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Poe's Short Stories and Enlightenment Rationality

The role of rationality in Poe's 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue' and 'The Man of the Crowd'

Edgar Allan Poe?s short stories reveal unmistakably the zeitgeist of modern life. Michael McKeon described the nineteenth century as a time when literature and ideology were going through ?an epistemological crisis, a major cultural transition in attitudes toward how to tell the truth in narrative? . Poe?s ?The Murders in the Rue Morgue? and ?The Man of the Crowd? engage with the prevailing post-Enlightenment attitudes towards truth and reality. The stories draw attention to the shortcomings of Enlightenment rationality by demonstrating that there are mysteries of human existence and psychology which cannot be explained by Enlightened reasoning. In ?Murders?, Dupin?s attempts at ratiocination are contrasted with disorder, savagery and the unexplained. Similarly, in ?The Man of the Crowd?, the narrator?s attempt to discover the truth of modern existence is entirely in vain. In both stories, Poe suggests that there is a part of life which ?does not permit itself to be read? and that there is a limit to our ability of finding order in a chaotic world. This juxtaposition of mankind?s potential for discovery and improvement with our limitations and the pervasiveness of the unexplained is one of the central paradoxes of modern life. As Marshall Berman wrote, ?it has been impossible to grasp and embrace the modern world?s potentials, without loathing and fighting against some of its most palpable realities?. This paradox reveals itself in Poe?s short stories in the contrasts between order and disorder, savage and civilised and, above all, rational and irrational.

Poe called the series of stories which started with ?The Murders in the Rue Morgue? his ?tales of ratiocination?. ?Murders? begins with an introduction which ? on three separate levels ? introduces us to this theory of solving an enigma through the application of logical processes. The first level is abstract; Poe provides the reader with a treatise on the distinction between acumen and attention, analysis and ingenuity. We are invited to read the narrative ?in the light of [this] commentary?, but the story itself does not effectively start until the reading of the first newspaper report; the second and third levels of the introduction come first. The second level introduces us to the narrator and Dupin, whose lifestyle of secrecy and seclusion is implied to be almost a necessary consequence of their acumen ? they meet in an ?obscure library?, and their conversations on topics of intellectual interest are for them a type of ?communion?. The third level of the introduction highlights Dupin?s mastery of logic and reason, and establishes the narrator as a character who is forever to be in awe of his partner?s superior acumen. By placing this basis for Enlightenment rationality on a pedestal, Poe sets himself up to later challenge its validity.

This culture of methodology and reasoning is strikingly contrasted with the culture of discord revealed in the body of the narrative. Paris itself is a site of cultural confusion ? people from all over Europe are gathered in the city, and they seem to understand as little about each other as they do about the murder in the Rue Morgue. The mystery of the orangutan?s voice, ?about whose nationality no two persons could be found to agree?, normalises the xenophobic attitudes of nineteenth century Parisians. Furthermore, Dupin is quick to dismiss the possibility that it was ?the voice of an Asiatic ? or of an African? ? non-Europeans, we learn, have no appreciable presence and no role in contemporary European society. There are a number of images of savagery in the story, and the contrast between savage and civilised becomes an implicit motif. On one hand there are the parallel characters of the sailor and the orangutan, who represent the reality of mankind?s animalistic nature, and on the other hand we have the narrator and Dupin, as well as the the L?Espanayes, who represent modern, civilised life. Despite all this cultural and racial tumult, the detective Dupin does succeed in solving the mystery of the crime. We must remember that he does so, however, in an atmosphere of confusion and irrationality. ?The police are confounded? by the murder, along with the narrator, and the whole city. While rumours spread all over Paris, Dupin alone remains silent. Even though he becomes intrigued in the affair after reading the report, ?he made no comments?; and, when he does speak, it?s ?very much as if in a soliloquy?. He seems the epitome of order in a world of crime and chaos.

But although Dupin might arrive at the correct answers, we are invited to think that perhaps he has not asked the right questions. He certainly does not take notice of any of these issues of culture, nor does he seem to be concerned by the horror of the crime and the psychology of the killer. He attends, in Conrad?s words, only to the ?mere incidents of the surface? . The detective himself admits that ?there is such a thing as being too profound. Truth is not always in a well?. Leo Lemay argues that Dupin fails because he is not able to recognise the psychological signs which point to the fact that ?the murderer was a psychotic sex criminal?. Lemay?s analysis prompts us to consider further whether Dupin?s quest for the truth is as convincing as the introduction hinted it would be.

Indeed, the narrative consistently works to undermine the reader?s faith in Dupin. He may be able to solve logical enigmas, but gradually we feel that there is something wholly unconvincing about his character. His ephemeral approach to life makes us immediately distrustful, and his casual attitude about the crime is unnerving. His remark that investigating the murder will ?afford us amusement? is particularly offensive. The narrator of the story shares this view ? he thinks that it is an ?odd term, so applied?. Throughout the story, the narrator functions in this way to verbalise the thoughts of the reader. This has the effect of foregrounding many of Dupin?s traits, including both his abilities (the narrator is permanently in awe of his acumen), and his limitations (the narrator is astonished at his callousness). To further highlight this contrast, Poe draws attention to the limitations of Dupin?s empirical method. His solution to the crime seems to depend as much on good fortune as it does on logic ? after all, Dupin is privy to the evidence of the orangutan hair and sailor?s ribbon, which he does not share with the police, or with the reader, until the very end.

In ?The Man of the Crowd?, Poe takes the reader on a journey around the London streetscape with a narrator who is determined to discover the secret of a mysterious old man. The narrator is a detective figure, in many respects similar to Dupin. In the first part of the story, he takes on the role of a modern voyeur, using the vantage point of a coffee-shop to observe the passers by. In ?Murders?, this very idea is championed by the narrator, who describes the ?infinity of mental excitement which quiet observation can afford?. The narrator in ?The Man of the Crowd? certainly seems as adept at observation as the poker player described in ?Murders? ? we are told that he can ?frequently read, even in that brief interval of a glance, the history of long years?. Dupin boasts in ?Murders? that he has this skill too, remarking that ?most men, in respect to himself, wore windows in their bosoms?. Yet, despite this claim, the narrator does not tell us about the individual people he sees. Rather, he seems to have an almost instinctive imperative to categorise them, primarily by their profession. He makes no mention of any exceptions, or of any people he cannot classify. The use of animal imagery further suggests that the categories of people are all so homogenous that identifying them is as easy as finding species of animal in a zoo. Indeed, as time passes, it seems increasingly as though the city is performing according to a script which the narrator knows by heart. The movement of the people, despite their sheer number, is described as being as regular as the cycle of the moon: ?dense and continuous tides of population were rushing past the door?. The narrator knows that the ?late hour brought forth every species of infamy from its den? and, like the spectators at gladiator games to which this metaphor clearly alludes, enjoys watching their wretchedness and suffering. Ironically, the name of Tertullian is mentioned later in the same paragraph. Tertullian, an Christian writer in ancient Rome, was one of the first to object to the execution of Christians by gladiator fights.

Everything changes when the narrator catches sight of the old man. ?Anything even remotely resembling that expression?, he tells us, ?I had never seen before?. The narrator sees in the man ?the ideas of vast mental power? of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense ? of extreme despair? ? the very traits absent in the apathetic, monotonous lives of the people of the crowd. He is roused by the man?s idiosyncrasies; drawn by his uniqueness. By identifying with the old man on an individual level, the narrator reveals one of the central tensions of modernity ? the growing fear of the erosion of class strata and the development of individualism.

The old man becomes the archetypal individual. During the many hours that he is followed by the narrator, images of the atmosphere and their surroundings ? particularly changes in the lighting ? encourage the reader to focus on this aspect of his character. What the narrator describes as ?the wild effects of the light? prompt repeated changes in the old man?s demeanor. When they enter ?a square, brilliantly lighted, and overflowing with life?, his ?old manner? reappeared?. Light is associated with life, life with crowds, and crowds are an inexorable attraction for the old man. Similarly, when they come to the ?verge of the city?, with its ?deplorable poverty? and ?desperate crime?, the ?dim light of an accidental lamp? signifies deserted streets, and an ?atmosphere [which] teemed with desolation?. The old man here is slow and uneasy, and it is not until ?a blaze of light burst upon our sight? that ?the spirits of the old man again flickered up, as a lamp which is near its death hour?. Poe establishes a range of associations for light, which help us establish that the man feels comfortable only in teeming crowds. Nevertheless, his behaviour changes as often as the lighting, and we are left with the impression that his existence cannot fully be explained.

In this way, the narrator is a failure as a detective. He never manages to dispel the ideas which ?arose confusedly and paradoxically? when he first set eyes on the man. Although he knows nothing more about the man than when he first started, he concludes his narrative with a desperate final attempt to classify him as ?the type and genius of deep crime?. But this gives way to the admission that it is impossible to find out anything more about the man, and the story ends with the same metaphor with which it begun: ?es lasst sich nicht lesn?, ?it does not permit itself to be read?.

In both ?The Man of the Crowd? and ?Murders in the Rue Morgue?, Poe shows a preoccupation with the inexplicable in our lives. He insistently questions the Enlightenment foundations of modernity, and accentuates by the use of images and motifs those elements of his stories which portray modern life with all its complexities and contradictions intact. Poe celebrates modern reasoning and rationality, while at the same time delineating its limits. In this respect, his work preempts the postmodern movement. James Joyce would later write, ?language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech? . This notion of defamiliarisation resonates for Poe ? his stories encourage us consider the strange in the familiar, and invite us to reconsider our approaches to truth and knowledge.

L. Frank, ??The Murders in the Rue Morgue?: Edgar Allan Poe?s Evolutionary Reverie?, Nineteenth Century Literature, volume 50, issue 2, 1995, p. 168-188.
J. Johnston, Ideas of Modernity, 1780-1900, English 111 Course Reader
J. Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, London, Penguin, 1975
J.G. Kennedy, Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing, Yale, Yale University Press, 1987.
J.A. Leo Lemay, ??The Psychology of ?The Murders in the Rue Morgue??, American Literature, volume 54, issue 2, 1982, p. 165-188.

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