SPIRITS OF THE DEAD (Federico Fellini, Louis Malle, Roger Vadim, 1968) and POE’S “THE MAN OF THE CROWD”

Like Odilon Redon, I see Edgar Allan Poe in terms of black and white and gray. (Let me add, however, that the way that the French see “their” Edgarpoe, as a poète maudit, morbid and accursed, seems to me bewilderingly wide of the mark.) From France and Italy, Histoires extraordinaires is in color, though; comprising three short films, each based on a Poe story and each by a different filmmaker, the compilation thus seems “wrong” from the get-go. Indeed, it is hard to know what to make of the first segment, which Roger Vadim somehow has derived from Poe’s “Metzengerstein,” which (like many very short pieces by Poe) seems as much anecdotal—or, rather, pseudo-anecdotal—as fictional. Vadim’s version contains much more plot, seems based on something much longer than Poe’s “Metzengerstein,” has a dog and a domesticated wild cat in addition to the mystical horse, and a heroine, Frederique, in place of Frederick (the Baron now being a baronness), in order to give Vadim’s wife, Jane Fonda, the principal role. Fonda’s fierce, vulnerable beauty assists Vadim in telling his more complicated tale; understandably, he tends to show Fonda in voluptuous closeups. How odd, though, given the long-ago sets and costumes, that the whole thing has a 1960s vibe to it, primarily because of the modern—or should I say “mod”?—acting. This apparently is deliberate, as Vadim quotes Poe’s coy opening: “Horror and fatality have been stalking abroad in all ages. Why then give a date to the story I have to tell?” Vadim’s tack is decorative and superficial, but his filmlet builds to an impressive finale nevertheless as the horse comes into its symbolical own. The use of color may be inapt—but what color it is! The true star of Vadim’s mostly lame contribution is its cinematographer, Claude Renoir, whose great-uncle, Pierre-Auguste, knew a few things about color himself.

Only Louis Malle, of the film’s three directors the one with the most highly developed literary sense, has taken on one of Poe’s major works: “William Wilson.” Indeed, this is one of Poe’s three or four most brilliant stories.* In it, a man’s nemesis since childhood, who bears the same name as he, turns out to be so inextricably bound to him that when he kills this other William Wilson he as good as kills himself. The dying Wilson tells the slayer Wilson, in film and story both, “. . . henceforth art thou also dead—dead to the World, to Heaven, to Hope! In me didst thou exist—and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.” In the film, Malle will not risk imagination; the “other” William Wilson is plainly Wilson’s conscience, and the filmlet ends with an image of Wilson, who has committed suicide, duplicating the image of the William Wilson he slayed earlier the same day.

I do not mean to sound churlish. Without doubt, Malle’s contribution is reason enough to see the film. It opens wonderfully well, with a good grasp of the psychological materials. Someone is running through the streets; the point-of-view shot conveys his flight. A cut shows us the young man who is in flight. The shift from camera subjectivity to objectivity implies the character’s self-division. Of course the character is William Wilson. His flight is interrupted with quick inserts of what will turn out to be his plunge (from a church bell tower) to his own death. In these inserts, flashforwards emanating from Wilson’s mind (in concert with Malle’s narrative design), subjectivity and objectivity—in this case, an ultimate objectivity—unite. Malle really knows what he is doing here.

At least two more coups may be noted. One is the fact that Malle resists casting the same boy as the two childhood William Wilsons and the same actor as the two grown Wilsons—until, that is, the point when one must recognize the other as inextricable from himself. At that point the nemesis becomes Wilson’s doppelgänger, and so it makes perfect sense that Malle should delay until that precise moment the use of the same actor, with his famous face, in both roles. The actor is Alain Delon, and this is Malle’s other coup. For what other actor in 1968 would have as much claim on this role as Delon? He is riveting, charismatic and, given his (and Wilson’s) hungry ego, solitudinous even amongst others—the French John Garfield or Marlon Brando.

Alas, Delon’s William Wilson is also sadistically cruel and misogynistic (and to Brigitte Bardot!)—elements that owe far more to Malle’s problematic personality than to Poe, who in fact was a feminist of sorts. In one other regard Malle is intrusive and self-indulgent: his Catholic-bashing. The use of the confessional as a means for Wilson to unload his tale is a master-stroke on Malle’s part; but to castigate the priest (through Wilson) for not believing what is after all a fantastic story, and to suggest somehow that this demonstrates the separation of the Church from insight and reality, are not quite fair. When Buñuel takes aim at the Church, by contrast, he is generally dead-on.

The final Poe tale included in this anthology is “Never Bet the Devil Your Head”—as obscure a Poe story as one could hope to find. No matter. Federico Fellini has so “liberally” adapted it—his word, not mine—that he has even given it a new title: “Toby Dammit.” Fellini apologists seriously rave it. It has the least to do with Poe, and it manages the weakest claim on my interest. It is perhaps coincidental that the actor that Terence Stamp plays shares traits with Fonda’s Frederique.

* Malle’s contribution, as I indicate, belongs in this anthology; the other two contributions do not. If I had had my choice, the Poe stories that would have joined “William Wilson” are the perversely comical “Hop-Frog,” which might have been turned into an animated segment by I-don’t-know-whom (how else could the figure of Hop-Frog be rendered except as a character in an animated cartoon?), and, for me, Poe’s masterpiece, “The Man of the Crowd,” which would have required a filmmaker capable of wry distancing, perhaps Bellocchio, Bresson, Godard or Truffaut.

Below is an essay of mine about “The Man of the Crowd,” which appears in the CLA Journal, Vol. XXV, No. 3 (March 1982), pp. 348-358. The original title is “Fraternal Hopes Dashed: Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd.’” I have made a few changes, some of them improvements to the text; I have also deleted most of the documentation, which of course anyone can find by consulting the published version.

Edgar Allan Poe’s only brother, William Henry, died of consumption in 1821. He was twenty-five years old, about two years older than the brother who already had had cause to feel much deprived of him. The reason for this was the Allans, Edgar’s foster-parents, who had contrived to keep their ward in Richmond, Virginia, away from Henry, who lived with his paternal grandparents in Baltimore, Maryland. “Edgar’s foster-mother,” suggests Poe biographer Hervey Allen, “seems to have been afraid that the Baltimore relatives might claim her little ‘son,’ and there was consequently little contact between the two orphan brothers.” As young adults, however, they did meet now and then, and each might easily have identified with the other. Allen again:

From the early poetry left by both Edgar and Henry Poe, it plainly appears that both brothers were of a similar, poetically inclined, and somewhat melancholy temperament. Both inherited the same traits and predilections, and, it would seem, also the same weaknesses[,] for Henry, even earlier than Edgar, went into ill-health.

It may have been of some consequence that, when he knew his own end was near, Edgar abruptly went to Baltimore. In a sense in search of his own lost soul, he chose to die where his brother had lived and died.

The “sense” to which I refer is Romantic, where one’s experience becomes the imaginative experience of someone else. Thus William Wordsworth wrote The Prelude for Samuel Taylor Coleridge—to whom Wordsworth read it for days running—in order to share with this friend (who is, he says, “in many things my brother”) his life’s events and the progress of his spiritual growth, thereby giving them a kind of common history, which moves their identities closer together in defiance of the French Revolution’s apparent lesson that brotherhood is an impossible dream. Elsewhere, in his “Tintern Abbey” poem, Wordsworth rooted his spiritual wholeness in Dorothy, his actual sister; and William Blake, after the consumptive death of his younger brother, experienced with aching grace their inviolable reunion:

Thirteen years ago [Blake would write] I lost a brother & with his spirit I converse daily & hourly in the Spirit and See him in my remembrance in the regions of my Imagination.

Adonais is an elegy for the lost Romantic brother whom Percy Bysshe Shelley hopes to reach beyond life; and on Poe’s side of the Atlantic the same fraternal impulse, and dream, are equally strong. Henry David Thoreau, for instance, sought the spirit of his deceased brother through the journal after the fact of their shared excursion, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and with Shelleyan irony Walt Whitman prophesies:

My rendezvous is appointed, it is certain,
The Lord will be there and wait till I come on perfect terms,
The great Camerado, the lover true for whom I pine will be there.

But among nineteenth-century American writers it is Poe who best reflects the disillusionment that overtakes fraternal idealism. (Among the British, it is Alfred Tennyson, especially in Idylls of the King.) In a good many stories of his what might have been the perfect spiritual partnership or fraternal relationship appears distorted, clouded over, undermined. It is the difference that obstructs an ideal relationship rather than any identity that they share that matters most; egos collide, frustrating goals of spiritual oneness or complementarity, total equality and sympathy—if you will, the “Brotherhood of the atoms” from Poe’s cosmological Eureka. Paired adversaries in his stories attest to this: the yearned-for, out-of-reach soul-mate—in Poe’s case, modeled after Henry Poe; or, rather, Edgar’s idealization of this lost brother—becomes instead a warped, degenerative figure of enmity rather than one of love. It is the soul-mate turned nemesis; and the discrepancy between the implicit ideal and the explicit reality generates the sorrowful undertow that emotionally enriches even some of the most ostensibly schematic and mathematical of Poe’s works. Poe conspicuously handles the theme of failed brothers or soul-mates in The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and, of course, “William Wilson,” where with reference to his taunting twin the narrator unexpectedly notes, “My feelings . . . might have been easily ripened into friendship.” But nowhere is the failure, the dashed fraternal idealism, as profound as in “The Man of the Crowd.”

This is a Romantic story of the irreducible mystery of humanity, with an attempt by one of us, our narrating surrogate, to violate—to expose, penetrate and possess—this sacred territory. An elderly man holds a strange, vital attraction for the narrator, who, despite his own weakened, convalescent condition, pursues him for a whole night and day, in and out of the city of London. The narrator runs himself ragged—or, rather, has already done so, as the story is presented as a past account—in order to appropriate the stranger’s secret or mystery, whatever it may be, for by doing so the narrator may yet recapture or reconstitute his own dimmed soul and now uncertain, indistinct identity. In large measure this unconsciously conceived plan fails because of the stranger’s impenetrable nature and resistance. Against this, the narrator’s conclusion that the stranger must be a monstrous criminal is pathetically self-revealing. Poe’s story is tragic, not accusative; together—or, rather, forever apart—the narrator and the old man dramatize the failure of Romantic fraternal myth, the impossibility for brothers to come together. Moreover, his own deep defenses against what he wants most, spiritual identification with this stubbornly-himself stranger, help defeat the narrator’s quest; for his lonely wish to affirm his own reality through the agency of some sort of imaginative communion with this other soul is strictly repressed underneath the rationalist guise of a mere detective’s curiosity, perhaps because of Poe’s own fear (which he shares with Wordsworth and Whitman) that spiritual merging or completion demands the very opposite of what it promises, an irrevocable loss of identity.

It should be clear by now that I do not take the narrator to be an equivalent of Poe; rather, if Poe at all, he is Poe regarded by himself at a critical and often cutting distance—and no more (or less) Poe than the stranger also is. While both these characters share a Jeffersonian sense of the city as a lurid and fevered place, Poe repeatedly suggests his difference from his persona by mockingly exposing the narrator’s egotism—as when, for example, solely on the basis of their dress the narrator preposterously divines the occupations of a multitude of strangers. (Poe may be dreaming forth Apollinaire, who, according to Apollinaire scholar Roger Shattuck, “would turn around [in the street] to follow people whose appearance interested him, expounding seriously on their occupation and character.”) Thus the narrator tells us: “There were many individuals of dashing appearance, whom I easily understood as belonging to the race of pickpockets”! To be sure, this suggests that the reductive analyst was a real part of Poe himself. Unlike this narrator, however, Poe always felt consciously torn between spiritual yearning and rationalism, between the unfathomable mystery of existence and its seduction toward scrutiny. This is perhaps why he (along with Norman Mailer) is the quintessential American writer. Newspaperman and artist, critic and highfalutin poet, he was always, according to Charles Feidelson, Jr., “divided between extreme rationalism and extreme hostility to reason.”

The discrepancy between in perspective between Poe and persona becomes clearer when we consider the epigraph from La Bruyère that prefaces the story: “Ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir être seul.” The narrator would apply this only to the old man, who, he says, throws himself into crowds because he refuses to be alone. Poe, on the other hand, allows us to see that the quote no less applies to the narrator as well:

With a cigar in my mouth and a newspaper in my lap [the convalescent narrator recalls, sitting alone in the coffee-house of a London hotel], I had been amusing myself for the greater part of the afternoon, now in pouring over advertisements, now in observing the promiscuous company in the room, and now in peering through the smoky panes into the street.

This apparent visitor to London, a companionless exile, this guest without a host seems quite unhappily alone, although—at least to us—he will not admit it. Overwhelmed by the sight of crowds on their way home from work,

[he] gave up, at length, all care of things within the hotel, and became absorbed in contemplation of the scene without.

This is the voyeurism of a man who has no conspicuous life of his own, at least for the time being. After all, it is he who improbably pursues the stranger through thick and thin, dark and rain, out into the suburbs and all the way back. He, too, is unable to be alone.

Moreover, so much is the narrator distinct from the author that he is ultimately mistaken as to what the story that he compulsively tells is about:

  It was well said of a certain German book [he announces at the outset] that “er lässt sich nicht lesen”—it does not permit itself to be read. There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be read.

The narrator thus prepares us for the revelation that the stranger, whom he followed in order to decipher his history and mystery, had proven too tough a nut to crack, so to speak.

Now and then, alas, the conscience of man takes up a burthen so heavy in horror that it can be thrown down only into the grave. And thus the essence of all crime is undivulged.

Given how foul the old man’s heart must have been, the narrator says with a sigh at story’s end that “perhaps it is but one of the great mercies of God” that it cannot be read as though it were an open book. Thus emerges the moral of the narrator’s tale, that in this wide world of ours mysteries exist that humanity cannot and should not understand, for such knowledge is the sole property of God. Are we to accept this? Or is the narrator whipping up this reiteration of the Fall myth in order to avoid examining the implications of the experience he (like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner) is driven to recount?

Certainly Poe wants us to know that his narrator is mixed up. Early on, the narrator alludes to the “vivid yet candid reason of Leibnitz” against the “mad and flimsy rhetoric of Gorgias.” As it happens, though, the moral he chooses for his tale is actually closer to Gorgias, who believes that if being exists it can, at best, be known but never communicated to others, than it is to Leibnitz, who argues that “the nature of an individual substance or of a complete being” is “to afford a conception so complete that the concept shall be sufficient for the understanding of it and for the deduction of all the predicates of which the substance is or may become the subject” (trans. George R. Montgomery). Only a perfectly knowledgeable God can apprehend this expanse of past and future in any individual; yet despite his ambiguously motivated acquiescence to God at the end of the story, the narrator assumes just such knowledge for himself: by merely examining the faces in the passing crowds, he could “frequently read, even in that brief interlude of a glance, the history of long years.” Since his pursuit of the stranger, to unmask the mystery of this man’s soul, is an attempt to validate Leibnitz, how odd it is that he is left with only the story, a confession of failure propounding a homily which resembles instead a comic book version of Gorgias. The narrator’s praise of the one philosopher and his denunciation of the other one do not fit his own experience, and so we must wonder about this narrator.

There is other cause as well to question his authority. We know he is attracted to the stranger. Like yesterday’s idol, however, the old man is taken down, in the narrator’s mind at least, to the low denominator of a man of the crowd. Furthermore, this individual is branded the worst possible criminal, indeed, the essence of crime itself. But how does the narrator come up with this? What “crime” has the stranger committed? We are told that he carries a diamond and a dagger; but even if the narrator’s perception relating to this is accurate and not fever-induced, what does it prove? The diamond may belong to the stranger, and the dagger could be his means of defending himself against its theft. Just why does the narrator condemn him?

In order to answer this, let us consider more closely the shift in the narrator’s attitude toward the stranger. At first the old man is perceived as an extraordinary individual, one who seemingly transcends the endless crowd that the narrator is watching through the coffee-house window. The narrator recalls:

[S]uddenly there came into view a countenance (that of a decrepit old man, some sixty-five or seventy years of age,)—a countenance which at once arrested my whole attention, on account of the absolute idiosyncrasy of its expression. . . . [T]here 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 supreme despair. I felt singularly aroused, startled, fascinated. “How wild a history,” I said to myself, “is written within that bosom!”

What the narrator saw, then, was no mere man of the crowd. He grew obsessed: “Then came a craving desire to keep the man in view.” Like Ahab’s pursuit of the White Whale, the narrator’s pursuit of the stranger comes to define his own existence. While insisting that the stranger was an object for him to investigate and analyze, the narrator inadvertently reveals that he had in fact made this object his own life’s subject, thereby becoming an object himself whose import depends on the other’s activity: “I resolved,” he says, “to follow the stranger whithersoever he should go.” By uncovering and absorbing the other man’s “wild history,” the narrator (perhaps unconsciously) seeks to claim this “subject” as his own and therefore become as real to himself as the stranger already is to him. The narrator hopes to achieve spiritual identification with him; for he also, then, would be proven, or would become, real and unique, that is to say, mysteriously though indelibly defined amid humanity’s ordinary, hurrying blur. The “lost” part of himself that supplies individuation and meaning would be restored, repossessed. He and his Romantic soul-mate would be back together, an instance of the original unity the existence of which Shelley assumes in Adonais and which Poe himself postulates in Eureka.

It is easier now to divine just what “crime” the old man committed. Imagine being paid no mind by someone you have gone out after imploringly, in search of your life’s meaning, your true and complete identity, your soul. The narrator turns against the stranger, branding him a criminal, when the latter fails to acknowledge his existence; it is as if the stranger were so tauntingly complete in himself that there is no need to let the narrator in, or as if he is blind, or as if the narrator were invisible, making impossible any rapprochement between them. In the narrator’s account there is an echo of Wordsworth’s reaction upon approaching (also in London) a blind beggar who is emblematic of the Stoic integrity of spiritual humanity (“on the shape of that unmoving man,/ His steadfast face and sightless eyes, I gazed,” Wordsworth says in The Prelude, “As if admonished from another world”):

[A]s the shades of the second evening came on, I grew wearied unto death, and, stopping fully in front of the wanderer, gazed at him steadfastly in the face. He noticed me not, but resumed his solemn walk, while I, ceasing to follow, remained absorbed in contemplation. “This old man,” I said at length, “is the type and the genius of deep crime. He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd. It will be in vain to follow; for I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds.

Wordsworth’s beggar wears around his neck a card full of facts about him, none of which are capable of disclosing the sacred private mystery of the man. Wordsworth finally accepts this; Poe’s narrator, however, is not one to be “admonished.” Instead, he lashes out. It would seem that the stranger is adjudged a criminal only because he maintains his aloneness vis-à-vis the narrator, whose existence he fails to acknowledge.

It is not likely that the narrator grasps any of this. Indeed, all along he appears to have repressed the real motive of his quest, that is to say, the recognition by the stranger and identification with him that might have led, in another world perhaps, to spiritual union, fraternal love. At one point the narrator explains, “Never once turning his head to look back, he did not observe me”; a note of disappointment is audible beneath his ostensible sigh of relief. In truth, the narrator’s professed wish to have remained undetected cannot account for the edge of recollected ecstasy—the dread of being overlooked; the hope that he will not be—contained in this remark of his: “Still more was I astonished to see him repeat the strange walk several times—once nearly detecting me as he came round with a sudden movement.” In a way, the narrator himself is like a criminal—the kind that wants to get caught. Put another way, at the same time that he wishes to enact the role of an anonymous detective, he also desires an end to his prolonged functional anonymity. Thus the following passage oddly mixes objective reportage, self-satisfaction and pure defeat:

During the hour and a half, or thereabouts, which we passed [in the bazaar], it required much caution on my part to keep [the stranger] within reach without attracting his observation. Luckily I wore a pair of caoutchouc overshoes, and could move about in perfect silence. At no moment did he see that I watched him.

Poe’s humor here is as wild as it is touching, but the absurdity of the penultimate sentence escapes the narrator’s notice. The nearly incredible circumstance of the stranger’s not having noticed him while being so persistently and amateurishly shadowed only confirms the narrator’s worst fear that he, the narrator himself, lacks all reality or individuality, so in retaliation—in his most quiet and self-protectively rational voice—he denounces the stranger as the world’s great criminal and the man of the crowd. Understanding how he feels is not difficult. Imagine looking into a mirror and seeing nothing. Who wouldn’t try to break it?

But it is the context of failed Romantic myth, specifically the failure of the fraternal ideal, that especially enriches this event, expanding it beyond psychological revelation. The narrator’s assault on the stranger, which is diverted to us so that the narrator can retain his rational composure (the assault itself is really on us, for it is we the reader who replaces the stranger as the one whom the narrator doggedly pursues), demonstrates the chasm between the two men. Yet in a way the two men are identical. By not seeing the narrator, the stranger reveals a kind of blindness—as does the narrator, who is unable to decipher the contours of the stranger’s soul. This leaves the narrator in the dark as to his own identity as well. His condemnation of the stranger conceals their shared failure to embrace spiritually, to come together. They are brothers who are lost to themselves because they are lost to one another. Both these men of the crowd end up alone, the stranger wandering off, trying to assuage his loneliness by throwing himself anonymously into anonymous crowds, and the narrator anonymously coming to us, an anonymous audience, in order to recount his distressing adventure again and again.

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