Pirandello’s starting point is our conviction that we live in imaginary worlds, which we tell ourselves firmly and smugly are real, reliable, logical and ‘out there’. We are part of that reality, we tell ourselves, and who we are is who we think we are. The person who answers to our name is a kind of unity, a ‘whole’ person who can make decisions, have consistent attitudes, feelings and values. In other words, we think (most of us) that we are sane and the world is sane. Pirandello sees all this as a kind of absurd joke. We would say that wouldn’t we? We’re too scared not to. But really, he thinks, the world doesn’t make sense at all, and we are by no means ‘sane’.
In Horse in the Moon we have a typical tool that people use to structure their worlds, marriage. Marriage is both a legal (and financial) agreement, and a relationship of love. But, Pirandello, thinks, law, love, and logic and ways in which we pretend to ourselves that things make sense. We lay a kind of net over reality which we then mistake for reality. The net is all logical little squares and corners. Reality is chaotic. Marriage and banks are logical. They make us happy, we tell ourselves. All illusion.
In the story we have two newly weds of opposite dispositions, lively Ida, and earthbound Nino. Nino is nearer to reality in that the marriage depresses him. He is rich, and fat, and unadventurous except that he wants to be loved, very much in the way a child wants to be loved by a mother. He doesn’t want to do any of the energetic things Ida does. He wants her to cuddle him.
Ida is the opposite. She wants to avoid the hot clammy but rich husband she now has by the agreement of her not very well off father. He is embarrassed by the ceremony, or failure of ceremony - ceremony as a means of convincing them that something real has happened. The colonel’s response is to deny the failure but getting everyone out of the place. Ida is perhaps unconsciously avoiding intimacy with Nino so she has all sorts of distraction which he takes part in very reluctantly.
The setting is an arid landscape without anything ‘optimistic’ in it. Nine unconsciously feels a closeness to that landscape whereas Ida rushes about it in trying to invent something ‘nice’. She’s making a great effort, and the more she does the more ‘obstinate’ Nino is getting.
Then they come upon the dying horse. It’s a dead landscape with a dying animal in it. Ida expresses sympathy with the horse’s suffering and immediately wants to do something about it. Nino realises that nothing can be done. It’s part of the landscape and indeed the local culture (‘savages’ as Ida’s father calls them). But Idea tries, while Nino sinks into greater despair, and greater sense of not being ‘mothered’ – after all his bridegroom seems to love the poor horse more than him - until he has a vision, seeing the horse’s head silhouetted against the moon, rather as in a surrealist piece of art. The ‘artistic’ vision he has - the way nature has somehow contrived a work of art at least in how Nino sees it - has a meaning, as works of art do, though not easily articulated ones.
The horse has something to do with ‘nobility’ and the moon, we assume, has something to do with impermanence, flux, and indeed insanity (Madmen, or ‘lunatics’ are supposed to have a special affinity for the moon). It’s almost ‘tragic’ in the sense that the horse is obviously done for, and yet reminds Nino of nobility. We recall the connection between knightly honour and horses. But the knightly honour is doomed, as in a tragedy. And Nino himself is doomed by his unhealthy body to some sort of fit or a stroke perhaps, from which he is in the process of dying when Ida comes back having failed to get more than a few seeds.
Ida is horrified at how things have turned out, and shows much less compassion for her husband in his death throws than for the horse, but her main feeling now is that she can’t face how things really are. Her determined optimism and practicality are defeated and she wants to run away, to ‘run away from reality’ as we see, and so she runs back home to Daddy. She is in the end no more ‘adult’ than is Nino who wanted his Mummy in her, though perhaps realised from the start that he wouldn’t get that. The vision of the horse on the moon as, he feels when he first sees it, ‘been there from the start’.
They realise at last that they are living falsely. They aren’t independent and adult at all. There is no understanding between them. But for a while they playacted.
Pirandello is using ideas that later became common in the surrealist movement, and in Freud and post-Freudian thinkers like Jacques Lacan who laid great emphasis on the role of imagination in our construction of the ‘real’ world, and especially our own and other peoples’ identities. The Lacanian way of thinking certainly seems to say something about the way in which the person we think of as ‘I’ is nothing more than the invention of other people. We see ourselves, says Lacan, in the ‘mirror’ of their perceptions. Really we don’t have a consistent identity. In it’s simplest form this ‘mirroring’ comes about in our asking ourselves if we ‘look good’ if we are ‘liked’, if we are ‘successful’, the television as a ‘mirror’ we imitate.
Or, another stream of thought - our brains decide everything and we just go along with the flashing of the nodes. We have no free will. There are no morals, souls, or values. We are computers.
When you go home this afternoon remember that really you have no idea who your wife or husband is, who you are, what matters in life. Nothing is fixed, clear, logical or predictable, or within your control. Tonight, possibly, the roof of your house will fall in. It won’t make any difference, but it might make you feel better, if you could bow down to your inner computer and beg it to bring you prosperity, or bribe it with chocolates, or make love to it. . .
So, do not send to know for whom the The Horse in the Moon dies. It dies for you.