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Standing packed together on trains but studiously ignoring each other is nothing new

A complex repertoire of psychosocial behaviours has been built up over the past two centuries in order for it to be possible.

Can you move down a bit, please? Commuters on a packed London Tube train. Photo: Getty
Can you move down a bit, please? Commuters on a packed London Tube train. Photo: Getty

In Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd”, the unnamed narrator chances upon a strange old man in a London tavern. Following him through the streets after closing time and then throughout the night, the narrator realises, with mounting horror, that his quarry is compelled to seek out his fellow men – the waifs and strays of the urban night – simply so he may continue to be part of the generality rather than a singular individual. The poor fellow cannot otherwise exist: he is the man of the crowd.

Written in the late 1830s and set in London – at that time the largest city in the world – Poe’s story is a seminal work registering the creation of modern urban life and our psychological response to it. Translated into French by Baudelaire, it became a foundational document for his conception of the flâneur; but what I find most suggestive about the story is the narrator’s description of the old man’s face – which he says is shockingly grotesque, to a degree unprecedented in his experience.

In common with most city-dwellers I inhabit the urban mill-race much as a fish does a shoal: regarding my fellow men and women of the crowd but little, so long as they are swimming in the same direction. A complex repertoire of psychosocial behaviours has been built up over the past two centuries in order for it to be possible for us to exist bum-cheek-by-wincing-jowl with myriads with whom we have no connection: we don’t speak to them; we appear purposive and goal-driven; the advent of modern technologies – particularly personal sound systems – has been incorporated, so that now we can stride through the streets, or stand packed together on public transport, each occupying our own parallel world of reclusion.

Actually, this is nothing all that new: the emergent technology of the mass-produced newspaper and the book were factored in to the crowd dynamics of the late 19th century. Ambulatory City commuters of this time – the clerks and computers, Eliot’s undead who streamed across London Bridge – spontaneously formed into contraflow lanes so they might read as they walked, thereby snatching a few reclusive moments apart from the mass tyranny of the clock. But perhaps the most essential attribute required to be an urban survivor is a strange visual impairment: a concerted ability not to look anyone in the face.

It’s said of those on the autistic spectrum that because they have no intuition of other minds – what George Eliot typified as understanding that other people possess “an equivalent [and separate] centre of self” – they display little interest in facial expressions. By that analysis, everyone sitting in the train carriage with you right now is functionally autistic.

We do look at other visages in the crowd – but these are only brief, probing glances, the aim of which is to establish the likelihood of threat or the remoter possibility of sexual attraction leading to lifetime love and security. What we don’t do – what, in fact, we daren’t do – is examine strangers’ faces for prolonged periods, bringing to bear on them all our imaginative and empathetic capabilities.

Over the past week or so, having previously enjoyed a period of intense solitude while working on a book, I’ve been savouring my regained freedom and exposure to humankind by doing just this: instead of walling myself up behind book or screen, I have been surreptitiously scrutinising faces wherever I go. Several things have struck me while undertaking this field research on our species. The first is quite how difficult it is to describe faces. Of course, as a writer, I knew this already – although it’s an axiom of fictional characterisation that in respect of physical appearance less is usually more: the reader needs to have something for his or her own imagination to do, and so cherishes being given a free hand on these immaterial countenances.

We might say that a mouth is generous, or eyes deep-set, or cheeks acne-scarred, but when set beside the living, breathing, infinitely subtle interplay of inner thought, outward reaction and the nexus of superimposed cultural conventions, it tells us next to nothing about what a person really looks like. We often experience this disjunction between appearance and reality most acutely in representational art; in painting, for instance, we readily grasp the distinction between artists who can portray the fleshly form of the psyche, and those who merely produce likenesses. Not for nothing did Baudelaire entitle his essay about the flâneur “The Painter of Modern Life”.

The flâneur stands apart from the crowd and is unafraid to see the individual rather than the functional stereotype imposed by mass urbanism – but it is a deeply uncomfortable perspective to adopt. Once you begin to analyse a stranger’s face she ceases to be a stranger: you feel the living oppression of her illnesses and neuroses, her joys and her sadness – she becomes part of a tightly knit community that takes up residence in your mind alone. And this explains why it is that Poe’s man of the crowd is so very physically repugnant; because he can only exist in a condition of anonymity, he has absorbed all of the alienation and lack of feeling such a state necessarily implies. To employ a favoured idiom in my part of the world: he looks like the back of a bus.