Poe, Stevenson, and Collisions in the City

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a number of thinkers turned to the city to analyse and theorise specifically urban forms of everyday life. Figures such as Georg Simmel and Walter Benjamin attempted to think through and generalise about the way people were currently living in the most modern of cities.This incursion of the messily topical into the intellectual arena can be claimed, to a great extent, as the beginnings of critical social science. But this early point of urban studies also has a prehistory in the work of nineteenth-century writers who, in a less rigorous way and within more popular genres, had responded to the same phenomena. This is not a prehistory Benjamin at least would have wanted to downplay: much of his work relies explicitly on the imaginative energies of writers from the 1800s, such as his influential material on the flâneur, which draws heavily on the poetry of Baudelaire and a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Man in the Crowd’ (1839).

In Benjamin’s ‘On some motifs in Baudelaire’, a posthumously published fragment from the Arcades Project written almost exactly a hundred years after Poe’s story, he explores the kind of street education moving around the modern city both requires and provides:

Moving through…traffic involves the individual in a series of shocks and collisions. At dangerous intersections, nervous impulses flow through him in rapid succession, like the energy from a battery. Bauderlaire speaks of a man who plunges into a crowd as into a reservoir of electric energy. Circumscribing the experience of the shock, he calls the man a ‘kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness.’ Whereas Poe’s passers-by cast glances in all directions which still appeared to be aimless, today’s pedestrians are obliged to do so in order to keep abreast of traffic signals. Thus technology has subjected the human sensorium to a complex kind of training.

What emerges strongly from this passage is the growing threat in urban modernity of collision, and also the development of a new mode of living that is forged in direct relation to this threat. The new pedestrian is conditioned by new taboos that are experienced as ‘nervous impulses’ flowing like some electrical current at the ‘dangerous intersections’ where the horrific possibility of collision comes most vividly into play.

But if we return to Poe’s fiction, not all of his passers-by are as relaxed or ‘aimless’ in the glances that they cast as Benjamin implies. In another of his stories that is also, not coincidentally, one of the initiators of the detective-writing tradition, Poe demonstrates an interest in collisions in the city that suggests he intuits their symptomatic identity in the emergent modernity to which his fiction responds. In ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841), the proto-detective Auguste Dupin is indulging in a spot of night-walking in Paris with his friend, the narrator, when the former vocalizes a comment upon the latter’s un-vocalized train of thought, provoking the astonished companion to ask him to explain what appears on the surface to be the exercise of supernatural powers. Dupin obliges by narrating a complicated trajectory of deduction, combining optical and auditory observation, and also linking up the contours of their previous conversations with minor everyday events in which they recently participated in their physical journey through space to the present place and moment in time.

As the narrator says: ‘There are few persons who have not, at some period of their lives, amused themselves in retracing the steps by which particular conclusions of their own minds have been attained.’ What is interesting about Dupin’s explanation is that it lends substance to that process of ‘retracing…steps’, by drawing the city and its dynamic material reality into an archaelogy of intellectual process, showing how an apparently new idea can be derived from an earlier haptic encounter on the streets. The point of departure to which Dupin has traced his companion’s thought is, intriguingly, a collision with a stranger:

     “It was the fruiterer,” replied my friend, “who brought you to the conclusion that the mender of soles was not of sufficient height for Xerxes et id genus omne.”

“The fruiterer! –you astonish me –I know no fruiterer whomsoever.”

“The man who ran up against you as we entered the street –it may have been fifteen minutes ago.”

I now remembered that, in fact, a fruiterer, carrying upon his head a large basket of apples, had nearly thrown me down, by accident, as we passed from the Rue C___ into the thoroughfare where we stood; but what this had to do with Chantilly I could not possibly understand.

Although the narrator has already forgotten the collision, Dupin, the pioneer, the prophet of modernity, realises that something momentous and formative has occurred. Poe’s fiction offers no elaboration of the centrality of collision taboo to the operation of the modern city, but by placing such an ‘accident’ so prominently before his readers, as an agent of thought for the un-reflexive pedestrian and an object of thought to the analyst, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ gestures towards the significance Benjamin would later illuminate.

Like Poe’s story, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) uses a collision to initiate a train of thought, but here it is not only to frame the core narrative with a discussion of the interrelations of the material and intellectual world, but to kick-start the main plot itself. The main narrator Utterson’s fascination with the figure of Hyde begins, after all, when he hears from his friend Enfield the perplexing story of one particularly remarkable street collision:

“Well, it was this way,” returned Mr. Enfield: “I was coming home from some place at the end of the world, about three o’clock of a black winter morning, and my way lay through a part of town where there was literally nothing to be seen but lamps. Street after street, and all the folks asleep—street after street, all lighted up as if for a procession and all as empty as a church—till at last I got into that state of mind when a man listens and listens and begins to long for the sight of a policeman. All at once, I saw two figures: one a little man who was stumping along eastward at a good walk, and the other a girl of maybe eight or ten who was running as hard as she was able down a cross street. Well, sir, the two ran into one another naturally enough at the corner; and then came the horrible part of the thing; for the man trampled calmly over the child’s body and left her screaming on the ground. It sounds nothing to hear, but it was hellish to see. It wasn’t like a man; it was like some damned Juggernaut.

Beyond the asymmetry of the two figures colliding and the asymmetric physical injuries caused by such a meeting between a small child ‘running…hard’ and a little man ‘stumping along…at a good walk’, the really ‘horrible’ or ‘hellish’ feature of this episode – its uncanny quality – is the calmness with which Hyde tramples over the body. It is the intentionality of this street accident, deliberately transgressing as it does the collision taboo, that unveils this character as the embodiment of the urban Gothic.

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