Memes in the City
No, Mackay doesn’t use the term meme, but the concept of contagious ideas that self-propagate through a population was as real in the past as it is today. We like to think that our current systems of communication are beyond compare, but the old grapevine of the past was as efficient as any email or IM device is today. Only the scale of the impact has changed.
In Popular Follies of Great Cities, the reader will recognize many themes that occur in today’s world. A phrase that is picked up overnight by half the population only to be lost again just as fast.
Applied to fiction, these ideas can lend depth to your stories but I think that it would be difficult to derive a plot solely from this structure.
Fear of the Unknown
Fear of the unknown is another powerful element in fiction. Those who use fear to achieve their ends make great villains. Those who oppose fear, who try and bring forth the light of knowledge make great heroes (or martyrs).
The chapter on Witch Mania concerns the global hunt for something that did not exist, but it was also about power. Misdirection is a key element of suspense. You can achieve a lot of mischief if people are looking elsewhere.
Oh, the great healing power of magnets! Whether it’s true or not, the idea of magnetism as a healing factor is an age-old belief. It comes round again and again through history and as such someone is always making a fortune.
In the writing game, the miracle cure for what ails you, your city, a country, the world, is and has always been a top selling idea. Begin with one of the oldest tales, the Arthurian saga. The grail quest, while actually more of a relic story, is about a miracle cure for the king (which in turn will renew the land). Modern variants include stories about global pandemics, but you could easily find a hundred popular stories about quack medical theories and cures if you peruse the backwaters of history. Phrenology anyone?
I was thinking of a good way to introduce this section of the book, but Mackay does a great job of it himself in the second paragraph:
An undue opinion of our own importance in the scale of creation is at the bottom of all our unwarrantable notions. How flattering the pride of man to think that the stars in their courses watch over him, and typify, by their movements and aspects, the joys or the sorrows that await him! He, less in proportion to the universe than the all-but invisible insects that feed in myriads on a summer’s leaf are to this great globe itself, fondly imagines that eternal worlds were chiefly created to prognosticate his fate.
Continue reading Extraordinary Delusions and The Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay (Part 6)
An epidemic terror of the end of the world has several times spread over nations.
This section of the book deals with the idea that the world is about to end. It is a perfect dovetail to the modern thriller genre. All of the mechanics of this genre are represented in the great terrors of the past. There are always those who whip up the frenzied masses, either out of ignorance or (more commonly) personal power and profit. Mackay describes the Christian terror that swept through Europe in 1000AD and then goes on to describe similar events surrounding plagues and war, environmental catastrophes (like earthquakes). Quite often, a prophecy is tied to some much earlier prediction of destruction. Modern soothsayers will point to the predictions of Nostradamus or even more latter-day mystics that predict catastrophic geological shifts that will turn Denver into a seaport in a fortnight.
Continue reading Extraordinary Delusions and The Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay (Part 5)