11 November 2007

Haunting humanity

(cross-posted at A Curious Singularity)

After reading Guy de Maupassant's "The Horla" I was struck by the narrator's awareness of his own isolation and role it plays in his descent into "madness":
Yesterday after doing some business and paying some visits, which instilled fresh and invigorating mental air into me, I wound up my evening at the Theatre Francais. A drama by Alexander Dumas the Younger was being acted, and his brilliant and powerful play completed my cure. Certainly solitude is dangerous for active minds. We need men who can think and can talk, around us. When we are alone for a long time, we people space with phantoms.
But almost immediately after admitting this to himself, he does an about-face and makes some pretty cold remarks about people:
July 14. Fete of the Republic. I walked through the streets, and the crackers and flags amused me like a child. Still, it is very foolish to make merry on a set date, by Government decree. People are like a flock of sheep, now steadily patient, now in ferocious revolt. Say to it: "Amuse yourself," and it amuses itself. Say to it: "Go and fight with your neighbor," and it goes and fights. Say to it: "Vote for the Emperor," and it votes for the Emperor; then say to it: "Vote for the Republic," and it votes for the Republic.

Those who direct it are stupid, too; but instead of obeying men they obey principles, a course which can only be foolish, ineffective, and false, for the very reason that principles are ideas which are considered as certain and unchangeable, whereas in this world one is certain of nothing, since light is an illusion and noise is deception.
Earlier this week, I read "Ghost Calf," a short story by Marcelo Ballvé, and had a realization about how easily we rationalize ourselves right into inhumanity and how "hauntings" can function as an echo of that lost humanity--either as a reminder of what's being lost or as an act of vengeance against our calloused perceptions.

As Litlove writes,
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.
Unfortunately for our narrator, the realization never comes. After setting fire to his own house, he hears
[A] cry, a horrible, shrill, heart-rending cry, a woman's cry, sounded through the night, and two garret windows were opened! I had forgotten the servants! I saw the terror-struck faces, and the frantic waving of their arms!
He remembers other people only when he has destroyed them. It is too late to save anyone, and so, without any evidence whatsoever, he makes the snap judgment that the Horla has survived and so he (the narrator) must kill himself. His guilt is so great that it is obvious to the narrator that his nemesis has survived. Of course he has. By severing his own last link to humanity (causing the death of his servants), he is utterly lost to the figure of his own demise.

P.S. Interestingly, it seems that this story helped inspire H.P. Lovecraft and was later "adapted" (read: mutilated) to film in 1963, starring (who else?) Vincent Price.

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