Walking with the Madding Crowds

[First published at http://www.mylaw.net/Article/Walking_with_the_madding_crowds/]

The word for ‘intellectual’ in Bengali is ‘aantele’, a rather derogatory word in some circles. One immediately imagines a man leaning back on an armchair, puffing intently, looking for the perfect word to end his sentence. His eyes are sunken after long tussles with insight. The ‘intellectual’ straddles the boundaries of art, science, philosophy, and politics with ease. He usually approaches these domains with fascination or despondency. The luxury of wallowing in thought, Marxians would say, is available to those in the higher rungs of economic structure – who then use the substratum of economic power to weave the film of ephemera around the material body of a society. An attractive political utopia is born out of this weaving exercise. The intellectual is blind to the insularity of his own universalism. The occupants of the worlds that he imagines do not always want to participate in his dreamworld. They might even be troubled by his formulations about the nature of their being. The intellectual’s imaginative empathy is often desirable only to him.

In the world of abstraction, the intellectual switches channels and looks for new friends. He imagines distant times and spaces in his intoxicated or mystic state. The wronged peasant or the mysterious terrorist emerge as live actors in his script. To them, he must speak. His ideal changes often. But the ideal is his only fodder. If at all there were to emerge a world of green pastures and secure livelihoods and pacifist sovereigns, the intellectual would certainly find some other discrepancy between the real and the ideal to carry on his dream-sojourns. This could propel him to articulate a new theory, as much as it might call for a tragic immersion in the world of utter decay.

In my attempt to think about thinkers, let me bring in Walter Benjamin’s flaneur. The flaneur is marked out by Benjamin as a peculiar product of early industrialism in Europe - subjects who have found an individuated existence strong enough to narrate with critical distance, as though in a tragic amusement. A light-footed urban stroll is the wont of the flaneur – the lettered dandyman. On the boulevards of Paris, he experiences the rhapsody of modern capitalism. The last incarnation of the flaneur is the sandwichman, and his last haunt the department store, says Benjamin. The surrounding of attractive commodities enlivens his inner life. The flaneur’s traipse on the cityscape is not the solitary walk of a thinker, neither is it the accompaniment of a rational declaration towards membership of a body politic. His vision is hazy, his gait unsteady. He absorbs the sights and sounds of the urban thicket in a dreamlike reverie. Soon however, he sees unity through this dreamwalk with fellow-street-urchins – the whore and the sandwichman. He is stimulated as also let down by the series of wish-images posed by the boulevards of Paris. Benjamin describes the flanerie - the mass-form of the flaneur - of the sandwichman, who lives and earns on the street, retaining in him the mass-form of the flaneur, constantly collecting the city as montage. This state of urban aimlessness is a form of intoxication, according to Benjamin.

The flaneur often watches the masses collect around a political party meeting or a product launch event. He walks with the current, but maintains rueful distance. His distance is his key to the immediate. Many things of the immediate reveal themselves as ruins of a distant past. Many loiterers of a distant social stratum spell for him a dreamy camaraderie on the canvas of the street. The waves of mass culture wash over the flaneur. He retains some grains in his fist. These grains tell him apart from the mesmerised collective. He does not run away into the wilderness to find solace, neither does he address the collective the way statesmen do. He spreads himself out on the landscape in a masterful camouflaging act.

Benjamin imagined the grains of the flaneur-fist to be the matter of written words for the newly produced urban readership. The flaneur - the journalist, the photographer, the blogger - mirrors for the urban consumer, his frenzied gait. He might have a concrete goal set by a magazine, but he jumps into the street-scene hoping for many distractions and associated dreams. Many among you are flaneurs. You traipse the cityscape with a camera slung on your shoulder. Or a notepad. Or an iPad. You know the quaintest chai-shacks in its farthest crevices. Eight-lane highways and landscape gardens irk you. You watch suffering in anguish, and strum your guitar to its hidden melodies. You read epics and scriptures and find their shadows in the frenzy of the bazaar. You hang around at bars and cafes, amused at the high-pitched political debate. You walk away as the crowd convulses to song or slogan. The crowd is essential to your being.


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