So shall we risk this once again, bloggers? You, me, the occasional post? I’ve been resting, but I’m getting bored and blogging just has to be good for you, I’m convinced. It’s typical that while I’ve been away the blog world has been full of interesting events, not least the 24-hour readathon (how did you people manage?) and Rilke week, which I’m very sorry to have missed. Also, just about the day I went away my blog was featured in the Washington Post. At the time, being preoccupied, I was a bit ‘whatever’ about it, but now of course there’s a certain amount of teeth gnashing going on that I met the event with a ‘gone away indefinitely’ sign. Ah well. Still, I think I’m still in time to join in on the short story discussion, and the literate kitten’s horror story challenge by writing a few thoughts on Guy de Maupassant’s classic tale of the fantastic, Le Horla. I just adore this story and could go on at length about it, but let’s begin with a quick plot outline.
Written in diary form this tale charts the descent into paranoia and madness of its aristocratic narrator. When it opens, he’s in fine fettle, returned to the family seat and enjoying the comforts of home, but it isn’t long before a nervous illness and a lengthy period of claustrophobic seclusion turn into the harbingers of something more serious and menacing. Fascinated by the latest turns of science towards the invisible and the microscopic (this being the age of Louis Pasteur and Frantz Mesmer, both at that time well-known scientists), seduced by the idea of alien worlds, other universes, and the thought of unknown creatures from distant lands, our narrator lives in an age when the old supernatural, ghosts and demons and the like, is finding a rational counterpart within new forms of scientific and anthropological discovery. At a dinner party he attends one of the guests, a doctor, performs an impressive act of hypnotism that deeply unsettles him. Everywhere he turns he’s confronted by another image of the way the world is full of the unknown and the inexplicable, the invisible and the impossible. In this frame of mind, he begins to think that he is being haunted by an invisible creature. He wakes up in the night, convinced he’s being attacked; his water bottle has been drunk from, although he has no recollection of doing such a thing himself, and it isn’t long before he’s in full blown battle with this nightmareish predator. Lost to the struggle against the dark side, he’ll stop at nothing to try to free himself from this intolerable presence.
For me, Le Horla ranks alongside Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw as one of the great tales of the fantastic; it’s practically a textbook definition of the genre. The fantastic refers to stories in which strange events are introduced with no internal explanation for their strangeness. The protagonist usually cannot understand what is going on and this confusion and fear spreads out to contaminate the reader. Neither can come to terms with the unfamiliar events described, but nor can they be simply dismissed as supernatural phenomena. The fantastic in stories undermines the certainty we usually attribute to the narrator’s vision (trust in the seeing eye) and language (trust in the recording, speaking ‘I’) and is part and parcel of an ongoing historical questioning of knowledge and reason at the end of the nineteenth century, hence the fascination in tales of the fantastic with madness, hallucinations, dreams and split personalities. The relation of the individual to the world, to others, to objects ceases to be known or safe as problems of apprehending (how we take the world in by our senses) become problems of apprehension – fear and anxiety. But the real question at stake is whether the dark otherness is truly external or whether it is self-generated. In Le Horla we never know whether this strange malignant creature really exists or whether the narrator is a victim of his own fears and delusions and the role of the reader is to be as horrified as the narrator, and to share his descent into madness.
What this story performs so well is the loss of control it posits as one of the great fundamental fears of mankind. Our narrator finds the possibility of other races so convincing because he thinks of humanity as so weak, vulnerable and flawed. It would not take very much to create a race of beings superior to us, who would not be so limited or so powerless. It’s not much more than the thought of this that transforms our narrator, over the course of thirty pages or so, from a wealthy, advantaged young man to a gibbering wreck, half out of his mind with terror. The imagination – the power to invent this story, as well as the power to envisage new possibilities for mankind – is the internal instrument of our own disintegration as well as one of the greatest features of the human race. And whilst Maupassant was writing this story, not so far away in Vienna, the young Sigmund Freud would be synthesizing all these doubts about individual self-mastery into his theory of the unconscious. Freud always claimed that the great writers had all the answers long before he did.
So I tend to think of this story as a potent concentration of literary and cultural history, of the anxious pessimism of its age and the disturbing march of scientific progress, of questions about the unknown that both horrified and fascinated, and of the end of an era in which man had been the center of his own universe, crowned by rationality. But you can also read it just as a great short story, rich and disturbing and vibrant with dark, hidden life.