THE chief impulse of crowds is to expand rapidly. This axiom, posted by Nobel literature laureate Elias Canetti in his study, ``Crowds and Power,'' was wonderfully illustrated in the Woodstock, N.Y., gathering 20 years ago this week. For three days, some 350,000 young people collected in a rural part of the Catskills in a benign mass, like a swarm of bees numbed in the summer sun. Much of the commentary at the time dealt with theories of individual behavior, reflecting worry that hippiedom, rock music, and pot were seducing a generation. But Woodstock may better be explained by the fundamental dynamics of crowd behavior that get little attention in a culture that sets so much store by individualism. The classic attributes of the crowd as a sociological phenomenon, according to Mr. Canetti, are: 1) the crowd has no natural boundaries to expansion; 2) within the crowd is a feeling of absolute equality, a desire to ignore qualities that distinguish the individual; 3) a crowd loves density, tries to press in upon itself to eliminate anything that would divide its members; and 4) the crowd desires direction, and seizes on almost any goal that will help avoid its constant fear of disintegration. All these patterns were visible at Woodstock.
Woodstock, then, may have been more the creation of an instinctive impulsion to gather, a mass tribal urge, than a response to the specific musical or lifestyles of the time. But poof, and Woodstock was gone.
A contrasting crowd pattern was acted out in the Swiss mountain town of Gryon a week ago. Gryon is a farm village half-way up Mt. Diableret in the French-speaking canton of the Vaud, overlooking the Rhone valley. Over a period of 10 days, the 1,000 or so citizens of Gryon celebrated the 800th anniversary of the founding of their village. That's a history four times longer than that of the French Revolution celebrated last month.
There are, also, slow crowds, Canetti notes. If the goal is remote, say the Promised Land for the Children of Israel in Egypt, the crowd may have to move tediously toward it; individuals may die, fall by the wayside. But if the goal is vivid enough the crowd moves onward, even over generations. A second kind of slow crowd moves more like a river, such as the annual pilgrimage to Mecca which builds mightily from small caravans of pilgrims.
Gryon's citizens staged a pageant through its streets that rather depicted a slow crowd. The town was founded in 1189 by the act of one Pierre de Griuns. In 1536, the Reformation imposed Protestantism. Between 1581 and 1650, the plague ravaged Gryon, carrying away 32 persons in 1640 alone. One midsummer night in 1719, an arsonist torched Gryon and the neighboring settlement of Taveyanne - some 104 buildings left in embers at dawn. In 1798 the townsmen fought with the Vaudois against Bernese domination, in the battle of the Col de la Croix. In 1856, a stagecoach road was built up the mountain, launching the summer tourism. In 1900, a railway brought the first skiers.
Gryon never succeeded in the ``rapid expansion'' its elders wanted - the slight swells in summer and winter population hardly qualify. Its perch on a mountainside does not allow the kind of suburban expansion that has beset, say, Kansas City.
Its music is typical Swiss: A marching band on loan from the neighboring town of Ollon; a folk ensemble of two accordians, two clarinets, and a string bass; a sextet of alpenhorns, those enormously long windpipes whose haunting sounds make the village gymnasium tremble; and a church choir of mostly mature voices.
A communal meal of boarmeat.
A run of cows through the streets, their horns mounted with flowers and wreaths that panicked the beasts so that they crowded together into one flowing, self-protective mass. Nothing here to trigger a landslide of visitors.
In 800 years, the view of the valley and the mountains has remained the same as generations have come and gone. Cowbells can still be heard through the night. Chamois come down in spring to the lower meadows. Young people leave as soon as they can for the big cities of Geneva, Zurich.
Woodstock and Gryon. Humans find many ways to assemble.