Fear in Literature
Fear in Literature
The subject of fear, whether in the form of neurotic anxiety or supernatural terror, is among the most prevalent in literature. A common element in the motivation of character and a dominant motif in contemporary fiction, the psychological and aesthetic qualities of fear have demanded the attention of literary critics since classical antiquity. Generally, critics see the specifics of literary fear both as a function of historical time and as a constant feature aroused by the human dread of the unknown or unknowable. The latter sort of fear has since been largely identified with the term Gothic, which was culled from the eighteenth-century vogue of the romantic novel of terror in a medieval setting. Popularized by such writers as Ann Radcliffe and Matthew "Monk" Lewis, the Gothic novel gave way to the modern genre of horror fiction with its ubiquitous treatment of supernatural forces that conspire to victimize and destroy human beings. Writers in this vein exploit what have become stock effects—the physical isolation of the protagonist, suspense and misdirection, and the introduction of a shadowy "other" or mysterious evil—to excite readers. A parallel line of development in the literature of fear is illustrated by the work of Edgar Allan Poe, in which psychological aberration coupled with an evocation of the uncanny and the macabre play the primary roles in creating an atmosphere of terror.
The sensationalism of Gothic horror fiction does not account for the totality of that which is fear-inducing in literature. Critics observe in the modern period a literature of anxiety that draws its impetus from the cultural moment, such as the concrete fears of wartime dramatized in Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage or in Jean-Paul Sartre's "Le mur" ("The Wall"). Additionally, neurotic fears that may exist as part of the ordinary psychological make-up of everyone in many ways characterize the literature of the modern era. This tendency is perhaps no more clearly expressed than in the novels and short stories of Franz Kakfa, works that dramatize an all-consuming anxiety created by the emotional isolation of a bureaucratic age.
André de Lorde
SOURCE: "Fear in Literature," in New York Literary Forum, 1980, pp. 247-51.
[In the following essay which was originally published in La Revue Mondiale in 1927, de Lorde broadly surveys fear in literature from the Gothic novels of the eighteenth century to dystopian visions in science fiction of the early twentieth century.]
An entire literature of Fear exists.
Why should this be astonishing? Each one of us has in his innermost being a secret longing for violent emotions. At all times, in all parts of the globe, horror shows have drawn large audiences. The huge amphitheaters in Rome were too small to hold the citizens eager to see the gladiators slaughter one another and the Christians thrown to the lions. If the Inquisition had made public its interrogations conducted on the rack, they would have had to turn people away. To witness the hideous torture of Damiens, the crowd surged towards the square as though to holiday festivities.
"Bah!" you will say, "Times have changed; in our days, the progress of civilization has made such barbarous pastimes unthinkable." True enough. Still, set men, bulls, and horses at one another in an arena, and excited spectators will shriek with joy; at break of day guillotine some human wreck half-dead with fright, and there won't be enough soldiers, their bayonets fixed, to hold back the pushing throng of those who want to see. And don't those tender hearts, who are revolted by such spectacles, seek out at fairs the most violent and horrific "attractions"? Don't they derive acute pleasure at the circus or ausic hall from watching the most dangerous feats? If I perspire with anxiety as I follow the movements of the dancer along the tightrope, if my breathing stops with the music when this young person in pink tights is about to attempt what she herself calls the death leap, it is because I actually imagine an atrocious death for her, her battered corpse bloodying the sand in the ring. No doubt, if I were sure that the accident was going to happen, I would be the first to rush forward to prevent it; but if, on the other hand, I was certain that it would not happen, I would lose interest in the show. A most curious compromise on the part of our conscience is at work here. If my sensibility steps forth to reproach me for the odious satisfaction that I find in thus anticipating a calamity, I immediately assuage these scruples by involving the law of probabilities. There is only one chance in a thousand that the accident will happen precisely today; but as soon as this reassuring thought runs the risk of dulling my pleasure, I revive it again by calling up in my mind's eye the image of the fall, despite what seems possible. I would not be as ferocious as that Englishman who went to every show of a wild animal act in order to be present when the lion tamer would get eaten; but, by going once quite by chance, I have a slight hope, without admitting it to myself, that today will be the day, more or less in the same way that I dream—without daring to believe it—that my lottery ticket will be the winning one.…
Fear has always existed, and each century has stamped upon its literature the mark of the fears that tormented it, but the primitive caveman and the contemporary businessman have not shuddered for the same reasons. The sources of fear have varied, but not fear itself, which is eternal and immutable.…
Feeble as they are, the Gothic novels had a real vogue; not only were Anne Radcliffe and Monk Lewis imitated by a host of minor writers, they also had the honor of inspiring two of England's greatest authors, Walter Scott and Lord Byron, to write many a picturesque descriptive passage. In France, The Monk and The Mysteries of Udolpho, translated in 1797, were read, appreciated, and plagiarized; the novelists, from Ducray-Duminil to Eugène Sue, went to them for stirring subjects for many, many years, and the playwrights along the Boulevard of Crime brought to the stage the principal episodes of these works.
As early as 1799, Guilbert de Pixérécourt, the father of melodrama, stages at the Ambigu his Chêteau des Apennins, borrowed from Anne Radcliffe's novel, but where the horror is considerably attenuated. This astute dramatist knew how to turn a famous novel to good profit in the theater; he neglected no "effect" capable of moving or astounding the spectators: Victor, ou l'enfant de la forêt, l'Homme à trois visages, Le Monastère abandonné, quite like Le Chàteau des Apennins, are full of ingenious situations. In one of his plays, Christophe Colomb, ou la découverte du Nouveau Monde (1814), whose action in part unfolds in the Antilles, Pixérécourt, on the look-out for novelties, was even convinced that he should, "for the sake of greater verisimilitude," have his savages speak the language of the Antilles taken from Father Breton's Caribbean dictionary. The results are not without savor, as witness this piece of dialogue between King Oranko and his subject Kavaka:
ORANKO. Cati louma.
KAVAKA. Amouliaca azackia Kereber (Oranko hestitates).
ORANKO. Inolaki… Chicalama…
KAVAKA. Hava a moutou Koulé Ouékelli.
ORANKO. Areskoui, azakia, kavaïti avou.
ORANKO. Ouallou hougousou!
And so it goes on and on… for whole scenes the actors carry on the dialogue in Caribbean.…
The true genius of fear is, in actual fact, incarnated in Edgar Poe, and his work brings together all the seeds of terror that can blossom in the human soul: physical horrors, moral anxieties, painful apprehensions of the other world and even this sensation previously unrecorded in literature, the fear of being afraid, that tortures the unfortunate Roderick Usher. The dominant trait of this exceptional talent is the conjunction of unbridled imagination and imperturbable logic, the fusion of nightmare and truth. In the midst of his most hallucinatory dreams, Poe always keeps one foot firmly planted in reality. In his work, macabre fantasy and meticulous precision conducive to verisimilitude become intertwined, overlap, and grow inseparable. There results from this union an impression of dread that no one else, not even Dante, has ever produced. As the reader enters into contact with Poe, a secret terror softly steals and glides into his soul, then takes possession of him, clasps him tightly, makes him shudder. The strongest nerves can offer no resistance; willy-nilly, we follow Poe into a hell, to which his art has been able to lend a semblance of life. First he rocks us on the waves of a raging sea, and then he suspends us on the edge of a bottomless abyss; vertigo seizes us, anguish makes our throat contract.… "Panic-stricken" genius is the phrase that Barbey d'Aurevilly has used in speaking of Poe: no epithet could be more fitting.…
Poe's literary influence has been immense. Strangely enough, it was felt in France before showing any signs in his own native country. In the second half of the nineteenth century, while Charles Nodier, Gérard de Nerval, Théophile Gautier, and Erckmann-Chatrian continue the Hoffmann tradition and write fantastic rather than terrifying works, we see the example of the American master inspire numerous disciples.…
His influence can be seen on many writers, including some of the greatest: above all on Baudelaire, who translated almost all of Poe and who is indelibly marked by his work; there are many poems in Les Fleurs du mal where we catch reminiscences of Edgar Poe, and it can be asserted that without him, Baudelaire would not have realized all his capabilities.
Poe's mark is no less visible on Barbey d'Aurevilly and Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. Both read Poe (Barbey has even devoted some magnificent pages to him), both have been subject to his authority; but Les Diaboliques and the Contes cruels are very far removed from Poe's Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. That is because Barbey and especially Villiers are unrepentant romantics. They can only conceive fear with a stately train of situations and antitheses in the style of Victor Hugo; the veiled figures, the funeral processions, the cloistered leper in Villiers's Duke of Portland are scarcely more believable than the coffins in Hugo's Lucrèce Borgia or the drowned bodies in Dumas père's Tour de Nesle. All of this literary satanism is hardly frightening; it has a musty smell of old bric-a-brac and the property room.
Much more realistic in their sober precision, Mérimée's novellas achieve effects of terror that strike you with unexpected rapidity like a gypsy girl's dagger. Colomba, Lokis, and La Vénus d'Ille surpass by far in emotional intensity the best of the Contes cruels. The true spiritual heir of Edgar Poe is uncontestably Marcel Schwob—with the difference that separates talent from genius. Strange affinities exist between these two spirits: the same sarcastic and terrifying imagination is characteristic of each of them; they both possess the same "meditative faculty" which Poe bestows upon his Egaeus in the tale "Berenice." The painful anxiety of the one, and the Jewish sensibility of the other, reach by different routes the same goal. There is in Schwob's Sur les dents a ferocious irony that closely connects this tale to Poe's "Loss of Breath" or "The Man Who Was Used Up," and L'Homme voilé equals in phlegmatic horror "The Cask of Amontillado".…
Writers could not simply go on imitating Poe indefinitely, still less could they outdo him. They were obliged to renew the genre. This is what has been attempted by the creators of the scientific-marvelous, a rich source of terror and delight. The progress of the sciences, the quasi-fabulous discoveries of the past thirty years, and the publicity given to research accomplished by inventors have contributed to arousing our minds to new objects of curiosity. Science has gone from the laboratory to the novel.
Jules Verne confined himself to considering as accomplished certain discoveries that already exist to all intents and purposes. Wells, Rosny the elder, and Maurice Renard go much further still: they are not concerned with what will be, but with what could be, and, boldly wielding the hypothesis, they venture out into the vast expanses of the unknown. Here, it should be observed, there is no question of the supernatural, which for science does not exist. At most, they propose for our scrutiny facts susceptible of a dual interpretation, the one miraculous, the other rational (Wells's Pollock and the Porroh Man and Maurice Renard's Le Singe); the true domain of these storytellers remains the uncertain and the not yet known. That is how Wells imagines perilous journeys through time, mat is how Rosny supposes the intrusion onto our planet of one of those invisible worlds that fill the emptiness of infinite space, mat is how Maurice Renard makes us perceive the diabolical experiments conducted by the magician Lerne who understands human cross-breeding as well as Dr. Alexis Carrel. Pure imagination? No, certainly, not, since such tales offer us, as applied to the study of imaginary phenomena or of monsters, the most rigorous methods of investigation. We find in Wells the study pursued with a perfect logic—except in one point—of what would happen if a man succeeded in making himself invisible by the discoloration of his blood. Thus these authors create new subjects of terror, which are addressed less to the nerves than to the understanding and which answer to our desire for the truth while at the same time giving sustenance to the need for shudders which is a part of our nature.
SOURCE: "The Pleasures of Terror," in Extrapolation, Vol. 28, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 75-86.
[In the following essay, Fowler traces aesthetic conditions for the enjoyment of horror in literature and film, including an undisclosed source of terror, the physical confinement of the protagonist, and reader/viewer identification with a protagonist who is aware of the source of terror but cannot convince others within the story.]
The importance of humanity's own cruelty and destructive impulses in the experience of literature and film has never been given anything like the attention it deserves, and the very vocabulary needed to begin discussing the subject—sadism, masochism, suicide—is still contaminated with hospital odors and those connotations of criminal deviation few are likely to assign themselves casually. And yet terror, violence, irrevocable loss, and catastrophic suffering are some of the most obvious properties of literature, and it seems long past the time when a smack of dainty parlor radicalism should still cling to a claim that art is sometimes a dream state wherein readers can act out fantasies of destruction and self-immolation they cannot allow themselves to act out in the real world. The business of artists is not really to salvage souls or mend the world, but to create, in any way they can, a world of intensity in which for privileged moments boredom can be forgotten. The great omission of all fantastic narrative is almost, by definition, the reality that it leaves behind, the one readers escape. And it is also too easily forgotten that this moment must be virtually inconsequential—without consequence. Inside the artistic experience, readers participate but should not have to pay. Literary theorists have too quickly turned away from the large and obvious dissimilarities between the fantastic world and the real one. Fantastic art offers a moment of incandescent intensity that makes use of commonplace realities solely as a disguise; nothing could be less suitable as a design for living or as a vehicle for comment on life.
Kihgsley Amis is correct when he points out that a readerly taste for pretended horror is "no more connected with an appetite for real horror, real blood, than [it is with] an interest in the Theatre of Cruelty or the bull-fight" (209). Why keep on denying that those destructive thrills are attractive as long as they are only make-believe?
For this discussion all modes of terror-creating narrative (horror-fantasy, science fiction, fantasy) are included in the term gothic, with apologies for my thriftiness by identifying them only by a useful oversimplification (better to be thought willful than naive). Gothicism is really a spiritual-cultural term, of course, nothing less than immense cathedral-shadow of Western history, but no other abbreviation even begins to offer itself as an accurate and finite substitute for all the modes of horror-fantasy.
M. H. Abrams gives a shorthand definition of the mode of gothicism centering on its creator's attempt to "evoke chilling terror, by exploiting mystery, cruelty, and a variety of horrors" (69), and he points out that the term is now usefully applied not simply to the ugly mysteries of an Ann Radcliffe monastery or the bizarre decay of a great and ancient family in a story of Poe's, but also to a type of terror-intending fiction that may do without medieval trappings as long as its events are "uncanny, or macabre, or melodramatically violent." Abrams also notes that the source of gothic terror is now frequently an "aberrant psychological state," not just a supernatural evil. One element that also must be interwoven into any complete definition is the presence within the form, shaping its structures and energies, of the world as a night-mare; as Joe David Bellamy points out, "nightmares antedate and are the true prototype of all gothic forms" (11). So although the definition can only be approximate, the term "gothicism" indicates the importation of night-mare into art. Leslie Fiedler remarks this crucial importation and points out that the essential burden of the gothic tale is to take readers "out of the known world into a dark region of make-believe… which is to say, [into] a world of ancestral and infantile fears projected in dreams" (114). Dream forms are the key to the imaginative resonance of the form.
Where, then, does the contemporary artist find the materials for his gothic terror, for the dream-become-art? Given that problem, we might consider and then immediately turn away from our century's most prodigious catastrophes—Verdun, Auschwitz, Hiroshima—and this in itself tells a good deal about the aesthetics of terror: the pleasurable beauty of terror lies at the heart of gothicism. The fact that trench warfare, extermination camps, and the experimental destruction of large civilian populations by means of atomic weapons were real perhaps has something to do with the revulsion with their uses as merely aesthetic properties and materials, but then Truman Capote creates a gothic masterpiece out of real murders no less hideous for his "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood (1966). Other non-fiction accounts of grisly crimes—such as Joe McGinnis's Fatal Vision (1983), Shana Alexander's Nutcracker (1985), and the MichaudAynesworth study of Ted Bundy, The Only Living Witness (1983)—draw us irresistibly into their spiderwork.
What is the difference? Perhaps this: at Verdun, Auschwitz, and Hiroshima, human life counted for nothing at all, and the pleasurable terrors of gothicism depend upon the assumption that human life counts for everything. The gothic is not an absurd or existential mode; it is a romantic one. The difference between these perspectives is nothing less than the difference between no-meaning and meaning. Speaking about the extermination camps in his excellent study Violence in the Arts, John Fraser remarks that the essential horror of the camps was that "the actual intensity of suffering… [the] heightened sense of the consciousness of other people" (98) was utterly be-numbed, for the horrors of the Final Solution all center on the perfect indifference of administrator, guard, and functionary to the human life it was their duty to destroy. It is this indifference that disqualifies Auschwitz from gothic possibilities. Thomas Pynchon can parody The White Devil (1608) in The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) by having his wicked usurper Niccoló grind and dye the bones of his enemies into writing ink—the grisly joke is still then a matter of passion, the intense emotion of hatred, the intense satisfaction of having that hatred revenged. But the technological fact that the human body can actually be rendered down into soap loses its artistic usefulness when it becomes clear that at the destruction complexes of the Third Reich this rendering was not a matter of passionate feeling at all. It was a matter of bureaucratic momentum, a scrupulous attention to duty, orders, and the task at hand. The real terrors of the Final Solution are not in its fantastic excesses of cruelty and sadism, and Fraser points out the utter falsity of what he calls the "most common cliché image" from the camps, that of "the shaven-headed prisoner being whipped to work by the glossy-booted S.S. man" (100). The history of humanity is fraught with savage murder, burnings, ritual sacrifices, exterminations, to say nothing of slave labor. What these modern camps made appallingly obvious was the complicity its victims could be induced to take in their own destruction, the degree to which sheer attention to the routines and processes of destruction, even to the routines and processes that conduct to one's own destruction, can be the supreme motive force in human affairs. The moral conscience of the twentieth century has been writhing from impalement on the terrible fact that such things as Auschwitz were even possible, but the aesthetic unsuitability of the camps gives the real insight into the core of their unique horror. It is a horror that seems only initially to derive from the sheer magnitude of the numbers killed, but the final horror of Auschwitz lies in the terrifying recognition that the energies of a great many people were engaged in operating, as efficiently as possible, the most astonishing social machinery in all history: a vast and intricate killing device the function of which was genocide and the operation of which was left to indifferent bureaucrats and complicit victims. A sure litmus test for gothic material is simply to ask if it can be parodied, for parody is the comic exaggeration of excess and demands overinflation of its subject. Auschwitz cannot be parodied because there is no emotion to be exaggerated or it is beyond hyperbole.
The importance of this is central to the understanding of modern efforts to create pleasurable terror. The more successful examples from the last two decades avoid the enormities of recent history and reveal a pronounced tendency to return to primitive, pan-cultural dream forms (Jaws, Deliverance, Harvest Home, Carrie, Alien, Close Encounters, Cocoon, E.T., Halloween, Poltergeist) or to rummage in the attic for religious paraphernalia so far gone into neglect that its reappearance seems purposefully anachronistic and playful as children dressing up in their grandparents' Sunday clothes (Rosemary's Baby, all four Omen films, The Exorcist, etc.). It is revealing to notice that by the mid-1980s the religious subgenre had already been exploited and abandoned, for like every other sort of fossil fuel the Christian imaginative heritage in the West proved to be finite. Sensing this exhausion, contemporary writers and filmmakers went on to strip-mine the imaginative forms themselves, now drawing their energies from pure nostalgia and semi-ironic reanimations of the beloved kitsch of their own youths: Indiana Jones is simply a glossier, sexier reincarnation of Johnny Weismuller as Jungle Jim, Lex Barker as Tarzan, Stewart Granger in King Solomon's Mines, and Cornel Wilde as the white hunter in a half-dozen B-grade jungle flicks. High tech and low camp would also be called on to bring back to life the undead in resurrection jobs like An American Werewolf in London, King Kong, Dracula, The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Bride (a remake of The Bride of Frankenstein as a vanity vehicle for English rock star Sting), and others.
Leslie Fiedler points out that science fiction is "the gothicism of the future" (508) and that just beneath its moral pretensions and pseudo-scientific hocus-pocus, it is essentially terror fiction dressed in the trappings of imagined technology. "The gothic," says Fiedler, is always "half serious enterprise, half fashionable vice" (122). The horror-fantasy mise en scène must not be frankly serious or demand a strenuously moral response. One symptom of this playfulness is our tacit recognition and approval of preposterous gothic locales: Bram Stoker's Transylvania; those archaeological digs William Peter Blatty swipes out of Hollywood's Mummy series for The Exorcist (since recycled into Omen movies and their like, by no coincidence); H. G. Wells's lost tropical isle peopled only by mad scientists and his South American valleys peopled only by blind men; any and all photogenic castle / mansion / monastery or inhabitable planet out there beyond Alpha Centauri. The significant feature linking all these places together is their patent anti-reality—their ingenuous, childlike, vaguely ridiculous invitation just to pretend. It should not really be a surprise that one of the most successful motion pictures ever made (a fine example of the subgenre Sentimental Gothic, incidentally) takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, amidst a biology and physics that makes Peter Pan look as realistic as Zola in comparison. That's just the point: we go to the gothic for play, not instruction, and it is anything but art for the soul's sake, with edifying fright as its central mechanism.
Yet, like all play, the gothic is created out of the tension between freedom and restraint, the collision between anarchic energy and inviolable boundary. At heart, imaginative participation in the game involves three paradoxes, and the (half-serious) creators of gothic experience must satisfy these three conditions to succeed. First, the artists must keep the source of terror out of direct line of sight. Second, they must create a sense of menacing physical confinement. Third, they must involve us (by means of our empathetic identifications with surrogates) in what I will call the "Cassandra Situation."
Each of these premises needs to be amplified and illustrated, but it is first appropriate to note that these conditions all serve to expedite the return on the part of the readers or viewers in to the imaginative kingdom of childhood, for the genre of gothic horror-fantasy is par excellance a voyage back and down. As Roger Schlobin puts it, to "horror writer and reader, creation is a dark force, and its twisted spawn are a seminal part of the character of the universe" (5:2263). The wellspring of this spawn is, of course, the human dream, where creation never ceases with a Seventh Day and the oldest fears reclaim us every night. Back and down, then, the imagination is led to reexplore the frightening wilderness of childhood terrors beneath human pretenses of reasonability and the tacit covenant that adults have entered into, which professes that the universe is all IBM cards and fluorescent light, decimal places, second hands, and yardsticks one-yard long. Julia O'Faolain has described the psychic residue of childhood with the wonderful phrase "rage-charred" because of its astonishing and inexplicable capacity for terror, and she claims that gifted artists reawaken these first memories and eldest nightmares, surviving undiminished by later experience, reminding us "that we were once presane" (14). The laws governing the pleasures of terror are thus the conditions of the descensus ad inferos, the descent to the underworld, the journey down into the primal presane dream-stuff. "The geography of the descensus is always the geography of dream," as Bernard F. Dick explains (45). We are Dante; the artist is Virgil; the Inferno lies within. In The Romantic Fantastic, Tobin Siebers points out that this "descent into the mind" is transformed by horror-intending artists into "a descent into hell, thereby recuperating and enthroning superstition" (185). The attraction of this hell-bent imaginative experience is anathema to liberal, "progressive" assumptions—the substrate of the Humanities Establishment and its universities, publications, and foundations. Donald Thomas brilliantly summarizes the eternal appeal of that archetypal hero of superstition and the "twisted spawn" of madness, the Marquis de Sade: "the one undeniable quality of his writing is that he stands the easy optimism of the philosophes and progressives on its head. The self-destructive power of the human race is the supreme power, in Sade's view, and the extinction of the species is inevitable and not to be regretted." Thomas holds that the astonishing endurance of Sade's legacy stems from his reaffirmation that "mankind is caught in the toils of a terrible aboriginal calamity" (207) and that the Enlightenment itself was a fatuous illusion. Did not the guillotine blades of the French Revolution prove him right? From a contemporary perspective, we might ruefully confirm Sade's exalted ferocity and annihilating cynicism as one more stage in the distillation of that mystical-intellectual nitroglycerine with which sorcerer's apprentices like Hitler, Lenin, and Mao have blown history off the rational iron rails laid down so smugly for it by the Rousseaus, Darwins, and Adam Smiths in the preceding centuries. The world pretends to want evolution and light, but in its marrow it really desires a bang, not a whimper. The enormous success and staying-power of the horror-fantasy narrative is simply this same human impulse, writ small. Sweeping generalizations, perhaps, but the first questions and not the fine print always seem to be slighted in an organized discussion of intellectual phenomena.
Far from enlightening readers and viewers, then, the creators of horror-fantasy are, in fact, involved in ushering them away from the sunshine and down into interior fantasies older even than firelight flickering on the wall of a cave. Charles Lamb said these restless shadows "predominate in the period of our sinless infancy," and behind the marvelous quaintness of his nineteenth-century phrasing, is real insight. Freud himself, always aware that the interior energies of literature are simply the reactuated fantasies of childhood naiveté, said it no better for this century when he concluded that the great creators of magic tales succeed by "betraying us to the superstitiousness which we have ostensibly surmounted …" (17:250). The manner in which this "betraying" must be accomplished is the focus of the description which follows.
… But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young
The words are Hamlet's, but the strategy they illustrate is Shakespeare's, and any artist who ever wanted to achieve the effect of pleasurable terror will recognize the necessity of this evasion. Words are only words; none exist that can "harrow up thy soul." There is no way to present any alternative reality without using this reality as a point of departure, or as a metaphor. And in the paradoxical realm of fiction, where a gifted artist can use madness, disease, or death to give the most intense kind of pleasure, terror seems to be bred most potently in the interval between inference and fact, between the suspected and the known. To confront the source of suspense directly, to consummate the process of discovery, would destroy the effect. Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902), perhaps the purest example of gothicism in our century, is a perfect illustration of this first condition needed to produce pleasurable terror.
To say that Heart of Darkness is a study of what one critic calls "the mortifying diseases of nineteenth-century imperialism" (Chace 199) is to be at once correct and ridiculous—like describing Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973) as a book about V-2 rockets. Making extravagant use of purple inks on loan from Poe, Conrad created a sort of prose Rorschach blot, and the impossibility of reducing its convolution, shading, and haunting symmetries to any sort of adequate paraphrase is one proof of the tale's success. Notice how little happens in the story—a man named Marlow tells at length (at incredible length!) of a European ivory-agent named Kurtz whose methods of getting treasure from the native cannibals were both utterly unsavory and wonderfully successful. Evidently this Kurtz chap went native in some fashion or other, and then he died—and died of no simple medical affliction, we are given to understand. He left a fiancée this side of death, and his personal magnetism and singular genius were such that we expect she will never get over him. Period.
Little enough action for a tale of over thirty-thousand words, one would assume, but then an extraordinary proportion of those words are really not words at all, but fragments of magic incantation, the verbal cinders of otherworldly energies, a language that can only point in the direction of an experience no language can describe. Uncontrollable, unspeakable, ineffable, inscrutable, impenetrable, intolerable [to thought], at once exalted and incredible [degradation], inconceivable, indefinable, unearthly, inappreciable, impossible, invincible, inexplicable, implacable, unfathomable, insoluble, unapproachable, irresistible: perhaps no story in literary heritage surrenders itself to a vocabulary more difficult to para-phrase or more fraught with menacing abstractions that words can neither define nor picture. Conrad's tale takes the evils of the white man's burden for its starting point, but these human, racial evils are only "mere incidents of the surface" (13), and Marlow assures that the "inner truth is hidden—luckily" (65). He himself has almost seen it, but he tells us (more than a dozen times) that he cannot convey in words the smallest fraction of those unholy terrors. And nothing can be said about the story that will pull its central mystery into the light, for here the artist has recognized the first principle of aesthetic terror—that an ogre's approaching footsteps are immeasurably more frightening than any portrait of the ogre himself, fangs and all. One of the most brilliant and useful insights from Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967) is on the diminishment of the wonderful by the ordinary—for the ordinary is simply the wonderful seen too often. One man sees a unicorn, and the vision may be either real or a hallucination; then a second man sees the unicorn, too:
"My God," says [the] second man, "I must be dreaming, I thought I saw a unicorn." At which point, a dimension is added that makes the experience as alarming as it will ever be. A third witness, you understand, adds no further dimension but only spreads it thinner, and a fourth thinner still, and the more witnesses there are the thinner it gets and the more reasonable it becomes until it is as thin as reality, the name we give to common experience.… (Stoppard 21)
Like Conrad, Stoppard knows that to give a local habitation and a name to the wonderful is inevitably to trivialize it, to dissolve the magic terrors of the glimpsed and the guessed in the universal solvent of everyday reality. As Fiedler puts it, "for the abominable, to be truly effective, must remain literally unspeakable" (121).
The second artistic condition of the gothic tale, that of physical confinement, is a premise so simple and obvious as to have been frequently ignored. Eino Railo took The Haunted Castle as the title of his 1927 study of gothic fiction, and literary people have perhaps been too quick to involve themselves in psychological speculation as to the religious and cultural implications of the word "haunted" at the expense of even noticing the sheer fact that isolation and confinement are in themselves important aesthetic conditions. The castle, monastery, or decaying great house may have their guilty ancestral secrets to whisper, but isn't the simple fact that both characters and readers are alone to face them really at the core of fear? Railo, Fiedler, and others have all theorized brilliantly about the characteristic gothic premise of the past revenging itself on the present (as with the racial guilt of the South that underlies the fiction of Faulkner, O'Connor, and McCullers, for example), but those who have seen Night of the Living Dead should agree that the sheer terror of finding themselves in an anonymous farmhouse while the night outside yields up destroying ghouls is more than sufficient proof that most audiences know first-hand what it means to be threatened by isolation and immobility, with the shadows of the enormous night breeding God-knows-what. All of which is to say that the artists' uses of the past for gothic effect may imply a significant cultural situation, but that they cannot make us afraid unless they return us to our own childhood.
Jaws (the original, not its sequels and imitations) was an effective terror film largely because Stephen Spielberg understood how to use his medium to achieve both a sense of mystery and a sense of confinement. The shark playing the title role is very little seen for almost the entire length of the film, remember, and frequently it is kept from sight by the clever expedient of substituting its sight for ours. In the final confrontation, the characters played by Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, and Roy Scheider are physically isolated and mortally vulnerable because they have no choice but to take on their antagonist in its own kingdom, and the fishing boat Orca is, at that point in the movie, as fearful a gothic locale as the House of Usher. Interestingly enough, a guilty, revenging past was also introduced into the film Jaws (it was not in the novel): Quint, the Ahabesque sea captain of the Orca (as played by Robert Shaw) had in the past helped commit the supreme Frankensteinian impudence of this century: during World War II he had been aboard the Navy vessel that delivered the Hiroshima bomb to its flight crew on the island of Tinian. Returning from this mission, the ship had been torpedoed by the Japanese, and so many of its [life-jacketed] survivors had been destroyed by sharks that Quint has resolved never to [wear a life-jacket] again. And of course he won't and is destroyed, for again the guilty past revenges itself on a present desperately attempting to cut itself free. In gothic art, anything that might rationally be captioned "Just Some Silly Native Superstition" must always come true. The gothic is a fairy tale told for adults, and its creators do not hold a mirror up to nature so much as step through a looking glass into a realm governed by magic, wish, and dream.
Whatever the device, it is essential that artists' use of a sense of physical confinement or inadequacy resurrect with alarming clarity childhood vulnerabilities. To be effective, terror narrative must return us to those moments in early life when we found ourselves at the mercy of a world built to a scale far larger and for purposes more threatening and mysterious than any we could recognize in ourselves. Regardless of the official sentimentality about the supposed happiness of childhood—childhood as Eden before the apple—isn't childhood always at least partially an experience when we were dauntingly aware of the larger and more brutal energies which surrounded us? It is no accident that Alice in Wonderland has continued to haunt the imagination of our culture for more than a century, for Carroll's great fairy tale is the purest account—one might almost say the most faithful transcription—of the universal dream-stuff of the childish mind: from Red Queen to Jabberwocky, from Mad Hatter to magic potion, Alice is the distilled essence of the exquisitely vulnerable Self set upon by the irrational and tyrannically powerful Other. Carroll's vision is the very paradigm of childhood finding itself at the mercy of the monstrous adversary world that always waited just beneath the daylight English garden. The art of terror is the art of returning to the child who lives on within.
The third condition of pleasurable terror, the "Cassandra Situation," seems at first glance to be the most curious paradox of all. However, it is the essence of childhood to know and not to be believed, and in successful terror-art, the protagonist comes to know the terrible danger but cannot convince others of its reality. In Dracula or Rosemary's Baby, for example, the partisans of Our Kingdom are in possession of facts that are only preposterous to the others. The participative tension the audience feels derives its power not only from watching the supernatural forces from the Other Kingdom intrude into this world, but also from the indifference, opacity, and even hostility of those who need to be convinced of the desperate necessity of defending against that incursion. All of us were children, and all children are Cassandras; their gift and curse of living inside their own fantasies is one reason they are quarantined off from adult "reality." They know that the Under-the-Bed is deadly but that no one can be convinced to defend them from it; that magic, fairy tale, and the supernatural are real possibilities; and that those ancient shadows at the bottom edge of consciousness will not "resolve only into toy horses and Biedermeyer furniture," as Oedipa Maas's psychiatrist explains in The Crying of Lot 49. The condition is universal; its resurrection deeply resonant.
One of the most impressive examples of the Cassandra Situation is that in Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby and the Roman Polanski film made from it. Levin has inverted a fairy tale to form the core of his tale—Immaculate Conception becomes Satanic Conception—and he has illustrated in the process F. Scott Fitzgerald's wonderful dictum that the cleverly expressed opposite of any generally accepted idea is worth a fortune to somebody. Society must insure that pregnancy is a desirable state, but for the expectant mother herself there are atavistic fears of that alien presence commandeering her body: she is literally possessed, and something may go unspeakably wrong. Levin masterfully enlarges this fear. Rosemary is both isolated and confined within her pregnancy—how could the terror be brought any closer?—and both isolation and confinement are essential in creating fear. As the first step in making Rosemary a Cassandra, Levin arranges for her to lose her friend Hutch, who urged Rosemary and her husband not to move into the Manhattan-Gothic Bramford because it has a history of what he primly refers to as "ugly and unsavory happenings" (17)—a pair of Victorian spinsters who practiced cannibalism, a high incidence of suicides, a dead infant wrapped in newspapers, even a practicing witch named Adrian Marcato who claimed in the best "Just Some Silly Native Superstition" manner to have "succeeded in conjuring up the living Satan" (16). Hutch, an active threat to the man Rosemary will discover is Adrian Marcato's son, is conjured into a coma and eventually destroyed by the devil worshippers. The unsuitable young woman whom Rosemary is to replace as Mother of the Antichrist "suicides" from the seventh floor of the "Black Bramford" only days after Rosemary and Guy move in. Guy's sudden success as an actor is achieved at the expense of the mysterious blindness that afflicts his chief rival for a part. Her husband, her physician, and her neighbors all conspire against her: Rosemary is absolutely and utterly alone with her terrible revelation.
Because any tale of the supernatural is potentially absurd—science fiction and horror are genres that always verge on the ridiculous—Levin has expertly controlled reader disbelief at every point. For example, instead of long, gloomy descriptions of the Bramford's brooding evil (traditionally done in those purple inks on loan from Poe), Levin allows the bright chirp of a near-acquaintance of Rosemary's to encapsulate the apartment building's photogenic eccentricity: "I'm mad about it! If you ever want to sub-let, I'm first, and don't you forget it! All those weird gargoyles and creatures climbing up and down between the windows!" (13). But even if the voice describing those chic monstrosities is inane, Levin still gets to have his monstrosities—Poe smuggled in under a plain brown wrapper. Viewed simply as a technical accomplishment, Levin's book (and Polanski's film) are masterfully satisfying, and the use of a Cassandra Situation is crucial to their effects.
But the largest question of all continues to perplex, down behind any merely technical discussion of the processes of creating terror: why is fear, in art, a pleasurable emotion in the first place? Do we really purge ourselves of it in the artistic experience, as Aristotle claimed? Searching my own responses to terror art leads me to suspect a simpler explanation, and one that squares better with the paradoxical fact that the sufferings of soap opera heroines exert a spellbinding fascination on millions and millions of viewers and listeners: narrative art is a machine we use to create emotions for ourselves under conditions where we don't have to pay for them. I suggest that the fundamental conception of human nature from Aristotle through Freud has assumed that humanity wants to be returned to some sort of primal equipoise, a steady state of tranquility, balance, and adjustment. But aren't the silliest, lamest words in all the world happily ever after? We all live out here in ever after, and I'm afraid we find it obvious and tiresome: better any sort of intensity than this. Of course, the implications of this claim are so un-flattering that it will be reflexively dismissed by the humanities establishment as a coarse, vulgar heresy. Nevertheless, the pleasure in terror is real, and the task must be to account for that fact, not to dismiss its reality with some unconvincing pieties.
Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971.
Amis, Kingsley. What Became of Jane Austen? and Other Questions. London: Russell and Russell, 1966.
Bellamy, Joe David, ed. Superfiction. New York: Random House, 1975.
Chace, William M. The Political Identities of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1973.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: Norton, 1963.
Dick, Bernard. "The Waste Land as Descensus ad Inferos!" Canadian Review of Comparative Literature Winter 1975: 35-46.
Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Dell, 1966.
Fraser, John. Violence in the Arts. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1974.
Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. and trans. James Strachey. Vol. 17. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74. 24 vols.
Levin, Ira. Rosemary's Baby. New York: Random House, 1967.
O'Faolain, Julia. "Erotic Fantasy." London Magazine June/July 1977: 5-34.
Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. New York: Bantam, 1967.
Schlobin, Roger. "Fantasy Versus Horror." Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature. Ed. Frank N. Magill. Vol. 5. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Salem, 1983. 5 vols.
Siebers, Tobin. The Romantic Fantastic. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1984.
Thomas, Donald. The Marquis de Sade. Boston: Little, Brown, 1976.
SOURCE: "The Motive of Fear in German Literature," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer, 1964, pp. 147-63.
[In the following essay, Eickhorst surveys fear in German literature from the thirteenth century to the mid-1960s, highlighting works by Johann von Schiller, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka, Ernst Barlach, Thomas Mann, Gottfried Benn, Hermann Hesse, and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, among others.]
No other word denoting a state of mind has been allotted more synonyms by standard dictionaries than fear. The most frequently employed terms among these synonyms are anxiety, terror, and fright—all designating that painful emotion experienced when one is confronted by impending danger, imaginary or real. In modern German writings Angst (anxiety) is usually the expression for this sensation rather than Furcht (fear), unless the reference is to Gottesfurcht (fear of God). In the intellectual and religious realms anxiety is thought of as a consequence of guilt; in philosophy, according to Heidegger, it originates from merely being in this world. Freud believed that anxiety developed from anticipation of sexual denial.
There is a consensus among medical authorities that anxiety can derive from emotional disturbances. Sensitive people react to disagreeable impressions and painful experiences with anxiety. Melancholy, schizophrenia, delirium, and compulsion are regarded as resulting from anxiety. The vastly increased feeling of insecurity after war or any other cultural crisis leads to a corresponding increase of neurotic susceptibility. A state of anxiety can be produced also by a faulty education or by violent occurrences with which an immature mind cannot cope. Kierkegaard, who has exerted a far reaching influence on modern thought, was obsessed by anxiety all his life. He thought that anxiety was a teaching emotion necessary for self-evaluation and for solving the predicaments of ordinary life.
The word fear has appeared in literature since its beginnings. It occupies a dominant place in the Old Testament. Since the Hebrew word Moró (fear) resembles very much moróh (teaching), the often quoted passage "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," might read "The guidance of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Accordingly, the belief of the theologian Kierkegaard that God guides through anxiety goes back to the Scriptures. The Greeks regarded fear as a necessary element of tragedy. Aristotle stated that tragedy by arousing fear and pity effects a purge of the emotions.
Walther von der Vogelweide wrote of a general anxiety among youth during the decline of knighthood at the beginning of the thirteenth century: "Woe, how miserably the young act now, who formerly were jovial in a courtly manner. Now they know how to worry only: Woe, why are they acting this way?" Anxiety as a literary theme, however, played no decisive role in German letters until the seventeenth century, after war, pestilence, and the swift progress of science had shattered the long persisting belief that man was the center of the universe. Although rife with terror and sorrow, the literary compositions of the Middle Ages, the epics, chapbooks, fairy tales, and folksongs, lack characters with chronic fear complexes. People on all levels of society, including those who were at odds with the Church and those who had come in contact with mysticism, were uniform in their hope for forgiveness of sins and in their belief in life hereafter. Even Doctor Faustus of the sixteenth-century chapbook prayed for salvation of his soul. Dürer wrote that his old mother had shown great fear of dying (Todesfurcht)> but had not been afraid of coming before the Lord.
During the period of the Baroque, at the time of the Thirty Years' War, German literature was permeated by the anxiety-ridden poetry of hymn writers such as Gerhardt, Neander, and Rinckart, as well as by that of the predominantly secular lyricists, Gryphius, Hofmannswaldau, and von Zesen. For the members of these two groups, Angst or Furcht became the words most frequently used to express emotion. A deep religious conviction safe-guarded the writers of church songs from fear of life, but their more worldly fellow-poets revealed in their verses an anxiety similar to that with which many people today are afflicted. They were plagued not only by insecurity and the burdensomeness of life but also by anxiousness about the transitory and futile nature of existence. For instance, Gryphius, the most productive poet of the Baroque period, possessed a split personality. His thoughts vacillated from the worldly to the divine, from lust to prayer, from almost blasphemous rebellion against God to an almost remorseful humility. Fear and belief were the two poles of his poetic inspirations. In "At the End" the lyricist mourned, "I have spent my time in burning anxiety," and in "Evenings" he prayed, "Let not woe, splendor, lust, nor anxiety lead me astray. Thine eternally bright glory be around and over me."
In spite of the pious note on which this work ended, Gryphius' excessive feeling of anxiety betrayed a pathological state. Even when he celebrated a joyous occasion in verse, as in his poem "On the Birth of Jesus," Gryphius used Furcht, Höllenangst (fear of Hell) and Schrecken (horror) to signify dread blessedly dispelled: "And fear, the terror of Hell, and horror all were lost." In the Christian era it was not until the eighteenth century that death was conceived of as a possible friend of man (Claudius' "Death and the Girl").
Even Gerhardt, whose mighty hymns are as stirring now as they were during his lifetime, gave intense expression to his fear of dying in "The Suffering Countenance of Jesus Christ."
When the time comes for me to depart
Do not depart from me;
When the time comes for me to suffer death,
Then come forth;
When fear most powerfully
Sizes upon my heart,
Snatch me away from anxiety
Through Thy anguish and suffering!
In writings of the eighteenth century there was comparatively little evidence of anxiety in literature. Exponents of the German classical period (Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller) had their protagonists adhere to a theory of accepted order in the world. These characters seldom express fear of existence (Werther is the outstanding exception) and suffer only an anxiety induced by actual threats of pain or death.
The historian and playwright Schiller, who used "anxiety" and "fear" more than did any of the other representatives of the German classical school, viewed history as man's judgment on earth (Kierkegaard could see no significance in the occurrences of events). Schiller's Don Carlos speaks of Todesangst (mortal terror) when referring to his love for his stepmother, but fright does not inhibit his capacity for making decisions.
… This way
Can only lead to madness or the scaffold.
I love with no hope—sacrilegiously
At peril of my life, in mortal terror—
I see this, yet I go on loving.
Schiller's Philip II hopes to extract useful information from persons he suspects of being possessed by innate fear and therefore may be more easily persuaded to reveal secrets simply through threat of torture. In The Maid of Orleans Schiller wrote of the terror the British manifest of Joan of Arc and of her fearlessness because she is fighting with God's sword. Diego in The Bride of Messina states: "One must have something to fear for, to hope for, and to worry about on the next morning in order to be able to bear the difficulty of existence." He assumes that concern and apprehension will give the thoughts controlling man's activities a balance which will aid him in bearing a humdrum existence. (This idea resembles Kierkegaard's assertion that fear fulfills a salutary purpose.) Schiller used the term Schrecken in "The Lay of the Bell" to signify the terror of the masses during a revolution:
But the most fearful horror of all horrors Is man in his purblind delusion.
Goethe, who believed in immortality and the final goodness of the world, was aware of the conflict in all existence and honored it in "The Harper's Song":
You lead us into life,
You let the poor wretch incur guilt,
Then you leave him to his torment,
For all guilt brings vengeance upon itself on earth.
Goethe ended the poem Proemion with this conception of man's relation to God:
We should surrender all to God, fear him,
and, if it is possible to put our fear and
awe of him aside, love him.
Hölderlin, who achieved perfection in his poetry, broke on the imperfection of life. Even though the poet possessed strong faith in the unity of man and divine nature, as well as firm hope in mankind's future, he suffered immeasurably from the dualism of existence. This unfortunate genius gave stronger expression of the dread of man in his loneliness and uncertainty than did any of his contemporaries; but, strangely enough, he never used the words "fear" or "anxiety" in his rich collection of poems. His "Hyperion's Song of Destiny" conveys the hopelessness of mankind's lot, a condition which the twentieth century disciples of "Overt Anxiety" have declaimed (Auden, Camus).
But we are destined
Nowhere to repose;
They fall, they vanish,
The suffering mortals,
From hour to hour,
Like water tossed
From cliff to cliff
Years long down to uncertainty.
The developments during the nineteenth century that led to the modern crisis of anxiety went hand in hand with disbelief in the teachings of traditional religion. Although such gifted German playwrights as Büchner and Grabbe doubted the divine order of things, they created protagonists who showed no particular fear of either life or death. While the dramatist Hebbel predominantly dealt with the doom of individuals and cultures in his plays, he believed, nevertheless, that God in His grace would not allow mankind to destroy itself: "And the Lord will abate his ominous threatening as much as he can, and tie together again all these threads which have been rendered asunder."
With the exception of Heine, who at times was convinced of the futility of all human efforts, of Lenau, who was full of "sadness at the doubtful doom of humankind," and of E. T. A. Hoffmann, who maintained that "the devil dips his tail into everything," the German Romanticists held to the belief that a Heavenly Father guides us all. Even though their verse is permeated with melancholy and longing, they rarely betrayed fear in their works.
Lenau bewailed the hopeless isolation of one dispossessed of both love and faith in his poem "Loneliness":
That he, scared by his loneliness, frightened,
Jumps up from the solid cliff
Full of fear, stretching out his arms for the wind.
Without love and without God: the road is
The draft blows cold in the streets; and you?—
The whole world is sad to desperation.
E. T. A. Hoffmann, whose realistic horror stories have excited readers since their first publication, occupied himself in his life, as well as in his tales, with automatons. Olympia, the puppet from The Doll (1817), has become best known through Offenbach's opera The Tales of Hoffmann. The versatile creator Hoffmann was haunted by the possibility that an almost perfect and human-like machine might soon be constructed, a monster that would turn the entire world into an abyss of fear.
After Darwin's theories of biology, Schopenhauer's of tragedy (man's worst guilt is to be born at all), and Nietzsche's of decadence had become general knowledge, belief in the ultimate goodness of nature and a better future diminished in the same proportion as general anxiety among people increased. At the turn of the century there appeared many books describing the general state of instability which allegedly prevailed among the upper classes of society. Not only were a dozen artistic family novels on disillusionment and decadence (Ricarda Huch's Memoires of Ludolf Ursleu, the Younger, 1892; Fontane's Effi Briest, 1894; Rudolf Huch's Family Hellmann, 1908) released, but also a vast number of narratives about subtilized youths and children being consumed by various kinds of anxieties (Hermann Hesse's Under the Wheel, 1905; Friedrich Huch's Mao, 1907; and Ernst Wiechert's The Story of a Boy, 1907). The protagonists of the genealogical novels all come to the conclusion that life on earth has very little meaning. Huch's Ludolf Ursleu compares life to a turbulent sea which human beings never leave while alive. The harshest indictment of man's existence comes from Tom Buddenbrooks after he becomes acquainted with Schopenhauer's philosophy:
Was not every human being a mistake and a blunder? Was he not in painful arrest from the hour of his birth? Prison, Prison bonds and limitations everywhere! The human being stares hopelessly through the barred windows of his personality at the high walls of outward circumstances till Death comes and calls him home!
Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1909), the embodiment of anxiety in modern literature, contains all the elements of the two genres mentioned above. It initiated the works of fiction which represent practical applications of Kierkegaard's conception of anxiety such as Wassermann's World's Illusion (1919) and Gertrud Le Fort's The Last at the Scaffold (1910). The chief characters in these narratives combat their crushing aversions and anxieties in order to come nearer to God. The following excerpts from Rilke's account of the last scion of an old, aristocratic family presents some of the monstrous forms that the fears of a modern decadent might assume. These hallucinations resemble some of the weird phenomena in Kafka's tales. (The Metamorphosis, 1916.)
So here and there on my coverlet lie lost things out of my childhood and are as new. All forgotten fears are there again. The fear that a small, woolen thread that sticks out of the hem of my blanket may be hard, hard and sharp like a steel needle; the fear that this little button on my nightshirt may be bigger than my head, big and heavy; the fear that the torn border of an opened letter may be something forbidden that no one ought to see, something indescribably precious for which no place in the room is secure enough; the fear that if I fell asleep I might swallow the piece of coal lying in front on the stove; the fear that some number may begin to grow in my brain until there is no more room for it inside me; the fear that it may be granite I am lying on, grey granite; the fear that I may shout, and that people may come running to my door and finally break it open; the fear that I may betray myself and tell all I dread; and the fear that I might not be able to say anything, because everything is beyond utterance,—and the other fears… the fears.
The counterpart of this bulk of fiction peopled with bewildered human beings is the group of excellent poems which tell of big city dwellers who live anxiously and sinfully. Thus in Hugo von Hofmannsthal's poem "Ballad of the Outer Life," Rilke's "For Lord, The Big Cities Are Lost and Disintegrated," and Trakl's "Occident" ("You mighty cities, built of stone… , you dying peoples! Pallid wave breaking on the shore of night, falling stars.") are echoed the anxieties hovering over urban civilizations.
The despair and loneliness of our Age of Anxiety culminated in the dream visions of Franz Kafka. While most protagonists of the family novels still harbored a faith in reaching "a sheltered haven" after spending their days on a "boundless and bottomless" sea of life, the chief characters of Kafka's narrations cannot look forward to any kind of solace after death since in their crises they have no access to God. Kafka's heroes, who symbolize twentieth-century man, are condemned to the utmost loneliness. Often their nearest kin reject them. But what makes their dilemma hopeless is the fact that they cannot be unburdened from guilt; for God, as judge, is out of their reach and, therefore, can never set them free. The hero of The Trial (1925), Joseph K., resembles the man in the "Legend of the Law," a parable related to Joseph K. by a priest. The man lets himself be frightened by the manner of the gatekeeper until the end of his days and so is kept from entering the door of the law, which would be opened only for him, until he, dying, learns: "This entrance was destined for you only." Joseph K. never understood the meaning of this legend. Blaming others for his misfortune, he receives, unprepared, his death sentence. Kafka, whose fiction is almost devoid of the words fear and anxiety, discusses these phenomena at length in his diaries in which he advocates that people should follow the example of animals that subject their fear and take a stand in danger. Von Hofmannsthal also emphasizes this idea in his later plays, for example, in the motto of The Woman Without a Shadow (1926): "Have reverence! Courage! Fulfill your destiny!" A number of critics claim, without giving real evidence, that Kafka was profoundly religious, having been influenced by Kierkegaard. Perhaps they had in mind a view similar to that of August Closs who states in his Medusa's Mirror (1959), that the theme of Kafka's terrifying trilogy of utter human melancholy, The Trial; The Castle, 1926; America, 1927, is related to Kierkegaard's assertion which Closs states as being
… that only through fear and despair can people find their salvation, as they compel us to the decision of our inmost freedom, a freedom which we thus owe to ourselves. In this struggle to decide our own fate we stand alone, but God's eyes watch over us. [August Closs, Medusa's Mirror (London: The Camelot Press, Ltd., 1959), p. 104.]
A short note among Kafka's literary remains summarizes his grim verdict on life: "There is no possessing, only an existence, an existence yearning for the last breath, for suffocation." Kafka's most specific reference to anxiety is contained in the following statement:
I constantly try to communicate something which cannot be communicated, explain something that cannot be explained, relate something which I have in my bones and which can be experienced in these bones. It is perhaps basically nothing except that anxiety which has been so often discussed, just that anxiety which has been extended to everything, anxiety of the most powerful force and the most insignificant, and the anxiety of expressing a word. However, this fear is perhaps not merely fear, but also a yearning for something, which goes beyond anxiety.
The twentieth-century playwrights Ernst Barlach and Bertolt Brecht and the novelist Thomas Mann have all shown special interest in the subject of the annihilation of civilization.
Ernst Barlach attempted in his sculpture and plays to convey his mystic conception of God. The philosophy of his play The Deluge (1924) is contained in a discourse between Noah, the obedient servant who has complete faith in his vengeful god's righteousness, and Calan, the rebel who asserts that his baseness comes from Noah's god but his strength from a greater, unavenging god that changes with the world in its evolution.
There is a god of the floods in whose image it is said, "The world is tinier than nothing and God is everything." However, I see the other God of whom it will be said, "The world is great, and God is tinier than nothing—a period, a glimmering, and everything begins in him and everything ceases in him." He is without shape and voice Everything originates from Him and everything returns to the base of His strength. He creates and is newly created by the one He created.… God grows because of me and continues to change with me to something new—how beautiful it is, Noah, that I too no longer have shape and am absorbed in the strength and depth of God—already I am sinking towards Him—He has become I and I He—He with my lowliness, I with His glory—a single entity.
Bertolt Brecht in his third version of The Life of Galileo (1955) blamed Galileo not only for the moral dilemma in which present civilization finds itself, but also for the doubt and fear that mark it. In the play Galileo says of himself:
As a scientist I had a unique possibility. During my time astronomy reached the public. Under these special circumstances, the steadfastness of a man could have produced great revolutionary changes. Had I resisted, natural science could have developed a code similar to the Hippocratic Oath, a vow to use their power only for the benefit of mankind. The way science is now, the highest one might hope for is a race of inventive dwarfs who can be hired to do anything.
In spite of the desolate outlook which Brecht presented, he could not avoid being impressed by the dynamic force of life in people. In his poem "Of the Friendliness of the World" he paid homage to man's devotion to his planet.
From the earth filled with cold wind
You all depart covered with scabs and manage.
Before he is covered with dust
Almost everyone has learned to love the world.
Thomas Mann in his Doctor Faustus (1947) portrayed the hero and his German people on their way to certain destruction, because the Germans have been denied integration as individuals and as a people. Their deficiency causes them not only to war among themselves but also with other peoples. They have become criminal worshipers of an idealism that is out of tune with the world. The abstract, mystic musician Doctor Faustus reflects the mind of the German people and their unhappy relationship to the world. They cannot find harmony but they yearn to hear satanic music expressive of highest order and chaotic irrationality.
The expressionist poet of nihilism and detachment Gottfried Benn asserts that absolute existence and permanence can be ascribed only to a work of art and that form alone is capable of producing faith and action, while life must be regarded as a vulgar illusion. This feeling of bankruptcy which intellectuals often confess in respect of their own philosophy of life is phrased in Benn's poem Lost Ego.
Lost ego, disrupted by stratospheres, victim of
the ion, lamb of the gamma-rays, particle and
field, chimaeras of infinity on your grey stone
The days pass for you without night and
morning, the years without snow and fruit bear
infinity threateningly hidden—the world
Where do you end, where do you camp, where
do your spheres extend—loss, gain—a game of
beasts, eternities, you flee past their bars.
The glance of the beast: the stars as tripes, death
in the jungle as reason of being and creation,
man, Battles of the Nations, Catalaunian
Fields, down the beast's gullet.
The world thought to pieces. And space and time
and what wove and weighed mankind, only a
function of eternities. The myth lied.
Where to? Where from? Not night, not morning,
no Evoe, no requiem, what you want is a
borrowed slogan—but borrowed from whom?
Oh, when they all bowed towards one centre and
even the thinkers only thought the god, when
they branched out to the shepherds and the
lamb, each time the blood from the chalice had
made them clean
and all flowed from the one wound, all broke the
bread that each man ate—oh, distant com-
pelling fulfilled hour, which once enfolded
even the lost ego.
Notwithstanding this sad status quo in which Benn saw modern mankind, he admired people's courage. Man is neither the strongest nor perhaps the most gifted of animals, yet he has survived every cataclysm and developed lasting arts and ideas. People struggle day after day, en-during pain and misfortune, and still they cling to life.
Benn, who introduced the concept of science into his terse and unadorned rhythms, created with his challenging intellectual metaphors a form for literature as characteristic of our age as the New Coventry Cathedral is for architecture.
At a time when "Overt Anxiety" had not been adopted as a byword of writing about the "Modern Condition" and the term "Outsider" for socially isolated persons was not in general use, Hermann Hesse in The Steppenwolf (1927) had already presented in Harry Haller a recluse living in a time that was out of joint. In Haller's mind there is constantly raging a savage battle between a primitive, rebellious spirit and an intellectual, saintly one. In addition to his inner conflict, Haller suffers from living in an impersonal, mechanized, and superficial society. In spite of apparently insurmountable odds, the protagonist at the end learns to rearrange, whenever necessary, the various elements of his personality in order to adjust to the multiple adversities of life and to achieve integration—a solution which is unconvincing.
Harry Haller blames his difficulties in life on the fact that he belongs to a generation caught between two ages:
He said to me once when we were talking of the so-called horrors of the Middle Ages: "These horrors were really non-existent. A man of the Middle Ages would detest the whole mode of our present-day life as something far more than horrible, far more than barbarous. Every age, every culture, every custom and tradition has its own character, its own weakness and its own strength, its beauties and ugliness; accepts certain sufferings as matters of course, puts up patiently with certain evils. Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap. A man of the Classical Age who had to live in medieval times would suffocate miserably just as a savage does in the midst of our civilization. Now there are times when a whole generation is caught in this way between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security, no simple acquiescence. Naturally, everyone does not feel this equally strongly. A nature such as Nietzsche's had to suffer our present ills more than a generation in advance. What he had to go through alone and misunderstood, thousands suffer today.
Two prominent contemporary authors, Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Gertrud von Le Fort, have focused in their writings considerable efforts on different phenomena of fear. While the mystic Gertrud von Le Fort believes that in our cosmos nothing happens outside its divine order, Dürrenmatt allows an element of chance in his world.
Dürrenmatt regards terror as a means for awakening sympathy in people. He gives shock treatments of fear to his readers rather than to his characters because he wishes to frighten his callous contemporaries into a realization of their criminal indifference toward suffering. In his play The Visit (1958) the solid citizens of a Swiss village consent to the murder of one of their closest friends because they are afraid that otherwise they might lose their possessions. Fear is likewise the keynote of the playwright's radio play The Mission of the Vega (1959). The Vega, a spaceship, lands on Venus, the inhabitants of which came from the earth. They have become accustomed to a primitive life of hardship which, brought out in the following conversations, lacks the injustice existing on earth. The general atmosphere of danger and the precarious living conditions have forced upon the people freedom from want and freedom from fear, a state which has compelled them to live together in peace.
Wood: You say that as if it is something easy, to die!
Bonstetten: Every necessity is easy. One must only accept it. And the most necessary, the most natural presence on this planet is death. It is everywhere, at all times. The heat is too great, the radiation too intense. Even the sea is radio-active. Everywhere there are worms which burrow under our skin and into our intestines, bacteria which poison our blood, viruses which destroy our cells. The continents are full of impassable swamps, boiling seas of oil and volcanoes everywhere, and stinking giant animals. We do not fear your bombs, for we live in the midst of death and have had to learn to fear it no more.
As a final example in these discussions of fear in literature Gertrud von Le Fort's epistolary narrative The Last at the Scaffold (1931) will be mentioned. This existential masterpiece was transformed by Bernanos into a successful play which in turn served as a libretto for an opera by Poulenc. Gertrud von Le Fort presents in this Novelle a background fused out of reality and illusion, a combination reminding one of the mysterious world of E. T. A. Hoffmann. Most of the action is laid in the cloister of the Carmelites near Paris in the horror-haunted days of the French Revolution. The heroine Blanche de la Force can neither live in the castle of her skeptic father nor find solace in the monastery or among the revolutionaries since she is unconsciously longing for a divine world. Blanche de la Force suffers from an inborn fear, the result of a frightful mistreatment of her mother by the mob. The fear of the pregnant mother endured during the assault produces in the child a permanent condition of horror. The author suggests that this anxiety reflects the mortal terror of an epoch coming to an end. There is a constant fear in the child's eyes because she is obsessed with visions of destruction of her secure existence. Such fear leads her to seek refuge with a Carmelite order, although she does not share the deep convictions of its members. Blanche has a subconscious feeling that her mortal fear is religious in nature. When she and the nuns pray the famous hymn of their patron saint, Saint Theresa of àvila:
Yours am I, born for you,
What will you do with me?
Give me riches or poverty,
Give me consolation or grief,
Give me rejoicing or sadness,
Sweet life, sunlight without a veil,
Since I gave myself to you completely:
What will you do with me?
she substitutes the line "Give me asylum or mortal terror" for "Give me rejoicing or sadness." During the death struggle of the prioress, Blanche becomes so terrified that the headmistress of the novices considers her unqualified to take the vows. Later, when religious communities are being dissolved by the revolutionaries, the new prioress hastily orders Blanche to be admitted to the order. She is given the name "Jesus in Gethsemane," for she is to experience within herself the death of Christ's fear and the awakening of a will to survive, a will that corresponds to the reality of things, the terror of the world. As a revolutionary commission appears to arrest the nuns, Blanche is overwhelmed by her fear and flees to her home. There she has to witness the killing of her father, whom she herself was unable to save because she could not obey the mob's alternative to the slaughter; she could not drink a cup of human blood. Protected by pitying market women, she is taken to witness many killings and is presented to the mob as an aristocrat converted to the cause of the revolution. One day while watching executions she sees the sisters ascending a scaffold singing "Veni creator." She loses her fear and exalted by a spiritual awakening joins the Carmelites in their hymns. Before it is her turn to be beheaded, the market women snatch her away and beat her to death. Defenseless man in his moment of greatest fear thus joins God in a state of infinite security. Rilke's famous saying, "Who is talking about being victorious?—to have come through is everything," is applicable not only to the protagonist of this Novelle but also to those in his own and Kafka's novels.
Although the number of literary works and motives producing fear considered in the discussion above are comparatively few, there seems to be enough material evidence from the beginning of German literature to the present of variations in intensity in the general state of fear. A minimum of overt anxiety was expressed during periods when there appeared to be a sense of unity in man's life, that is, when his struggle for existence did not conflict with his intellectual needs. The two periods showing the greatest harmony and the least anxiety were the time of the portrait sculptors and court romances, and the age of Goethe. The states of anxiety described in German works always reached their heights after a sharp decline in civilization.
During the decay of courtly culture, Walther von der Vogelweide lamented the general anxiety among youth.
Three centuries later, coinciding with the Baroque movement, the second period of general depressions made its appearance. The aftermath of war, disease, and scientific progress with its heliocentric theory had robbed man of his security and faith. The third wave of fear and pessimism invaded German letters after the Napoleonic Wars and the Industrial Revolution. From the writings of the later romanticists, Heine, Lenau, and Hoffmann, as well as those of the apostle of pessimism Schopenhauer, emanated a philosophy of skepticism, anxiety, and despair. After Darwin's theory of biology and Nietzche's of the decay of faith had become generally known, fear among people increased considerably. At the turn of the century many narratives appeared disclosing alleged skepticism and anxiety prevailing in the upper classes of society. Big-city civilizations were depicted as breeding places of unrest, fear, and hopelessness. The great genealogical novels dealing with upper- and middle-class families and fiction about subtilized children and youths incapable of making adjustments to life were filled with accounts of anxiety and instability.
Since the First World War, writers have uninterruptedly turned out literary works wrestling with "the modern dilemma." They have attempted analyses of our times and have proposed philosophies compatible with our precarious existence. Gertrud von Le Fort, Rilke, von Hofmannsthal, Kafka, Brecht urge men, even though their sacrifices are in vain and never will be recognized, to combat their fears and fulfill those destinies they believe to be theirs. These authors share with Kierkegaard the belief that we can achieve innermost freedom only if our decisions are forged by fear and despair.
The narrator in Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf argues that many gifted people suffer from a state of anxiety because they are caught between two ages. If this were true and if Nietzsche's assertions were valid that architecture and painting grow first out of a particular culture, literature second, and music last, one might conjecture that in the expressionist movement and its outgrowths western civilization is passing through a last phase of romanticism and has arrived at the threshold of a predominantly classical period evidenced by unadorned architecture.
Many recent German literary works contain romantic and mystic overtones. Gertrud von Le Fort and Barlach give a Christian answer to modern perplexities as did the mystics of the fourteenth century and the pietists of the eighteenth. Gottfried Benn labels the sum of contemporary experience as a nothing, the enigmatical conclusion of being able to explain everything, and he suggests that man strive for aesthetic perfection in some art form.
There are indications that people have made progress in the last few years in learning to live with overt anxiety and in time might come to look at fear as did the exiles to Venus in The Mission of the Vega. The international crises of the last two years have been accepted more calmly by news media than have any other world threats since the invention of nuclear weapons. The following occurrences might be taken as good omens that the recent wave of anxiety has crested: When such clichés as "the frustration in our atomic age" have been humorously treated in the comic strips ("Beetle Bailey"), when Auden's The Age of Anxiety has begun to sound like yesteryear's jazz, when T. S. Eliot's hymns on decaying and dying are parodied by Henry Reid ("Chard Witlow") and Eliot's recording voice is mocked by Dylan Thomas, when assembly-line fiction of world destruction brought about by unscrupulous scientists and power maniacs is dismissed summarily by its continental reviewers and readers, when students are vociferously rejecting Dürrenmatt's The Mission of the Vega as "another 1984," and when the newspapers hail or bewail the end of the beatnik generation, the symbol of instability, there are signs in the air that the dawn of a new epoch is breaking, a period in which a greater sense of unity might prevail.
Charles Child Walcutt
SOURCE: "Fear Motifs in the Literature Between Wars," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 46, April, 1947, pp. 225-38.
[In the following essay, Walcutt describes interwar literature as characterized by guilt following World War I, fear during the 1930s, and confrontation during the early years of World War II.]
"If we had only heeded our writers! The poets saw the second war coming and realized its horror, early in the thirties. …" A hundred versions of these sentiments have been uttered in recent years. It is a commonplace of criticism to say that the poet is more aware of historical trends than the historian, of social currents than the sociologist, of spiritual values than the theologian. E. B. White has declared that he envies the poets their wisdom. This superior insight of the poets undoubtedly is a fact. It is also a universal truth of history that mankind has not heeded its wise men. But the relation of literature to society, particularly with respect to the problem of war in this century, cannot perhaps be adequately described as merely a clear warning unheeded by unheeding men. It is more complicated and more significant than that.
From World War I to World War II there has been a cycle or pattern of attitudes toward war; this pattern appears both in literature generally and in the changing moods of particular writers. It begins with guilt, turns into fear, and purges itself in confrontation. Immediately after the first war came guilt and remorse. These were imperceptibly transformed into fear of the coming war. This fear almost entirely disappeared in the literature of confrontation after the war began.
After World War I there was let-down, despair, and—inevitably—guilt. People found that they had not won a brave new world. All the old problems remained as daily reminders, fears, and threats—many of them indeed intensified by the war which had proposed to eliminate them. The simple people who had fought were soon selling apples on street corners. This is mentioned not to use a trite figure, but to recall a powerful symbol of guilt: the apple-seller was the concrete embodiment of a tremendous failure. The war had generated bigness—centralized power—which combined with public exhaustion to make people believe that they were less than ever in control of their fate. Guilt spread with the grim realization that life and time had been squandered without producing any fundamental change in the nature of man or the constitution of society. The causes of war were unaltered, and men recoiled in guilt and remorse.
Guilt, remorse, and despair were the binding elements—the mortar—of the literature of the 1920's. Treatises exposed the munitions industry; pamphlets attacked profiteers; we lacerated our flesh by decreeing that no man should ever again make a cent of profit from war-time production—but this of course came later: at first our guilt was such that we could not even imagine the possibility of another war. In fiction we immediately think of Hemingway. In The Sun Also Rises there is a kind of pastoral cynicism which constitutes a protest against all the hypocrisies, the sentimentalities, and the superficialities which led us into war. This protest is an expression of guilt. Hemingway's war novel, A Farewell to Arms, is also heavy with a sense of waste and futility: it says that the war is meaningless, that society is drenched with evil, and that only the simple emotions of separate people are good. The same generalizations apply to the early writings of John Dos Passos and to dozens of other novelists. They likewise apply to much of the poetry of the twenties. Robinson Jeffers, for example, cries out against civilization and warns us to
… be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a
clever servant, insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that
caught—they say—God, when he walked on
Guilt informs the early novels of Aldous Huxley, and it is the backbone of the tremendous figure of social protest in the fiction of the twenties and thirties. Guilt is thus diffused in such other emotions as bravado, recklessness, cynicism, indignation, and social protest. Such emotions are partly compensatory, partly mere elaborations on the underlying guilt.
The time comes when the dark night of guilt is penetrated by the first red gleams of a new and bloodier day. Men watched the Nazis grow stronger, but their guilt prevented them from acting. They were caught in a death-impulse of expiation. Terror mounted as they watched the menace grow. It was the terror that accompanies inaction, the painful stretching tension that grows while the thunder in the cloud does not strike. An example of sheer terror is H. G. Wells's The Croquet Player (1937), in which the brooding evil that haunts a certain spot in England is traced to the bones there of prehistoric men, which have been disturbed by diggers: the spirits of these wild brutes return, and the inhabitants are infected with terror and cruelty. But this, we find, is only a myth by which a sensitive doctor conveys his terror of the frightful violence that man is about to release. "He has made up that story… because the realities that are overwhelming him are so monstrous and frightful that he has to transform them into this fairy tale about old skulls." What he fears is "endemic panic… a contagion in our atmosphere. A sickness in the very grounds of our lives"—the return of the Beast. "And now we see him here face to face and his grin derides us. Man is still what he was. Invincibly bestial, envious, malicious, greedy. Man, Sir, unmasked and disillusioned, is the same fearing, snarling, fighting beast he was a hundred thousand years ago. These are no metaphors, Sir. What I tell you is the monstrous reality. The brute has been marking time and dreaming of a progress it has failed to make. …" A single passing reference to children killed by bombs connects this terror to the immediate future.
It is often said that our poets anticipated all the horrors of the war during the 1930's and were therefore well ahead of their time. We should consider not only the fact of this anticipation but also its emotional and intellectual qualities and perhaps question the kind of social "usefulness" that can be expected of it. Guilt and fear, but particularly guilt, depend upon a concept of personal responsibility for social evil. The poet looks at the fearful mis-application of life and knowledge and resources against the dark background of political manipulation, individual greed, and moral apathy which precede, underlie, and succeed the sacrifice of the war effort. The contrast appalls him. Disgust with mankind and indignation are ethical responses to these blacks and whites. The poet, more-over, is in a special situation: being the sensitive conscience of society, he feels his guilt more painfully than ordinary men; not being a man of action, he feels in double measure the guilt of society's inaction. He suffers because he knows and because he does not act.
To keep this guilt from becoming intolerable, the poet may—instead of protesting or of retreating into cynicism—make an aesthetic object of it and of his fear, which he will subject to fascinated contemplation and from which he may wring a poetry that will exercise a hypnotic effect of forgetfulness that is just as real an escape as the cynicism of the early Hemingway. Such a poet is Frederic Prokosch, who has wrought so brilliantly with the problem of fear that it has been almost wholly transformed in some of his poems into a gilded arabesque. His poems in Death at Sea, published early in 1940, are almost exclusively concerned with the approaching catastrophe. The sea in the title, which appears again and again in the poems, is his symbol for the death instinct in modern man. It is the yearning for annihilation, and Prokosch renders it so perfectly that he appears to be identified with it. For example, "The Heroes" deals with an embarkation of young Nazi soldiers. A contrast is made between their fanatical devotion to their cause and the consequent drying up in them of love, represented by the grief-stricken women who watch the departure and are, it appears, despised for the weakness which their grief reveals. That is how the poem appeared to me. But to a group of very intelligent students with whom I discussed it in 1940 it appeared that Prokosch had a certain admiration for these "transported" soldiers—if not admiration, they certainly would not concede that he saw them as objects of horror and despair. He was, they said, merely interested and even fascinated. The horror I found in the situation came from my own idealism, not from the poet's intention. Reading this poem now, we may wonder whether "fear" of war induced by it should have heightened people's awareness of social realities, or whether its effect might not rather have been hypnotic or distracting:
And then they moved. Sunlight covered them like
They turned their clipped, indifferent heads once
They smiled, and seemed to wait: their long
Brown arms shone like water and the shore
Muttered, like a gigantic animal in pain.
The women and children were no more than birds
Or leaves, or drops of rain.
They were incapable of thoughts or words.
And these tall smiling figures, legendary,
Though a week before they had been only men,
Stood on the brink of the past; all the fury
And hallucination of the past rose up again,
Rose up and covered them like fever, or a song.
They were statues. They scarcely seemed to move,
As they moved away. They had grown tall and
Their eyes glowed with a new and hidden love.
The women did not understand at all. They stood
And waited till the ship was gone. Their grief
Was like the warm rain falling or a leaf
Falling into the hollow of a wood.
No amount of exposition could convince my students that the poet presented these "heroes" with distaste or even disgust. They saw no ethical attitude at all in it—only fascinated contemplation of a situation, flavored, some said, with admiration.
Another poem in the same volume, "Molière," presents the apparently shallow formality and rationalism of the rococo as a conscious defense against the bestiality and violence of man. It is the artifice by which the brute is held at bay, even as the glow of approaching revolution deepens. Here are the first twelve lines:
Molière, with his deliberate eye and urbane
Pen, pierced the skull: in the tart elegance of his
As in a collector's palm, lay man's split,
What he said about avarice, affectation, death,
Was clad in such lucidity—it almost seemed
That there was little he intuitively discerned or
Of that horrible disorderly whirlpool, man's
The hooked, retaliating nightmare, the dirty tears,
the hissing breath—
To tell of these would demand a pen dipped not in
ink but in fire!
And yet, he knew, he knew; and all those others
knew as well.
Through the clipped and ordered park, the salon,
They walked, rosy with the approaching glow and
spectacle of hell.
The poem concludes with the statement that this civilization "Lies lost as wholly as Othello's howl, or Dido's echoing cave." The implication is that a similar catastrophe is about to break on the modern world and that modern man goes on with the trivia of daily life, aware but heedless, rosy with the approaching glow and spectacle of hell. This is fearful, indeed, but being approached through a sort of historical parallel it appears as inevitable, and the effect is fascination and wonder rather than incitement to action or even a very keen sense of society's predicament. These poems do not render a richer ethical apprehension of the modern problem, but rather they offer an escape from it in the contemplation of their glittering patterns of inevitableness and decay. Guilt has given way to fear, after which the scarcity and impotence of ethical consciousness in a world of blind masses and death-struck intellectuals is then acknowledged and this knowledge is itself made an object of detached aesthetic contemplation.
If the fear motif has thus been used as an escape from the dilemma of individual responsibility in a world where the responsible individual feels himself to be not only impotent before the hugeness of the problem but also corrupted by his own participation in the comforts of materialism, it has doubtless been so because modern society lacks values which can compete successfully with our despised but luscious chrome-plated fleshpots. The weakening of values is an aspect or cause of the aimlessness, the lack of purpose, which begets fear. But we have gone further than this. What happens when certain values have wavered or diminished to the point where we are no longer sure whether fear is a permissible emotion? Such a tendency is revealed in current treatments of two most "fearful" matters. Insanity and the supernatural are today subjects of astonishing literary equivocation.
A century ago the supernatural was a constant reality, not to say obsession; and it was not to be trifled with. From the horrors of Poe to the humor of Artemus Ward is a long step with much land between. Today we are not supposed to believe in ghosts and goblins. We are timid and somewhat shamefaced about ESP, revivalism, and the new mysticism. And we now have, in movies about zombies, in the New Yorker Magazine, and elsewhere, a blend of humor and the supernatural which is unique. We shiver with fear at the same time that we laugh at ourselves for these primitive fears. Insanity is receiving the same ambivalent treatment. Whereas science seeks to explore and define it, popular literature now considers it something of a virtue, not to say an accomplishment. Plays like Harvey and a host of other documents one could mention are saying that the world is so mad that a reasonable man had better abandon his reason or he will go mad with thinking on the unthinkable. Here daffiness becomes a virtue, and we scream with shrill laughter at a world that is out of control. This desperate burlesquing of insanity and the supernatural is an attempt to destroy the values underlying our deepest fears. Fears do not make us face problems. We evade them by a safety valve of maniacal laughter.
First guilt and remorse. Then we shuddered with apprehension or embroidered our terror into fantastic patterns as the inevitable war moved toward us. Then, when the fury broke, there was relief from tension. There was the outlet of participation. Guilt was quite gone, because now it was too late to prevent what had come. There was curiosity, even absorption in the details of war. Never have we had such accurate and objective reportage as, for example, in the articles in the New Yorker, Collier's, the Post, and in volumes of the various correspondents. It appears that such reportage was intended at the beginning of the war to let the full horror of the facts speak for itself. Fear of war had been so great during the thirties that one thought no imaginative treatment of it would be necessary or indeed possible when it came. During the years of fearful waiting we assumed that the real thing would be even more fearful. But it was not. Perhaps our reporters failed to reckon on the cathartic effect of action. Perhaps they failed to see how interesting war could be. Surely they must have failed to anticipate that it would have its humorous aspects and that restraint and dryness of style would be appropriate. And they probably had not counted on the intense interest of Americans in machinery and speed and power, the eagerness of a depression-starved generation for new gadgets. In any event, this reporting did not convey any horror comparable to the prewar expectation, nothing remotely approaching the terror of H. G. Wells, the morbid absorption of Prokosch, or the anguish of Auden. Wartime re-portage is jolly by comparison with these. A Walk in the Sun, for example, or A Bell for Adano, contains none of the terror expected in 1937. Marquand in Repent in Haste complains of the monotony of...
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Elizabeth R. Hatcher
SOURCE: "Chaucer and the Psychology of Fear: Troilus in Book V," in ELH, Vol. 40, No. 3, Fall, 1973, pp. 307-24.
[In the following essay, Hatcher discusses Chaucer's realistic presentation of Troilus's anxiety over Criseyde's infidelity in Book V of Troilus and Criseyde through comparison with a parallel passage in Boccaccio's Il Filostrato.]
If… fear increases so much as to disturb the reason, it hinders action even on the part of the soul. But of such a fear the Apostle did not speak.
—St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica1
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SOURCE: "Fear and Growth: Reflections on The Beast of the Jungle," in Journal of the Otto Rank Association, Vol. 9, No. 2, Winter, 1974-75, pp. 38-42.
[In the following essay, Haddick discusses Henry James's "The Beast in the Jungle" in terms of Otto Rank's concept that human life is characterized by an inner struggle between forces of fear and growth.]
Rereading Henry James' short story "The Beast in the Jungle" after several years' involvement with Rank's writings has been an exhilarating experience. With regard to Otto Rank, his insights into problems of contemporary life seem even more relevant when fleshed out with such a...
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Butts, Richard. "The Analogical Mere: Landscape and Terror in Beowulf:" English Studies 68, No. 2 (April 1987): 113-21.
Maintains that Hrothgar's description of Grendel's mere in Beowulf is "an extended metaphor for terror" rather than a realistic evocation of landscape.
Cixous, Hélène. "Fiction and Its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud's Das Unheimliche ("The 'Uncanny')." New Literary History VII, No. 3 (Spring 1976): 525-48.
Contends that Sigmund Freud's essay Das Unheimliche functions as a work of fiction with Freud as its hesitant narrator.
Freud, Sigmund. "The 'Uncanny.'" New Literary History VII, No. 3...
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