In reading, for the first time, Gustav Le Bon’s The Crowd: Study of the Popular Mind, I walked away wanting more. Le Bon’s cogent analysis centers the unrelenting agitation of the human mind when it crosses into the border of what we construct to be “the crowd.” This agitation is modulated through a multiplicity of potentialities that stem from illusions and words. These potentialities of the crowd can either be negatively or positively charged: they can bring the materiality of our world down to its knees for the benefit of a new ruling class or they can usher in a heroic epoch. As Le Bon notes, it “All depends on the nature of the suggestion to which the crowd is exposed.” And more importantly, Le Bon opines: “To know the art of impressing the imagination of crowds is to know at the same time the art of governing them.” Once I read this line I thought back to an earlier passage that made me think of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.
The passage reads: “A crowd is not merely impulsive and mobile. Like a savage, it is not prepared to admit that anything can come between its desire and the realization of its desire. It is less capable of understanding such an intervention, in consequence of the feeling of irresistible power given by its numerical strength. The notion of impossibility disappears for the individual in a crowd. An isolated individual knows well enough that alone he cannot set fire to a palace or loot a shop, and should he be tempted to do so, he will easily resist the temptation. Making part of a crowd, he is conscious of the power given him by number, and it is sufficient to suggest to him ideas of murder or pillage for him to yield immediately to temptation. An unexpected obstacle will be destroyed with frenzied rage.” Having watched “Fight Club” many years ago, I was struck by the madness and sway that the alter ego [Tyler Durden] of the film’s protagonist evinced over random men who voluntarily joined his club of unrestrained physical mayhem. Tyler Durden’s disdain for a society of unbridled consumption leads him to start a movement that will bring chaos upon it. Durden’s unusual cleverness, wild behavior, and way with words allow him to gain a following for he knows how to govern them. But more importantly, it is his penchant for action that moves his followers. As Le Bon posits, leaders of crowds “are more frequently men of action than thinkers.” And his actions become so grandiose and erratic, that they eventually get out of hand thus forcing the main protagonist to take a stand.