Candid Reason out the Window:

Reading “The Man of the Crowd”

John Phillips


Albrecht Dürer, William Shakespeare, John Donne, and Rene Descartes, each, at a crucial juncture in his work, dramatizes consciousness gazing through a window.  The figure of the window is so well established, as a trope of modern patterns of thought, that we seldom acknowledge the other crucial figures with which it is connected.  From Alberni’s Window to TV’s “window to your world of entertainment” (and, of course, Windows 95, 98 and 2000), the trope of the window has served many ends, whether as a figure for the mimetic representation of the world of sense perception or as a resource for framing, forming and exposing imaginary worlds. 

Descartes drew on the figure of the window for his famous devaluation of the field of sense perception in order to show that rational judgment could be raised above that contingent and unreliable realm.  In virtually the same stroke he also devalued two other sources of fragile and uncertain knowledge, the so-called Porphyrian Tree, the scholastic version of Aristotle’s Categories of Being, and the vagaries and pitfalls of ordinary language.  For Descartes these three realms of experience—the realm of sense perception, imagination and memory (the window), the realm of established knowledge (the Porphyrian Tree) and the realm of ordinary language (formis loquendi quas vulgus)—worked together against rational judgment but not so that the power of judgment couldn’t elevate itself above them in its own timeless and extra-corporeal realm.  Roughly 200 years later, during which time philosophy had witnessed a systematic refinement of the idea of reason, Edgar Allan Poe constructed one of the most complex and fascinating works of short fiction ever published.  In just one of its many aspects “The Man of the Crowd” can be read as an ironic commentary on the second of Descartes’ Meditations (“The nature of the human mind, and how it is better known than the body.”)  On that level alone it serves as a funny satire but once we connect the satire to a number of the other facets to be read in Poe’s text, a much more profound message emerges, not only establishing some basic conditions for modern urban existence, but also revealing a potentially alarming account of the real nature of western reason.   


Provisional Observations

“The Man of the Crowd” is one of the most complex and fascinating works of short fiction ever published.  We can summarize the narrative briefly.  After an opening paragraph that links the theme of crime to unreadability the narrator proceeds to give a personal anecdote telling of an apparently inexplicable event.  Convalescent and seated at the bow window of a London Coffee house, one afternoon, he concerns himself with the crowd, identifying its members as they pass according to their socio-economic type, until he is faced with a countenance that, owing to the “absolute idiosyncrasy of its expression,” absorbs and fascinates him, drawing him out of the coffee house and into the street in pursuit of what promises to be a great mystery.  He follows this figure to the sites of urban street life—to wherever he finds activity—through the night and the break of day to the early morning rush hour, throughout the next day too, until he collapses exhausted 24 hours later back in the hotel coffee house without having been able to get behind the mystery of this vacuous figure.  His conclusion, that “this old man […] is the type and genius of deep crime,” repeats the sense provided in the opening paragraph, that crime must be linked to what cannot be deciphered, to the unreadable, and it provides in the negative the main message of the story, that is, that law comprises what can be interpreted, what can be read as meaningful, while excluding what cannot as crime.  It will turn out, however that this “criminality” cannot be distinguished from the law that is incapable of recognizing or deciphering this, its own, condition.         

This is not a notion of crime based on or drawn from actual crimes.  To the contrary the man of the crowd commits no crime as such, unlike the pickpockets and thieves identified easily earlier in the tale.  Rather he represents the type—the genus or essence—of crime without ever being outside or apart from those urban creatures governed by laws.  He is found always among the purposeful beings of city life, whether driven by duty, boredom, hunger or greed, whether in search of company, entertainment, food or alcohol, the man accompanies them without purpose, without particular desires, but vacantly, emptily repeating their movements just in order to be with them.  Without purpose, without motive, without reasons as such, this man strikes Poe’s narrator as criminality itself. 

The question of crime is also always the question of the law and Poe does not fail to exploit the collusion of ethics with the principles of 19th Century post-enlightenment science.  Here the attempt on the part of the narrator to elucidate the underlying laws that govern the perceived world draws attention to another unseen law, that is, the law of the law.  Reason, in attempting to establish its grounds, is subject at the same time to its perverse, criminal and ultimately reasonless repetition in the urban crowd.  In this respect the confusion of clarity and obfuscation that twins judgment, consciousness, and clarity with a whole repertoire of obstacles, like fog, smoke, rain, then the sea of umbrellas etc. draws attention, simply, to an inability to separate reason from its double in irrational repetition.  What we will find is that the law of the law can only be conceived within the law as “deep crime.”

My reading of the tale uncovers three main principles at work in the patterning or structuring of the text.  First while a rich intertextuality is signaled from the very start, what is signaled barely does justice to the sheer volume of intertextual repetitions, allusions and labyrinthine passageways that we are obliged to consult in any serious attempt at reading it.  I’ll be drawing on some of this in what follows.  Secondly, the text inscribes circles.  The circular motion can be identified on a number of different levels—thematic, rhetorical, and, not least, at the level of address, thanks to which the reader is always in danger of finding himself or herself inscribed in a circular fashion within the circles of the tale itself, for instance, as the narrator is drawn outside the safe confines of his coffee house the reader too is seduced into following only to be deposited, wearied unto death, back at square one.  However, as we’ll see, the circle has not simply closed itself in returning to its starting point but has inscribed a second ghostly image of itself, outside itself.  Thirdly, I’ll try not to labor the third principle, the principle of repetition, but we’ll see, again, that this is crucial.


The Narrative

The narrative proceeds through some preliminary devices before actually beginning.  The title is followed by an epigraph in French indicating one of the leading ideas of the tale and attributed to La Bruyère: “Ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir etre seul.”  As it turns out, the quotation is a little freely adapted from Jean de La Bruyère’s Les Caractères (1688).  Many commentators have remarked on the statement, which in English could mean, “this great misfortune, to not be able to be alone,” but which also carries the overtones of a slightly more literal, “to be able only to be.”  Both these senses will become operant in the narrative.  La Bruyère’s original is slightly different and reads as follows: “tout notre mal vient de ne pouvoir etre seuls,” which might accurately be translated, “all our evils come from not being able to be on our own.”  So, already, Poe has introduced a crucial ambiguity.  Next comes a full paragraph of extra-diegetic narrative commentary.  The register—devoid of address and thus playing down both emotive and connative functions, i.e. those associated with the addresser and addressee—is in this way clearly distinguished from the narrative as a whole.  Only in what we might call the delayed decoding of the story do we integrate this opening paragraph within the story, that is, as an utterance belonging to the narrator himself:

It was well said of a certain German book that “er lasst sich nicht lesen”- it does not permit itself to be read. There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told. Men die nightly in their beds, wringing the hands of ghostly confessors, and looking them piteously in the eyes—die with despair of heart and convulsion of throat, on account of the hideousness of mysteries which will not suffer themselves to be revealed. Now and then, alas, the conscience of man takes up a burden so heavy in horror that it can be thrown down only into the grave. And thus the essence of all crime is undivulged.

One thing to notice here would be the strenuous artificiality of the rhetoric.  In contrast with the then dominant realist or naturalist trends in fiction, Poe’s signals a heightened rhetorical style by casting this first paragraph in the classical mode (ethos) reminiscent of the chreia (from the Greek chreiodes, “useful”) “a brief reminiscence referring to some person in a pithy form for the purpose of edification.” It takes the form of an anecdote that reports either a saying, an edifying action, or both. The classical directions for the chreia are as follows: Amplify a brief account of what someone has said or done, using these steps:

Praise the sayer or doer, or praise the chreia itself

Give a paraphrase of the theme

Say why this was said or done

Introduce a contrast

Introduce a comparison

Give an example of the meaning

Support the saying/action with testimony of others

Conclude with a brief epilog or conclusion

Now Poe’s work does not exactly follow these rules; rather the rhetorical form is strongly suggested and, on this basis, might help us understand the narrative as a whole in terms of it being something like an expanded chreia (or anecdote).  The theme is, as directly stated here, unreadability.  But the examples each provide a different sense of what that means.  An unreadable book is not unreadable in the same way that a secret is un-tellable.  The hideousness of mysteries that do not suffer themselves to be told is something else again, as are the “horrors” that may only be thrown down in the grave.  I would suggest that two apparently contrasting themes are signaled here, those of framing and unreadability.  That is the sense of the unreadable (the inscrutable or the ineffable) has differing meanings depending upon how it is framed.  As we move from the code of erudition (certain German books) to the gothic code (the burden of horror) the sense of the unreadable goes through certain changes. 

If we read the tale in terms of its being in the rhetorical form of the chreia, or anecdote, the anecdotal part of the tale begins with the second paragraph—an identification of time and place: “Not long ago, about the closing in of an evening in autumn, I sat at the large bow-window of the D— Coffee-House in London.”  The establishment of the first person narrator (an intra-diegetic narrative persona) coincides here with an important designation in the symbolic code with the introduction, right away, of the “large bow-window.”  Much of the narrated action of the first half of the tale will occur on the other side of this heavily framed divider, thus indicating the distinction between inside (inside the coffee house) and outside (on the street).  The window now reinforces, in the dimension of the hermeneutic code, the already established notion of framing.  And, as we find out shortly, the unreadable always occurs within a frame.  What follows is, in narrative terms, a slight analeptic digression (“For some months I had been ill in health”) designed, at least at first sight, to develop an important aspect of the state of mind of the character: “but was now convalescent, and, with returning strength, found myself in one of those happy moods which are so precisely the converse of ennui—moods of the keenest appetency, when the film from the mental vision departs—aclus  h prin ephen—and the intellect, electrified, surpasses as greatly its everyday condition, as does the vivid yet candid reason of Leibnitz, the mad and flimsy rhetoric of Gorgias.”  This double reference is already a little contradictory as Leibniz represents the pinnacle of rationalism and is generally considered to be the founder of modern logic, while Gorgias, celebrated for his rhetorical skill, is known for what is called the “Sophistic” tendency of thought, which identifies knowledge with sense-perception, and ignores the rational element.  The point is famously underlined in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias.  The quotation in Greek presents a number of interesting inter-textual references.  From the Iliad (V, 127) of Homer, meaning “the mist is taken away,” the quotation would certainly have been familiar, a rhetorical cliché even, among the educated classes of the nineteenth century.  The full quotation belongs to the character of Pallas Athena (“Wisdom”) and runs, “and the mist moreover have I taken from thine eyes that afore was upon them, to the end that thou mayest well discern both god and man.”[1] 

The confusion that has already been suggested between reason and the senses (Plato’s invisible and visible) in so far as both the senses and reason are supposedly in a heightened state, draws our attention to one of the overriding concerns of Western modernity—the question as to what extent the rational judgment can raise itself in wisdom above the evidence of the senses.  Poe seems to have (literally) smoked up the terms of the question by drawing attention to the extent to which the senses themselves surpass judgment, as the next two sentences indicate:

Merely to breathe was enjoyment; and I derived positive pleasure even from many of the legitimate sources of pain. I felt a calm but inquisitive interest in every thing. With a cigar in my mouth and a newspaper in my lap, I had been amusing myself for the greater part of the afternoon, now in poring over advertisements, now in observing the promiscuous company in the room, and now in peering through the smoky panes into the street.

We might note that there’s a movement here that recapitulates that of the opening paragraph, which refers first to a text, then to secrets between persons, then to un-nameable gothic horrors and ultimately to crime.  Here we move, again, from text (the newspaper) to nearby yet indiscriminately mixed persons and then to the street.   The difference, at least to start with, is that our narrator each time peers at a readable rather than unreadable text.  The smoky panes, we might imagine, would qualify the readability of the outside somewhat and this is the first instance of a strongly coded set of references to that effect. 


The Ability to See

To what extent, then, is the ability to see compromised?  The theme of compromised vision has a precise counterpart in the writings of Rene Descartes, which, we can reasonably speculate, are the object of much of Poe’s motivated satire in the tale.  Descartes’ philosophical project was systematically to raise the rational power of judgment as a source of correct and certain knowledge above the everyday impressions of the world.  Judgment, so conceived, should be vulnerable neither to mistaken sensations (like those of vision) nor to mistaken interpretations caused by the fallibility of language.  For instance, in The World, which Descartes did not publish, perhaps because of the condemnation of Galileo by the Roman Inquisition, is a treatise on light, in which Descartes uses the example of words to show that our perceptions—whether of sound, sensation or light—provoke ideas that do not necessarily bear any resemblance to the objects that provoke them.  As he says, he wants to introduce his readers to phenomena where there is what he calls “a difference” between the conception and the perception, between the idea of the object and the perception of it. 

As the first two of Descartes famous Meditations on First Philosophy reveal, the establishment of abstract grounding ideas like cogito ego (“I think” or “the thinking I”) can be understood as ways of answering the question—or, more accurately for a first or grounding philosophy, solving the problem—of this difference.   The different conception, it seems, indicates the possibility of a certain freedom of judgment—and thus error.  On what basis can responsible judgment be grounded if the conception does not match the perception of what is to be assessed or decided upon—especially if the decision or judgment seems destined always to add content to the perception, as is already evident in the case of words?  Descartes’ classic statement of the problem remains a key instance of the aporia or puzzle, which, after Kant, will have become known as the empirical/transcendental difference, the transcendental aspect of which is supposed to designate the determining force that lies behind or beyond our ordinary experience.  Fundamentally it designates the always-enigmatic power of judgment.

A further source of obfuscation was the additional clutter of traditional authorities and their labyrinthine libraries of books and categories.  Descartes really brings this out (though it is ever present throughout his writings) in a text called The Search for Truth by Means of the Natural Light.  It is of doubtful gestation.  Unfinished and unpublished at his death, the manuscript strikes some commentators as an early work and others as a late one, perhaps an introduction to the main arguments of The Meditations for a popular audience.  It is a three-way discussion during which Eudoxus (“good teacher”)—clearly a spokesman for the Cartesian argument—weaves between the dogmatic objections of the fictional scholastic Epistemon (“established wisdom”) and the common sense but uneducated deference of Polyander (literally “many men”).  Eudoxus begins by promising that despite the daunting scholastic background of Epistemon he can show Polyander a ground for knowledge that will put them all on equal footing.  The text can be seen as one of the great modern refutations of the value of traditional authorities. 

Undoubtedly, The Search for Truth restates the main argument of the Second Meditation in a different way.  They both work towards a promise that is fulfilled only negatively—that a ground will be demonstrated that is adequate for building an absolutely certain knowledge of the objective world.  The only ground adequately demonstrated, it turns out, is the one represented by the phrase cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am), which is remarkable for establishing priority for a point that is absolutely irreducible either to any pre-established discursive statements derived from the complex and contradictory webs of previous knowledge, in whatever discipline of the arts or sciences, or to any empirical perceptions, including those produced by memory and imagination.  To put it more simply, the Second Meditation pursues a systematic rejection of both scholasticism and empiricism.  And it does so through the economy of the twin figurative conceits of the tree and the window.

The scholar’s method of judgment is more explicitly arborescent in The Search for Truth but the idea is clear enough in the Meditations.  Beginning with the simple clear and distinct idea, I exist (arrived at in the 1st Meditation), Descartes asks the question: “What then is this ego?”  The first kind of answer to be rejected is the establishment of a number of metaphysical levels:

What then did I formerly think I was?  A man?  Shall I say “a rational animal”?  No; for then I should have to enquire what an animal is, what rationality is, and in this way one question would lead me down the slope to harder [here the French edition adds “an infinity of other more difficult and embarrassing”] ones, and I do not now have the time to waste on subtleties of this kind. (17)

As The Search for Truth makes clear at the equivalent moment in its argument, these subtleties belong to the scholastic adherence to ancient metaphysical trees.  The answer set out above is characterized in the unpublished text as the answer that would have been given by Epistemon, the scholastic.  Eudoxus, Descartes’ philosophical ego in this rhetorical exercise, says:

If, for example, I were to ask even Epistemon himself what a man is, and he gave the stock reply of the scholastics, that a man is a “rational animal,” and if, in order to explain these two terms (which are just as obscure as the former), he were to take us further, through all the levels which are called “metaphysical,” we should be dragged into a maze from which it would be impossible to escape […] You see immediately that the questions, like the branches of a family tree, would rapidly increase and multiply. (410)

Not only is this infinite maze like a tree but it also has the name, as Epistemon’s stock response reveals, when he says: “I’m sorry you despise the tree of Porphyry.”  The paper here seems to parody Father Bourdin’s “Objections,” which had been included with the first Latin edition of the Meditations, and which actually outlines the metaphysical tree in a beautifully dogmatic attempt to dispute the argument we are examining here (which Bourdin has clearly misunderstood):

The inference from knowledge to existence is not a valid one.  Meditate on this for two weeks at least, and your meditation will bear fruit which you will not be sorry to have, if you then cast your eye on the table below. (344)

In his reply Descartes simply exposes this diagram, Bourdin’s “fluttering flag of victory,” as having completely arbitrary classification (352).  In other words it is an attempt at a rhetorical sleight of hand and in fact the connections, the tree’s branches, are not linked by any necessity at all.  Porphyry, after whom the tree is named, had hoped, Descartes suggests, to ground the division into genera and species on an arboreal metaphor so that substance branches into the two species, corporeal and incorporeal etc.[2]  The problem with these trees apparently lies in their infinite fecundity—Bourdin’s “at least two weeks” suggests for Descartes a horrible infinity for finite beings who might wish to ground their knowledge on something more immediate, or at least more economical with, as Descartes says elsewhere, “the time remaining to us.”  And this is where the window comes in to frame the alternative picture, which will also be rejected.

It turns out that empirical judgment, even when considered as independent of the infinite maze-like scholastic tree, will come up against the same principle—the infinite.  In what is possibly the least well-understood passage in all of Descartes, he demonstrates that our knowledge of objects like, in his example, a ball of wax, cannot be reduced to sense, memory or imagination.  This is because once the wax is subjected to a range of metamorphoses made possible by its becoming warm, we can quickly understand that the number of possible changes the wax might undergo is illimitable.  This infinity is not to be grasped either sensibly or in the imagination, for the faculties of sense and imagination are finite: “I would not be making a correct judgment about the nature of wax unless I believed it being capable of being extended in many more different ways than I will ever encompass in my imagination” (21).  Despite the fact that this passage on melting wax sets out a fundamentally negative argument, a number of commentators attempt to derive some scientific factuality about the essence of wax from it.  The whole passage clearly uses the wax to focus on the faculty of judgment (as opposed to the essential nature of wax).  The point is—rather disturbingly I admit—that judgment is neither sensible nor a product of imagination—and thus cannot be explained through experience at all.  The mind is somehow above experience, as his main example here is designed to demonstrate.  He says:

If I look out of the window and see men crossing the square, as I just happen to have done, I normally say that I see men themselves, just as I say that I see the wax.  Yet do I see any more than hats and coats which could conceal automatons?  I judge that they are men.  And so something which I thought I was seeing with my eyes is in fact grasped solely by the faculty of judgment which is in my mind. (21).

The passage does not establish any ground for certainty in objective knowledge, except to say that knowledge of whatever kind must be established through judgment rather than through the passive observing of the mechanical eye.

Descartes’ cogito, as it has become known, represents a power, an ability in the structural sense like translat-ability, rather than a passive point of observation.  Acting on the infinite malleability of the extended world as well as upon the endlessly labyrinthine branches of the trees of previous knowledge, the power of substitution, itself an in principle infinite power, is made possible by the semiotic nature of the empirical world, as outlined in The World, his unpublished treatise on light.  According to this treatise the elements of the world—whether light or sound—are subject in perception to the power of infinite substitutability, that of the thinking mind.  Because the world is not as we perceive it we have the power to substitute anything we want for what we do perceive.  Because we begin in translation we have the power to go on making translations ad infinitum, engaging the bad infinity of the outside and the past with the good infinity of reason’s substitutions.

Furthermore, as his various discussions of method make clear, the demonstration of this power depends upon a further possibility of substitution, an interlocutor willing to take the place of enunciation in the discourse, that is, a reader willing to see, as it were, through Descartes’ eyes—which is the same as turning from the eye altogether in this instance.  The cogito names the possibility of this essentially discursive transaction and I take it to represent the core experience of modernity—whether or not the experience is embraced or disavowed (a crucial ethical and political decision).  I cannot know a man—least of all myself—either through categories (generic trunks and special branches) or by just looking at one.

When Martin Jay, in his recent study of vision, Downcast Eyes, makes reference to what he calls “Cartesian perspectivalism” he makes a fundamental mistake that is typical in contemporary cultural theory.  By it he means to refer to what he thinks is the dominant visual model of the modern era, identified with the Renaissance notion of perspective in the visual arts and connected to what he believes to be the Cartesian idea of subjective rationality in philosophy.  He writes:

Cartesian perspectivalism was in league with a scientific world view that no longer hermeneutically read the world as a divine text, but rather saw it as situated in a mathematically regular spatio-temporal order filled with natural objects that could only be observed from without by the dispassionate eye of the neutral researcher.  [In perspectival vision] space was robbed of its substantive meaningfulness to become an ordered, uniform system of abstract linear coordinates (12-13). 

So space is treated as transparent as opposed to an opaque, resistible thing.  Well this may have been the case for certain of Descartes’ inheritors, also perhaps mistaking the radical and powerful position he exposes, but, as we have just seen, this is not a position that can be attributed to Descartes, for whom the world is opacity itself and subject only to the judgments we might make about it.  Thus the question necessarily emerges—how do we ensure the correctness of our blind judgments?


Through Smoky Panes

Which brings us neatly back round to Edgar Allan Poe’s narrator, gazing intently through the smoky panes of a window onto men passing in the street.  We watch now as he constructs a no doubt distinctly modern version of the Porphyrian tree in order to grasp the nature of these men.  The key opposition, as we have already learned, is the one between reason and rhetoric.  Leibniz, much more so than Descartes, is often regarded as the founder of modern logic.  (Against Descartes, for instance, who reserved an incomprehensible ground for reason, he would say that 2 + 2 = 4 not just because God wills it; rather God wills it only because it is logically true anyway).  So the transparency of reason is set once again alongside the opacity of rhetoric, alongside madness, the irrational and in the intriguingly subtle form of visible darkness.  As day passes to night and the gas light struggles against the remaining light of the sun the narrator begins a rhetorical descent.  The fall is definitively rhetorical, as the narrative makes clear, for what passes outside the window has no evident structure as such but has more the appearance of what we might call a Heraclitean flux, as “two dense and continuous tides of population were rushing past ... [a] tumultuous sea of human heads” (108).  To counter the flux the narrator turns to abstraction and then descends to particulars:

At first my observations took an abstract and generalizing turn.  I looked at the passengers in masses, and thought of them in their aggregate relations.  Soon, however, I descended to details, and regarded with minute interest the innumerable varieties of detail, dress, air, gait, visage, and expression of countenance. (108)

The parody of the social scientist is unmistakable and the reference now to Descartes quite clear.  The infinity of individual differences can be sorted in scholastic style through the division of genus and species.  A second dimension, alluding to Dante in this respect (in a way connected to texts like “Fall of the House of Usher” and “Descent into the Maelstrom”) provides a parodic descent into hell.  The descent begins with the narrator’s own class, of course, “the decent,”—men of leisure who are engaged entirely on business of their own, “men of leisure and men actively engaged in affairs of their own—conducting business upon their own responsibility” (109).  In six extraordinary paragraphs we descend from the decent to the utterly destitute.  The further we get from the true gentlemen the more we find their parodic repetition.  The tribe of junior clerks is remarkable for its manner, which seems to be “an exact fac-simile of what had been the perfection of bon ton about twelve or eighteen months before” (109).  The affectation of the upper clerks is of respectability.  The crude imitation of the swell pickpockets would be unlikely to fool a real gentleman.  Descending further, we learn that the gamblers are still more easily recognizable, despite a wide variety of dress, “all were distinguished by a certain sodden swarthiness of complexion, a filmy dimness of eye, and pallor and compression of lip” (110).  The further down we go, moreover, the more the animal metaphors appear.  London, like all great cities, is infested, as if by rodents, by the “race of swell pick-pockets.”  And the dandies and military men, birds of a kindred feather to the gamblers, prey on their public.

Descending yet further to find “darker and deeper themes for speculation” we pass through an eleven step enumeration: Jew peddlers with hawk eyes flashing; professional beggars; feeble and ghastly invalids at the point of death (a point the narrator too reaches at the conclusion); (in our first mention of women) modest young girls; women of the town; lepers in rags; underage prostitutes; innumerable and indescribable drunkards; pie men, porters, coal-heavers, sweeps, organ grinders, monkey exhibitors, ballad-mongers; ragged artisans and exhausted laborers.   At several points in the description the narrator reminds us too of the strangely altering 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 everything a fitful and garish lustre.  All was dark yet splendid--as that ebony to which has been likened the style of Tertullian” (111).  The effect is reinforcement, of course, of the inversion of transparency and opacity, so that the increasing darkness appears as an ascending enlightenment against the descent into the depths of 19th century urban existence.  But the analogy with the prose style of Tertullian reminds us that we are faced primarily with a text, less something to be seen, as such, but, something that requires reading.  The narrator begins to see more clearly through his smoky panes the darker the night outside becomes:

The wild effects of the light enchained me to an examination of individual faces; and although the rapidity with which the world of light flitted before the window prevented me from casting more than a glance at each visage, still it seemed that, in my then peculiar mental state, I could frequently read, even in that brief interval of a glance, the history of long years. (111-2)

Enchained to glimpses of details, full readings are still frequently possible.  Now it is at this point, pretty much exactly half way through the tale, that the stranger comes on the scene. 

With my brow to the glass, I was thus occupied in scrutinizing the mob, when suddenly there came into view a countenance […] which at once arrested and absorbed my whole attention, on account of the absolute idiosyncrasy of its expression.  Anything even remotely resembling that expression I had never seen before […] As I endeavored, during the brief minute of my original survey, to form some analysis of the meaning conveyed, there arose confusedly and paradoxically within my mind the ideas of vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of blood-thirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense—of extreme despair.  I felt singularly aroused, startled, fascinated.  “How wild a history,” I said to myself, “is written within that bosom!”  Then came a craving desire to keep the man in view—to know more of him. (112)

The cool abstraction in the face of the dizzying flux outside of the previous paragraphs is now replaced by this inversion, according to which an absolutely singular expression gives rise to a confusing flux of contradictory ideas.  At this stage the increasing fascination that the narrator expresses for what disgusts him has reached its pinnacle and driven him and his craving desire outside himself, thus dramatizing the second stage in Hegel’s great phenomenology of consciousness.  The obvious realist interpretation cannot be discounted either—as night falls and the light gets wilder the window acts (as in all such situations) as a kind of distorting mirror—the singular unreadable face of the man in the crowd is the narrator’s own reflection and it is certainly this that draws him out into the crowd, the perverse double of the man, who is already the perverse double of the crowd.  For the remainder of the tale the narrator now literally acts out the situation he had before merely described and explained, as he follows the man to every site at which activities of the crowd are played out.  In literary terms he goes from a lyric to a dramatic persona.

We follow him, of course, and just as a glimpse of a diamond and a dagger excites the narrator’s interest further, we might also on a first reading have succumbed to what we might call, again, the hermeneutic code, signaling through the iconicity of the mystery story clichéd clues to a hidden secret which, perhaps, will be revealed in the classic denouement.  In fact there are several such stories—not yet detective fiction as Poe will come to invent it in the three or four years following “The Man of the Crowd,” but classic popular mysteries nonetheless—that seem to be partly inscribed here, in addition to the classic literary and philosophical references that make up the texture of this, as we read on, increasingly crowded text.  The example of La Bruyère is instructive.  The epigraph, as we saw earlier, is from the chapter “De l’homme,” where we read the entirely conventional and general statement: “tout notre mal vient de ne pouvoir etre seuls” (all our evils come from not being able to be on our own) and he provides a list of evils: “gambling, extravagance, dissipation, wine, women, ignorance, slander, envy, and forgetfulness of what we owe to God and ourselves” (233/199).  Poe, in his usual way, twists and re-contextualises the quotation such that simply to be is to refuse to be alone (exchanging the passive for the aggressively active)—there’s always more than one of us.  In the same way, then, there’s always more than one text:  “The Man of the Crowd” is itself the text of a crowd of texts, as more than one commentator has noticed.  What is not noticed is that, in this “being of the crowd,” an absolute singularity of expression, in its repetition, stubbornly remains, keeping the text readable (as its history, through Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin and the appearance of the figure of the flâneur in popular cultural criticism attests). 

What is not that often noticed is the way Poe has focused so consistently on the conditions that make this intertextuality not just possible but inescapable, the repetition of one text in another, perversely or with a twist, is component possibility of the text itself—its repeatability.  In fact the reason that appears in the text—always a repetition—can only appear as the twist, the perversion itself.  As Descartes also knew very well, the irrational as mechanical or empty repetition does not come to reason as fiend or stranger from the outside but comes along with it as its double and its possibility—the possibility (as we read in one of Jean-Paul Sartre’s commentaries on Descartes) that the other might always be just a body, an automaton.  La Bruyère too has words to say about the automaton, that Poe did not fail to pick up on:

A blockhead (le sot) is an automaton, a piece of machinery moved by springs and weights, always turning him about in one direction; he always displays the same equanimity, is uniform, and never alters … (Characters 209).

This is the character from earlier in La Bruyère’s discussion, of whom he had written: “when he answers you so pertinently, his eyes are fixed on your countenance, but it does not follow that he sees you; he looks neither at you, nor at anyone, nor anything in the world” (181).  His words, like “yes; indeed; it is true; certainly” etc., are not even always used in appropriate contexts.  He is like Descartes’ parrots and machines, quite without reason yet with the ability to talk and act like an intelligent human, and we find him and his type populating one of the strangest cities in literature, the seventeenth century Paris of La Bruyère’s “De La Ville.”  There, we learn, “[the people] cannot dispense with those persons whom they do not like and whom they deride.”  Yet such a set, “cannot enjoy anything from strangers; it even disdains those who have not been initiated in its mysteries” (104-105).  If chance were to throw an intelligent man “amongst the members of such a set,” he is “a stranger” to them.

Poe’s achievement, then, is to have placed an intelligent man amongst the crowd only to show that it is that intelligence itself that produces its own non-rational double—a city that in its own way produces through the rationality of its projects, its plans, its economics and its entertainments its own perverse double in its varieties of criminality.


Works Cited

Descartes, Rene.  Meditations métaphysiques.  Paris: Flammarion, 1979.

---. Philosophical Writings. III Volumes. Trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch. Cambridge: CUP, 1985.

Jay, Martin. Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in
Twentieth-Century French Thought
. Berkeley: University of California Press,

La Bruyère, Jean. Les Caractères. Paris: Hachette, 1950. Translation: Characters. Trans. Henri Van Laun. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.

Poe, Edgar Allan.  Tales of Mystery and Imagination. London: Everyman, 1984.


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[1] For instance, the allusion was used by Thomas Taylor, the celebrated nineteenth century translator of the Works of Plato, who in his introduction makes the following statement:

I shall in the first place present the reader with the outlines of the principal dogmas of Plato's philosophy. The undertaking is indeed no less novel than arduous, since the author of it has to tread in paths which have been untrodden for upwards of a thousand years, and to bring to light truths which for that extended period have been concealed in Greek. Let not the reader, therefore, be surprised at the solitariness of the paths through which I shall attempt to conduct him, or at the novelty of the objects which will present themselves in the journey: for perhaps he may fortunately recollect that he has travelled the same road before, that the scenes were once familiar to him, and that the country through which he is passing is his native land. At least, if his sight should be dim, and his memory oblivious, (for the objects which he will meet with can only be seen by the most piercing eyes,) and his absence from them has been lamentably long, let him implore the power of wisdom,

From mortal mists to purify his eyes,
That God and man he may distinctly see.
(Iliad, V, 127, &c)

Let us also, imploring the assistance of the same illuminating power, begin the solitary journey.

The irony here, of course, is that the objects in question (i.e., Plato’s “ideal objects”) are strictly invisible so the rhetoric of eyesight indicates something of the quixotic venture that Taylor, as mediator and guide to Plato’s philosophy, has taken upon himself.  It also rather uncannily prefigures the action of Poe’s tale, in so far as a solitary journey in pursuit of some truth is exactly what the narrator is about to undertake.



Porphyry is recognized as the one who in the third century identified the inverse tree-like structure of Aristotle’s Categories.  In his commentary he writes: “Substance is itself a genus, under this is body, and under body is living body, under which is animal.  Under animal is rational animal, under which is man.  Under man are Socrates and Plato and individual men (kata meros)” (Isagoge 4, 21-25).