At the beginning of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Man of the Crowd” (1840), the narrator sits in a London coffee house, having recently recovered from long illness. He is elated. “Merely to breathe was enjoyment,” he comments—a sentiment some might recall from the past summer’s brief maskless interval. “He remembers, and fervently desires to remember, everything,” Charles Baudelaire wrote of this narrator in his essay “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863). For Baudelaire, Poe’s character is a flâneur:
he walks the city infinitely sensitized to its atmosphere, covetous of the surface of things. The narrator greedily soaks in people’s fashion choices, detecting the real social condition of passersby from the too-bright shine of a boot, the rubbed corner of a hand-me-down waistcoat.
Then a man appears whom he can’t read. The man’s threadbare cloak gapes, leaving a diamond and a dagger momentarily visible. Gripped by this accidental disclosure, the narrator rushes out into the street to stalk the man. “It was well said of a certain German book that ‘er lasst sich nicht lesen’—it does not permit itself to be read,” the narrator comments, and “there are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told.” The daggered passerby is illegible; he carries the burden of some secret crime. But why does an unspeakable confession attract the sick man when he returns to public life? What do we hunger for when, confined to our rooms, we long for crowds?
A year of staying indoors had left me unhabituated to my wardrobe.
Our bodies enjoy permissions in the sickroom that they lose in public: they can vomit, secrete, flop sweat, breakthrough bleed, break down. They may seep through fabric. To dress is to stem these tides. Part of what exhilarates Poe’s convalescent, sitting in his window, is that he has succeeded in restoring the integrity of his body in others’ presence. Part of what eats at him is that he may not have succeeded; hence the threat the gaping cloak represents. Or so it seemed to me when I, too, returned to the coffee shop after long confinement. A year of staying indoors had left me unhabituated to my wardrobe. I was all too aware of my shirtdress, its flimsiness, its sham coherence. The dress was loose. I could feel questions at the cloth’s edge: Did it cover my ass? Was it marked with sweat, or blood? Did I leave anything behind at the table—a book, my sunglasses, a sweat stain on the chair? Am I holding it together? I felt the narrator’s prickling naked paranoia along the edges of my own clothing. It seemed to me I knew, for the first time, what “The Man of the Crowd” was about. It was about clothing yourself again in front of strangers, and about the fear of breakdown that gives urgency to such an effort.
The history of sentiment makes such backward pleats from time to time. The feeling is as vainglorious as this: one knows
the author, not as their lover did, or as their confessor did, but as they knew themselves. Lisa Robertson’s The Baudelaire Fractal (2020) hazards such a claim. An older narrator looks back to the 1980s when she, a young Canadian living in cheap Paris hotels, woke up to find she had written the complete works of Baudelaire—including, presumably, “The Painter of Modern Life.” She knew Baudelaire inside and out. “The distinction between inner and outer worlds was becoming permeable and supple, like a fabric, which is in its very technical constitution both structure and surface,” says the narrator, of her peculiar state of mind. She is in Baudelaire’s clothes. Fabric is the means of transportation that Robertson’s narrator favors: at a flea market, she finds a nineteenth-century frock coat that invigorates her step when she wears it, while a coat of contemporary Danish design looks like it “would write rigorously fluid, decoratively melancholic poems, and it did.” To identify with another writer, in Robertson’s view, is at once to clothe oneself and to leak through clothing. Her young alter ego finds her way to Paris by “bleed[ing] out a stain on a restaurant chair, which revealed to my backwards glance a map of the arrondissements of Paris—a crooked reddish-pink spiral bisected by the serpentine slash that was the Seine.” If the permeable boundaries of clothing break down when we need them to hold, they also give us ways into other bodies, other styles.
Someone in the blue period is fit to see nothing but blue.
No doubt there is something a little too strident about the ardor of literary identification. My sudden conviction that I understand Poe as I have never understood him before is as uninformative as it is emphatic. Yet who could deny that over the course of a life, you might become a better reader of a particular text—or, then again, that you might become a worse one? The anthropologist Ruth Benedict said that each culture manages to take only a narrow swath from the sweep of human possibility and then make it available for experience (she called these strains “patterns of culture.”) Poe thought individual sensibilities represented narrow selections from possibility, too, a notion he allegorizes in his story “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842), in which each room along a hall counts as a phase of life: each upholstered and richly draped all in one color, each lit only with a lamp of that color, and none visible from the others. It’s not the particular colors that signify but the fact of coloration. Someone in the blue period is fit to see nothing but blue. Blue they see perfectly. By the time they can see red, blue will be around the corner, out of their line of sight.
If it feels to me like Poe’s moment is folded up against ours, that feeling is perhaps not completely idiosyncratic. Born in 1809, the child of actors, Poe was an orphan by the age of three. He lived through the presidency of Andrew Jackson, a white supremacist populist; he witnessed the expansion, instability, and subsequent crises of financial markets. For a short period, as John Tresch points out in his new biography, The Reason for the Darkness of the Night (2021), Poe enjoyed a steady income as the editor of Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine in Philadelphia. But for most of his life he had to scramble, publishing in this newspaper and that society magazine, trapped in a gig economy avant la lettre. He participated directly in a media revolution: cheaper printing and better transportation meant a dramatic increase in newspapers, which circulated farther and faster, with ever-more-questionable news. During his most active decade, from 1836 to 1846, Poe wrote all his great tales and many more besides. By 1849 he was dead; a stranger found him unconscious in a gutter in Baltimore and took him to the hospital, where he expired. No one knows what he was doing in Baltimore or what was wrong with him. “Now and then, alas,” the narrator of “The Man of the Crowd” comments, “The conscience of man takes up a burthen so heavy in horror that it can be thrown down only into the grave.”
Our secrets cannot be expressed, but they can be transferred along a pleated row of indifferent sympathizers.
The counterintuitive suggestion of “The Man of the Crowd,” as I saw it from my coffee-shop table, is that we bear our shameful secrets best by mutely carrying them out into the streets, not by speaking them in private; more strongly still, that bearing secrets is what we assemble in crowds to do. Unshriven souls seek each other. In Poe’s story, the narrator follows the cloaked man throughout the night and the following day. If the setup suggests we will discover something—that the man will return to the scene of a past crime or commit a new one—then what is actually revealed counts, by comparison, as nothing: all we learn is that the man follows crowds, ghoulishly drawing energy from them. He seeks the crowd’s center of mass through the hours, visiting a well-lighted square in the evening, a bazaar in the morning, a theater at closing time, whorehouses in the wee hours. The story concludes with an enigma spoken as though it were an epiphany: “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 narrator says to himself. “It will be in vain to follow; for I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds.” The italics suggest revelation, but nothing much is revealed. As in my identification with Poe, the narrator’s identification with the man of the crowd leaves him with a sense of revelation that exceeds his capacity to communicate it.
If we do not learn the man of the crowd’s secret, though, we do learn something about the structure of secrecy. The daggered man must be near crowds, because he has a confession he cannot make. In doubling the man of the crowd’s steps, the narrator, too, becomes someone who “refuses to be alone.” So, too, are all the passersby who flock together at the square, the bazaar, the theater, and the whorehouse: their way of drifting into association with each other faintly echoes the man of the crowd’s compulsion to follow them. In losing the public, part of what we lose is this possibility of laying down our confessions in a thin film, on the surface of things. Our secrets cannot be expressed, but they can be transferred along a pleated row of indifferent sympathizers, as we shadow each other’s steps. When the fabric unfurls, confessions shimmer unspeakably over the surface of our social world.
I want you to follow my drift. But that doesn’t mean I want you to unmask me.
In his 1974 essay “Fear of Breakdown,” the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott described a psychiatric complaint that “we all know about,” even as it presents itself as a sentence none of us can speak. The term, Winnicott admits, is “rather vague”—but it has to be, because the fear it describes is not precisely of breakdown itself but of “the unthinkable state of affairs” that lies beneath. Breakdown would permit this “underlying agony,” which already happened in the form of some terrible neglect or abuse in infancy, to be experienced for the first time.
What is the “unthinkable” thing? Winnicott ventures some approximations: falling apart, “falling for ever,” not being real, dying. Yet these agonies can only appear as an endless—I find I want to say an unfathomable—troubling of the surface. A terrible ripple. The fear of breakdown is difficult to handle clinically, Winnicott says, because its presentation is so resolutely superficial, concentrating the patient’s energies on the maintenance of the defense as though breakdown itself were the horror, and not the unthinkable thing. The analyst must realize that it is not so much a question here of surfacing hidden meanings as that the hidden meanings are the surfaces, insofar as we ever could speak about these meanings at all. Like Poe’s “Man of the Crowd,” Winnicott’s “Fear of Breakdown” invokes a hermeneutics of depth, and then discards it as beside the point.
To be in public can be to distribute your burden among the inattentive members of the crowd.
While it may be true that the real secret lies far below the surface, the surface is what we have to work with. The structure of the secret can be roughly translated as the ambivalent declaration, I am/I am not held together. I present to you, a stranger, the appearance of being a whole or anyway a single person, but I do so only because I sense inside an abyss. I want you to follow my drift. But that doesn’t mean I want you to unmask me.
Poe declared, in his “Marginalia” in the January 1848 of Graham’s Magazine, that a man could, theoretically, “revolutionize, at one effort, the universal world of human thought, human opinion, and human sentiment,” if only he would publish a book called “My Heart Laid Bare” that was actually “true to its title.” No one would dare, Poe said: “The paper would shrivel and blaze at every touch of the fiery pen.” Poe did dare. His stories were this book, and they were never more complete in their revelation than when they made our deepest sins at once both incommunicable and readily transmissible: they are felt most acutely as something vibrating between us precisely when they can least be expressed. In Walt Whitman’s moving posthumous tribute “Edgar Poe’s Significance” (1880), Poe appears in Whitman’s dreams. The living poet sees the dead one from far away, a “dim man” standing on the deck of a pleasure boat in a storm, its mast shattered, its boards awash with saltwater. The dim man enjoys the storm “of which he was the centre and the victim.” Poe rode the schooner with broken spars not so that we wouldn’t have to, but so that we could admit we were already launched on the deep.
I go to Poe’s stories for the same reason the man of the crowd goes to crowds: to follow and be followed, but not to be read. Er lasst sich nicht lesen. It does not permit itself to be read. I do not permit myself to be read. The statement that confession is impossible might be taken not as failure but as the expression of a wish for a particular kind of company. “Like heavy silk,” Robertson writes, “the inner world draped, folded, pooled, spilled over to embellish or seduce the outer world.” To be in public can be to distribute your burden among the inattentive members of the crowd: to transmit what you cannot speak. Why else would the type and genius of deep crime refuse to be alone? If Poe’s narrator was a flâneur, as Baudelaire thought, then his flânerie
was intimately connected with this need to share the weight, but not the contents, of a secret. Poe’s stories, which are populated and often narrated by criminals and madmen, sadists and perverts, make a demand of the reader that is also a form of absolution: recognize these, your kin—and then you will not be an exile when you find that you, too, are one of them.