the power of crowds

There is something about a crowd with an apparent common goal that is extremely moving and it triggers some kind of unconscious solidarity in me, like the Tahrir Square movement in Egypt that got me following the news with an interest I haven’t had in a very long time, but there is also the violent mob, the group dynamics that lead to an escalation of destructive violence, like the recent still unexplained phenomenon in Britain, which makes me cringe.

Two striking images supposedly stand as the starting point of Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II: one depicts a Moonie wedding, hundreds of identical couples getting married on a huge stadium and the other is of J.D. Salinger, the reclusive author ambushed by the paparazzi after a long period of absence. The first is an image of absolute conformity and the other of extreme individualism and it is these opposing ideologies that are both paradoxically part of what it means to be human and the tension between these two inner tendencies of belonging and of setting oneself apart that DeLillo deals with in the novel. I remember a critic dismissing DeLillo as a novelist by calling him something like “a Frankfurt-School entertainer”, meaning that he is representative for a type of novel that is idea driven, rather than character driven, that he deals mostly with socio-political phenomena rather than the complexities of human psychology like, say, Henry James would. To me asking DeLillo to be James is just plain pointless and the reason why I keep going back to DeLillo is precisely because he writes idea novels. Falling Man for instance is character driven, but Mao II is an idea novel and aside from Underworld it might be DeLillo’s best. It is prophetic in so many ways and it somehow prefigures, at the end of the Cold War (it appeared in 1991), the next big conflict, the rise of terrorism.

Despite his macho author image, I think DeLillo’s female characters are actually much more interesting and powerful than the male ones. It is of course easy to identify the voice of the novel’s protagonist, the recluse cult novelist Bill Gray, with that of the author himself, but that would be a trap. Bill enunciates some of the most quoted of DeLillo’s ideas, namely that there is some parallel between the work of a novelist and that of a terrorist, as they both conduct “raids on the human consciousness” and that in recent history the novelist is losing most of his power of influencing the public mind while the terrorist takes over it. This parallel only holds when one has a modernist conception of art, in which the artist is the genius that revolutionizes the way we perceive the world by making us look at it from a new and often times uncomfortable lens. A revolutionary work of art is in a way an act of violence. Another, more modest way of looking at art in the novel is embodied by the photographer Brita, who is commissioned to make Bill’s portrait after a very long absence from the public eye. She is an artist too, but of a different type. Unlike Bill she is not a tormented one that wants to change the world and tragically aware of the limits of this approach, but rather a witness to the wonders of this world, who modestly tries to capture all the beauty and pain and contradictions in her work. These might not be literature’s most psychologically complex characters, but who cares. I haven’t had such a thought provoking read in ages…


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