Speaking of William Morris’s medieval fantasy, “The Well at the World’s End ,” C.S. Lewis once asked himself if anyone could actually write a story as magical as that title. To me, Charles Mackay’s “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” possesses an almost equally evocative power. First published in 1841 and expanded in 1852, it chronicles some of the many varieties of human folly, obsession and self-delusion. Here, in fact, are the deep taproots of the credulity and lemming-like behavior that characterize today’s social media.
Mackay himself was a wide-ranging man of letters, as well as the father — via a servant — of Marie Corelli, at one time the best-selling novelist in England. Today her books, such as the wittily macabre fantasy “The Sorrows of Satan,” are somewhat undeservedly forgotten. Not so her father’s masterpiece, which is periodically rediscovered and acclaimed. I myself first learned about it as a boy from reading “Baruch: My Own Story,” the autobiography of the financier Bernard M. Baruch, who credited Mackay with convincing him to sell all his stock just before the 1929 market crash. More recently, economic writers such as Andrew Tobias and Michael Lewis have championed the book.
Overall, one might characterize Mackay’s work as popular history, conveyed in a tone of ironic, head-shaking amusement. Its epigraph could easily have been Puck’s famous observation, “What fools these mortals be!” In its first chapter, “Money Mania — The Mississippi Scheme,” Mackay recounts how the professional gambler John Law took over the banking of 17th-century France, flooded the market with paper currency, ran up the national debt to Trumpian levels and ultimately wreaked havoc throughout society. For a short while, though, everyone from shopkeepers to the most distinguished nobles trusted Law’s financial genius and, like the victims fleeced by Bernie Madoff, could hardly wait to give him their money.
Following a description of England’s similar mania, “The South-Sea Bubble,” Mackay’s third chapter remains his most famous. “The Tulipomania” tracks the introduction of tulips into Europe, the particular passion of the Dutch for these flowers, and the increasingly vast sums paid to acquire rare examples. People traded land, jewelry, carriages and art for a single onion-like bulb. And then, poof, in a twinkling, the demand for tulips collapsed, and investors found themselves desperate to unload their stock at any price. For a modern analogue, on a much lower scale, think back to the craze for Beanie Babies.
To my mind, though, Mackay really shines in his lively but disdainful accounts of alchemy, the fanaticism and brutality of the Crusades and the persecution of reputed witches. Here is how he introduces his overview of alchemy:
“Three causes especially have excited the discontent of mankind; and, by impelling us to seek for remedies for the irremediable, have bewildered us in a maze of madness and error. These are death, toil, and ignorance of the future. . . The first has led many to imagine that they might find means to avoid death, or failing in this, that they might, nevertheless, so prolong existence as to reckon it by centuries instead of units. From this sprang the search, so long continued and still pursued, for the elixir vitae, or water of life, which has led thousands to pretend to it and millions to believe in it. From the second sprang the search for the philosopher’s stone, which was to create plenty by changing all metals into gold; and from the third, the false science of astrology, divination, and their divisions of necromancy, chiromancy, augury, with all their train of signs, portents, and omens.”
Mackay then proceeds to regale us with brief biographies of such noted occultists as Roger Bacon, Paracelsus, Dr. Dee, the Comte de St. Germain and Cagliostro. Admittedly, some of what he says has been superseded by the more scholarly research of Frances A. Yates and other historians, but he remains vastly entertaining nonetheless. His description of Cornelius Agrippa even strikes an eerily contemporary note:
“Some men, by dint of excessive egotism, manage to persuade their contemporaries that they are very great men indeed: they publish their acquirements so loudly in people’s ears, and keep up their own praises so incessantly, that the world’s applause is actually taken by storm.”
Like Robert Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy,” Isaac D’Israeli’s “Curiosities of Literature” and Charles Fort’s “The Book of the Damned,” “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” is an encyclopedic hodgepodge, the bookish equivalent to Aladdin’s cave of wonders. Under “Modern Prophecies,” for instance,” Mackay surveys beliefs in the imminent end of the world. In “The Slow Poisoners,” he discusses this once fashionable mode for eliminating enemies, rightly lingering over the beautiful Marquise de Brinvilliers, the murderer of her father and two brothers (as well as the inspiration for John Dickson Carr’s supreme mystery thriller “The Burning Court”). Above all, Mackay is a compelling storyteller, whatever his topic: haunted houses, phony relics, celebrated highwaymen, the clever guiles of fortune-tellers. While mocking the pseudo-scientific use of magnets to treat disease, he even neatly sums up the power of all charlatans: “Induce belief and blind confidence, and you may do any thing.”
Every age, Mackay writes, “has its peculiar folly; some scheme, project, or phantasy into which it plunges, spurred on either by the love of gain, the necessity of excitement, or the mere force of imitation.” Gain, excitement, imitation — today’s social media certainly trades in all those, while confirming more than ever the virulent and now viral “madness of crowds.”
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
By Charles Mackay