Crowds and Mathematics II
I was explaining, perhaps, how the end comes not like a roaring demon over the horizon, but soft as a morning mist until it is among you, tantalizing with its sweet smell so that none are awake to the blindness until it is not only too late to see, but to counteract the poison. Indeed, poison that tastes like death is useless, because none will take it except at the point of a sword, and at that moment, you might as well run them through, since a grimacing corpse never looks like it died in its sleep peacefully. But poison kills while you are sleeping, or at the moment when in the grips of hallucinations you fight to awake and see around you what has changed, and die in the agony of realization.
Crowds love decoration. It is like painting an old and rotting house so you can sell it to the clueless young couples from the cities: hide the rotting frame, paint over the cracks in the foundation, tie plastic around the leaking pipes so everything holds together just long enough for the ink to dry on the contract, at which point it is not your problem. Similarly there is nothing offensive about decoration. The insides are hidden, including the churning gaseous gut, and what is left is a pleasant situation in which things can be done abstractly, as if in a heavenly place entirely removed from reality, a perfect space. X will deliver Y on time, and be paid $Z. It is so crisp and logical, so apart from the smears of bodily fluids and last gurglings and wheezings of the bedridden elderly patient that we try to keep out of our minds so we can function, as death like a moth trapped in the lantern of our eyes flits about the flame and throws shadows on the wall.
Among the crowd, you will see few blondes, but plenty of dyed blond hair. Face-lifts, tummy tucks, esophageal constrictions and painted nails. Perfumes to keep away those ghastly digestive smells, and the stench of sweat when one is creeping back from the house of a sudden lover in the early morning. Shouldn't have, didn't mean to, but who will know? Appearance is distinct from reality. Keep working the job and you can pay for the personal trainer, the special medicines to obscure whatever your personal deformation is, whether impotence or dandruff or halitosis or schizophrenia. Most of all keep smiling at everyone, and the crowd will love you. Mention only the positive; it won't do to speak of death. Of all things on earth, the crowd loves pleasant-tasting poison the most.
Go to a movie. You will not see an ancient Greek tragedy, because that brings you closer to the mortal span and any discussion of its meaning, which could mean you feel you fall short and wonder what dead-end hall will be your last memories. Instead, you will see a catharsis of illusion, whereby you fall into empathy with characters far removed from your own life and live out their triumphs, their victories, their submission and ultimately their return to normal life, just like yours, except shining in gold and covered at every step by the cameras of the paparazzi. For two glorious hours, you were not thinking about the nagging husband, or the tepid job, or the dentist's appointment lurking like a hired killer around the corner on next Wednesday; you were thinking about these magic people, in their perfectly dramatic lives, so full of meaning and finally, contentment, or at least some ending that exudes meaning with every ion. She got the man of her dreams, he took the ball team to the pennant and won against all odds, the good guys won for once.
If not a movie, try some drugs. We have pills to bring you up, or bring you down if you want to slow down and touch life from an insulated safari car. Or would the gentleman prefer hallucinations? It's all about you, kid, just like for everyone else, it's all about them. Take your choice, put down your money, and be on your way - time is money and I don't have all day. For those who are wealthy, there are vacations in far-off lands, or lives spent making a 0.00001% difference in the life of one miserable village like ten million others, not of practical value but it feels good. Otherwise, you can get into sports, and when you win, can feel as if God Himself put you above others; if you're really broke, there's television, which is like a cheap movie repeating in half-hour segments. Cry with the golden people; laugh with them, celebrate their lives and enjoy the time apart from your own. This is what the crowd wants.
There is a subtle mathematics to this, also. Each motion in life takes the path of least resistance, as this leads inevitably to some kind of open space. When there are no great dragons to slay, no great cities to found, and nothing left to learn except small increments of what we already know, you might as well look toward comfort. Thus each individual in the crowd, acting independently, seeks out what might fill the void of knowledge of eventual death, if even for two hours. Have a nice apartment, some interesting lovers, friends who never forget your birthday. There's a video game system in the corner, next to the DVD player and the computer; the world at your fingers, ready for your whim. The mathematics of the crowd is formed by each individual seeking a world of its own, and thus creating an idealized, averaged concept of person which erects rigid boundaries around whatever choices an individual can make, such that all are beyond criticism. This way, we're all safe from each other.
It is almost undefinable, the attitude of these crowds. Their math is the rise and fall of empires, and within it, the things an individual might value based on choices available. When society is new, and the first trees are falling to build the first shelters, and there are still wolves which at night carry off the unwary, those who survive are those who can make the choice to plan ahead, to do what is important in the long term. They have no choice about that situation; it is what they must endure or be consumed. When there have already been generations of those who have gone before, the choices to be made reflect options within the framework of civilization: how do I make my workers harvest more, or convince the king to fund a bridge, or barter for the yeast that makes lush bread? Even further along, the options are both greater and smaller: civilization has not only become self-referential, but it has lost its frontier, and lost its big open spaces, so you take what's left.
This means fighting over the wealth, and the positions of power that are, not creating new power either within through self-discipline, or without by creating new civilizations, new ideas to conquer space and time. The crowd surges ahead; they demand that anyone can be whatever he or she wants to be, because in the mathematics of the situation, any position requires no special skills, but going through the motions. Appearance dominates over reality, as it becomes more important to convince others of something and have them buy it than to make something effective in its own right; it is the age of marketers, of travelling salesman and carpet-bag-toting investors. The civilization has nowhere to go so expands in every direction, each individual in the crowd taking his own due, and although smiling in public, scorning the rest in private and thus leaving nothing for the rest. Gods are worshipped for the divine power of the crowd, as a holy man is trusted by all. It is twilight for the supernatural figures, and for the forest: Buddha goes to meditate at his bodhi tree and finds it cut down. Jesus descends the cross to write his memoirs, joins a rock band and is never heard from again.
The time that is described here is the time in which I observed a crowd of people streaming out of a discount wholesale chain of stores, where membership is required to keep one well behaved, and all the rules are clearly stated on small plastic signs because, since there is no agreement on ideal behavior, they cannot be intuited and are not shared. The crowd are united by having nothing in common. The attitude they have is undefinable, because it is not so much a strong belief as an absence of any. They are there to claim their due. In this they insist, strongly, but it is not belief so much as pragmatic and the convenience of convention that drives them to this rigid rule. Rights are more important than cooperation. Money leads all other values, which in order to compete market themselves, and thus by the mathematics of finding commonality, become more like all other values until none have any distinct value, and all perish.
In the cities and towns, the wisdom of success prevails. There is no forward direction: take what it is here. All the pretty girls marry rich toads with big cars and go off to the cities to have half-ugly babies, and all the geniuses write epic poetry which is burned with their belongings in forgotten attics long after they have suicided, or taken too many drugs to notice that truck already an hour late on its shift barrelling down the boulevard. If a classical hero, or great thinker, emerged in such a society, that person would head for a small cabin in Montana or perhaps, bowing to the inevitable and pragmatic, simply get a job and dismiss those thoughts which once raced with inspiration through an active mind as phantasms of the brain, stimulated by inferior takeout food at lunch - call the credit company for refund. There is a profound absence in them, of any striving or any satiation in achievement, since what they have to conquer is so long defined even its tedium is forgotten, and thus the only question is one of comfort and withdrawl from the mess, not a desire to organize the chaos formed from abstract definitions of a universal nature applied in non-universal, specific situations whose uniqueness is of no concern to those who file forms, purchase orders, stock certificates and arrest warrants.
This is mathematics. Much as the death of someone who has lived a century is the information science of cell death and interdependent organ systems failing in sequence, the death of a civilization is the number patterning of people slowly learning not to give a huff about anything beyond their immediate gratification. With each generation, the tumblers of the great cash register slowly approach the zone of total unchanging numerics; each birth cycle brings a lower intelligence, fewer noble traits, and less desire to climb to the heavens. Those are obsolete desires. What is needed now is people who understand what is and adapt to it, domesticated, and thus can see that a discount club provides the best value, and therefore get the credit cards and membership, and all the best consumer goods so their comfort is superior to the rest. Despite its hollowness, this effort is what they call their pride. Calculate the odds, and the math rewards them doing so, since no one person can reverse the course of inertia, or can it be done? To even take that gamble is to forsake stability and convenience, to doom oneself to a hard life and a lonely one, since no one wants to befriend someone going nowhere in the world of dollars and products.
It is also mathematics that something great must change this society, such that the rules of survival alter themselves greatly, and the remaining population can spend 10,000 years surviving an ongoing cataclysm, so that only those who see far into the future and plan accordingly will pass along their genes. The climate, destabilized by clouds of smoke from machines and bargeloads of waste from every corner of every city, finally gives way, and ice covers the earth. Death reigns upon the unwary. Those who are left retreat to caves, and find new gods who can give them strength to endure hardships that last beyond the individual life, working for goals they will not live to see gained. This is why all great cultures have a Ragnarok mythos, and why the crowd is so frenetic: their urgency conveys an inarticulable fear, as indefinable as the absence of heroism among them, that lurks in the subconscious, reminding them that death is real and, like the inevitable end for all they know, as mathematical as their own ambitionless lust for comfort.
January 27, 2005