It avails not, neither time or place—distance avails not; I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence; I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is. Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt; Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;
—Walt Whitman, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
Associating with people in large numbers is actually harmful: there is not one of them that will not make some vice or other attractive to us, or leave us carrying the imprint of it or bedaubed all unawares with it.
—Seneca, Letter VII, Letters from a Stoic
I like to read several books at a time. Formats ideally suited for this are volumes of poetry, collections of letters, and diaries and journals, as these all come in conveniently pre-sliced portions.
Part of the reason for my love of serial dipping into disparate volumes is my short and rapidly decreasing attention span. The other reason is that it affords plenty of opportunity for productive juxtaposition.
A recent striking example of this was my chance reading in succession of Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and Seneca’s Letter VII. In which we encounter radically different experiences of people in crowds. For Whitman, they are intoxicating fellow creatures imbued with the same powers of perception and emotion. For Seneca, they are a dangerous rabble, morally corrupting and incapable of grasping civilized thought.
Mind you Whitman was describing morning commuters on a ferry and Seneca a bloody gladiatorial fight to the death. (This does beg the question of why Seneca went to a death match in the first place, given that his stated reason was to take in some “light and witty entertainment.” Nothing brings on the Zen like a mixed martial arts match, don`t you find?)
Nonetheless, we are presented with two very different approaches to life and art – one of reclusion and one of immersion.
Seneca says that going out into the world can have only one of two end results: “You must inevitably either hate or imitate the world.” The only approach for him is to keep your distance from the masses, find one other with whom you can communicate, one possessed of the intelligence to appreciate your thoughts, and don`t worry about the ignorant masses.
Whitman on the other hand celebrates promiscuous egalitarianism, going out into the world and revelling in in its sensuousness, acknowledging your commonness with the masses and developing your uniqueness in their very midst.
On any given day, I could find myself agreeing with either of them. After experiencing the behaviour of Montreal cyclists and automobile drivers, I definitely see Seneca’s point. After a walk through a summer park full of families and lovers, or down St Catherine Street crowded with Christmas shoppers, I lean towards Whitman.