Sometimes I buy and read a book purely because of its intriguing title.
“Extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds” is a good example. I read it, because masses of people can be scary. And there are so many of them. Since we have three other titles on this topic in our Notoir books fund, I thought I’d give it a try. For the interested reader: The Psychology of Revolution, by Gustave Le Bon, and The Behavior of Crowds. a Psychological Study, by Everett Dean Martin, and the insanely titled The Black Death and the Dancing Mania – J.F.C. Hecker.
But now back to “Extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds”. This massive brick of a book was published in 1841. Written by Charles Mackay, it was the first major study of mass psychology and group psychosis in Western history. While reading, more than once I was reminded of those immense flocks of starlings, whizzing in unison. Each individual starling at the same time – flying in a certain direction, as if they are attached to each other by invisible fishing nylon. They seem to act as one organism. How do they do that?
Mackay is a storyteller, not a diagnostician. And by emphasizing the baffling circumstances under which the mass delusions of yesteryear could arise and exist, he manages to paint a frightening modern picture with these long-forgotten cases.
Take the Crusades in the 11th century for example. A snowballing travelling righteous army, resulting in swarm of three hundred thousand men, women and children. Desperate and hungry for food and action, they plundered, like hungry locusts, and scorched the land and the villages they passed. This mass of humans-on-a-mission left a trail of destruction and death in all the lands it passed through, on the way to their promised land.
I know a lot of Dutch folks who think very highly of their fellow countrymen. They would do well to read the chapter about the tulip mania. Whole family fortunes were destroyed, spended on flower bulbs. Luxurious houses and castles were sold, to buy one (1!) tulip bulb, because for some these tulip bulbs suddenly did very well on the world market. It is a classic case study and a bad omen of the financial bubbles, that plague us in current times.
The trend started in the early 1600s and continued until 1635, after which the bubble burst and prices plummeted, driving formerly relatively wealthy merchants onto the streets with a begging bowl. Formerly wealthy citizens were suddenly back at square one. Baffled, and barely realizing what had happened to them.
A Sufi whose name I forgot once said “Everyone on an individual level is tolerant, emphatic and reasonable – As a member of a group, he or she suddenly turns into a mindless moron.”
At Notoir HQ, we marvel at this kind of books, and we think you should like it, too. When you are interested in mass psychosis and mass hysteria, you might enjoy our own The Psychology of Revolution, by Gustave Le Bon.
And then there is The Behavior of Crowds. a Psychological Study, by Everett Dean Martin.
Also of interest is our book The Black Death and the Dancing Mania – J.F.C. Hecker, also with a hell of a title!
Extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds
by Charles Mackay