The Horla: Guy de Maupassant

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Guy de Maupassant | Photo Courtesy: The TLS

Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant, more popularly known as Guy de Maupassant (1850 –1893), is remembered as the “father of modern short story”. Born in France to a bourgeois family, Maupassant remained under the tutelage of his uncle Le Poittevin and the writer Gustav Flaubert, writing short stories, poems, and novels, the popular ones including The Necklace, The Horla, The Piece of String, Boule de Suif, Suicides, A Family Affair, and Bel-Ami. In his short-lived forty years, he composed over three hundred short stories while struggling with syphilis, depression, and suicidal ideations. Maupassant died in an asylum in 1893; the epitaph that he himself wrote reads, “I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing.”

In That Glimpse of Truth: 100 of the Finest Short Stories Ever Written selected by David Miller published by Head of Zeus Ltd. in 2014, Maupassant’s The Horla (hors: outside; là: there; one who is out there, the outsider) finds a place as one of his best works. Published in 1887, The Horla is a short horror story influenced by Alfred Le Poittevin’s Une Promenade de Bélial and H. P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu. The story is written in the form of a series of journal entries by an anonymous author (the protagonist) who experiences a paranormal being’s presence that has taken possession of him. Between the months of May and September, the anonymous author becomes aggravated and frenetic eventually concluding, “I suppose I must kill myself!” (92)

In their paper, The Horlas: Maupassant’s Mirror of Self-Reflection (2003), authors Edward J. Lusk and Marion Roeske posit that Maupassant’s The Horla is part of a trilogy that includes Lettre d’un fou (Letter of a Madman) (1885), Le Horla (1886), and Le Horle (1887). The trilogy runs parallel to Maupassant’s struggles with syphilis, his paternal lineage, and that of his role, acting as a medium of self-reflection and solution-seeking. The authors, acting as biographical critics, look at Maupassant’s childhood, his tender relationship with Gustav Flaubert, and his later struggle with his illnesses as having created the storylines of the trilogy. Similarities exist in each of the stories in the trilogy; each one has an unnamed protagonist, each dealing with an invisible paranormal being, and each remarkable in their description of nature and events. The anonymous author in Maupassant’s The Horla (1887) writes,

August 14. I am lost! Somebody possesses my soul and governs it! Somebody orders all my acts, all my movements, all my thoughts. I am no longer master of myself, nothing except an enslaved and terrified spectator of the things which I do. I wish to go out; I cannot. He [The Horla] does not wish to; and so I remain, trembling and distracted in the armchair in which he keeps me sitting. I merely wish to get up and to rouse myself, so as to think that I am still master of myself; I cannot! I am riveted to my chair, and my chair adheres to the floor in such a manner that no force of mine can move us.”

The Horla (1887) has repeated references to the master/slave relationship and has numerous use of the mirror and mirror analogues. In his paper, The Use of Mirrors and Mirror Analogues in Maupassant’s Le Horla (1972), Brewster E. Fitz highlights the four contradictory readings that could be made of the story: 1) the anonymous author is sane even as he is taken into possession of the invisible being 2) the author is recording his suffering, events that he is witnessing, but which are, in fact, his hallucinations 3) taking into account the similarities between Maupassant and his protagonist (a biographical criticism reading similar to that of Lusk and Roeske’s) 4) a structural reading that highlights the reflective nature of the chief persons and elements in the story.

There arise multiple ambiguities, references to the act of introspection often with the use of mirrors and mirror analogues, and the doubling upon of common dichotomies including real/imaginary, good/bad, master/slave, and rationality/irrationality. Such is the ambiguity and the superimposition of dichotomies that Maupassant creates in The Horla that the reader can easily lose the trail of the story. For instance, when the protagonist descends into his garden to eat some strawberries, he lets out a heart-wrenching cry, “Oh! My God! my God! Is there a God? If there by one, delivery me! save me! succor me! Pardon! Pity! Mercy! Save me! Oh! what sufferings! what torture! what horror!” the master/slave dichotomy doubles itself, causing the reader to question the real identity of the person eating the strawberries.

Maupassant has skilfully chosen the first-person narrative telling the story in the form of a journal, a trick that he shares with writers such as Poe, Shelley, Stevenson, and Stoker. The journal, a medium of self-reflection, holds an estranged version of the person making the entry, even when the entry is made by the person of herself. In the scene where the protagonist cannot see his reflection in the mirror, “its reflective nature seems to have been altered,” there is an indication of the failure of the author to find redemption in the process of journaling (960). Fitz is of the view that this overlap of the mirror and journal (both a medium of reflection) indicates the eventual intertwining of the protagonist and the Horla, “It is not only a story of insanity or of the arrival of the Horla in the world, but a journal about writing a journal, a meta-linguistic metaphor: It becomes impossible to distinguish the ‘I’ written by the author from the ‘I’ of the Horla about which the author is writing” (962).

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Le Horla | Photo Courtesy:

Maupassant’s The Horla fulfils the essentialities of a short horror story: an impactful ending, the experience of horror shared by humanity, the balance between Nature and Evil (bête/ange), and the potential biographical inspiration of the story. The success of The Horla lies in not just delivering that horror is universal but in affirming that the response to the experience of horror is also universal. Maupassant’s skill in detailing and descriptive writing, the use of contemporary developments in hypnotism, mesmerism, and science in general account for adding ‘factual’ validity to the story despite its dealing in themes of supernaturalism and evolved beings.

If the trilogy approach is to be followed, Maupassant has documented his course of life and his decline as reflective questioning in the stories. The Horla (1887) ends with the protagonist deciding to destroy the Horla, becoming cognizant of its fear and its supremacy, “its nature is more delicate, its body finer and more finished than ours. Our makeup is so weak, so awkwardly conceived; our body is encumbered with organs that are always tired, always being strained like locks that are too complicated…” (90). In this attempt, the protagonist lights his house on fire believing it would cause the Horla to be reduced to ashes until he realizes that “the transparent, unrecognizable body” of the Horla cannot be destroyed. Desperate and seeking freedom, the protagonist decides to kill himself, a course of action that Maupassant chose for himself when he attempted slitting his throat.

But if Fitz’s approach is to be taken, the last scene synthesizes the role-reversal of the Horla and the protagonist wherein, the protagonist is now the destroyer. By this time, the protagonist should have come to terms with the similarities between the Horla and himself, i.e. “The ‘I’ writing the journal has become the ‘I’ written, and one cannot be separated from the other, nor can the Horla be distinguished from the author, nor the ‘I’ thinking from the ‘I’ thought, not the signigié from the signifiant.” (963) In denying this co-existence, the horror of the Horla continues relentlessly, which makes Maupassant’s The Horla a lesson in acceptance of the self and the non-self, a theme that would later be taken by many writers.

Supplement this with The Use of Mirrors and Mirror Analogues in Maupassant’s Le Horla by Brewster E. Fitz and The Horlas: Maupassant’s Mirror of Self-Reflection by Edward J. Lusk and Marion Roeske.


On the Ordinary Act of Creativity

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Every so often there is a moment that comes through to you, washes the grime that had accumulated over, and then moves away to find the next individual that needs the cleansing. It is not that you didn’t invite this moment for you had been, praying to be delivered, and in the brisk moment when realization dawns, you feel prepared and willing to take the next step. It is stunning how this brief momentary tingle feels like magic, surreal yet real enough not to doubt its purpose and timing. For those who have felt this, not through drug or meditative states, but while deliberately living ordinary lives, it is an invitation to keep going.

In her discussion with On Being’s Krista Tippett, the author Elizabeth Gilbert introduces the definition of creativity that she has developed during her long career and practice. She gives creativity an active feature, as an act of “choosing the path of curiosity over the path of fear.” By taking away from creativity its general state of existence as a form, Gilbert delivers those of us seeking creativity, into a space where actions, i.e. repeatedly choosing curiosity, matter more than talent, genius, luck, and virtue. Creativity, then, becomes a mundane form of a task that requires our presence much like any other task that we have learned to undertake, with or without our liking.

Continuing their discussion on the normative way we have been trained to identify artists (or they themselves), Tippett questions the combination of being gifted and being original as the qualifying standards. And rightfully so because this interesting albeit restrictive combination leaves out many of us who for social or functional reasons cannot pursue being an artist as a full-time career or lifestyle. Gilbert continues, “Most people are cast out of it…” asserting that creativity (and its cousin curiosity) exists within each of us almost as an instinct. Which is perhaps why our ancestors for the last few thousand years have dedicated their time and energies, even as they were consumed by the need to survive, created both useful and useless things out of elements they found around them. Which is perhaps why we have followed this instinctual tradition without even realising how it has shaped us as a species. Which is perhaps why we are still trying to create solutions for problems that have appeared before us and will continue to do so.

I have been drawn into the discussions on creativity particularly because I couldn’t find my passion. Although I have repeatedly, following popular cultural mores, used passion as a reason for quitting jobs, leaving relationships, pursuing my personhood, I need to now admit that I do not have a passion or even multiple passions. I am passion-less so to say. And it is by admitting this dreadful personal reality that I could actually begin to create.

I understand the horrific notion of existing a passionless life because it is often interpreted as having lost the desire to enjoy life. Unfortunately, it is also interpreted as being lazy, being a coward, or as being not strong enough to dare and turn events in your favour. Our culture has taught us to look at ordinary, mundane, monotonous jobs, activities and the people doing them as belittling and as individuals who have failed to pursue greater meaning or doing something bigger with their lives. It is unfair, to say the least, but on larger grounds almost dehumanizing because we have taken whole lives apart and have contracted them to fit an even narrower definition of creative existence. By this vile act, there are two classes of people: gifted, original individuals who are creative geniuses and a secondary class which is as it is because it is not gifted, not special, and not courageous enough. By this vile act of classification, a certain product of creation tends to hold greater value even when it does little to contribute to egalitarian purpose while another activity holds lesser value because it does not contribute to aesthetic purposes (reminds me of casteism/kyriarchy but I digress).

So many of us stop participating in the act of creating because we have been cast out; the act itself being reserved for a special class of people who are ‘chosen’ to perform it. It explains why when an ordinary individual creates, her work is deemed of lesser value unless it has come out as a product of this special superclass. The loss that humanity experiences because of this differentiation is immense almost without reparation unless the culture changes what it calls ‘art’ or ‘creativity’. If creating is innate, a natural instinct, then the act of uplifting some work as art and not others must have been a cultural (political) act (a vile one at that) and therefore can be changed, modified, and worked upon. And, it must be done urgently.

It has taken me two years to return to sketching, working with pencils, and charcoal and blackened fingers attempting to recreate profiles that I find fascinating to capture. The work doesn’t come out as good as I would want them, it certainly has taken a different form than before, but I am trying to not give up. Meanwhile, I work at a job, ordinary to its core by certain standards and paying enough to survive and offer restitution by some other standards. It seems like a good enough balance to not demand the act of creating to get me money and also my day job to be more creatively demanding and offering salvation.

Just like that the other afternoon, the touch of momentary inspiration sat on my shoulder like a fluttering butterfly waiting for acknowledgement and I was there to see it, hold it and recharge my tired mind for the next few days of creating and living an ordinary life.

Supplement this with Choosing Curiosity Over Fear and Ginsberg: A Biography by Barry Miles.

Collective Effervescence.

Earlier this afternoon, while I was working in a small office cabin, a man walked in announcing there was an earthquake measuring 6.2 magnitudes in the Afghanistan-Tajikistan-Pakistan region, which caused tremors in the Delhi NCR. None of us were visibly moved or otherwise and after the spontaneous ‘was there?” we continued with the work immediately in front of us. But after a while, as if the tremors of the earthquake were just shaking us out of our sombreness, we typed in “earthquake Delhi” on our browsers. Just like that, within an instant, I came across people checking with each other, finding confirmation of an experience that they had just had with friends and strangers alike. “Did anyone feel the earthquake in ______?” The questions varied in their content, some an echoing wish while others awaiting conclusion but remained consistent in their intent. The human condition that yearns for finding validation, that seeks solace in learning that someone else has experienced that we too have.

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Portrait of Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov | Photo Courtesy:

In his classic work, Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky creates an intimate moment between Raskolnikov, his leading character, and a ten-year-old girl who had just witnessed her father pass away. The scene begins when Polenka runs after Raskolnikov, who has helped the family by giving them money to carry out the rituals following an individual’s death, overtaking him at the end of the stairs.

“She was running after him, calling, ‘Wait! Wait!’

He turned round. She was at the bottom of the staircase and stopped short a step above him. A dim light came in from the yard. Raskolnikov could distinguish the child’s thin but pretty little face, looking at him with a bright childish smile. She had run after him with a message which she was evidently glad to give.

‘Tell me, what is your name? … and where do you live?’ she said hurriedly in a breathless voice.

He laid both hands on her shoulders and looked at her with a sort of rapture. It was such a joy to him to look at her, he could not have said why.

‘Who sent you?’

‘Sister Sonia sent me,’ answered the girl, smiling still more brightly.

“I knew it was sister Sonia sent you.’

‘Mamma sent me, too…when sister Sonia was sending me, mamma came up, too, and said, “Run fast, Polenka.”’

‘Do you love sister Sonia?’

‘I love her more than anyone,’ Polenka answered with peculiar earnestness, and her smile became graver.

‘And will you love me?’

By way of answer he saw the little girl’s face approaching him, her full lips naively held out to kiss him. Suddenly her arms as thin as sticks held him tightly, her head rested on his shoulder and the little girl wept softly, pressing her face against him.

‘I am sorry for father,’ she said a moment later, raising her tear-stained face and brushing away the tears with her hands. ‘It’s nothing but misfortune now,’ she added suddenly with that peculiarly sedate air which children try hard to assume when they want to speak like grown-up people.

‘Did your father love you?’

‘He loved Lida most,’ she replied very seriously without a smile, exactly like grown-up people, ‘he loved her because she is little ad because she is ill, too. And he always used to bring her presents. But he taught us to read, and he taught me grammar and scripture, too,’ she added with dignity. ‘And mother never used to say anything, but we knew that she liked it and father knew it, too. And mother wants to teach me French, for it’s time my education began.’

‘And do you know your prayers?’

‘Of course we do! We knew them long ago. I say my prayers to myself as I am a big girl now, but Kolya and Lida say them aloud with mother. First they repeat, “Ave Maria” and then another prayer: “Lord, forgive and bless sister Sonia,” and then another: “Lord, forgive and bless our second father.” For our elder father is dead and this is another one, but we do pray for the other as well.’

‘Polenka, my name is Rodion [Raskolnikov]. Pray sometimes for me, too. “And Thy servant Rodion”, nothing more.’

‘I’ll pray for you all the rest of my life,’ the little girl declared hotly and suddenly smiling she rushed at him and hugged him warmly once more.” (Emphasis mine)

Dostovesky’s design in setting his characters Raskolnikov and Polenka together as he did promises what human beings are capable of when communication is truly established between them. While we have been created/evolved in connection with everything around us, it is where we also derive our belongingness from. The researcher Brene Brown puts it forward as,

“…the research participants who had the highest levels of true belonging sought out experiences of collective joy and collective pain. Durkheim, the French sociologist, called this experience “collective effervescence.” And interestingly, he was trying to understand the voodoo magic that he believed happened in churches: What is this thing where people seem transcendent? They’re connected. They’re moving in unison. There’s a cadence in song and rhythm. And he tried to understand what it was, and what he realized is — and that’s what he named “collective effervescence” — it’s the coming together in shared emotion.”

While it is not to say that need to negotiate our belonging with the rest of the world constantly, it is quite affirming to know that when we can stand in the truth of our own being, we can drive strength and courage from all who had stood in their truth before us. We have experienced this belonging, this “collective effervescence” that Durkheim sought to explore; quite unbeknownst, we move like tiny particles in a common direction—towards each other.

My answer to that stranger’s question is, ‘Yes’.

Supplement this with Strong Back, Soft Front, Wild Heart published on On Being.