I hope I’m not alone – because this article is going to start off fairly confessional – in experiencing some serious, at times verging on murderous, street-rage. If I’m in a bad mood it seems excusable, like of course my reaction to someone taking three seconds longer than I think accountable at the ATM should prompt the barely internalized mutter of “Forfuckssake!” that bursts from within, if I’ve just had an argument with someone or I got mugged the night before or I’m on my way to a spinning class or I’m just feeling…ragey. But what about the times where I was fine the second before but something about the raised tone of someone’s phone voice or the oblique stare of the guy across from me or the moment someone cuts me up on the pavement just makes me hate them. It doesn’t even need to be as definitive a moment as that; sometimes it’s just the sight of a person or group, and the judgements I make about them, which sets me off on my own private digression of post-analytic vitriol.
Like, for example, the other day on the tube I alighted on a virtually empty carriage and settled down to read Crime and Punishment (more on that seemingly irrelevant – read: smug – allusion later) in peace. One stop later a troupe of about fifteen Korean tourists got on and sat surrounding me in my little pod of chairs talking/laughing/screaming literally non-stop. My internal rage was off the scale, to the extent that I did something I’d usually be too self-consciously ‘polite’ to do and got off a few stops later to move carriages (next carriage but one so they couldn’t see me, of course – I’m British, after all.)
If asked why this was, there are obvious answers I might give. The noise was genuinely obnoxious; it was an instinctive reaction based on my mood; it was a result of tension built up under the self-control and social etiquette that cushions most of my daily interactions; it was my prejudices, judgments and assumptions taking over as I switched from ‘making a good impression’ with people who ‘matter’ and reverted to ‘auto-pilot’ with people I didn’t know, who didn’t feel ‘real.’
What I want to know is: what is it about the allegedly ‘faceless’ stranger, or crowd of strangers, that elicits in us such a powerful imaginative force of de-facing. What causes us to depersonalise, distort and often detest the masses that barge in and out of our daily orbit or lurk on the sidelines of our personal worldview, essentially freaking us out by their autonomy in another equally narrow but separate perspective of their own.
Because there is something weird about that thought, isn’t there? The fact that every single person you jostle with into a train carriage or pass on the escalator or get into an awkward two-step crossing of paths with on the street has their own version of your weird pseudo-universal little bubble of being. Our thoughts are so big and lofty as we handle any ordinary day—a journey from Kings Cross to Victoria can contain some deep existential grappling, or at the very least a highly emotional daydream to the guilty-pleasure Coldplay song wheebling out of your ipod headphones (ok, I made up ‘wheebling,’ but it sounds about right doesn’t it?) It becomes easier to dismiss people as so many oversized rucksacks and sweaty shoulders in your face, than imagine they’re all as stressed out and real as you are.
It is something that occurred to me recently while reading a passage in the afore-ostentatiously-mentioned copy of Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov (what a name) goes for a feverish walk in his post-homicidal malaise and sees a sort of tableau of destitution around him:
“A drunken soldier with a cigarette was loafing in the street nearby, swearing loudly…A ragamuffin was swearing at another ragamuffin, and there was a man lying dead drunk in the middle of the street…[a group of women] were talking in husky voices…Some were over forty, but there were some younger than seventeen; almost every one of them had a black eye.”
Dostoevsky is full of these sorts of moments of extrusive mental clarity: the protagonist turns outwards momentarily and encounters the world as both a reflection and a repulsion of his inner state. Raskolnikov feels drawn to these sights ‘when he was sick at heart,’ so as it to make it ‘all the more sickening.’ The process is almost cathartic in its effect of self-affirmation. What he sees, or thinks he sees, both affirms that he is not alone – everything really is as depressing as he feels – but also automatically separates him from the world he observes. If he’s sickened by it, he’s above it.
Similarly, when we see something outside ourselves and extract a judgement from within – ‘woman talking loudly on the phone à abrasive, in your face, self-absorbed’; ‘man wearing a flashy suit à self-important, snobbish, a cad’ – we are assimilating things into our own little worldview and colouring them in accordingly. It’s a process of DE-FACE à RE-FACE à REJECT, which allows us to say, “Right, I know what that is and I don’t like it, so I’m OK.”
Raskolnikov’s walk reminded me of a passage in a novel that takes mental extrusion to its absurdist extreme: the chapter called ‘The Eternal City’ in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Wandering through ‘tomblike streets,’ the ultimate anti-hero Yossarian (in the Dostoevskian tradition of volatile, manic…kinda off-beat heroes) finds that: ‘The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world.’ This is the crux, I think: if you are disgusted then you are disabused. You cannot be a part of something you objectify because it is thus that you place it outside yourself. The negation of a stranger’s interior existence beyond what you can see and assume, which is inherent when you label them, confirms that it is YOUR perspective that matters – and preexists the rest – and puts a stop to any potentially depressing identification. If they are wrong, then you must be right. Right?
I went to Ikea last weekend. Arriving as it opened at 9am to beat the rush, about thirty other people had had the same idea and were queuing outside, which my family of course found ‘hilarious’ (albeit we were just as sad.) As the rotating doors whirred into action and everyone crammed in – and I can vouch for this not being a riotous affair – I heard one woman pointedly say “Corr, some people are so impatient aren’t they?”
The act of distancing yourself from the foolish scrum of the world around you is a tempting, sometimes necessary, way of preserving the ego. Raskolnikov recalls the story of a man who would rather ‘live somewhere high up on a cliffside, on a ledge so narrow that there was room only for his two feet’ than die. Rasknolnikov’s response: “how true! Man is a scoundrel! And he’s a scoundrel who calls him a scoundrel for that” sums up the complex double bind that our revulsion with strangers leaves us in. All the people pushing are arseholes, but you’re an arsehole if you’re the guy that says “Arseholes!” (and you’re an arsehole for thinking that guy’s an arsehole, too.)
The trouble is we can never know everyone’s truth; Yossarian admits the man he hears shouting for help – “Police!” – could equally be warning of danger. Both Raskolnikov and Yossarian’s refrains – “they’ve found me out” / “they’re trying to kill me” – just serve to repeat an equation that always = me. Most of us realize the world is not conspiring against us, but it’s easy to forget that the judgments we make about other people, to fuel OUR bad mood or let US off the hook, are often no more than an unbalanced equation of ‘them + me = me.’ It works in the short-term but ultimately self-affirmation at the expense of others – as Yossarian and anyone who’s witnessed an outbreak of poorly suppressed tube rage followed by awkward silence and judgment by all – results in shame.
So when you’re feeling self-righteously ragey, it’s good to remember that your ego is not alone. Spooky? Not as spooky as “walking on human teeth,” as Yossarian does. If you walk a path made firm by your judgments of others, or view the world from a ridge just big enough for your two feet, you’re liable to trip. So – deep breath – was it the Koreans’ noise that was getting in the way of my tubular enjoyment, or was it my need for silence? I still think it was their noise, but you get the picture.