Crowded out

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If, as Tom Holland wrote last week for Engelsberg Ideas, the spectre of the empty metropolis haunts civilisation, then our empty cities are also haunted by ghosts of the crowds that used to fill them. In the past week, I’ve ventured onto London’s tube system more often. Public transport is now seen as a vector of disease, and so cars have begun to fill the roads, making cycling unenjoyable and more perilous than usual.

It is a curious experience. The vast majority of passengers wear masks. At rush hour yesterday, I had a carriage all to myself from London Bridge to Green Park. In my suburban corner of South East London, which is in character much like Kent’s market towns, normality has reasserted itself fairly quickly. Pubs and cafes are open for takeaways, the parks are full of groups drinking and playing music. But the city itself and the conduits that run through it lie empty.

They may do for some time, with vast swathes of London’s services economy moving to homeworking. Peter Frankopan, in his essay for EI, The crisis has the capacity to be apocalyptic, quoted the Barclays Chief Executive Jes Staley: ‘Putting seven thousand people in a building may be a thing of the past.’

An empty city might well have appealed to the Roman thinker Seneca. In his letters to Lucilius, he wrote: ‘To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith.’ The last phrase here reads like a drum tattoo: ‘aut commendat aut inprimit aut nescientibus adlinit’, which translates as ‘make attractive… stamp… taint’. Even a Stoic sage, aloof from the hubbub and confusion of city life, would find his outlook brutalised by the turba, the crowd.

For Seneca, to live in the city is to find yourself subjected to impersonal forces, to find your soul continually washed over by the flow of new information, faces, and images. We should of course weigh Seneca’s anxieties against the vast gaps in our knowledge about the experience of poverty in the Roman world. Over 90 percent of the Empire’s inhabitants worked in subsistence farming – life wasn’t too bad for this enormously rich teacher and advisor to the Emperor Nero.

But his insights into the psychic dimensions of city life have proved remarkably resilient over time. There have always been cities in which people face unique pressures. Indeed, with the rise of massive conurbations in the 19th century, those pressures and their representation began to have a starring role in culture.

The countryside, with its broad fields, populated by homesteads, villages, little farms, and its ideal pastoral homeliness, are substituted for the wide boulevards of the new cities – London, Paris, New York – what Hofmannsthal called the ‘landscape built of sheer life’. Poachers become pimps, and knights cast off their armour for tailored suits. The flâneur colours the hubbub around him with romance and beauty. Proust writes: ‘suddenly a roof, a gleam of sunlight reflected from a stone, the smell of a road would make me stop still.’

The vast crowds stimulated revulsion in some observers. Engels, in The Condition of the Working Classes in England (1848), wrote: ‘The very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive about it… The hundreds of thousands of all classes and ranks crowding past each other.’ City life engendered ‘brutal indifference’ and ‘unfeeling isolation’, he thought. Where was the common humanity in that great flow of people?

Poe’s short ‘mystery’ story The Man of the Crowd (1840) puts a slightly different spin on the ‘brutal indifference’ of the city. An observer watches a busy London street. He sees all kinds of characters but soon finds himself entranced by a ‘decrepid old man’, whose expression is more terrifying than ‘pictural incarnations of the fiend’. The storyteller chases him all over the city. There seems to be no overriding purpose to his movements. He merely proceeds ‘without apparent object, among the throng’, following the peripatetic rhythms of the people around him.

The Man of the Crowd is an automaton, stripped of fellow human feeling, and yet condemned to walk ceaselessly among the revellers and rogues of London. This existential angst haunts the 20th century city – its loose cannon detectives, superhero narcissists, and would-be assassins.

In the opening shot of Martin Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver, a taxi pulls out from behind a fog of smoke. The shot gives way to a pair of eyes, moving from side to side, lit up by a neon red glow. The light changes to yellow and white, flashing on and off lazily. As the shot progresses, it becomes obvious that the eyes are reflecting not one light, but street lamps sliding past a car window. The shot moves out of the front of the car onto the street itself – it is lurid, shot through glass dripping rain.

The eyes belong to Robert De Niro, or taxi driver Travis Bickle. We know he served in Vietnam, not much else. His name sounds phoney, hardly distinguishable from the false name he gives to a security man: ‘Henry Crinkle’. Why does he ride a cab? He wants to work nights and work for long hours: ‘I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take ’em to Harlem. I don’t care.’

Throughout the film, Bickle’s eyes, either reflected in the rearview mirror or peering round, are brought to the centre of the screen again and again, as they drink in the violence and horrors of 1970s New York. He is the modern man of the crowd – a man turned into a fiend by his isolation and the sensory overload of urban life.

In an era of social distancing, the city is stripped of its landscape of adventure and danger, its quality of ‘sheer life’. We may well see a historic retreat towards towns or villages, where property is cheaper and infection less easily spread. Younger people may well do the same. The trade-off between high rents and opportunities for new experience is perhaps no longer so attractive. Perhaps, older landscapes will come back into view and we’ll substitute country lanes for underground networks, the church spire for the skyscraper. 

Alastair Benn

Alastair Benn is deputy editor of Reaction, a London-based site dedicated to commentary on politics, economics and the arts. He is a member of the Engelsberg Ideas editorial team.

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