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Marching towards Destruction: the Crowd in Urban Gothic

Christophe CHAMBOST

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1The impact of the city on Man’s mind has often been fascinating for some writers. Starting from Walter Benjamin’s analysis on Charles Baudelaire’s poetry (329-390), one will first see the antagonistic features characterising the city and its inhabitants, more particularly those prone to stroll the streets. Although different in both its contents and its “inscape”, we will briefly consider some of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry. Indeed the English poet also stresses the dual aspect of Man’s existence when his steps lead him to expanding industrial cities.

2The ambivalent portrayals of walkers by these European poets will then give way to darker, more unequivocal descriptions as one crosses the Atlantic and examines some works of 19th century American literature. Referring to Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd”, we will then insist on the alienating nature of the American urban context which turns carefree strollers into harried walkers. Edgar Allan Poe’s tale will be the cornerstone of our study, but we will also refer to passages in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Wakefield”, Ambrose Bierce’s “The Man Out of the Nose” or Herman Melville’s Pierre, or the Ambiguities to sustain our contention.

3The emphasis laid on the dissolution of humanity into brutal collective entities will eventually allow us to consider murderous mobs as the next stage of Man’s march towards destruction. Walking is then often replaced by running as lynching scenes occur in fictions such as William Faulkner’s Sanctuary or Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (among others). Lastly, while dehumanisation frantically accelerates, the remaining traces of life dwindle to nothing. Whether it be in novels or in films, the unmaking of Man appears complete with the foregrounding of heartless serial killers or lifeless creatures that mechanically roam the desolate streets of American cities.

  • 1  “La pendule aux accents funèbres / Sonnait brutalement midi, / Et le ciel versait des ténèbres / S (...)
  • 2  “Cependant des démons malsains dans l’atmosphère / S’éveillent lourdement comme des gens d’affaire (...)
  • 3  “Quelles bizarreries ne trouve-t-on pas dans une grande ville, quand on sait se promener et regard (...)
  • 4  “Partout la joie, le gain, (…). Partout l’explosion frénétique de la vitalité. Ici la misère absol (...)

4Reading Charles Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris, one can hardly miss the clashing emotions that the French capital and its crowd trigger in the poet’s mind. These contrasting views are brilliantly analysed by Walter Benjamin who shows how the author manages to convey the ambivalence of the city and its inhabitants. Acknowledging the doleful nature of Baudelaire’s poetry, the critic nonetheless stresses the softness of tone that can also irradiate the lines devoted to the capital. There is no denying that this urban construct evokes desolation and death but, to echo Walter Benjamin’s words, the idea of funeral is linked to that of an “idyll” – the critic refers to the “funeral idyll” emanating from Baudelaire’s Paris (351). Keeping the poet’s melancholy in mind, Walter Benjamin sees Paris as the object of his lyrical poetry, a kind of poetry in which the city’s bleakness is relieved thanks to its soothing brightness. Paris is thus often associated to gloom and torpor (as in the concluding lines of “Parisian Dream”: “The clock with its death-like accent / Was brutally striking noon; / The sky was pouring down its gloom / Upon the dismal, torpid world.”)1 or to villainy and corruption (as in the poem written in verse “Twilight”)2. But these evils do not prevent the stroller from gaining an enriching insight on both Man and the city: “What bizarre things does one not find in a great city, when one knows how to walk around and look? Life is swarming with innocent monsters.” (“Miss Lancet”)3. The paradoxical association of innocence with monstrosity reveals the dual aspect of the teeming city, a dual aspect that only the gaze of the wakeful stroller can grasp. Even if the poet is well aware that solitude and misery are hidden in the heart of a joyful crowd – “Everywhere joy, success, (…). Everywhere the frenetic explosion of vitality. Here, absolute misery.” (“The Old Mountebank”)4 – nonetheless his acute sensitivity to woe does not invalidate his concurrent considering of the town’s tumult and glee.

  • 5  “Enfin ! seul ! Enfin la tyrannie de la face humaine a disparu, (…). Horrible vie ! Horrible ville (...)
  • 6  “Multitude, solitude : termes égaux et convertibles pour le poète actif et fécond” (Le spleen de P (...)
  • 7  “… ceux qui courent s’oublier dans la foule, craignant sans doute de ne pouvoir se supporter eux-m (...)
  • 8  This craving for mobility is encompassed in the etymology of the word “mob” (mobilis : mobile) who (...)
  • 9  “Presque tous nos malheurs nous viennent de n’avoir pas su rester dans notre chambre dit Pascal (… (...)
  • 10  The philosopher’s thoughts on the intolerable uniqueness of the Real (and the Present) in relation (...)

5Like the city used as a framework, the crowd is often described as repelling – “Alone, at last! (…) At last the tyranny of the human face has disappeared (…). Horrible life! Horrible town!” (At One O’Clock in the Morning”)5 – but then, the poet also seems to acknowledge some of its energetic properties. The multitude could well be a means for the stroller / poet to reach some sort of heightened sensitivity – “Multitude, solitude: two equal and interchangeable terms for the active and prolific poet.” (“Crowds”)6. As he is engulfed in the flow of the masses, the stroller then knows how to stand aloof and enjoy this oxymoronic pairing of congregation and isolation. He is therefore prone to experience the euphoria (“ivresse”) resulting from the feeling of universal communion. But his “ex-stasy” is also tinged with a pang of anxiety as he realises that this extraction out of his Self may be a means of eluding the stasis linked to his unbearable uniqueness – “(…) all of those who run off to lose themselves in the crowd, fearful, undoubtedly, of not being able to tolerate themselves.” (“Solitude”)7. The poet is painfully conscious that, by joining the flux of the throng, Man mainly hopes to find some comfort as he forgets his mortal lot thanks to the mob’s hustle-bustle8 : “‘Almost all of our misfortunes come to us from not having been able to stay in our room,’ says Pascal (…), thereby recalling to their meditation chambers, I believe, all of those madmen who seek happiness in movement (…).” (“Solitude”)9. The Baudelairian stroller is therefore tempted to obliterate his dreadful thoughts on the Present (or what Clément Rosset calls the “Real”)10 and long for something else “any where out of the world” (Le spleen de Paris 178). This romantic bias could lead to a rejection of immediacy so as to favour Man’s bemoaning the loss of his past or the inaccessibility of a bright future.

  • 11 “[Les baraques] piaillaient, beuglaient, hurlaient. C’était un mélange de cris, de détonations de c (...)

6Nevertheless, the stroller’s keen gaze prevents this escapist strategy from happening. And even if regret can often be felt, the Baudelairian character does merge with the crowd to enjoy festive events and assert the boisterous nature of the carnival – “[All of the booths] squalled, they bellowed, they screeched. It was a mix of shouts, of blasts of brass, of explosions of rockets. (…) All was light, dust, shouts, joy, tumult (…). And circulating everywhere, overwhelming all other scents, the odor of fried food, which is the very incense of this festivity.” (“The Old Mountebank”)11. In these occasions, the portrayals drawn by the poet have much in common with Mikhail Bakhtin’s descriptions of Rabelaisian merrymaking. Indeed light prevails over darkness, silence and propriety give way to uproar and eccentricity, and the official order of things is definitely inverted as the smell of fat replaces that of sainted incense. Despite recurrent pangs of distress, the stroller is included in the energetic collective body and he can appreciate the laughter ensuing from the people’s dynamism and their (r)evolution. His tendency to incline towards the crowd’s mirthful expression is therefore not merely a way of forgetting his own Self; it mainly shows his will to take part in a regenerative process in which sharing and cheering do not however blind his penetrating gaze in the end. No matter how frolicsome and fascinating, that carnival remains inhuman and, ultimately, a source of disappointment to him.

  • 12  “La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait, / (…) Un éclair… puis la nuit! – fugitive beauté / D (...)

7Walter Benjamin has rightly pinpointed the paradoxical aspect of the Baudelairian crowd whose ambivalence causes the poet’s bitterness. This oxymoronic association of pleasure and grief can also be felt in the stroller’s “rapture” when experiencing “love at first sight”… a “first sight” which then also painfully happens to be the last one,  the crowd being responsible for the lovers’ simultaneous meeting and parting : “The street about me roared with a deafening sound, / (…) A lightning flash… then night! Fleeting beauty / By whose glance I was suddenly reborn, / Will I see you no more before eternity?” (“To a Passer-By”)12. This chance encounter is all the more deeply felt as the excruciating farewell of that chimeric love takes place in broad daylight while the festivities are in full swing. There is a blatant intertextual echo of that poem in Michel Rivgauche’s lyrics of Edith Piaf’s song “La foule” [“The Crowd”]. There, the crowd is also seen as both giver and abductor, love being felt and lost in the same breath on a sunny feastday (“Je revois la ville en fête et en délire / Suffoquant sous le soleil et sous la joie…” / [I remember the ecstatic festive city / Choking with heat and joy]). One may also hark back to the poignant ending of Marcel Carné’s Les enfants du paradis, in which the carnival is the event highlighting the impossibility of Garance and Frédérick’s love.

8Charles Baudelaire’s spleen does not seem to have much in common with Gerard Manley Hopkins’s pessimism. However, through different means, both poets convey a contrasted view of Man as a walker in an urban environment. It is true that Hopkins’s description of 19th century industrialised cities is much less ambivalent: everything is meant to make us feel the desolation resulting from Man’s errancy in his vain quest for material comfort. Not only has the industrial revolution often brought spirituality to an end, but it has also plunged the masses into worldly misery: “How these two [the sea and the skylark] shame this shallow and frail town! / How ring right out of our sordid turbid time, / Being pure! We, life’s pride and cared-for crown, / Have lost that cheer and charm of earth’s past prime.” (“The Sea and the Skylark” 68). With the Jesuit poet, Man has become a wretched and weary walker whose body is now impervious to the divine, his shoes even destroying God’s earthly creation: “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; / And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; / And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil / Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.” (“God’s Grandeur” 66).

  • 13  Errant : 1) wandering in search of adventure.
  • 14  “Sometimes a lanten moves along the night. / That interests our eyes. And who goes there? / I thin (...)

9Man sadly walks in desolate gloomy industrial cities and he strays from what the poet considers to be the spiritually sound course. The city dweller has turned into an errant creature, both meanings of the adjective being then relevant to qualify this doomed kind of walker13. Then, Man is indeed both walking aimlessly and making a mistake… but if Hopkins agrees that “to err is human”, he also makes sure to remind us that “to forgive is divine”. The 19th century industrial nightmare has accelerated Man’s fall but some relief can still be reached thanks to God’s benevolence. Unlike the Baudelairian stroller, Hopkins’s walker cannot find comfort within the crowd, yet this solitary being can alleviate his distress by opening his body and soul to God’s grandeur. Thus, no matter how distressing the opening of “The Lantern Out of Door” may be14, the concluding lines lay the emphasis on the godly consolation that will warm the walker’s heart: “Christ minds: Christ’s interest, what to avow or amend / There, eyes them, heart wants, care haunts, foot follow kind, / Their ransom, their rescue, and first, fast, last friend.” (71). Hopkins’s apocalyptic (and apocopated) poetry therefore also allows the reader to envisage a sort of solace that can be found by the harried walker. The Baudelairian concord with the crowd has turned into a much less outgoing kind of communion but its effects may make up for Man’s dismay more deeply still… which is hardly the case as one considers a whole section of 19th century American literature.

  • 15  Thus in “Mellonta Tauta”, the personification of the mob is said “to have been the most odious of (...)

10Using Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on Charles Baudelaire’s poems and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” as a starting point, it is our contention that in the latter’s work, the crowd is referred to in a much more unequivocal way. Throughout his short stories, the American author likes disparaging what he often calls the “mob” or the “rabble”15. If one excepts Auguste Dupin, Edgar Allan Poe’s characters regularly fall victim to the alienating force conveyed by the crowd (One may simply mention the public confession ending “The Imp of the Perverse”). The French detective, Auguste Dupin, seems indeed not only to resist the psychological collapse induced by Paris’s throng but also he takes advantage of the mental excitement triggered by the busy streets so as to sharpen his perspicacity while strolling: “Then we sallied forth into the streets… seeking amid the wild lights and shadows of the populous city, that infinity of mental excitement which quiet observation can afford.” (“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, 248-249). But when it comes to the narrator of “The Man of the Crowd”, the Baudelairian stroller is replaced by an agitated walker whose restlessness (or madness) seems constantly spurred on by the unfriendly urban maze he is trapped in. Of course, some similitude can be found on the surface of things as both men roam the streets. Yet the stroller knows how to stand aloof from the city’s bustle so as to grasp a more global picture, while Poe’s character cannot resist the throng’s lure for a long time and he excitedly plunges into the flow of passers-by, desperately trying to determine who this man of the crowd (his döppelganger) may be.

  • 16  “It was now fully night-fall, and a thick humid fog hung over the city, soon ending in a settled a (...)

11The narrator’s “peculiar mental state” is indeed far from well-balanced. Deprived of any theological comfort, he is utterly fascinated by the “wild effects of the [city] light” (242) and his unwholesome attraction for the masses reveals the obsessive nature of his wanderings. By mentioning the dangerous pleasure he experiences while the heavy rain may cause a worsening of his feverish condition, this compulsive narrator makes us then realise that he is one of those characters ruled by the Poesque imp of the perverse. At first, the frantic descent into the whirling streams of Londoners seems quite methodical, the narrator starting to meticulously describe the English society from the “Eupatrids” down to the Underclass (241). But there is nothing realistic in this spectacle and the narrator’s confused mind eventually blurs all distinctions. Walter Benjamin thus can liken the noblemen’s actions to those of drunkards. Furthermore, one can also notice that despite his refined clothes and language, the narrator ends up in wearing a handkerchief about his mouth, much like a typical mobster16! (The piece of cloth on his face can also be regarded as a pall proleptic of the character’s tragic end). This downward dynamics then tends to crush each and every city-dweller so as to get one global picture of a crowd whose nature remains uncertain and thereby threatening (the idea of descent may also be reminiscent of tales like “The Fall of the House of Usher” in which a similar orientation reveals the protagonists’ collapsing psyches).

  • 17  The expression is borrowed from Alan Trachtenberg’s “Experiments in Another Country, Stephen Crane (...)

12But “The Man of the Crowd” is also characterised by a circular structure since the narrator’s quest ends where it had begun one day earlier (in front of the D___ Hotel). His attempt at gaining some insight on that mysterious stranger proves to be a failure, the old man’s mind remaining impenetrable. Then, the reader is left with a very visual rendering of a city whose mob’s hectic agitation appears illegible. Human beings (the old man and the narrator included) are seen as mere puppets deprived of free will and animated by a series of erratic jostles and shocks. The Poesque city therefore announces the urban space underscored by Kelly Hurley in her book on the “fin-de-siècle” gothic. The “urban chaosmos” that the critic analyses is regarded as a “dangerous space of flux where social identities can be undone” (159), as is the case with Poe’s unstable narrator. In “The Man of the Crowd”, London’s labyrinth resists mapping and Man (whether it be the narrator or the reader) eventually loses his way. The “radical incompleteness of any street experience”17 heightens the feeling that one is faced with elusive city dwellers whose existence is doomed to opacity and isolation.

  • 18  “I saw (…) feeble and ghastly invalids, upon whom death had placed a sure hand, and who sidled and (...)

13Using Paul Valéry’s writings, Walter Benjamin insists on the barbaric nature of urban crowds, as Poe’s tale exemplifies. Overpopulation results in a growing impression of alienation, which leads to the disintegration of the notion of community. This utter isolation can be felt in “The Man of the Crowd” in which not a single line of dialogue is reproduced. Quoting Frederick Law Olmsted in his study of Stephen Crane’s city sketches, Alan Trachtenberg makes it clear that “every day of their lives [men brought up ‘in the streets’] have seen thousands of their fellow-men, have met them face to face (…) and yet have had no experience of anything in common with them” (140, my italics). This statement is highly relevant to what happens in “The Man of the Crowd”. Indeed, like the invalids he describes at the onset of the tale18, the narrator concludes his account by looking the old man in the eye: “(…) and stopping fully in front of the wanderer, [I] gazed at him steadfastly in the face” (245). But as one may expect, this final act is fruitless, none of the men being able to account for the other’s existence, let alone to understand his mind: “He noticed me not, but resumed his solemn walk, while I, ceasing to follow, remained absorbed in contemplation” (245). The feeling of estrangement is here all the more acute if one considers the old man as the narrator’s double. Then indeed, the city’s alienating influence is such that it can eerily be held responsible for the narrator’s estrangement from his own Self: he is the man of the crowd and yet he cannot even know it!

  • 19  Walter Benjamin lingers on Friedrich Engels’s negative description of London when he differentiate (...)

14Thus, civilisation has paradoxically brought back a primeval state which implies the negation of the Other. This regressive tendency obviously endangers the Symbolic order and its corollary, the social contract. This disintegration of both Man and the city may be felt in Poe’s tale as the narrator twice refers to the idea of collapse thanks to the verb “to totter”: on the one hand, tenements of a noisome quarter are said to be “tottering to their fall” (245), while, on the other hand, invalids (who may include the narrator, as said before) also “[totter] through the mob, looking every one beseechingly in the face” (242). This tendency to relapse into the Imaginary entails the denial of the Other as an individual human being. As an inevitable consequence, expanding cities are characterised by an absence of true relationship, which opens into the brute indifference that Friedrich Engels deplores about the English capital19. What the thinker says about London’s crowded streets echoes the reader’s feeling as he reads Poe’s dysphoric short story. There, it seems that humanity has been given up and that the only thing which prevents people from murdering each other is the minimal convention consisting in letting the impersonal flux of city dwellers flow into the streets (“But as darkness came on, the throng momently increased; (…) two dense continuous tides of population were rushing past the door. (…) the tumultuous sea of human heads filled me (…) with a delicious novelty of emotion” (240). The streets are therefore teeming with people, but this agitation, punctuated by jostles and shocks, seems to be performed perfunctorily, without any real purpose but for motion itself. As Felix Martin Guttierez observes, “The Man of the Crowd” is “an emblem of pure motion ‘without apparent object’” (166). This utter lack of motivation coupled with the physicality of the jostling crowd enable Engels to use a scientific image in which the urban throng is reduced to a heap of mutually repelling atoms, the philosopher lamenting over the disappearance of any humane behaviour (59).

15These antagonistic forces at work in the streets echo the notion of the carnivalesque that we initially brought to the fore, yet the mood is here anything but festive. In “The Man of the Crowd”, the stress laid on darkness, alienation, regression and violence is indeed poles apart from the idea of Rabelaisian merrymaking. Man’s regeneration is here definitely out of reach and the present carnival’s impoverishment corresponds to what Mikhail Bakhtin defines as the “romantic grotesque” in the long introduction of his book on Rabelais (46). The thinker explicitly links that kind of grotesque to a trend of 19th century literature in which Edgar Allan Poe does fit. In “The Man of the Crowd”, the frenzy of the streets is unpleasant as it causes “a noisy and inordinate vivacity which jar[s] discordantly upon the ear and [gives] an aching sensation to the eye” (242). This emphasis on chaos then eventually leads to the dissolution of the characters’ identities and to the exhaustion of any noble conception of mankind.

  • 20  In his book, In Frankenstein’s Shadow, Chris Baldick also explicitly refers to this passage of Eme (...)

16Man’s debasement in an urban context may be defined as gothic, as is the case in Kelly Hurley’s book, but it can also be considered as naturalistic, if one alludes to Eric J. Sundquist’s insightful analysis of American realism. For the critic, the labelling does not seem to truly matter as he likens the loss of individuality dramatised by naturalism to a “gothic intensification of detail” (13). In his study, Eric J. Sundquist stresses that the growing prosperity in 19th century America implied an acute sense of restlessness which exacerbated Man’s bestiality and human psychodramas (10-13). What matters in the end is that feeling of generalised dehumanisation which runs through a whole trend of American literature. This destruction of Man’s aura in the 19th century is indeed little questioned as even transcendentalist thinkers criticise that tendency. Thus Ralf Waldo Emerson deplores the debasing metamorphosis of Man into a mere object under the alienating influence of the industrial revolution: “The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters – a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow but never a man. Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things” (84-85)20. This complaint tends to bear out what David Punter says about the development of the gothic in an era of urban-centred industry (193-199).This was the time of the machine and, to rephrase Chris Baldick’s assertion, Man was becoming subordinate to his own creations under the new reign of the commodity (72). Emerson and Poe therefore both show a common concern for the individual crushed by the masses. However these authors’ opinions profoundly diverge on Man’s evolution. While the former believes in the evolutionary process to improve mankind, the latter openly expresses scepticism on that matter. In one of his letters, Edgar Allan Poe thus declared: “I have no faith in human perfectibility. I think that human exertion will have no appreciable effect upon humanity. Man is now only more active – not more happy – nor more wise, than he was 6000 years ago. The result will never vary (…).” (257). The Poesque tendency of showing Man’s limitation in an industrialised urban context is by no means unique and one will simply allude to three other American authors whose works also tend to confirm that walking in a city may lead Man to ruination.

17In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Wakefield”, London (with its busy streets) seems indeed to be the locus responsible for the eponymous character’s alienation from his own private sphere. As soon as Wakefield leaves his wife, the narrator warns us of the risks the man runs: “We must hurry after him along the street, ere he lose his individuality, and melt into the great London mass” (77, my italics). Later on, as the unfortunate hero could amend his mistake, that same heartless crowd prevents him from enjoying domestic bliss again after his (false) move:

Just as the lean man and the well-conditioned woman are passing, a slight obstruction occurs, and brings these two figures directly in contact. Their heads touch; the pressure of the crowd forces her bosom against his shoulder; they stand, face to face, staring into each other’s eyes. After a ten year’s separation, thus Wakefield meets his wife!

The throng eddies away, and carries them asunder. The sober widow, resuming her former pace, proceeds to church… (80, my italics).

18As was the case in the final scene of “The Man of the Crowd”, the alienating influence of the crowd seems to have reached its peak here and Wakefield’s wife cannot even recognise her own husband while she looks him in the eye. Let it be said that, then, the grief felt by the hero, this “Outcast of the Universe” (82), has nothing in common with the idea of “erotic parting” brought about by the Baudelairian crowd and put forward by Walter Benjamin (351).

  • 21  The other two references are more neutral: “Built for a dwelling, it is now a factory” (207), “(…) (...)

19The nefarious influence of an expanding city can also be felt in the American context with San Francisco described as “dreadfully fascinating” in Ambrose Bierce’s “The Man Out of the Nose” (212). In this short story, the character’s destruction does not seem to be provoked by the crowd but by the city itself. Even if the plot is mainly based on a tragic love story, one may notice a link between the hero’s increasing destitution and the city’s growing industrialisation. Indeed, John Hardshaw’s life constitutes a “riches-to-rags” story since, throughout the tale, he has to live in three successive houses whose comfort is more and more spartan (starting from “one of the finest residences” on the aristocratic quarter of Rincon Hill to a house near the Mission Dolores to end in a “blank-faced shanty” in North Beach). Paralleling this decline in three stages, the narrator also mentions three times that a house has been turned into a factory. Moreover this transformation is shown under a derogatory light: “he was opposite what for that period was a rather grand dwelling and for this a rather shabby factory” (211)21.

20From the very start of his tale, Ambrose Bierce underscores the ghastly consequences of industrialisation and his opening sentence explicitly refers to a “vacant lot” which may well be regarded as the epitome of society’s failure to achieve a prosperous evolution (we will also allude to this notion of “vacant lot” with William Faulkner’s Sanctuary). In such a decrepit context, walking has nothing to do with the idea of strolling: John Hardshaw’s daily expeditions look like mechanical trudges. They always start at two o’clock in the afternoon; they always end where they started and the itinerary never varies. Moreover, they seem to cause the walker’s weariness – the return journey “appears to be a trifle wearisome” (212). Walking desperately through the grid pattern of that city where noisy factories have replaced the homes of beloved ones, the protagonist is also turned into an outcast with only some remnants of humanity left. The description of his dilapidated house is explicitly anthropomorphised (the narrator comparing the dwelling’s front to a man’s face) and the reader becomes fully aware of Man’s dysphoric fragmentation under the growing influence of 19th century urbanisation and industrialisation.

  • 22  “He continued on (…). Not habitually used to such scenes, Pierre for a moment was surprised that t (...)

21As for Herman Melville’s description of the American city in Pierre, or the Ambiguities, it is anything but ambiguous! Unlike the sunny quietness of the countryside in Saddle-Meadows, the dark city where Pierre and Isabel (vainly) seek refuge is associated to violence from the start. As soon as the coach’s wheels leave the soft “green sward” for the city’s pavement, the characters seem doomed to live in a state of warfare, the cobblestones being compared to “cannon-balls of all calibers” (230). The first people that the unhappy couple meets mainly come from the Underworld and their aggressive behaviours can be easily felt thanks to very short and sharp passages in direct speech – “Hack, sir? Hack, sir? Hack, sir? / Cab, sir? Cab, sir? Cab, sir? / This way, sir! This way, sir! This way, sir! / He’s a rogue! Not him! he’s a rogue!” (239). This frenetic picture of nocturnal urban life is all the more unsettling as Pierre soon meets the most disreputable persons like that young prostitute who tries to take advantage of his confused mind, but Pierre will finally resume his walking, considering that girl as “the town’s first welcome to youth” (237). Unable to serenely face these unwelcome stimuli, the hero can only run, his restlessness being echoed by long paratactic sentences that convey the hubbub and the threat inherent to teeming thoroughfares22. Yet, the city’s most apocalyptic scene is still to come a few pages later. Then, the narrator describes the riot occurring in the watch-house where Pierre had left Isabel, wrongly thinking she was safe there. This very long passage is pregnant with the impression of urban chaos for the most brutal actions are reported in the most grandiloquent style, the narrator going as far as comparing the jail to hell: “The thieves’-quarters, and all the brothels Lock-and-Sin hospitals for incurables, and infirmaries and infernoes of hell seemed to have made one combined sortie, and poured out upon earth through the vile vomitory of some unmentionable cellar” (240-241). Pierre’s wanderings in the city therefore prove utterly fruitless. The young man does not find the shelter he is looking for, and he is unable to earn a living in that unfriendly town. Worse, he becomes a murderer and his steps eventually lead him to another city prison where he and his beloved ones meet their deaths.

  • 23  “Suddenly I heard an excited clamor – a confused roar of many lungs and the trampling of innumerab (...)
  • 24  “The crowd in front of the theatre had charged. He was surrounded by churning legs and feet.” (161
  • 25  “To the left [the street] went on to the square, the opening between two buildings black with a sl (...)

22The upsurge of urban violence portrayed in Pierre, or the Ambiguities enables us now to consider the last stage in our study of the walker’s disintegration in a hostile urban context. Bestiality has then reached such an extremity that the psychological features defining Mankind are a thing of the past. From now on, Man has been swallowed up into an impersonal mass – the mob – which is mainly bent on wreaking havoc as it rushes through the streets. The inhuman growth of urban centres has thus entailed an increasing sense of alienation responsible for the exhaustion of Man’s psychological boundaries. Losing tracks of his own Self, the solitary walker tends to merge into the crowd and lose his personality. This loss is however less than painful; in fact it is a relief since it gives the idea of belonging (however vague and impersonal) to a person weakened by ontological doubts. Nevertheless, the making of that collective body cannot be seen as regenerative since it invariably turns the crowd into a destructive mass used to resorting to brutish extremities. American authors recurrently show this dehumanising process at work when they stop dealing with men to merely stress the part played by anonymous fragments of bodies in mass actions. Thus in “Corrupting the Press”, Ambrose Bierce only mentions lungs and feet to evoke a roaring crowd23 and Nathanael West evokes legs and feet to refer to the charge of a frantic mob in The Day of the Locust24. Likewise, swarms of people are often made to lose their noble miens as some comparisons reduce them to repelling animals. Such is the case in William Faulkner’s Sanctuary in which the crowd is described as a mere “stream of ants”25. Another degrading influence of the mob is put forward in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”. There, the hero’s mind dissolves into the crowd’s overwhelming desire for debasement, even if the victim of that destructive urge happens to be the youth’s own relative. Thus, the sight of the officer being tarred and feathered suddenly engulfs the nephew (Robin) into the throng’s merriment: “The contagion was spreading among the multitude, when all at once, it seized upon Robin, and he sent forth a shout of laughter that echoed through the street” (17).

  • 26  “Nous voici au-delà de la transgression, dans une société redevenue horde ou meute, où ce qui semb (...)

23In a broad section of American literature, mass phenomena are however far from being as grotesquely playful as in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale. Crowds regularly turn into murderous lynching mobs and the remaining signs of an altered humanity are reduced to nothing. Southern literature is steeped into that sheer brutality and William Faulkner’s Sanctuary is no exception, but one can also use Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust as a case in point. In all these collective murders, a lethal inflation takes place as the forbidding solitary wanderer is absorbed into that indistinct barbaric mass that no longer walks but runs – in Sanctuary, the verb “to run” is used 14 times when Goodwin is burned alive (295-296). Shunning all notions of responsibility thanks to their anonymity, mobs delight in transforming into remorseless murderous packs. This metamorphosis of human beings into ferocious hordes is profoundly upsetting for, as André Bleikasten says about Sanctuary, Man having already enjoyed the taste of blood, lynchings may sadly be about to prove the rule (66)26. In the apocalyptic finale of The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West also wilfully saturates his text with disparaging views of walking, thereby underscoring Man’s downfall in an urban environment more and more hostile to pedestrians – the scene takes place in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Thus, walking is first associated to a lack of balance (both physical and psychological) when the narrator insists on the clumsy, mechanical way Homer Simpson, a simple-minded giant, walks – “Homer walked more than ever like a badly made automaton and his features were set in a rigid, mechanical grin. (…) With each step, he lurched to one side and then the other, using suitcases for balance weights” (158). The man’s heavy steps then become lethal as he suddenly tramples to death a young boy who has merely played a bad trick on him – “The boy turned to flee, but tripped and fell. Before he could scramble away, Homer landed on his back with both feet, then jumped again. (…) [He] went on using his heels (…). [He] continued to stamp on the boy” (161). But hardly has that walker publicly turned into a murderer when another even more fearsome entity – a bloodthirsty mob – is set in motion and rushes to “right the wrong” in the most barbaric manner.

  • 27  The phrase is used twice in William Faulkner’s novel.

24With lynching scenes, the stress is not only on the death of men, it is also a striking means for authors to emphasise the annihilation of the belief in humanity. The disenchantment with that degradation of mankind often accompanies the disappointment caused by the heartless capitalistic growth. It may be therefore significant that in Sanctuary (as in Ambrose Bierce’s “The Man Out of the Nose”) the setting where the noble conception of Man is dragged down is a “vacant lot”27, a desolate space probably resulting from a failed industrial revolution. This presence of urban wastelands recurs in American literature, even when the main stress is on the (deceivingly) glittering success of the American Dream, as is the case in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. There, the presence of gorgeous mansions does not manage to erase the horror lying at the heart of the gloomy “valley of ashes” with its bleak houses, its ash-grey men… and its women run over by careless drivers.

  • 28  A hysterical reporter then exclaims: “What a crowd, folks! What a crowd! There must be ten thousan (...)

25Once again, The Day of the Locust seems to go one step further in the view it expounds on the crowd’s loss of humanity. The lynching scene is then no longer on the dark fringes of civilisation, but on the contrary in the limelight, right in the middle of the glamorous and polished world of Hollywood. Early in the last chapter, the people waiting in the street are shown as potentially dangerous as they want to see some movie stars attending a film premiere28. And when the murderous rush finally occurs, a part of the throng wrongly thinks Gary Cooper has just arrived (164)! This juxtaposition of celebrity and bestiality tends to assert that murdering mobs no longer need remote vacant lots to act; now they can kill and be at the top of the bill. The Day of the Locust obviously shows that something has gone wrong in the American society, and more particularly in its desire for success. In fact Tod Hackett, the main character, finds an explanation for the growing dehumanisation which eats away Los Angeles inhabitants and turns them into a faceless angry mob: “New groups, whole families, kept arriving. He could see a change come over them as soon as they had become part of the crowd. Until they reached the line, they looked diffident, almost furtive, but the moment they had become part of it, they turned arrogant and pugnacious. (…) They were savage and bitter (…) and had been made so by boredom and disappointment” (157, my italics). Still using internal focalisation on Tod, the narrator repeats that idea in the concluding lines; the mob described with baseball-bats and torches is made up of “poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence” (166). What is therefore responsible for the crowd’s brutish debasement is then people’s vacant lives, their own “vacant lots”.

  • 29  “I saw her. She was some baby. Jeez. I wouldn’t have used no cob” (294).
  • 30  “He must have been crazy. (…) What kind of fun is that? (…) Ripping up a girl with scissors. That’ (...)

26The emptiness constituting daily existence makes people feel useless and frustrated as they feel kept away from any kind of success. Being an outcast in an alienating society, no wonder that Man also becomes estranged from his Self and starts entertaining gloomy thoughts which eventually bring him closer to the murderers (or rapists) lynched in public. In Sanctuary and The Day of the Locust, anonymous fragments of dialogues coming from the vengeful mob can be heard respectively just before and just after the lynching scenes. These exchanges are significant for they reveal the unhealthy resemblance between the men from the hordes and the rapist in Sanctuary or a child murderer in The Day of the Locust. Indeed in the former novel, a man sounds willing to re-enact the rape in his own way29, and in the latter, the same kind of would-be witty weirdo uses a language laden with sexual innuendoes as he finds fault with the murderer’s technique30. The perfect understanding that seems to unite avengers and their victims underlines the endemic bestiality running through a society that has lost touch with its philanthropic aims. Man can either become a solitary predator and prowl the streets in search of preys, or he can also lose both his humanity and individuality and join the bloodthirsty mobs storming the city. The murders committed by ruthless crowds have therefore nothing to do with René Girard’s idea of sacrificing a scapegoat to cleanse the city of its evils. There, these lynchings have none of the cathartic values propounded by those who feel like justifying their heinous crimes.

  • 31  The director was then helped by Richard Matheson who wrote the script of that film released in 196 (...)
  • 32  Even if most of the film also takes place in a shopping centre.
  • 33  The philosopher Bernard Steigler also shows the link between the consumer society and Man’s loss o (...)

27At that final stage in our study, we may realise how far we are from the initial concept of the Baudelairian stroller! And to conclude our partial view on American literature, we may also echo David Punter’s opinion on the modern gothic and consider the relentless wanderings of serial killers as the “consummation of [Man’s] alienation” in our urbanised Western societies (205). Sociopaths from novels like Don De Lillo’s American Psycho or James Ellroy’s Silent Terror (among others) epitomise the brutal breakdown of communal links in our impersonal cities and they also convey the desperate rage of all those who (fortunately) have not taken action yet. Lastly, we may add that the final step of Man’s unmaking is felt in the degenerative versions of the Baudelairian stroller that George Romero developed in the late 1960s with The Night of the Living Dead31. If these literally bloodthirsty creatures are so unsettling, it might well be because they strike a deep chord into the audience. The horror then experienced is not simply caused by the zombies’ flesh eating habits (the idea of disgust is then more relevant than that of horror). As a matter of fact, what appears truly horrific in these creatures is encompassed in Noël Carroll’s definition of “interstitial beings” (32). By transgressing the categorical distinction between the living and the dead, a zombie is a profoundly shocking being. Moreover, his characteristic slowness heightens our unease as the animate and the inanimate become conflated into an oxymoronic “motionless movement” that cannot be stopped. Horror then reaches its peak while these errant creatures inexorably plod the streets of each and every city. Their unfailing presence triggers the kind of fear expounded by Alain Chareyre-Méjan when he defines the Fantastic as something “indubitably here” (46-47). This overflowing presence annihilates any intellectual mediation that could help people find an intellectual way out. The zombies’ slowness in getting their preys is therefore not an alleviation of horror, but on the contrary an intensification of it. Going back to the motive of the psycho killer, one can here add that John Carpenter’s Halloween is successful thanks to the same slowness with which Michael Myers roams the streets, relentlessly hunting his victims. Conversely, Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead looks more like a Hollywood action movie than a horror film, the zombies being then able to chase after their quarries – much like the furious mobs previously referred to. Furthermore, this remake also tends to play down the original film’s bitter social comments32. Installing his main protagonists in the heart of a bleak urbanised area, George Romero indeed satirises the consumer society by transforming the brainwashed shoppers of a huge American mall into hordes of zombies33.

28The last stage of the walker’s alienation in an urban context seems then to have been reached as these pessimistic artists hopelessly assess that the collapse of our urban world has already occurred and that the poet / stroller’s aura is now definitely extinct.

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Bibliographie

Bakhtine, Mikhaïl. L’œuvre de Fançois Rabelais et la culture populaire au moyen-âge et sous la renaissance. Paris : Gallimard, 1970.

Baldick, Chris. In Frankenstein’s Shadow. Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing. Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1987.

Baudelaire, Charles. Les fleurs du mal. Paris : Librairie Générale Française, 1972.

Baudelaire, Charles. Le spleen de Paris, La fanfarlo. Paris : Flammarion, 1987.

Benjamin, Walter. “Sur quelques  thèmes baudelairiens”. Œuvres III.Paris : Gallimard, 2000.

Bierce, Ambrose. The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce. Lincoln & London : University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Bleikasten, André. Sanctuaire, de William Faulkner. Paris : Gallimard, 1993.

Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror, or the Paradoxes of the Heart. New York & London : Routledge, 1990.

Chareyre-Méjan, Alain. “Le fantastique ou le comble du réalisme : une logique du repoussant”. Du fantastique en littérature : figures et figurations. Éd. Max Duperray. Aix-en-Provence : Publications de l’Université de Provence, 1990, 45-50.

Emerson, Ralf Waldo. Selected Essays. Ed. L. Ziff. Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1982.

Engels, Friedrich. La situation de la classe laborieuse en Angleterre, d’après les observations de l’auteur et des sources authentiques. Paris : Éditions sociales, 1973.

Faulkner, William. Sanctuary. New York : Vintage International, 1985.

Fitzgerald, Scott F. The Great Gatsby. New York : Penguin, 1990.

Gamon, Gerald M. “Emerson’s ‘Moral Sentiment’ and Poe’s ‘Poetic Sentiment’, a Reconsideration”. Poe’s Studies 1, vol II (June 1973), 19-21.

Girard, René. La violence et le sacré. Paris : Grasset, 1972.

Gutiérrez, Félix Martin. “Edgar Allan Poe: Misery and Mystery in ‘The Man of the Crowd’”. Estudios Ingleses de la Universidad Complutense 8 (2000), 153-174.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales. New York & London : Norton, 1987.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Oxford & New York : Oxford University Press, 1970.

Hurley, Kelly. The Gothic Body, Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin-de-Siècle. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Melville, Herman. Pierre, or the Ambiguities. New York : Penguin, 1986.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Works of Edgar Allan Poe. New York : Avenel Books, 1985.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. John Ward Ostrom. Cambridge : Oxford University Press, 1948.

Punter, David. The Literature of Terror, Volume 2: The Modern Gothic. New York & London : Longman, 1996.

Rosset, Clément. Le réel et son double, essai sur l’illusion. Paris : Gallimard, 1984.

Steigler, Bernard. Aimer, s’aimer, nous aimer. Paris : Galilée, 2003.

Sundquist, Eric J. “The Country of the Blue”. American Realism, New Essays. Ed. Eric J. Sundquist. Baltimore & London : John Hopkins University Press, 1982, 3-24.

Trachtenberg, Alan. “Experiments in Another Country, Stephen Crane’s City Sketches”. American Realism, New Essays. Ed. Eric J. Sundquist. Baltimore & London : John Hopkins University Press, 1982, 138-154.

West, Nathanael. The Day of the Locust and The Dream Life of Balso Snell. New York : Penguin, 1991.

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Notes

1  “La pendule aux accents funèbres / Sonnait brutalement midi, / Et le ciel versait des ténèbres / Sur le triste monde endormi” (Les fleurs du mal, “Rêve parisien”, 234).

2  “Cependant des démons malsains dans l’atmosphère / S’éveillent lourdement comme des gens d’affaire, / Et cognent en volant les volets et l’auvent. / A travers les lueurs que tourmente le vent / La prostitution s’allume dans les rues ; / Comme une fourmilière elle ouvre ses issues ; / Partout elle se fraye un occulte chemin, / Ainsi que l’ennemi qui tente un coup de main ; / Elle remue au sein de la cité de fange / Comme un ver qui dérobe à l’Homme ce qu’il mange” (Les fleurs du mal, “Le crépuscule du soir”, 102).

[Meanwhile in the atmosphere malefic demons / Awaken sluggishly, like businessmen, / And take flight, bumping against porch roofs and shutters. / Among the gas flames worried by the wind / Prostitution catches alight in the streets; / Like an ant-hill she lets her workers out; / Everywhere she blazes a secret path, / Like an enemy who plans a surprise attack; She moves in the heart of the city of mire / Like a worm that steals from Man what he eats.]

3  “Quelles bizarreries ne trouve-t-on pas dans une grande ville, quand on sait se promener et regarder? La vie fourmille de monstres innocents” (Le spleen de Paris, “Mademoiselle Bistouri”, 177).

4  “Partout la joie, le gain, (…). Partout l’explosion frénétique de la vitalité. Ici la misère absolue” (Le spleen de Paris, “Le vieux saltimbanque”, 100).

5  “Enfin ! seul ! Enfin la tyrannie de la face humaine a disparu, (…). Horrible vie ! Horrible ville !” (Le spleen de Paris, “A une heure du matin”, 89).

6  “Multitude, solitude : termes égaux et convertibles pour le poète actif et fécond” (Le spleen de Paris, “Les foules”, 94).

7  “… ceux qui courent s’oublier dans la foule, craignant sans doute de ne pouvoir se supporter eux-même…” (Le spleen de Paris, “La solitude”, 124).

8  This craving for mobility is encompassed in the etymology of the word “mob” (mobilis : mobile) whose connotations are often negative (as will soon be observed).

9  “Presque tous nos malheurs nous viennent de n’avoir pas su rester dans notre chambre dit Pascal (…) rappelant ainsi dans la cellule de recueillement tous ces affolés qui cherchent le bonheur dans le mouvement (…)” (Le spleen de Paris, “La solitude”, 124).

10  The philosopher’s thoughts on the intolerable uniqueness of the Real (and the Present) in relation to Charles Baudelaire’s poetry can be found in Le réel et son double, essai sur l’illusion (66-7).

11 “[Les baraques] piaillaient, beuglaient, hurlaient. C’était un mélange de cris, de détonations de cuivre et d’explosions de fusées. (…) Tout n’était que lumière, poussière, cris, joie, tumulte (…). Et partout circulait, dominant tous les parfums, une odeur de friture qui était comme l’encens de cette fête” (Le spleen de Paris, “Le vieux saltimbanque”, 99-100).

12  “La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait, / (…) Un éclair… puis la nuit! – fugitive beauté / Dont le regard m’a fait soudainement renaître, / Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l’éternité ?” (Les fleurs du mal, “À une passante”, 223).

13  Errant : 1) wandering in search of adventure.

2) erring or straying from the right course or accepted standards. [from Old French: journeying, from Vulgar Latin iterare (unattested), from Latin iter journey; influenced by Latin errare to err] (Collins English Dictionary).

14  “Sometimes a lanten moves along the night. / That interests our eyes. And who goes there? / I think; where from and bound, I wonder where, / With, all doom darkness wide, his wading light?” (71).

15  Thus in “Mellonta Tauta”, the personification of the mob is said “to have been the most odious of all men that ever encumbered the earth. He was giant in stature – insolent, rapacious, filthy; had the gall of a bullock with the heart of an [sic] hyena and the brains of a peacock” (562). In “Some Words with a Mummy”, that same mob plays the part of a “usurping tyrant” (513).

16  “It was now fully night-fall, and a thick humid fog hung over the city, soon ending in a settled and heavy rain. (…) For my own part I did not much regard the rain – the lurking of an old fever in my system rendering the moisture somewhat too dangerously pleasant. Tying a handkerchief about my mouth, I kept on.” (“The Man of the Crowd”, p. 243).

17  The expression is borrowed from Alan Trachtenberg’s “Experiments in Another Country, Stephen Crane’s City Sketches”. In the beginning of his study, the critic asserts that the city is “a swarming mass of signals, dense, obscure, indecipherable”. He also adds: “Experienced as an absence, as radically incomplete in any of its moments, the city thus invites pursuit, requires investigation, invasion of other spaces” (139).

18  “I saw (…) feeble and ghastly invalids, upon whom death had placed a sure hand, and who sidled and tottered through the mob, looking every one beseechingly in the face.” (242, my italics).

19  Walter Benjamin lingers on Friedrich Engels’s negative description of London when he differentiates Edgar Allan Poe’s view of the city in “The Man of the Crowd” from that in Charles Baudelaire’s poetry (346-348).

20  In his book, In Frankenstein’s Shadow, Chris Baldick also explicitly refers to this passage of Emerson’s thoughts.

21  The other two references are more neutral: “Built for a dwelling, it is now a factory” (207), “(…) to a structure that was a dwelling and is a factory (…)” (212).

22  “He continued on (…). Not habitually used to such scenes, Pierre for a moment was surprised that the instant he turned out of the narrow, and dark, and death-like bye-street, he should find himself suddenly precipitated into the not-yet-repressed noise and contention, and all the garish night-life of a vast thoroughfare, crowded and wedged by day, and even now, at this late hour, brilliant with occasional illuminations, and echoing to very many swift wheels and footfalls” (236).

23  “Suddenly I heard an excited clamor – a confused roar of many lungs and the trampling of innumerable feet.” (472)

24  “The crowd in front of the theatre had charged. He was surrounded by churning legs and feet.” (161)

25  “To the left [the street] went on to the square, the opening between two buildings black with a slow, continuous throng, like two streams of ants.” (111)

26  “Nous voici au-delà de la transgression, dans une société redevenue horde ou meute, où ce qui semblait n’être qu’une monstrueuse exception est sur le point de devenir le modèle d’un dérèglement général”. [Here we are beyond transgression, in a society that has gone back to a state of horde or pack, a state in which what looked like one monstrous exception is about to become the model of a global chaos.]

27  The phrase is used twice in William Faulkner’s novel.

28  A hysterical reporter then exclaims: “What a crowd, folks! What a crowd! There must be ten thousand excited, screaming fans outside [the theatre] tonight. The police can’t hold them. Here, listen to them roar” (156).

29  “I saw her. She was some baby. Jeez. I wouldn’t have used no cob” (294).

30  “He must have been crazy. (…) What kind of fun is that? (…) Ripping up a girl with scissors. That’s the wrong tool” (164).

31  The director was then helped by Richard Matheson who wrote the script of that film released in 1968. Since then, George Romero has made three other “zombie films”: Dawn of the Dead in 1978, Day of the Dead in 1986, and Land of the Dead in 2005.

32  Even if most of the film also takes place in a shopping centre.

33  The philosopher Bernard Steigler also shows the link between the consumer society and Man’s loss of self-esteem, a tragic loss since it entails madness.

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Référence électronique

Christophe CHAMBOST, « Marching towards Destruction: the Crowd in Urban Gothic », E-rea [En ligne], 5.2 | 2007, document 5, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2007, consulté le 26 mars 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/163 ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.163

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Auteur

Christophe CHAMBOST

Université Victor Segalen - Bordeaux 2

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