moreover, it’d be interesting to know, too, if crowdsourcing flourished in conditions of undercrowding, if it helped reduce physical isolation and disempowerment? Maybe crowdsourcing works best in neighborhoods where stronger senses of real community already prevail? Still, the mitigating effects of virtual communication is nonetheless apparent—the human contact, the conversation, the emotional care, the empathetic solidarity, were all real enough, sustaining for people during confinement. (Curiously, as well, the researchers confirmed how “the wisdom of the crowds was an effective solution for identifying misinformation and verify fake news and alternative facts.”)

The virtual crowd will never replace the crowd in the street, the physicality of bodies, bodies really co-present in space. At least it’ll never replace it for me. Crowds offer energy releases, glorious and often maddening comings together of individuals and groups—crowds of protesters and demonstrators, crowds of shoppers and aimless strollers. Sometimes crowds can be led astray, manipulated, deceived en masse, warped by advertising and misinformation, sheepishly following one another, rallied on by demagogy; other times crowds dramatize the power people lack, express real truths about injustice, and voice political ambitions before the political means necessary to realize them are created. Either way, the crowd on the street is different from the crowd on the screen. There’s a special texturing to masses of people, in the open air, in the sunshine, even in the rain, an electricity generated by pure physical encounter.

That said, maybe the sensibility of the online group and the “weak-ties” that ensue, doesn’t only simulate; perhaps it can also stimulate an awareness of real crowds, the strong-ties of emergent public citizens? Perhaps a willingness to join crowdsourcing reflects a greater readiness to want to join the crowd, a desire to participate socially and politically, to affirm a public spirit, to go beyond a private self hemmed in by two dimensions, and by four walls. The Spanish crowdsourcing researchers said their participants “felt connected with crowds, sensed that individuals belong to the community, and built close friendship ties among participants.” “Feeling loyal to the crowd,” they said, “contributed to finding common ground in cohesion and compatibility.” “It provided mutual support and promoted collaboration and teamwork to foster resilience in the face of a pandemic.”

Feeling loyal to the crowd” is an exciting term. Maybe it’s another way of voicing Baudelaire’s ideal of “peopling your solitude”; of not only losing yourself in the crowd, but finding yourself, too, of feeling at home even when you’re not at home, doing it safely, healthily. Baudelaire’s register is romantic and melancholic; yet it’s somehow more optimistic than Thomas Hardy’s. Maybe it’s more comforting, too, less threatened by the madding crowd, about the human merging that takes place in urban life, about the experience “of being oneself and someone else,” as Baudelaire says, “adopting every profession, every joy, every misery, as one’s own.” The psychic rewards are enormous. “What people call love is awfully small,” writes Baudelaire near the end of “Crowds,” “awfully restricted, and awfully weak, compared with that ineffable orgy, that holy prostitution that gives itself totally, poetry and charity, to the unexpected that appears, to the unknown that passes by.” Merging with the urban crowd won’t ever prevent a pandemic; nor will it fully resolve the sadness and loneliness lying at the core of much human life. But it might help us understand each better, help us absorb our sorrows and celebrate our joys. It might shed light on dark shadows and enlarge the whole horizon of our being alive.

About Andy Merrifield

Writer, Urbanist, Marxist, Educator
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