Let's Just Talk About Fear

In Pascal Mercier’s novel Night Train to Lisbon the Portuguese physician Amedeau Prado inquires: Is it so that everything we do is done out of fear of loneliness? ….Why else do we hold on to all these broken marriages, false friendships, boring birthday parties? What would happen if we refused all that, put an end to the skulking blackmail and stood on our own?

The theme is echoed in the recent film A Single Man based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel of the same name. In the film George, unmarried and gay, still grieves over the death of his lover eight years ago. In a lecture to in his literature class, he departs from his prepared remarks on Adous Huxley to speak forcefully on the extent to which fear is used to govern the populace:

Let’s just talk about fear. Fear, after all, is our real enemy. Fear is taking over our world. Fear is being used as a tool of manipulation in our society.

It’s how politicians peddle policy and how Madison Avenue sells us things that we don’t need. Think about it. Fear that we’re going to be attacked, fear that there are communists lurking around every corner, fear that some little Caribbean country that doesn’t believe in our way of life poses a threat to us.

Fear that black culture may take over the world. Fear of Elvis Presleyʼs hips. Well, maybe that one is a real fear. Fear that our bad breath might ruin our friendships... Fear of growing old and being alone.

Fear that we’re useless and that no one cares what we have to say.

It is clear the students are not getting his message, not its relevance or its subtext. George realizes he has lost them, closes his Huxley book, and wishes the class a good weekend.

Much of what we do in life is often enacted to avoid something else. Do we not work to avoid impoverishment? How often do we marry to avoid loneliness? Do we read or write to avoid boredom? And what about the neurotic fears and phobias that so many people have today--agoraphobia, claustrophobia, fear of elevators, fear of flying, and fear of social embarrassment that gives rises to extreme cases of social anxiety and shyness?

What are the fears of writers? Fear of running out of ideas, of writer’s block, of a poorly received book, of their inevitable limitations? In a recent Paris Review interview Mary Karr is asked: “What are you afraid of?” She responds: “Failure. I keep Beckett’s motto above my desk: Fail better.” In his Nobel speech, Orhan Pamuk proclaimed, “I write to avoid being forgotten.”

In a way that is also one of the reasons I write, to leave something permanent after I am gone, to have a book in the library or on the bookshelf of my children. In this way, I won’t be quite so quickly forgotten.

Behind any artist's urge to create is an egotistical impulse -- a desire to be remembered, to see one's works immortalized. Writers attempt to defy death by achieving eternal life on the page and in the imaginations of readers. Such hopes are ultimately illusory: obviously, a page or a book or a computer file may outlast their creators, but nothing has the stamina to outlast time. Yet few writers are either willing or courageous enough to confront the fact that literary immortality is essentially impossible.

(From a review of Paul Auster’s Invisible by Vincent Rossmeier at Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon.)