a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

The Illuminated Crowd

Posted by Thomas Nephew on August 23rd, 2007

“A crowd has gathered, facing a light, an illumination brought about by a fire, an event, an ideology –
or an ideal. The strong light casts shadows, and as the light moves toward the back and diminishes,
the mood degenerates; rowdiness, disorder and violence occur, showing the fragile nature of man.
Illumination, hope, involvement, hilarity, irritation, fear, illness, violence, murder and death –
the flow of man’s emotion through space.”
— Raymond Mason, The Illuminated Crowd  (sculpture and words, 1985, Montreal)

Bear with me here; I doubt this will be an essay for the ages with a neatly constructed argument and conclusion. Instead, I’m going to wander around a bit, because I’m not sure where this is all headed myself.

We came across this sculpture while wandering about Montreal last week. It’s on the Avenue McGill, just up the street from Indigo Books, and just down the street from McGill University, seemingly just another piece of plastic/corporate/civic art, in this case set in front of a faceless black glass and steel headquarters for one BNP Paribas Bank.

Onlookers react to WTC collapse.
Angel Franco/New York Times.
Also at

Another crowd, sixteen years later
I’d never heard of it. But as I came closer, and read the words, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. It was like coming across a prediction of that September day going on six years ago, a prediction of how we — or at least I and many like myself — would react.

On the surface, of course, are the immediate reactions to an immediate, transfixing event. Mason’s sculpture is all but a pre-enactment of photos like this one.* But Mason had more in mind than a crowd merely gaping at a disaster; it seems to me he was also driving at the repercussions over time of the fire, event, ideology — or the fiery ideological event. As the description implies, you find expressions of despair, rage, fear, and finally acts of violence as you walk along the side of the sculpture group.

And that surely fits, too.

There’s been an interesting set of posts touching on this lately. Roy Edroso’s Writing Lesson contrasts a forthright statement by one individual, Christopher Hitchens, with a less forthright paraphrase of the same by Rod Dreher. In his 2002 Boston Globe piece, Hitchens recalls his sense of exhilaration as the implications he saw in 9/11 crystallized for him:

In order to get my own emotions out of the way, I should say briefly that on that day I shared the general register of feeling, from disgust to rage, but was also aware of something that would not quite disclose itself. It only became fully evident quite late that evening. And to my surprise (and pleasure), it was exhilaration. I am not particularly a war lover, and on the occasions when I have seen warfare as a traveling writer, I have tended to shudder. But here was a direct, unmistakable confrontation between everything I loved and everything I hated. On one side, the ethics of the multicultural, the secular, the skeptical, and the cosmopolitan. (Those are the ones I love, by the way.) On the other, the arid monochrome of dull and vicious theocratic fascism. I am prepared for this war to go on for a very long time. I will never become tired of waging it, because it is a fight over essentials. And because it is so interesting.**

As Edroso acknowledges, this is at least interesting and honest: “[o]ne of the things I still admire about Hitchens’ writing is that I believe him: not his belligerent analyses, but his portrayal of his own thoughts and feelings.” And in the daisy chain of posts leading back from Dreher through Ross Douthat to the original rediscoverer, Julian Sanchez, there’s a common thread that there was something oddly “special” and unifying, even exhilarating, about 9/11. Sanchez:

…it is hard not to get caught up in that feeling. I recall Camus writing something similar about the feeling among members of the French Resistance, who in conditions that surely licensed despair felt a kind of supernatural energy at the chance to throw themselves into a cause so clearly vital and right, who saw that never again would their lives be so invested with meaning.

Canetti the Inevitable
But I think what Mason’s sculpture suggests — clearly, it proves nothing, it’s “just” a very interesting sculpture — is that there may have also been less to it than that.*** I hesitate to cite this, because I haven’t read it in full, so it seems like name dropping. Plus it seems a little wide of the mark in some ways. But here goes anyway, from Elias Canetti’s famous work “Crowds and Power”:

The most important occurrence within the crowd is the discharge. Before this the crowd does not actually exist; it is the discharge which creates it. This is the moment when all who belong to the crowd get rid of their differences and feel equal.

These differences are mainly imposed from outside; they are distinctions of rank, status and property. Men as individuals are always conscious of these distinctions; they weigh heavily on them and keep them firmly apart from one another… […]

Only together can men free themselves from their burdens of distance; and this, precisely, is what happens in a crowd. During the discharge distinctions are thrown off and all feel equal. In that density, where there is scarcely any space between, and body presses against body, each man is as near the other as he is to himself; and an immense feeling of relief ensues. It is for the sake of this blessed moment, when no-one is greater or better than another, that people become a crowd.

But the moment of discharge, so desired and so happy, contains its own danger. It is based on an illusion; the people who suddenly feel equal have not really become equal; nor will they feel equal forever.

Like Mason’s sculpture, this proves nothing, but it’s surely apropos. I think many of us — again, me included, but maybe also Hitchens included — did feel a certain relief and exhilaration at being “united” about something again. It’s very seductive to be part of a crowd, even a virtual one glued to our TV sets, or our online news reports — or our warblogger echo chamber. In Terrorism, Crowds and Power, and the Dogs of War, Lesley Brill wrote:

Alongside the grief, fright, and disgust, however, one sensed a swelling pleasure, even exuberance, as among the stunned, delighted audience of an over-the-top horror movie. Was it because at last, after nearly thirty years, there was a real battle to join? […]

Here, finally, came a crisis worthy of our half-trillion-dollar-a-year armed forces, one offering moral certitude and potential redemption. With it arrived a dreary, increasingly dangerous bonus: “After 9/11” instantly replaced “In the new Millennium” as the signal cliché for declaring Now to be definitively different from an outmoded Then.

So what
So how to wrap up? What to conclude? Like I said, I’m not sure; this is all pretty tenuous, plucked helter skelter from sociological meditation, art, and sundry quick stops along the Internet.

I guess it makes me not dismiss Dreher’s allegedly “groupthink” reaction too much. It’s just that the “clarity” he felt wasn’t clarity so much as being spellbound and thinking that was clarity. At any rate, this sense of awesome togetherness was real — and it was predictable.

The 9/11 moment was designed to be a gigantic groupthink moment, a “where were you when” moment — an illuminated crowd moment. A nation in its millions transfixed, grieving, enraged — and yes, comforted by the knowledge that you were part of a crowd, that nearly everyone else was feeling what you were feeling, too. I’m not saying Dreher was more honest than Hitchens, just that I think his reactions were believable too. (Not especially worthy, just believable.) Many people thought not in “I,” but in “we.”

So when Sanchez argues that Rove misplayed that violin, I suppose I disagree a bit with that, too. There may have been no good tune to play on that violin; this wasn’t ever going to be the few, the proud, the Resistance, this was going to be an echoing mass moment on CNN, brought to you by Bin Laden first, and Rove and Bush thereafter. I don’t disavow how I felt or how angry I was or that I wanted to see Bin Laden pounded flat or that I liked the unity I felt in that. I do see how predictable I was, and how easily the country (and I) could be played for suckers in the ensuing months and years.

So what’s the antidote to all that? Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe that’s people for ya, at least most people.

But maybe being a little forewarned is to be a little forearmed if there’s another 9/11. Beware of that pointing guy, saying “follow me, children! I’m sure I know what it all means.” Or maybe the essential antidote is simply remembering Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s insight:

“Just because you’re on their side doesn’t mean they’re on your side.”

Maybe less wallowing in the grief of it all would be wise, too. But good luck with that. We’re not wise, we’re hominids, we’ll grieve, we’ll wallow. When I see those pictures, I know I still do.

* From the “Onlookers” section of the “Here is New York” site archiving 9/11-related photography. For more onlooker/crowd comparisons with the sculpture, see also “the illuminated crowd,” a pooled shared online photo site at
** Hitchens link via a comment by doghouse riley at Edroso’s post; d.r. points out that the article was rather selectively excerpted by Dreher. Since my convention is to italicize quotes, I’ve replaced Hitchens’s original italicization with underlining, but the effect may be slightly different for some readers.
*** Both a New York Times review of a gallery retrospective and the table of contents to a book by Michael Edwards imply Mason was fascinated by crowds as a subject for his art. The fascination was shared by at least one friend of his, Georg Eisler, who created several paintings about them including “Hillsborough,” about a 1989 stadium panic disaster in Liverpool.

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