Why do crowds gather? I’m tempted to theorize about this, from a phenomenological and sociological position, but I’m neither a phenomenologist nor a sociologist. As best as I can tell, crowds gather because there is something to see, something to stir the mind and the blood. I was listening to an interview with the historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr, in which he talked about his collection of racist artifacts, posters and ads and the like. Among them is a collection of postcards—lynching postcards. These used to be perfectly acceptable things to send your loved ones while you were away—imagine standing in the drugstore, looking over the options. Should I pick out a picture of the courthouse, or maybe the town founders, or this picture of a lynching that happened here? Yes, the lynching—now let me write on the back of it. Let’s see— “Dear Mom—am having a great time. Nice place here. Lots to see and do. Aunt Gladys says hi—you can see her on the front on the left! Love, your son.”
I’ve heard that some scientists have monitored the heartbeats of string ensembles. At the beginning of the set, their hearts are all beating at different rates, their breathing, too. I don’t know if this is true, but by the end of their piece, they’re all breathing together. Perhaps their hearts beat in time. Perhaps, if they’re good enough and the audience is the right size, the hearts of the audience would beat with theirs, and perhaps the audience would even breathe in time with them. What do crowds come to see, to feel? Lynching. Music. Death. Art. A spectacle.
There is a yearning for connection in us, the euphoria of being one, in a moment in time, with your neighbor. The moment of a baseball arching through the sky, when the stadium begins to stand and everyone takes in a breath. There is nothing like it, when strangers or friends come together as one.
No one knew what they had truly come to see. First they came to see triumph, then they came to see death. They mistook one for the other. The women wailed and beat their breasts, the chief priests, elders, and scribes watched in satisfaction, the soldiers mocked and got on with their work, the disciples stood around at a distance, watching, worthless. But somehow, in the crowd, watching and gasping together, we miss the truth. The cross is a triumph, as is the death. It is the postcard of human suffering with a note on the back that says—“Dear child—I have heard your cry, and I have known your suffering. But know this—nothing can separate you from my love, not even death. Just wait. You’ll see and believe.”
Reverend John Flack