The wilderness of crowds

by Steve

It has been a hot, difficult summer and only now can I feel the pressure begin to drop in the air. The darkening skies and the tentative rain are not foreboding, they signal respite from the season before. Autumn is already here for the meteorologists, and not far off for the astronomers.

The untidiness of the seasons suits me. I like the fraying of one season to another in nature, the shagginess of the trees, the odd falling leaf, the beginning of colours changing. I look around at the garden and I can’t tell the overgrown from the new growth. I’m not sure how to define either anyway, in nature or elsewhere.

I’ve been reading the memoirs of the writer, politician and diplomat François-René de Chateaubriand. I’ve taken note of his thoughts on autumn:

A moral character clings to autumn scenes. Those leaves that fall like our years, those blossoms that fade like our hours, those clouds that flee like our illusions, the light that grows weak like our wits, the sun that cools our passions, the waves that freeze over like our lives: these things have some secret rapport with our destinies.

It all sounds a little melancholy, and yet on closer inspection there is more going on. The quotation comes from a chapter entitled My Autumn Joys after all. I find autumn as much a time of retrospection as the end of the year, as much a time of renewal as springtime. Those fleeing of illusions, those cooling of passions, aren’t necessarily bad things. There is a steady clarity to things in the autumn light, an opportunity to think about what has gone before, and to think about what might come next.

So, I think about the things that have guided me through this past little while. Chateaubriand’s memoirs are one. They work on a number of levels. They are a man telling the story of his life, but they are also a record of when and where he is telling that story. As such, they are an uncanny representation of memory. Our memories are not just a straightforward linear tale, they are influenced by when we remember. Chateaubriand outlines this context throughout, so you are both with him in the remembering and with him in the memory.

The book is an escape, an escape to aristocratic France of the late 18th century and early 19th century. But it also feels current, pertinent. There is a universality to the feelings we experience as human beings, even if time, circumstance and geography separate us. There’s a funny kind of uncanny comfort in finding something familiar and relatable in an unlikely source. It really does turn out we’re not the first to experience whatever we’re feeling. The wonder of literature is to open up new worlds while also making us feel less alone.

Chateaubriand talks of “the wilderness of crowds”. The phrase has stuck with me. I think it has a similar duality as his comments on autumn. A wilderness, whether real or metaphorical, is a place to be feared. It is inhospitable or abandoned. And yet wilderness also can also mean an escape, a refuge, a respite, somewhere we head towards when everything gets too much. The unknown and the unmapped can repel and can appeal. And I suppose I can feel that way with crowds. Becoming part of a community, or a gathering, or just heading into a busy city, can be scary. It is unnerving not knowing what might come next. And yet it is also reassuring, exciting, being part of something bigger. The wilderness of the crowd is sometimes better than the security of the self. When I walk the city I can get away from myself.

I generally walk around with my earphones in, so I’m not sure I’m engaging that much with the crowds. There is still some kind of distancing going on. I’ve been listening to Ryan Adams’ collection of “B Sides” from the sessions of his last album. I fixate on a few of the songs, play them over and over.

There is a song called Broken Things and it is beautiful and heartbreaking and very autumnal. It pulls off the trick of sounding like a timeless, universal Standard, a song that has always been there that could easily have been covered by many other artists, while also sounding immediate and incredibly personal.

I’ve been reading La Folie Baudelaire by Roberto Calasso, a book about the French poet, but really about the birth of the modern in art and in society. There is a quotation late in the book from Proust:

In all the arts, it seems that talent lies in the artist’s drawing nearer to the subject to be expressed. As long as there is a gap, the task has not been carried out. A certain violinist plays a phrase very well, but you see its effects, you applaud them, he is a virtuoso. But only when all this has disappeared, when the musical phrase is no longer distinguishable from the artist lost in it, will the miracle come to pass.

Broken Things is the miracle come to pass. The song is the extension of the artist, the artist the extension of the song. I could try to pull things apart, decipher why and how, but it feels futile to do much more than fall back on the quotation above. It is a huge comfort when something, a song, a book, whatever else, can still touch you and move you. Sometimes that is communal, and sometimes for a few moments it is just you and the artist and it feels like there is nobody in the world between you and them.

You can find that kind of comfort, that kind of communion, that kind of miracle of the artist and subject drawn together in the unlikeliest places. Among the books and songs I’ve also been watching old episodes of professional wrestling from Memphis. The wonders of the internet means I can drop into late 1982, a completely different part of the world geographically, and a completely different world figuratively too.

Each week in the studio the hosts Lance Russell and Dave Brown introduced this crazy, daft, wild entertainment. And yet here was this crazy, daft, wild entertainment that made perfect sense as it was its own self-contained world. There is an internal logic, and a crowd that believes, or at least loses itself to belief.

There is something of the morality play about it all. Good against evil. Justice versus temptation. The struggles of our everyday lives played out in the wrestling ring and on the microphone. It is cathartic watching it all play out. Life is unfair, so it helps to see that represented at a step removed from the everyday. It doesn’t hurt to experience a world where the good guys win once in a while too.

And there is absolutely that drawing together of artist and subject. Each wrestler is both performer and themselves writ large. It is not easy to see where the performer ends and the “real” person begins. Jerry “The King” Lawler, “Dirty” Dutch Mantell, Bill “Superstar” Dundee, all these figures who it would be easier to paint as “larger than life”, but in fact are something far more subtle than that. Among the shouted threats, the wisecracks, the punches, the bodyslams, there are these real people. Everything blurs, and so it matters so much more. And a Saturday morning TV show from 35 years ago still has the capacity to move me. It is unlikely, but that is what makes it special.

And perhaps all of this is unlikely. I find myself regularly returning to WG Sebald’s writing advice. One maxim is:

Get off the main thoroughfares; you’ll see nothing there.

I think this holds true for me. There is something in the memoir, or the collection of outtakes, or the obscure, or the hidden, or unpromising, the unpopular, the written-off. The things that move me and challenge me are on the margins. Those are the places where the human gets in. And right now that feels vital.

Maybe that isn’t quite right, I don’t know. My margins are another person’s mainstream. And there’s more to this than some kind of inverted snobbery, as there is often wonder right in front of us, if we choose to see it. Perhaps it is about curiosity and being open-minded, as those qualities will help guide you to the human. Amid the madness and fragility around us we can all find our places where something feels right for a while.

We have some woodland close to our home. There isn’t much of it, but once you are among the trees it feels like you are lost in a vast forest rather than just a few acres. If you look closely you can find carvings on tree stumps of various animals. They are unofficial, as far as I can tell. Someone just one day decided to find somewhere in the woods to make their art.

The carvings are charming, but also something more than that, they are an unknown artist engaging with nature, leaving their mark, making some kind of connection. There is something special out there, if we’re willing to hunt it out.

There is hope in autumn, but there is also a need for some companions, in books, music, wherever else, to guide us towards the winter, and whatever follows.