The Strange Thing About Closeness
Between strangers, there “is a specific form of interaction” that is incredibly complex because it comprises of both a lack of understanding, and the understanding that stems from it (Simmel 402). There is a “distance [which] means that he, who is close by, is far”— strangers are in our immediate vicinity and acknowledged because we are aware of their existence, but we know nothing about them, and they, us (Simmel 402). Strangers are physically near but emotionally far. They are only emotionally far, however, until there is a connection, most often found in differences that bring them together, and these differences lead to understanding and acceptance. Both Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd,” written in 1840, and Georg Simmel’s “The Stranger,” written in 1908, agree and complement each other in their descriptions and treatments of the phenomena of a stranger; their ideas transcend the centuries and continue to apply today. The form of physical closeness found in a crowd often highlights the differences between people, yet it is the only true form of closeness we will ever be able to achieve.
In Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd,” the narrator concludes his evening’s pursuit of a remarkable stranger by coming to the conclusion that he will never understand the stranger. This insight— the understanding of his own lack of understanding— is the only true form of closeness that can ever be achieved, in that he acknowledges he will never know more of the man, and he may never want to. The narrator recognizes the differences between himself and the stranger, and these differences bring them together through his steadfast pursuit. In the beginning of the story, the narrator watches people from a coffee shop, attempting to label them for his own amusement. Then he spots someone who is in the crowd but not of it— this strangers exists in it and is physically a part of it, but is not a social part of it. He does not belong, and the narrator says of him: “any thing remotely resembling that expression I had never seen before” (Poe 4). The narrator cannot pin him as any one thing, and because the man is an enigma, the narrator decide to follow him: “then came a craving desire to keep the man in view— to know more of him” (Poe 4). Effectively, the narrator inserts himself into the crowd but is not of it, just like the stranger he follows. Neither are a social part of the crowd; they are their for their own purposes, making them merely in it. The narrator continues to follow the old man throughout the city, and often in circles, until he attempts to reveal himself to the old man. The narrator “…gazed at him steadfastly in the face. [The old man] noticed [him] not, but resumed his solemn walk” (Poe 7). The narrator is open with the stranger, showing the stranger his raw self; an openness that is not able to be achieved with close friends. When the stranger continues on, the narrator notes that the old man “refuses to be alone” (Poe 7). The stranger is undeniably alone by all standards, but he forces himself to be amongst other strangers for the entire night, perhaps in an attempt to deny the fact that his is truly alone— he is in the crowd but not of it. The narrator then stops following the old man, noting that “it will be in vain to follow, for I shall learn no more of him, nor his deeds… and perhaps it is but one of the great mercies of God [not to decipher him]” (Poe 7). This acceptance of his own lack of understanding is the only true form of closeness that can ever be achieved, surprisingly, it is shared between strangers.
As is the case with Poe’s narrator, Simmel acknowledges, “[…] the stranger […] often receives the most surprising openness— confidences which sometimes have the character of a confessional and which would be carefully withheld from a more closely related person” (Simmel 404). In other words, we are often more open with strangers than those we are “close” to. Poe’s narrator shows the stranger his true self, and comes to an open and honest conclusion because of him that could not be achieved in any other way. This openness occurs because it is a relief that the stranger does not know us. We are free from any judgement that we care about: “[the stranger] is not radically committed […] and therefore approaches them with the specific attitude of ‘objectivity’[…] it is a particular structure composed of […] indifference and involvement,” unlike with those we are close to (Simmel 404). We are free from any form of disagreement, bias, or ridicule. This freedom allows us to be open and honest in a way we cannot under any other circumstances. This brings the strangers close, into the only true form of closeness that can be achieved. They learn something about us, and provide an objective view. Differences do not bring the strangers apart— as is the case with friends— rather, differences bring them together. The differences between Poe’s narrator and the stranger bring them together into a night of pursuit, openness, and understanding. It is true that friends do “know” us. This cannot be denied. However, this knowledge is not the constructive form of closeness that we need. The differences are often more highlighted and wind up pushing friends apart. These differences are too apparent to be ignored.
If we often and openly tell strangers more than we tell our friends, then are we even close to our friends? Is that kind of closeness even possible? As humans, we try to overcome the strangeness by trying to get and feel closer to each other by forming friendships and relationships. We search for similarities, but often get frustrated when we come up with differences. Why do we do this? We each exist in our own realities, but once we realize this, we sometimes panic. It gets lonely in our little worlds, and we cannot or do not want to handle it. So we end up hoping that our realities will cross with another’s. But they do not. We want this closeness to feel less isolated and alone, but it is simply not practical. We each have a very unique way of living and thinking, and it is unsustainable to expect perfect closeness with anyone. We find solace in the idea of closeness, of mutual understanding and acceptance between people. Sometimes we can find a semblance of it, but it will never be a true, pure, form of understanding.
Poe and Simmel both demonstrate that closeness is only possible through connection and understanding with strangers. Because of this, we must work towards accepting the fact that we each have our own life trajectories and cannot expect closeness all the time, as the narrator does in Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd”. The narrator decides to stop following the old man through the night, stating, “it will be in vain to follow, for I shall learn no more of him, nor his deeds… and perhaps it is but one of the great mercies of God [not to decipher him]” (Poe 7). In Poe’s opinion, it would be merciful to know no more of the stranger— for what would he discover? We cannot help but wonder what true closeness and understanding would look like, if such a thing were possible. Perhaps it would be the most blissful thing in the world; two people who genuinely understand each other and appreciate each other for everything they are and are not. But what if true closeness was revolting, and ended in everyone becoming the same? Perhaps true closeness would highlight the similarities, and discard the differences. Because of this we would have the potential of become the same— would that even be considered closeness anymore, or just homogeneity?
Simmer Georg, “The Stranger.” On Individuality and Social Forms. Ed. Donald E. Levine.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971. 402-408. Print.
Poe, A. Edgar. “The Man of the Crowd”. Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe. New
York. Doubleday Press, 1966. 215-222. Print.