Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

The Detective Gaze: Edgar A. Poe, the Flaneur, and the Physiognomy of Crime

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

The Detective Gaze: Edgar A. Poe, the Flaneur, and the Physiognomy of Crime

Article excerpt

Among the many achievements in the short and difficult life of Edgar A. Poe was the creation of the detective tale as a popular literary genre. The extraordinary feats of ratiocination performed by C. Auguste Dupin in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Purloined Letter," and "The Mystery of Marie Roget" have entertained countless young readers in the past 150 years, and attracted enormous critical attention. Some of that attention, most notably Dana Brand's The Spectator and the City in Nineteenth Century American Literature, has focused on the relationship between Poe's detective and the flaneur, the solitary strolling metropolitan observer theorized by Walter Benjamin in "Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century," in his essay "The Flaneur," and in its revised version "On some motifs in Baudelaire." Within the context of these discussions, Benjamin points briefly to Poe's connection to the flaneur who, Benjamin argues, enjoyed his heyday in Paris during the 1830s, just when Poe was launching his literary career.(1) Benjamin's references, typically aphoristic, deserve to be more fully unpacked; and Brand's analysis of this connection, while extremely useful, tends to downplay the significance of the flaneur for Poe. In fact, the flaneur represents a pivotal influence on Poe's philosophical perspective and fictional aims and strategies overall, perhaps nowhere more evidently than in his detective tales.

Walter Benjamin, the Flaneur, and the Detective

There is considerable disagreement among scholars as to the nature and origins of the flaneur. As Keith Tester indicates, "definitions are at best difficult and, at worst, a contradiction of what the flaneur means. In himself, the flaneur is, in fact, a very obscure thing"(7). Yet certain features recur in most if not all delineations of this figure. The ancient "pseudo-science" of physiognomy, of reading a person's facial features and external characteristics for evidence of inner qualities, plays a central role in flanerie.(2) Another critical element is the flaneur's apparently detached, aimless, and desultory (but in reality, highly present and focused) observation. The flaneur's methodology is intuitive; he bases his conclusions solely on observation and inference. According to an 1806 French pamphlet titled Le Flaneur au Salon, he was an outsider within the metropolis, walking "through the streets at random and alone ... suspended from social obligation, disengaged, disinterested, dispassionate"; his leisurely manner and his ties to aristocratic privilege make him appear to be a "loafer" or "lazybones" (qtd. in Ferguson 26, 24). The flaneur must preserve this liminal perspective to interpret the city. He must be immersed in the crowd, and yet must remain aloof from it; part of the marketplace, he must still keep his distance from it and its commodities.

For a while, Benjamin argues, the flaneur remained "still on the threshold, of the city as of the bourgeois class. Neither has engulfed him; in neither is he at home" ("Paris" 156). However, for Benjamin, the flaneur was constantly in danger of being reduced to the status of passive window-shopper or consumer, a transformation that, as Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson suggests, "effectively ends the flaneur's connection with creativity"(35). Also, the flaneur quickly became a literary figure, generating "a panorama literature" of "physiologies" which "investigated types that might be encountered by a person taking a look at the marketplace" ("Flaneur" 36). Ultimately, then, the flaneur became gainfully employed, and his written observations became commodities within the market. For Rob Shields, the "ambiguous process of consumption and self-implication" inherent in flanerie poses a fundamental question: "How to gain knowledge yet remain unchanged; how to witness, yet remain unmoved?" (75-76).

The triumph of societal forces, Benjamin argues, was putting the flaneur to use as a detective. …

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