Edgar Allen Poe

‘The detective story, whose interest lies in a logical construction that the crime story as such need not have, appeared in France for the first time in the form of translations of Poe’s stories ‘The Mystery of Marie Roger’, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, and ‘The Purloined Letter’. With his translations of these models, Baudelaire adopted the genre. Poe’s work was definitely absorbed in his own, and Baudelaire emphasizes this fact by stating his solidarity with the method in which the individual genres that Poe embraced harmonize. Poe was one of the greatest  technicians of modern literature. As Valery pointed out [cf. Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal, Paris, 1928; introduction by Paul Valery], he was the first to attempt the scientific story, a modern cosmogony, the description of pathological phenomena. These genres he regarded as exact products of a method for which he claimed universal validity. In this very point Baudelaire sided with him, and in Poe’s spirit he wrote: ‘The time is not distant when it will be understood that a literature which refuses to make its way in brotherly concord with science and philosophy is a murderous and suicidal literature.’ [II, 424]. The detective story, the most momentous among Poe’s technical achievements, was part of a literature that satisfied Baudelaire’s postulate. Its analysis constitutes part of the analysis of Baudelaire’s own work, despite the fact that Baudelaire wrote no stories of this type: The Fleurs du mal have three of its decisive elements as disjecta membra: the victim and the scene of the crime (‘Une Martyre’), the murderer (,Le Vin de l’assassin’), the masses (,Le Crepuscule du soir’). The fourth element is lacking – the one that permits the intellect to break through this emotion-laden atmosphere. Baudelaire wrote no detective story because, given the structure of his instincts, it was impossible for him to identify with the detective. In him, the calculating, constructive element was on the side of the asocial and had become an integral part of cruelty. Baudelaire was too good a reader of the Marquis de Sade to be able to compete with Poe. [‘One always has to go back to Sade … to explain evil’ (II, 694].

The original social content of the detective story was the obliteration of the individual’s traces in the big-city crowd. Poe concerns himself with this motif in detail in ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget’, the most voluminous of his detective stories. At the same time this story is the prototype of the utilization of journalistic information in the solution of crimes. Poe’s detective, the Chevalier Dupin, here works not with personal observation but with reports from the daily press. The critical analysis of these reports constitutes the rumour in the story. Among other things, the time of the crime has to be established. One paper, Le Commercial, expresses the view that Marie Roget, the murdered woman, has been done away with immediately after she has left her mother’s apartment. Poe writes: “It is impossible that a person so well known to thousands as this young woman was, should have passed three blocks without some one having seen her.” This is the idea of a man long resident in Paris – a public man – and one whose walks to and fro in the city have been mostly limited to the vicinity of the public offices …. He passes to and fro, at regular intervals, within a confined periphery, abounding in individuals who are led to observation of his person through interest in the kindred nature of his occupation with their own. But the walks of Marie may, in general, be supposed discursive. In this particular instance it will be understood as most probable that she proceeded upon a route of more than average diversity from her accustomed ones. The parallel which we imagine to have existed in the mind of Le Commercial would only be sustained in the event of the two individuals traversing the whole city. In this case, granting the personal acquaintances to be equal, the chances would be also equal that an equal number of personal rencontres would be made. For my own part, I should hold it not only as possible, but as far more than probable, that Marie might have proceeded, at any given period, by anyone of the many routes between her own residence and that of her aunt, without meeting a single individual whom she knew, or by whom she was known. In viewing this question in its full and proper light, we must hold steadily in mind the great disproportion between the personal acquaintances of even the most noted individual in Paris, and the entire population of Paris itself.’ If one disregards the context which gives rise to these reflections in Poe, the detective loses his competence, but the problem does not lose its validity.

‘Poe’s famous tale ‘The Man of the Crowd’ is something like the X-ray picture of a detective story. In it, the drapery represented by crime has disappeared. The mere armature has remained: the pursuer, the crowd, and an unknown man who  arranges his walk through London in such a way that he always remains in the middle of the crowd. This unknown man is the flaneur. That is how Baudelaire interpreted him when, in his essay on Guys, he called the flaneur ‘l’homme des foules’. But Poe’s description of this figure is devoid of the connivance which Baudelaire had for it. To Poe the flaneur was, above all, someone who does not feel comfortable in his own company. That is why he seeks out the crowd; the reason why he hides in it is probably close at hand. Poe purposely blurs the difference between the asocial person and the flaneur. The harder a man is to find, the more suspicious he becomes. Refraining from a prolonged pursuit, the narrator quietly sums up his insight as follows: ‘This old man … is the type and the genius of deep crime. He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd.’ The author does not demand the reader’s interest in this man alone; his description of the crowd will claim at least as much interest, for documentary as well as artistic reasons. In both respects the crowd stands out. The first thing that strikes one is the rapt attention with which the narrator follows the spectacle of the crowd. This same spectacle is followed, in a well-known story by E. T. A. Hoffmann, by the ‘Cousin at his corner window’. But this man, who is installed in his household, views the crowd with great constraint, whereas the man who stares through the window-panes of a coffeehouse has penetrating eyes. In the difference between the two observation posts lies the difference between Berlin and London. On the one hand there is the man of leisure. He sits in his alcove as in a box in the theatre; when he wants to take a closer look at the marketplace, he has opera glasses at hand. On the other hand there is the anonymous consumer who enters a cafe and will shortly leave it again, attracted by the magnet of the mass which constantly has him in its range. On the one side there is a multiplicity of little genre pictures which in their totality constitute an album of coloured engravings; on the other side there is a view which would be capable of inspiring a great etcher – an enormous crowd in which no one is either quite transparent or quite opaque to all others. A German petty bourgeois is subject to very narrow limits, and yet Hoffmann by nature belonged to the family of the Poes and the Baudelaires. In the biographical notes to the original edition of his last writings we read: ‘Hoffmann was never especially fond of Nature. He valued people – communication with them, observations about them, merely seeing them – more than anything else. If he went for a walk in summer, something that he did every day toward evening in fine weather, there was hardly a wine tavern or a confectioner’s shop where he did not stop in to see whether people were there and what people were there. [E. T. A. Hoffmann, Ausgewiihlte Schrifren, vol. 15: Leben und Nachlass by Julius Eduard Hitzig, vol. 3, Stuttgart, 1839, pp. 32ff]’ (‘The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire’, 48-9)

‘The above-mentioned story by Poe [‘The Man of the Crowd’] is a good case in point. There can hardly be a weirder description of this light; ‘The rays of the gas-lamps, feeble at first in their struggle with the dying day, had now at length gained ascendancy, and threw over every thing a fitful and garish lustre. All was dark yet splendid – as that ebony to which has been likened the style of Tertullian.’ ‘Inside a house,’ wrote Poe elsewhere, ‘gas is definitely inadmissible. Its flickering, harsh light offends the eye.’ [This quote appears to come from Adorno, in the correspondences]

The London crowd seems as gloomy and confused as the light in which it moves. This is true not only of the rabble that crawls ‘out of its dens’ at night. The employees of higher rank are described by Poe [in ‘The Man of the Crowd’] as follows: ‘They had all slightly bald heads, from which the right ears, long used to pen-holding, had an odd habit of standing off on end. I observed that they always removed or settled their hats with both hands, and wore watches, with short gold chains of a substantial and ancient pattern.’ In his description Poe did not aim at any direct observation. The uniformities to which the petty bourgeoisie are subjected by virtue of being part of the crowd are exaggerated; their appearance is not far from being uniform. Even more astonishing is the description of the way the crowd moves. ‘By far the greater number of those who went by had a satisfied businesslike demeanour, and seemed to be thinking only of making their way through the press. Their brows were knit, and their eyes rolled quickly; when pushed against by fellow-wayfarers they evinced no symptom of impatience, but adjusted their clothes and hurried Oil. Others, still a numerous class, were restless in their movements, had flushed faces, and talked and gesticulated to themselves, as if feeling in solitude on account of the very denseness of the company around. When impeded in their progress, these people suddenly ceased muttering, but redoubled their gesticulations, and awaited, with an absent and overdone smile upon the lips, the course of the persons impeding them. If jostled, they bowed profusely to the jostlers, and appeared overwhelmed with confusion.’ One might think he was speaking of half-drunken wretches. Actually, they were ‘noblemen, merchants, attorneys, tradesmen, stock-jobbers’. Something other than a psychology of the classes is involved here. [The image of America which Marx had seems to be of the same stuff as Poe’s description. He emphasizes the ‘feverishly youthful pace of material production’ in the States and blames this very pace for the fact that there was ‘neither time nor opportunity . . . to abolish the old spirit world’ (Marx, Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte, op. cit., p. 30). In Poe there is something demonic even about the physiognomy of the businessmen.
Baudelaire describes how as darkness descends ‘the harmful demons’ awaken in the air ‘sluggish as a bunch of businessmen’ (I, 108)…]

There is a lithograph by Senefelder which represents a gambling club. Not one of those depicted is pursuing the game in the customary fashion. Each man is dominated by an emotion: one shows unrestrained joy; another, distrust of his partner; a third, dull despair; a fourth evinces belligerence; another is getting ready to depart from the world. In its extravagance this lithograph is reminiscent of Poe. Poe’s subject, to be sure, is greater, and his means are in keeping with this. His masterly stroke in this description is that he does not show the hopeless isolation of men in their private interests through the variety of their behaviour, as does Senefelder, but expresses this isolation in absurd uniformities of dress or conduct. The servility with which those pushed even go on to apologize, shows where the devices which Poe employs here come from. They are from the repertoire of clowns, and Poe uses them in a fashion similar to that later employed by clowns. In the performance of a clown, there is an obvious reference to economy. With his abrupt movements he imitates both the machines which push the material and the economic boom which pushes the merchandise. The segments of the crowd described by Poe [in ‘The Man of the Crowd’] effect a similar mimicry of the ‘feverish … pace of material production’ along with the business forms that go with it. What the fun fair, which turned the little man into a clown, later accomplished with its dodgem cars and related amusements is anticipated in Poe’s description. The people in his story behave as if they could no longer express themselves through anything but a reflex action. These goings-on seem even more dehumanized because Poe talks only about people. If the crowd is jammed up, it is not because it is being impeded by vehicular traffic – there is no mention of it anywhere – but because it is being blocked by other crowds. In a mass of this nature the art of strolling could not flourish. (‘The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire’, 52-3)

‘On his peregrinations the man of the crowd lands at a late hour in a department store where there still are many customers. He moves about like someone who knows his way around the place. Were there multi-storied department stores in Poe’s day? No matter; Poe lets the restless man spend an ‘hour and a half, or thereabouts’ in this bazaar. ‘He entered shop after shop, priced nothing, spoke no word, and looked at all objects with a wild and vacant stare.’ If the arcade is the classical form of the intirieur, which is how the flaneur sees the street, the  department store is the form of the interieur’s decay. The bazaar is the last hangout of the flaneur. If in the beginning the street had become an interieur for him, now this interieur turned into a street, and he roamed through the labyrinth of merchandise as he had once roamed through the labyrinth of the city. It is a magnificent touch in Poe’s story that it includes along with the earliest description of the flaneur the figuration of his end.’ (‘The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire’, 54)

‘One wonders how lyric poetry can be grounded in experience [einer erfahrung] for which exposure to shock [Chockerlebnis] has become the norm. One would expect such poetry to have a large measure of consciousness; it would suggest that a plan was at work in its composition. This is indeed true of Baudelaire’s poetry; it establishes a connection between him and Poe, among his predcessors, and with Valery, among his successors…’ (‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, GS 614)

‘A story by Poe which Baudelaire translated can be seen as the classic example among the older versions of the motif of the crowd. It is marked by certain peculiarities which, upon closer inspection, reveal aspects of social forces of such power and hidden depth that we may include them among the only ones that are capable of exerting both a subtle and a profound effect on artistic production. The story is entitled “The Man of the Crowd.” It is set in London, and its narrator is a man who, after a long illness, ventures out again for the first time into the hustle and bustle of the On a late afternoon in autumn, he takes a seat by the window in a big London coffeehouse. He gazes around at the other customers and pores over advertisements in the paper, but he is mainly interested in the throng of people he sees through the window, surging past in the street. “The latter is one of the principal thoroughfares of the city, and had been very much crowded during the whole day. But, as the darkness came on, the throng momently increased; and by the time the lamps were well lighted, two dense and continuous tides of population were rushing past the door. At this particular period of the evening I had never before been in a similar situation, and the tumultuous sea of human heads filled me, therefore, with a delicious novelty of emotion. I gave up, at length, all care of things within the hotel, and became absorbed in contemplation of the scene without.” Important as it is, let us disregard the narrative to which this is the prelude and examine the setting.

The appearance of the London crowd as Poe describes it is as gloomy and fitful as the light of the gas lamps overhead. This applies not only to the riffraff that is “brought forth from its den” as night falls. The employees of higher rank, “the upper clerks of staunch firms:’ Poe describes as follows: “They had all slightly bald heads, from which the right ears, long used to pen-holding, had an odd habit of standing off on end. I observed that they always removed or settled their hats with both hands, and wore watches, with short gold chains of a substantial and ancient pattern.” Even more striking is his description of the crowd’s movements. “By far the greater number of those who went by had a satisfied business-like demeanour, and seemed to be thinking only of making their way through the press. Their brows were knit, and their eyes rolled quickly; when pushed against by fellow-wayfarers they evinced no symptom of impatience, but adjusted their clothes and hurried on. Others, still a numerous class, were restless in their movements, had flushed faces, and talked and gesticulated to themselves, as if feeling in solitude on account of the very denseness of the company around. Then impeded in their progress, these people suddenly ceased muttering, but redoubled their gesticulations, and awaited, with an absent and overdone smile upon the lips, the course of the persons impeding them. If jostled, they bowed profusely to the jostlers, and appeared overwhelmed with confusion.” [n. This passage has a parallel in “Un Jour de pluie.” Even though it bears the name of another writer, this poem must be ascribed to Baudelaire. The last verse, which gives the poem its extraordinarily somber quality, has an exact counterpart in “The Man of the Crowd.” Poe writes: “The rays of the gas lamps, feeble at first in their struggle with the dying day, had now at length gained ascendancy, and threw over everything a fitful and garish luster. All was dark yet splendid-as that ebony to which has been likened the style of Tertullian.” The coincidence here is all the more astonishing as the following verses were written in 1843 at the latest, a period when Baudelaire did not know Poe.] One might think he was speaking of half-drunken wretches. Actually, they were “noblemen, merchants, attorneys, tradesmen, stock-jobbers.” [n. There is something demonic about Poe’s businessmen. One is reminded of Marx, who blamed the “feverishly youthful pace of material production” in the United States for the lack of “either time or opportunity … to abolish the old world of the spirit.”] Poe’s image cannot be called realistic. It shows a purposely distorting imagination at work, one that takes the text far from what is commonly advocated as the model of socialist realism. Barbier, perhaps one of the best examples of this type of realism, described things in a less eccentric way. Moreover, he chose a more transparent subject: the oppressed masses. Poe is not concerned with these; he deals with “people;’ pure and simple. For him, as for Engels, there was something menacing in the spectacle they presented…

Baudelaire was moved to equate the man of the crowd, whom Poe’s narrator follows throughout the length and breadth of nocturnal London, with the flaneur. It is hard to accept this view. The man of the crowd is no flaneur. In him, composure has given way to manic behavior. He exemplifies, rather, what had to become of the flaneur after the latter was deprived of the milieu to which he belonged. If London ever provided it for him, it was certainly not the setting described by Poe.’ (‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, GS 624-5)

‘How the man of leisure views the crowd is revealed in a short piece by E. T. A. Hoffmann, his last story, entitled “The Cousin’s Corner Window.” It antedates Poe’s story by fifteen years and is probably one of the earliest attempts to capture the street scene of a large city. The differences between the two pieces are worth noting. Poe’s narrator watches the street from the window of a public coffeehouse, whereas the cousin is sitting at home. Poe’s observer succumbs to the fascination of the scene, which finally lures him out into the whirl of the crowd. The cousin in Hoffmann’s tale, looking out from his corner window, has lost the use of his legs; he would not be able to go with the crowd even if he were in the midst of it. His attitude toward the crowd is, rather, one of superiority, inspired as it is by his observation post at the window of an apartment building …If Hoffmann had ever set foot in Paris or London, or if he had been intent on depicting the masses as such, he would not have focused on a marketplace; he Would not have portrayed the scene as being dominated by women. He would perhaps have seized on the motifs that Poe derives from the swarming crowds under the gas lamps. Actually, there would have been no need for these motifs in order to bring out the uncanny or sinister elements that other students of the physiognomy of the big city have felt.’ (‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, GS 617-8)

‘Fear, revulsion, and horror were the emotions which the big-city crowd aroused in those who first observed it. For Poe, it has something barbaric about it; discipline barely manages to tame it.’ (‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, GS 629)

‘Whereas Poe’s passers-by cast glances in all directions, seemingly without cause, today’s pedestrians are obliged to look about them so that they can be aware of traffic signals. Thus, technology has subjected the human sensorium to a complex kind of training… In working with machines, workers learn to coordinate “their own movements with the uniformly constant movements of an automaton.” These words shed a peculiar light on the absurd kind of uniformity that Poe wants to impose on the crowd – uniformities of attire and behavior, but also a uniformity of facial expression. Those smiles provide food for thought. They are probably the familiar kind, as expressed these days in the phrase “keep smiling”; in Poe’s story, they function as a mimetic shock absorber …Poe’s text helps us understand the true connection between wildness and discipline. His pedestrians act as if they had adapted themselves to machines and could express themselves only automatically. Their behavior is a reaction to shocks. “If jostled, they bowed profusely to the jostlers.” …The shock experience [Chockerlebnis] which the passer-by has in the crowd corresponds to the isolated “experiences” of the worker at his machine. This does not entitle us to assume that Poe knew anything about industrial work processes.’ (‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, GS 631-2)

‘There is a lithograph by Senefelder which depicts a gambling club. Not one of the individuals in the scene is pursuing the game in ordinary fashion. Each man is dominated by an emotion: one shows unrestrained joy; another, distrust of his partner; a third, dull despair; a fourth evinces belligerence; another is getting ready to take leave of the world. All these modes of conduct share a concealed characteristic: the figures presented show us how the mechanism to which gamblers entrust themselves seizes them body and soul, so that even in their private sphere, and no matter how agitated they may be, they are capable only of reflex actions. They behave like the pedestrians in Poe’s story. They live their lives as automatons and resemble Bergson’s fictitious characters who have completely liquidated their memories.’ (‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, GS 633-4)

‘The rage explodes in time to the ticking of the seconds that enslaves the melancholy man. “Et le Temps m’ engloutit minute par minute, I Comme la neige immense un corps pris de roideur.” [“And, minute by minute, Time engulfs me, I The way an immense snowfall engulfs a body grown stiff.”] These lines immediately follow the ones quoted above. In spleen, time is reified: the minutes cover a man like snowflakes. This time is historyless, like that of the memoire involontaire. But in spleen the perception of time is supernaturally keen. Every second finds consciousness ready to intercept its shock [n. In the mystical “Colloquy of Monos and Una,” Poe has, so to speak, taken the empty time sequence to which the subject in the mood of spleen is delivered up, and copied it into the duree; he seems blissfully happy to have rid himself of its horrors. It is a “sixth sense” acquired by the departed, consisting of an ability to derive harmony even from the empty passage of time. To be sure, it is quite easily disrupted by the rhythm of the second-hand. “There seemed to have sprung up in the brain that of which no words could convey to the merely human intelligence even an indistinct conception. Let me term it a mental pendulous pulsation. It was the moral embodiment of man’s abstract idea of Time. By the absolute equalization of this movement-or of such as this-had the cycles of the firmamental orbs themselves been adjusted. By its aid I measured the irregularities of the clock upon the mantel, and of the watches of the attendants. Their tickings came sonorously to my ears. The slightest deviation from the true proportion … affected me just as violations of abstract truth are wont, on earth, to affect the moral sense]’ (‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, GS 642)

‘The locus ou tout, meme horreur, tourne aux enchantements (where every- thing, even the horror, turns into enchantment) could hardly be better exemplified than in Poe’s description of the crowd.’ (‘Central Park’, S30, GS 678)

‘ The tempo of the flaneur is to be confronted with the tempo of the crowd, as described by Poe. It represents a protest against the latter. Cf. the fashion for tortoises around 1839, D2a, I.’ (‘Central Park, S31, GS 679)

‘What’s the idea? to speak of progress to a world sinking into the rigidity of death. Baudelaire found this experience of a world entering rigor mortis set down with incomparable power in Poe. What made Poe irreplaceable for him was that he described a world in which Baudelaire’s literary endeavours (Dichten und Trachten) had its justification. Compare the head of Medusa in Nietzsche.’ (‘Central Park, S34, GS 682)