Monday, 22 August 2011


Having escaped from the aftermath of one revolution without seeing much at the age of seven (just one day off eight) because I was not only a child but recovering from scarlet fever at the time, I have been at the prelude of a bloodless one in Hungary in 1989, returning to watch on TV other bloodless ones in Czechoslovakia (as it then was) and in East Germany (as it then was). In June that year, still in Hungary, I watched the massacre at Tienanmen Square on Hungarian TV twelve days before attending a big rally - Imre Nagy's reburial service in Budapest. I watched the Romanian revolution on TV after that and went to protest outside the Romanian Embassy while the siege of the TV building continued.

I am not sure whether I would call the invasion of Iraq a revolution though the immediate aftermath looked like one. Since then the Arab Spring - the falls in Tunisia and Egypt, and tonight, probably, the last thtroes of the Gaddafi regime in Lybia. Syria still goes on. In the meantime our own quite different riots have come and gone like summer snow for most of us, though not for their victims.


The mixture of exhilaration and terror, exultation and despair, the momentum of victory and comradeship and the breaking up of the forces of stable power. Surely you could take any series of photographs in any revolution and apart from the costumes and the weaponry they'd be identical. The great surge of joy at the downfall of an apparently impregnable power must be one of the most ancient of feelings and the core of other feelings that resemble it - victory at sport, the destruction of a building, even the lighting of a fire. The inner energy finds its outer vehicle. And in much the same way, I can't help being excited watching the scenes from Tripoli nor can I help comparing these feelings with those I felt at the fall of the Berlin Wall or the capture of Ceausescu.

There are differences of course. The Berlin Wall and the fall of Ceausescu were dramas in a world I knew and had internalised in my imagination. The revolutions struck me as absolute goods, the liberation of the better part of the spirit. The were, despite parallel feelings of apprehension, moments of high optimism. I had no doubt that there would be something better after Honecker, after Husak, after Kádár and the rest, never mind the backward hell-holes of Bulgaria and Albania. Thigs could only get better, couldn't they?

I cannot feel that about the Arab Spring. I see mostly educated, intelligent, humane people brushing aside a brutal, dull, inhumane enemy, or that is what I want to see. And so it may be. But I haven't internalised their problems and values and I have no absolute certainty about the outcome. Nor was I absolutely right about what would follow the fall of Europe's Berlin Walls. Not that I would put the clock back - not for one second - but I can quite see that the moment of exultation did not lead to a condition that could in all respects be described as better. Certainly not in the ex-Yugoslavia. Or if better elsewhere, still not as good as I had hoped. As anyone hoped. Because in such moments hope is everything.


The book this makes return to is Canetti's Crowds and Power. Here he is describing the Crowd erupting:

The open crowd is the true crowd, the crowd abandoning itself freely to its natural urge for growth. An open crowd has no clear feeling or idea of the size it may attain; it does not depend on a known building which it has to fill...
He then goes on to the eruption:

I designate as eruption the sudden transition from a closed into an open crowd. This is a frequent occurrence, and one should not understand it as something referring only to space. A crowd quite often seems to overflow from some well-guarded space into the squares and streets of a town where it can move about freely... Since the French Revolution these eruptions have taken on a form which we feel to be modern... The history of the last 150 years [Canetti was writing this before 1960] has culminated in a spate of such eruptions...
The whole book is fascinating on the animal mechanism of the crowd. The section in which he discusses The Pack and Religion is pertinent to our times.

My personal brief experience of the revolutionary pack has not led me to any trust of crowds. People in crowds tend to behave worse, as we know from our recent experience.

And yet I still feel the exhilaration, the exultation and joy of a crowd in celebration. The end - or even the beginning of a football match, the sinister delight of a Busby Berkeley dance routine. Visceral events. You don't get anywhere without the viscera. Not in art. But art teaches the viscera its great formal, sometimes quite cold-blooded dances.

Revolutions are not like that.

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