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Walter Benjamin on Poe's "The Man of the Crowd"

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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 flâneur. That is how Baudelaire interpreted him when, in his essay on Guys, he called the flâneur "l'homme des foules". But Poe's description of this figure is devoid of the connivance which Baudelaire had for it. To Poe the flâneur 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 flâneur. 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."


Among the many things Baudelaire found to critize about hated Brussels, one thing filled him with particular rage: "No shop-windows. Strolling, something that nations with imagination love, is not possible in Brussels. There is nothing to see, and the streets are unusable." Baudelaire loved solitude, but he wanted it in a crowd.

In the course of his story, Poe lets it grow dark. He lingers over the city by gaslight. The appearance of the street as an intérieur in which the phantasmagoria of the flâneur is concentrated is hard to separate from the the gaslight. The first gas-lamps burned in the arcades. The attempt to use them under the open sky was made in Baudelaire's childhood; candelabra were placed on the Place Vendôme. Under Napoleon III the number of gas lanterns in Paris increased rapidly. This increased safety in the city made crowds feel at home in the open streets even at night, and removed the starry sky from the ambience of the big city more reliably than this was done by its tall buildings. "I draw the curtain behind the sun; now it has been put to bed, as is proper; henceforth I shall see no other light but that of the gas flame." The moon and the stars are no longer worth mentioning.


The people in [Poe's] 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.

In Baudelaire's Paris things had not come to such a pass. Ferries were still crossing the Seine at points where later there would be bridges. In the year of Baudelaire's death it was still possible for an entrepreneur to cater to the comfort of the well-to-do with a fleet of five hundred sedan chairs circulating about the city. Arcades where the flâneur would not be exposed to the sight of carriages that did not recognize pedestrians as rivals were enjoying undiminished popularity. There was the pedestrian who wedged himself into the crowd, but there was also the flâneur who demanded elbow room and was unwilling to forego the life of a gentleman of leisure. His leisurely appearance as a personality in his protest against the division of labour which makes people into specialists ...

Walter Benjamin: Charles Baudelaire: A Lyrical Poet In The Eara of High Capitalism (London: Verso, 1983), pp. 48, 50 and 53-54.



Charles Dickens: "I cannot express how much I want [the streets] ... It seems as if they supplied something to my brain which it cannot bear, when busy, to lose ... My figures seem disposed to stagnate without crowds about them."

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Modernism och postmodernism