BEYOND PLAGUE URBANISM
There’s something about urban crowds, about hordes of people in the city. 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, 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.