These Sudden Mobs
I’ve been thinking about some lines of a poem by Wallace Stevens called 'Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz':
There are these sudden mobs of men,
These sudden clouds of faces and arms,
An immense suppression, freed,
These voices crying without knowing for what,
Except to be happy, without knowing how,
Imposing forms they cannot describe,
Requiring order beyond their speech.
Too many waltzes have ended.
The lines are the work of an American poet writing in the 1930s, and the first thing that may come to mind is the hunger marchers of the Depression. But there were other mobs then, in Germany, Italy and elsewhere. It could seem that the masses of men were taking into their own hands the next stage of the world’s advance, or the world’s motion; the direction might not be forward. They were crying out for something they were cheated of – obscurely this would be their thought, if you could turn it into language. The action was like the kicking of a leg from the pricking of a nerve; not to be enlisted in the cause of enlightenment, or anything like that.
'Mob' is a pejorative term. Historians of a populist tendency favour the more impartial-sounding 'crowd', just as they prefer 'uprising' to 'riot'. But it is hard to keep the distinctions firm: a crowd on the move from city to city, without principles of action or a generally understood plan – by what name shall we call it? In America, in recent weeks, we had the killings of unarmed black men by white policemen, the counteraction of crowds that teetered on the brink of violence, the assassination of policemen by mentally distraught black men, and a president hoping by his calm commentary to make the mobs subside. And what to call the followers of Donald Trump? A party? A cult?
The qualities of the mob I think Stevens meant to evoke were anger and a somehow warranted self-pity. Those outside are unequipped by nature to enter into the mood. But these sudden mobs don’t want our pity; they are made out of feelings that are intoxicating, and the feelings are their own reward. And never pretend that self-pity is a contemptible thing. It is the most popular and contagious of emotions. 'The epic of disbelief,' Stevens concluded, 'Blares oftener and soon, will soon be constant.'
Maybe so; but here a short view seems best. These mobs are an alarm. They are telling you something has gone wrong in the system; something was wrong before you saw the proof. Your inventions and interconnections, your techniques and reassurances – none of them were the success you always supposed. They may have been adopted, but they were never liked. You took too much for granted. The mobs that come out of nowhere don’t come out of no time; they come when authority has miscarried, when it has taken command without taking control, and failed to learn the complexity of the medium it was working in.