In the early hours of 2 January 1892, sensing the approach of insanity, the renowned French writer Guy de Maupassant attempted suicide. There then followed for the sick man long months of confinement in Passy at the private clinic of the respected Dr Blanche, the conclusion of which was his death on 6 July 1893, overcome by his illness, a syphilitic disease of the nervous system.
Numerous were the columnists following the course of the writer’s demise who sought to identify signs of madness in his works. Even before he had died the newspaper Le Figaro declared: ‘Maupassant has fallen victim to the intensity of his own sensations. He described and analysed the madness long before the dreadful sickness overcame him.’ Enthusiastically the salons fed the controversy. Some maintained that the frequent evocation of alienation in Maupassant’s writings resulted in the development of his ‘general paralysis’, whilst others continued to believe that the weakened author, suffering from writers block, nevertheless managed to preserve some inspiration from the scoria of his illness. In the ‘Letter of a Madman’ which was first published in Le Gil Blas in 1885, Maupassant, or ‘Maufrigneuse’ as he mysteriously signs himself (curiously recalling Hölderlin’s use of the name ‘Scardanelli’ during his own ‘madness’), left behind a text largely ignored until after his death, which is now regarded as one of the founding elements for the myth surrounding the famous short story ‘Le Horla’. The scene of the blurred reflection in the mirror is repeated in the story written two years later. Maupassant’s perceived ‘being’, which lived outside of his self, became an evil alter-ego as illness encroached upon his faculties and resulted in acute paranoid delusions and a virtual delirium of the senses.
His ‘letter’ can be seen as another fascinating fragment wrested from a journey of no return which unknowingly predestines studies into the suppressed nature of the unconscious by Freud in the following century. Furthermore one cannot help but recall in respect of Maupassant the earnest declaration of Poe; ‘And now – have I not told you that what you take for madness is but an over-acuteness of the senses?’
Letter of a Madman
My dear Doctor, I place myself entirely in your hands. Do with me as you wish. I shall tell you frankly about my strange state of mind and you can determine whether it might not be better for you to take care of me for a while in a nursing home, rather than leave me prey to the hallucinations and sufferings which plague me. Here is my story, in full and in detail, charting the incredible desolation of my soul.
I was living like anyone else, observing life with the lucid yet blinkered eyes of man, without astonishment or comprehension. I was living as animals live, as we are all living, fulfilling all the functions of existence, studying closely and thinking to see, to know, to understand what surrounds me, when, one day, I realised all was a sham. There’s a line by Montesquieu which elucidates my thought. It goes: “One organ more or less in our body would have given us a different intelligence… in the end all the accepted laws on which our body is dependent would in some way be different if our body were not actually designed in that particular way.” I reflected on this for months and months, and little by little, a strange clarity filled me, and upon that clarity darkness descended. Indeed our organs are the sole intermediaries between the outer world and our own. I mean that the inner being, which constitutes my ‘self’ finds itself in turn linked to the outer being which constitutes the world, via the nerve endings. Now, besides this outer being eluding us by its proportions, its duration, its countless and unfathomable properties, its origins, its future or its end, its remote shapes and endless manifestations, our organs still only give us a rough outline of what we could be aware of, and that from information as scant as it is unreliable. Unreliable, because, uniquely to us, these are the only properties of our organs which determine the visible make-up of living matter. Scant, because our senses number only five and thus their field of enquiry and the nature of their revelations remain strictly limited.
Let me explain – the eye shows us dimensions, shapes and colours. It deceives us in all three areas. It can only reveal to us objects and beings of average dimensions, in relation to the human scale, which encourages us to apply grand words to some things and lesser words to others, solely because its shortcomings prevent it from comprehending that which is too vast or too insignificant. Consequently it sees and understands next to nothing, and virtually the entire universe remains beyond its reach, the star which inhabits space and the animalcule which exists in a drop of water. Even if it possessed one hundred million times its normal power, if it detected in the air we breathe all those species of invisible beings as well as those that inhabit neighbouring planets, there would still exist an infinite number of smaller species and of worlds so distant it would never reach them. So all our established ideas on proportions are false, as there are no definite limits on the scale of both large and small. Our judgement of shapes and dimensions has no absolute validity, being determined solely by the powers of a single organ and from a constant comparison with ourselves.
It’s worth adding that the eye is still incapable of perceiving the transparent. A flawless glass deceives the eye because it confuses the glass with the air it can no longer see. Let us move on to colour. Colour exists because our eye is constructed in such a way that it transmits to the brain , in the form of colour, the myriad ways in which the body absorbs and breaks down, following their chemical composition, the rays of light which strike them. The different proportions of that absorption and breakdown produce shades. So, this organ imposes on the mind its particular method of seeing, or better still, its arbitrary way of noting dimensions and assessing the relationship between light and matter. Now let us examine the hearing. Even more so than the eye, we are mere playthings for this deceiving and whimsical organ. Two bodies colliding produce a certain disturbance of the atmosphere. This movement causes a particular tiny flap of skin in our ear to quiver, which immediately transforms into noise what is in reality only a vibration. Nature is silent. But the eardrum possesses this miraculous property which sends us in the form of senses, and of different senses following the number of vibrations, all those quiverings from the invisible waves of space. That metamorphosis undergone by the auditory nerve during the short journey from ear to brain allows us to create a peculiar form of art, music, the most poetic and the most precise of arts, ill-defined as a dream and as exact as algebra. What can be said of taste and smell? Could we know the scents and qualities of foods without the strange properties of our nose and palate? Yet, humanity could exist without the ear, without taste or a sense of smell, that is to say without the slightest motion of noise, flavour or odour. So, if we had fewer organs, we would miss the most wonderful and strange things, but if we had a greater number, we would discover around us infinite varieties of other things which we would, through lack of means, never have thought to take note of. Therefore we are mistaken when judging the known, and we are surrounded by the unexplored unknown.
In fact, all is speculative and interpreted in different ways. All is deceptive, all is possible, all is questionable. We can echo that reality by recalling the old saying: “Truth this side of the Pyrenees, error beyond.” Then we might say: ‘Truth in our organs, error close by.’ Beyond our own atmosphere two and two don’t necessarily equal four. Truth on earth, error beyond, from which I conclude that barely glimpsed mysteries like electricity, hypnotism, transmission of the will, suggestion, all the magnetic phenomena, only remain concealed from us because nature has not endowed us with the organ or organs necessary to comprehend them. Having convinced myself that everything my senses reveal to me exists for me alone as I perceive it and would be totally different for a separate being, after having reached the conclusion that a diversely assembled humanity would impose on the world, on life, on everything, ideas at odds with ours, because the accord of beliefs only results from the similarity of human organs, and the divergence of opinions only comes from slight differences in the functioning of our nerve endings, I made a superhuman effort to afford myself a glimpse of the unfathomable which surrounds me. Have I lost my mind? I told myself: ‘I am enveloped by unknown things.’
I pictured man without ears, imagining the sound as we imagine so many hidden mysteries, man noting the acoustic phenomena whose nature and origin he would be unable to determine. And I was fearful of everything around me, fearful of the air, fearful of the night. From the moment when we understand almost nothing, and from the moment all seems limitless, what remains? Is it not the void? Just what is there in that emptiness? And that confused terror of the supernatural which has haunted man form the beginning of time is justified, as long as the supernatural is just another world veiled from us. I understood terror. It seemed to me that I was permanently on the verge of discovering the secret of the universe. I attempted to sharpen my organs, to stimulate them, to make them momentarily perceive the invisible. I told myself: ‘All is being. The cry which passes through the air is a being comparable to the animal, since it is born, produces a movement, and transforms itself again to die. Now, the timorous mind which believes in immaterial beings is therefore not mistaken. Who are they?’ How many men sense them, tremble at their approach, shiver at their imperceptible touch. One feels them close and all around, but one cannot make them out, because we don’t have the eye which would see them, or rather that unknown organ which would be able to detect them. So, more than anyone I felt them myself, these supernatural passers by. Beings or mysteries? How to tell? I couldn’t say what exactly they were, but I could always signal their presence. And I saw – I saw an invisible being – as far as one can see them, these spirits. I would remain quite still for whole nights on end, sitting there at my table, head in hands, pondering it all, musing on them. Often I imagined a shadowy or rather imperceptible body brush lightly against my hair. It didn’t actually touch me, being not so much an earthly creature, but an obscure, unknowable species. Now, one night, I heard my floor creak behind me. It creaked in an odd way. I trembled. I turned around. I saw nothing. And I thought no more about it. But the next day, at the same time, the exact same noise occurred. I was so terrified I stood up, absolutely convinced that I was not alone in the room. Yet there was nothing to be seen. The air was limpid and clear throughout. My two lamps lit up the alcoves. The noise did not recur and little by little, I composed myself, yet I remained troubled and often turned around.
The next day I shut myself away at an early hour, looking for ways I might actually come to see the invisible spirit which visited me. And I did see it. I almost died of fright. I had lit all the candles in my fireplace and my chandelier. The room was lit up as if for a soirée. My two lamps burned on the table. Opposite me, my bed, an old oak four-poster. To the right my fireplace. To the left my door which I had fastened. Behind me a cavernous mirrored wardrobe. I was regarding myself in it. My eyes seemed odd and the pupils were dilated. Then I sat down just as on any other day. The noise had occurred the day before and the day before that at precisely twenty two minutes past nine. I waited. When the exact moment came, I experienced an indescribable feeling, as if a fluid substance, an overwhelming liquid had passed through every pore of my flesh, saturating my soul in a fear both ghastly and strangely comforting, Then the creaking sound began again close up against me. I swiveled round so rapidly that I almost fell over. You could see it all clear as day, I was no longer visible in the mirror! It was empty, clear, bathed in light. I wasn’t there and yet I was right in front of it. I watched it with terror in my eyes. I did not dare approach, only too aware that ‘he’ was between us, the unseen one, and that he was hiding me. Oh! How terrified I was! And that was when I began to discern myself through the mist at the base of the mirror, a mist like that which creeps across water; and it seemed to me that this sluggish water was ebbing from left to right, revealing a little more of me with each passing second. It was like the close of an eclipse. Whatever was hiding me had no contours, but a kind of hazy transparency which was becoming gradually less opaque. And eventually I could see myself clearly, just as I did when regarding myself each day. So I had seen it! And I never saw it again. But I wait for it constantly and I feel my mind is led astray from all this waiting. I stay for hours, nights, days, weeks, there in front of my mirror waiting for it. But it no longer comes. It has understood that I have seen it. But I sense I will wait nevertheless, forever if need be, until death. I will wait without respite before that mirror, like a hunter lying in wait for his quarry. And in that mirror I begin to see the most deranged images, monsters, hideous corpses, all manner of terrifying beasts, ghastly wraiths, all the fantastical visions that come to haunt the minds of madmen.
There is my confession, my dear Doctor. Now, tell me, what should I do?
Translated by Will Stone