Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

"After mankind, the Horla"

Tense, unnerved, and close to madness before writing - and when I read what I've written it looks so calm.

This entry from Peter Handke's published journal The Weight of the World has always stirred me. I think I know why. Everytime I read over something that I've written, I'm appalled at the imperial peace of the rhetoric crawling over the page. Despite my intention to dispense with the usual procedures, I end up following them to the letter. The word 'dispense' in that sentence is evidence enough. What is the alternative?

Handke’s words returned to my mind today as I read Guy de Maupassant's remarkable story The Horla, in Charlotte Mandell’s new translation. It’s the diary of man on the edge of madness. The narrator is convinced someone is haunting him, taking possession of his mind, making him think mad thoughts. He calls it 'the Horla'. His resorts to reason tend only to make things worse.

August 7th: I wonder if I am crazy. As I was walking just now in the full sunshine, along the river, doubts about my reason came to me, not vague doubts as I have had till now, but precise, absolute doubts. I have seen madmen; I have known some who remained intelligent, lucid, even perceptive about all matters of life, except on one point. They speak of everything with clarity, agility, and profoundity, and suddenly, as their thoughts turn to the stumbling-block of their madness, their thought processes shatter, scatter, and sink into that terrifying and furious ocean, full of leaping waves, fogs, and squalls, which we call ‘dementia’.

Unfortunately, those leaping waves and squalls, because of their clarity and agility, are as still as the doldrums. As if troubled by the contradiction, Maupassant wrote two versions of The Horla and also a Letter from a Madman (each included in the new edition). He sought an impossible lucidity on that one excepted point. Perhaps he was haunted by literature.

1 comment:

  1. Charlotte Mandell7:28 pm

    The narrative does sort of deteriorate near the end, don't you think, as he descends more into madness?

    I think Maupassant was haunted by his own dementia -- he died in a madhouse not long after writing The Horla.

    An interesting discussion of narrative reflecting the narrator's decreasing grip of reality can be found in Blanchot's study on Jean Paulhan's work, "Mystery in Literature," and also in "The Paradox of Aytre," both in Blanchot's book of essays _The Work of Fire_. Blanchot's introduction to _Faux Pas_ also talks about how difficult it is to convey despair through language, in "From Anguish to Language."

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