Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Conrad's Agile Crowds

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Conrad's Agile Crowds

Article excerpt

Conrad's Crowds and Democracy

"It is crowds that have furnished the torrents of blood requisite for the triumph of every belief." (Gustave Le Bon 1895; 1960: 37)

THIS BRIEF apothegm synopsizes the haunting question about crowds, which, after all, are ubiquitous. Despite its indefensible propositions and outrageous eccentricity, let alone its afterlife as the vade mecum of Nazism,1 Le Bon's The Crowd (1895), retains its power inasmuch as it succeeds in asking the right questions for the political moment:2 Are crowds always capable of extreme acts, and what might their inordinacy cost? Even Le Bon's phrasing is ambiguous: Do crowds furnish torrents of blood as hosts or as victims? The answer does not affect his projection. Whether heroically seeking (or subjected to) martyrdom, or horrifically aggressive, no crowd, as Le Bon observes, chooses reasonably or stabilizes otherwise than in an extreme alternative. This historical problematic proved irresistible to Conrad; the range and variety of crowd figurations in his fiction demonstrate his concern to classify and explore the entire spectrum of crowd potentials. This essay traces his rich descriptions of crowds, especially his political crowds, as a coherent intellectual and artistic project that aims to anatomize modern forms of collective experience and explore their trajectory either towards inducing greater servitude or, on the contrary, for democratic transformation.

In Nostromo, the railway's chief engineer and the aristo satellite Don Martin Découd both describe a "sudden outbreak of the populace" (224) that threatens the Sulaco power elite in language familiar to anyone who has read the adherents of then-burgeoning crowd sciences. First, the engineer:

"You should have heard Gamacho haranguing his friends in the street. He has a howling voice, and he shouted like mad, lifting his clenched fist right above his head, and throwing his body half out of the window. At every pause the rabble below yelled, 'Down with the Oligarchs! Viva la Ubertadt" (321-22)

This description exactiy reproduces Le Bon's pronouncements about the crowd's irrational and dangerous intoxication with la libertad, or to be precise, the intoxication brought about by what Le Bon calls "the power of words and formulas" upon crowds (1960: 102). Under the influence of such magical incantations, Le Bon asserts, crowds might perform any fanatical act. In fact, he says, they are constituted by their compulsion to turn every suggestion into an action.3

However, this phenomenon of crowd "suggestibility," which Le Bon believes has been at the leading edge of the most important events of human history, has, he believes, finally received a scientific explanation.4 This is the real justification of his text, that Le Bon is the first who "has endeavoured to examine the difficult problem presented by crowds in a purely scientific manner" (1960: 3). By combining lessons of evolutionary inheritance, new structuralist understandings of human psychology, and fresh commitments to objectivity and empiricism, without respect to prejudices or cultural traditions, Le Bon believes he has attained a dispassionate method with which to study crowds.

Le Bon supposes the new scientific mapping of the mind, as containing a realm of inheritance from its evolutionary past, with its largely unconscious and variably controllable instincts and drives, to be his own special key to explaining the extreme behaviour of crowds. Moreover, he thinks we will agree that, in a crowd, individual behaviour manifests much differently than what the crowd's individual members might be presumed to allow themselves (when they have a reasonable fear of being caught and do not feel invincibly powerful). Within Le Bon's psychological schema of crowd action, even the crowd's storied infidelity to its father-leaders is predictable:

A crowd is always ready to revolt against a feeble and to bow down servilely before a strong authority. …

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