Friday 21 September 2012


Rob Grundel asked me to write about Fear. I said I wasn't certain I wanted to write about Fear. In doing so, I fell straight into his trap. He said I was Afraid to write about Fear.

I might have added that Tingtinglongtingtingfala follows only two editorial guidelines: I do not write about improvisation and I do not write about negative things. These are rules of thumb, however, rather than foundational principles. I break these rules often enough.

There are, of course, countless things to fear. It is surprising, then, that there is any consensus on what the feeling of fear is. After all, no one can agree on what love is. Poets and artists work themselves into a tizzy attempting to taxonomize love. Its gradations, species, aspects, names, categories, bands, etc. have been repeatedly agonized over ever since Mankind had anything to say on the matter.

It is easy to appreciate how your love of porn and brandy is a different thing from the love you have for your country, your god, or your mother, even if it is less easy to prioritize your passions usefully. Love is mutable and deceptive. We may fool ourselves into thinking we love someone. Jealous lust and pure affection can swap masks, while the object of love remains exactly the same. We don't know what we're feeling. We're idiots.

By contrast, fear is fear. Exactly the same dizzy stomach wobbles and sweats afflict those gazing at a spider in a bath, the precipice of a cliff, a stern interview panel or a beautiful woman. Some people have exactly the same feeling about Velcro as you do about rejection.

Fears can be listed as a comical set of phobias. We give them names to rationalize and externalize them. Merely acknowledging that a fear exists goes most of the way to overcoming it. This simple process gives credence to the notion that our fears are less real than we make them out to be, yet the visceral experience of fear, and its physical symptoms, shriek otherwise. Consequently, fear often goes hand-in-hand with shame, and the two reinforce each other. Like a fit of giggles, knowing you shouldn't makes it worse.

Many fears are daft, but many aren't. It is easy to understand how, for example, the fear of expressing ourselves in public – or, to be more specific, the fear of being judged for our self-expression – has roots deep in human paranoia and loneliness. The intrinsically ambiguous nature of our consciousness and of language make this a near-universal fear. Yet even this fear can be managed – if not completely overcome – and when this happens it is often accompanied by a terrific burst of formerly pent-up creative energy.

Like all loves worthy of the name, fears are largely irrational. Typically, we have no reason to fear the things that we fear, unless it is to avoid facing up to another thing, something more terrible, which we really do fear. But that one reason alone can be a powerful one. It is in our interests to imagine that we are weak, and hamstrung by humdrum insecurities. If we were to suppose the truth of the matter – that we are all brave and brilliant, capable of inspiring almost godlike depth and generosity of spirit – well, then there would be no further challenges left, other than the one we know will defeat us. The paradox is that we indulge in needless failures in order to avoid confronting a necessary one. 

What, then, is that primordial fear, for which all of these strategies and counterstrategies are merely cyphers and avatars? It is universal. It is hidden in plain sight. And – despite what you might think – it cannot be named.

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