The Nightmare of the Unknowable, or, Poe's Inscrutability
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Poe begins and ends his enigmatic study of the man of the crowd with the phrase, es lässt sich nicht lessen, “it does not permit itself to be read” (179, 188). The tale, or sketch, emphasizes this point as the narrator follows his curious but illegible subject through the streets of London all night and throughout the following day, but at the end of his wild perambulations he knows no more about the man than he did at first, and is unable to bring his reader any closer to understanding—to really knowing—this “man of the crowd.” This story, like others in Poe’s oeuvre, pretends to offer a kind of fictional anthropology, a pseudo-science that will grant us a vista into the unknown in order to solve a riddle posed by it, only to pull the rug out from under us. At the end of the tale, the mysterious figure remains a mystery; the hieroglyphic remains indecipherable. The narrator’s conclusion, that this man of the crowd is “the type and genius of true crime,” does not so much offer understanding of the old man’s character as it proffers the notion of inscrutability itself as terrifying prospect. As a dramatization of the futility of reading, “The Man of the Crowd” is itself a tale that doesn’t allow itself to be read. The same observation might apply to much of Poe’s work, in which inscrutability is the basis for the terror, the nightmare of the unknowable.