Readers: Welcome to Plume Issue # 59 –
June: a most welcome intercession for many of us teachers, when we slip if only between pillar and post from one academic term to another — or for the more fortunate, a gateway month, opening onto the longer respite of a full summer on one’s own, unmolested by the requisites of any tasks save those they themselves conjure. Alas, for a little longer, I fall into the former category. And so, uncharacteristically, at loose ends — my “vacation” too brief to permit travel to anywhere that truly interests me, or begin some new project – one I know I will never have time to complete.
Still, routine called me, as it always has, for some reason, and within a few days this last week I had fallen under its lackluster spell. Of an afternoon, after a bit of writing and reading, a run and lunch, I’d find myself again in a nearby cemetery, once quite grand, now all but abandoned, strolling alone along pathways embroidered with jacaranda flowers, pausing to examine some lichened tombstone or other or just take in the view of the serene white-crossed hills. (After an hour or so, and by day four, the sole guard, so friendly on my initial visits, grew to eye me unkindly, as if I might be casing the joint (?) or pursuing some illicit assignation, which pleased me.) In any case, then, homeward, where a nap awaited, and before returning to my book, another hour or two frittered away skittering through television channels, where among the usual flotsam and with a Vine-like recursiveness bobbed all too frequently the cantaloupe-hued head of the depressing Mr. Trump.
Reader, I know, but wait: I promise (though you, too, are perhaps eyeing me suspiciously, alarmed that another tale of childhood misadventure looms) I want only to deliver to you two short essays; the above lines serving merely as their introduction, serendipitously linked as you will see –one quite literally, the other more…allusively – to my graveyard promenades and those videograms of the “presumptive nominee”’s speaking engagements. Both pieces come from that (often returned to) book I mentioned, Elias Canetti’s masterwork of analysis/taxonomy, Crowds and Power, translated from the German by Carol Stewart in 1962 and published by Gollanz, and reissued in 1984 by FSG.
The attraction of cemeteries and graveyards is so strong that people visit them even if no one belonging to them is buried there. In foreign cities they make a pilgrimage to the cemetery and walk about there as though it were an amenity specially provided for them. It is not always veneration for some famous man which draws them there. Even where this is the original motive, the visit always turns into something more. A cemetery very soon induces a special state of mind. We have a pious habit of deceiving ourselves about this mood. In fact, the awe we feel, and still more the awe we exhibit, covers a secret satisfaction. What does someone who finds himself in a graveyard actually do? How does he move and what occupies his thoughts? He wanders slowly up and down between the graves, looking at this stone and that, reading the names on them and feeling drawn to some of them. Then he begins to notice what is engraved beneath the names. He finds a couple who lived together for a long time and now lie together for always, as they should ; or a child who died quite young ; or a girl who just reached her eighteenth birthday. More and more it is periods of time which fascinate the visitor. Increasingly they stand out from the touching inscriptions on the headstones and become simply periods of time as such.
Here is a man who lived to be thirty-two; another, over there, died at forty-five. The visitor is older than either of them and yet they are already out of the race. He finds many who did not get as far as he has, but, unless they died particularly young, he feels no sadness for them. But there are also many who surpassed his present age, living for seventy or, now and again, for over eighty years, as he can still do himself. These arouse in him a desire to emulate them. For him everything is still open; his span of life is not yet fixed, and in this lies his superiority; with effort he may even surpass them. He has, anyway, a good chance of equaling them, for one advantage is his in any case: their goal is reached; they are no longer alive. They are there for him to compete with, but all the strength is on his side; they have no strength, but only a stated goal; and even those of them who lived longest are dead now. They cannot look him in the eyes as man to man and he draws from them the strength to become, and to remain forever, more than they are. The eighty-nine-year-old who lies there acts on him like a spur. What is there to prevent him from living to ninety?
But this is not the only kind of calculation which occupies the man who stands between the rows of graves. He begins to notice how long it is that some of the buried have lain there. The time that separates him from their death is somehow reassuring and exhilarating: he has known the world for that much longer. In graveyards which have old memorials going back to the 17th and 18th centuries the visitor stands patiently before the half-effaced inscriptions, not moving until he has deciphered them. Chronology, which is normally only used for practical purposes, suddenly acquires a vivid and meaningful life for him. All the centuries he knows of are his. The man in the grave knows nothing of the man who stands beside it, reflecting on the span of the completed life. For him time ended with the year of his death; for the other it has continued right up to the present. What would he, long dead, not give still to be able to stand by the side of the visitor! 200 years have passed since he died; the other is, as it were, 200 years older than him. Many of the things which happened during those years are known to him; he has read about them, heard people talk and experienced some of them himself. He is in a position where it would be difficult not to feel some superiority, and the natural man does feel it.
But he feels more than this. As he walks among the graves he feels that he is alone. Side by side at his feet lie the unknown dead, and they are many. How many is not known, but the number is very great and there will be more and more of them. They cannot move, but must remain there, crowded together. He alone comes and goes as he wishes; he alone stands upright.
The Baiting Crowd
The baiting crowds forms with reference to a quickly attainable goal. The goal is known and clearly marked, and is also near. This crowd is out for killing and it knows whom it wants to kill. It heads for this goal with unique determination and cannot be cheated of it. The proclaiming of the goal, the spreading about of who it is that is to perish, is enough to make the crowd form. This concentration on killing is of a special kind and of an unsurpassed intensity. Everyone wants to participate; everyone strikes a blow and, in order to do this, pushes as near as he can to the victim. If he cannot hit him himself, he wants to see others hit him. Every arm is thrust out as if they all belonged to one and the same creature. But the arms which actually do the hitting count for most. The goal is also the point of greatest density. It is where the actions of all the participants unite. Goal and density coincide.
One important reason for the rapid growth of the baiting crowd is that there is no risk involved. There is no risk because the crowd have immense superiority on their side. The victim can do nothing to them. He is either bound or in flight, and cannot hit back; in his defenselessness he is victim only. Also he has been made over to them for destruction; he is destined for it and thus no no one need fear the sanction attached to killing. His permitted murder stands for all the murders people have to deny themselves for fear of the penalties for their perpetration. A murder shared with many others, which is not only safe and permitted, but indeed recommended, is irresistible to the great majority of men. There is, too, another factor which must be remembered. The threat of death hangs over all men and, however disguised it may be, and even if it is sometimes forgotten, it affects them all the time and creates in them a need to deflect death on to others. The formation of baiting crowds answers this need.
It is so easy and everything happens so quickly that people have to hurry to get there in time. The speed, elation and conviction of a baiting crowd is something uncanny. It is the excitement of blind men who are blindest when they suddenly think they can see. The crowd advances towards victim and execution in order to rid itself once and for all of its own deaths. But what actually happens to it is the opposite of this. Through the execution, though only after it, it feels more menaced than ever by death; it disintegrates and disperses in a kind of flight. The greater the victim, the greater the fear. It can only hold together if a series of similar events follow each other in quick succession. [Excerpt]
Ah — the intersections of literature and “life” — ever-surprising, almost always illuminative.
But I think we’ll leave it there for now – you’ll find actual news in the, yes, Newsletter – where every month, aside from bits of business and upcoming Plume-related events, you will find a “secret poem” introduced by some luminary or other. This month, it’s Plume contributor and International Editor Marc Vincenz doing the honors.
I should have thought of this long ago.
As always, I hope you enjoy the issue!