Walking on Eggshells
You never truly know the faces you pass on the street. In Charles Bukowski’s “The Genius of the Crowd,” we are given a beautiful sermon from the gutter. The themes that arise include skepticism based on experience, recognizing and embracing what makes you unique, and the overwhelming power of the masses. Bukowski gives us a series of warnings and justifications before finally taking the reader to the realization of their ultimate downfall. The picture painted in this poem is one of rise and fall of an individual, physically, mentally, and societally. “The Genius of the Crowd” teaches us to revel in the chaos and madness of life by making choices that are true to ourselves, while simultaneously comprehending the eggshells one must walk on when living a life of individual choice independent from the crowd to tread softly with vigilance and understanding on said eggshells. Even though sometimes this ends up being in vain.
“Beware, the average man, the average woman, BEWARE their love.” In the lines preceding these Bukowski has been describing different kinds of people with different ideas that drive them to think or act in different ways. He gives us a warning of them and later a watered-down justification of their actions. Overall, he’s describing everybody who isn’t looking from behind your own eyes, including friends, family, and especially strangers. He is trying to warn you that if you truly are an individual, one who isn’t frequently a part of the general crowd of social trends; you may need a bit of advice on understanding the average human condition from where you’re standing because until you’ve had a bit more experience, you may not even think twice about the faces that surround you on the avenues of life. This is where Bukowski gives us concrete examples like, “AND the best at murder are those who preach against it. AND the best at hate are those who preach LOVE. AND THE BEST AT WAR – FINALLY- ARE THOSE WHO PREACH, PEACE.” Bukowski even goes on to warn us about some of the more overlooked individuals that he preaches to be wary of when he furthers his thoughts in the lines “Beware those who are ALWAYS READING BOOKS, Beware those who either detest poverty or are proud of it, BEWARE those quick to praise for they need PRAISE in return.” With thoughts like these Bukowski is really laying into the common man, he’s generalizing the “average man or woman” using a scope so wide that he’s ultimately indicating that you’re really the only one you can be sure about, yet without this warning you might not even necessarily be sure of that yet. One of the encompassing themes that arises from this series of thoughts is simply to beware the average human being, the faces on the street, for you don’t yet know what it would be like to experience the perfection of their personal hatred. He’s telling us that there are two (or more) sides to every coin and human beings share a similar framework.
While Bukowski is giving us a series of warnings for the greater part of the first half of this poem he’s also trying to indicate to you that by recognizing the idea that you should be wary of the average human being and the masses, you’re recognizing who you understand yourself to be, and what makes you unique from the many faces you pass each day. One of the most solid backing lines of this idea comes from “Beware those who seek constant crowds; they are nothing alone.” Bukowski is trying to make the reader realize that if they understand that line at its core then they would recognize that they know themselves enough to understand the occasional serenity of lonesomeness, they would be comfortable enough with only themselves that they would not frequently need to seek crowds. When he gives us examples like this he’s trying to coerce your thoughts into a self-realization of what makes you unique, and he’s shouting at the reader to embrace it; while making sure to not over-alienate themselves in the process. He provides further insight to this thought when he adds, in just a few lines farther, “Not wanting solitude, not understanding solitude, they will attempt to destroy anything that differs from their own. Not being able to create art they will not understand art. They will consider their failure as creators only as a failure of the world.” What Bukowski is getting at with these lines is simply that if you as the reader find yourself not being the people he’s describing as the common man or woman then you should embrace those qualities in yourself rather than dismissing them in the same way as “those who do not understand art” dismiss art. He is also pointing out to the reader that being able to objectively view your failures as your own instead of blaming the external, exhibits a valuable trait of uniqueness that a complete understanding of isn’t frequently achieved by many. Once more Bukowski reiterates for us at the midway point that while you must embrace your uniqueness, you are still walking on eggshells when you live as a true “individual,” so beware.
“There is enough treachery, hatred, violence, absurdity in the average human being to supply any given army on any given day.” When Bukowski opens the poem, he gives us a glimpse into the inevitable downfall of the individual who might not heed his warning. He uses the average man and woman as a symbol for society and the masses in these first few lines and then returns to this symbol for the last four stanzas of the poem where he paints a picture of said downfall. During the first half of the poem Bukowski is poetically guiding you into a tiptoe marathon with the masses while building the weight of his convictions ever greater. Eventually he shows us the tipping point for the individual who does not heed his warning when he changes the tone from building the weight of individualism to dropping it all at once suddenly. He’s using a beautifully poetic example of pathos when he adds, in the last two stanzas, “Not being able to love fully they will BELIVE your love incomplete, AND THEN THEY WILL HATE YOU. And their hatred will be perfect, like a shining diamond, like a knife, like a mountain, LIKE A TIGER, LIKE Hemlock. Their finest, ART.” He shows the reader the consequence of not being aware of the power of the masses, he’s saying that you can walk on those eggshells your whole life but if you misstep one too many times those hordes of average men and women could turn on you. If that were to happen they outnumber you so greatly that no matter what their reason for hating you is, you can count on it being generally accepted. We see this time and time again in today’s media when a public figure held in high regard says the wrong thing and loses their career for it, however Bukowski is saying that regardless of who you are, if you fancy yourself an individual, be careful of how your reputation could change in a moment when becoming a victim of their perfect hatred.
In the poem, “The Genius of the Crowd,” by Charles Bukowski the reader is taken on a journey from the point of beginning self-realization to the end of the gutter and shown the road from start to finish. We’re shown at least three different concrete stops on this road and how one could have avoided the resulting downfall. When Bukowski makes the first stop on the road for us we’re given examples of “the average human being” as if he were pointing in a zoo, and gives us the warnings on their cages. When we begin to understand those warnings, Bukowski makes our next stop at the animal sciences laboratory where he gives us justification for this “average human” condition. Yet when he makes the last stop on the road he purposely stops in the gutter to teach us what happens when we allow ourselves to be ignorant of the masses. “The Genius of the Crowd” paints a beautiful parallel between poetry and emotion as the themes in this poem grow to a point of plenum where Bukowski would rather portray the side of the coin where the individual buckles under the pressures and watch of society rather than exist in perfect fullness and contentment. When we step off this bus ride with Bukowski, we’re left with a bit of wisdom burned into our soul. Do what defines you but be aware of how the masses view you, there are more people in the world hoping you fail than hoping you succeed.
-Christopher Sutton 11/20/17
Bukowski, Charles, and John Martin. Run with the Hunted a Charles Bukowski Reader. Ecco, 2003.