Saturday, June 07, 2014

Of fear (with a nod to Bacon)

Does anyone read Bacon's Essay's in school any more? I doubt it. They don't really strike one as everyday fare for your average 16 year old. And yet ... I have provided a link there that leads to one of the essays, Of Death, that I read when I was in S4, one whose opening sentence sticks in my mind to this day - and I have not exactly read them regularly since. I did, however, on one occasion in living memory - in the 90s, I think - find myself being given sole charge of a wonderfully sparky group of new S3 pupils for the whole of their Standard Grade course, and filled the short month of June with a crash course in Bacon. They rose to the challenge, and when I set them the further challenge of 'doing a Bacon' over the summer holidays, came up with some wonderful almost-parodies.

And in a way, that's what I'm doing now. Only I'm not bothering to write in a Baconesque style - I doubt I could - but rather seek to examine fear in much the same spirit as Bacon might. That adventure that formed the hub of my last post - we've been dining out on it, as I knew we would, and some people - in the comments on the blog, or on Facebook, or to my face - have expressed wonder at our bravery in surviving all this. Of course, it wasn't bravery. It was necessity - and I suspect that though they sometimes coincide, that wasn't the case for us. Why? Because there was no fear to overcome.

Think back to Bacon (for of course you've checked the link by now - no?) Men fear death, as children fear to go in the dark. That's the line that sticks - and it's true, even if we'd object to the male presumption these days. But that's because we have time in which to contemplate our mortality, worry about the nature of our dying, fret about its propinquity. (I think I'm being infected ...) But when we were in that little speedboat, weighed down with boots and packs so that if we'd fallen into the sea we'd have had a job ever coming up again, all during that time when the waves were breaking over us and the cliffs seemed too close, there was really no time to feel afraid. I wasn't happy, and in fact every fibre of my being was screaming - but it wasn't in fear. No, it was screaming something like "You stupid people - this is not a good place to be! It's wet and dangerous!" - and so on, like a nagging parent you soon get used to ignoring.

Even when we had to transfer from one bouncing boat to another, all I could feel was a kind of distaste - and a strong desire not to make a fool of myself. I realise now that the latter pushed aside the realisation that people could be trapped between boats, crushed or killed - because it was afterwards that I thought about these outcomes. At the time there was a bit of swearing, the odd shriek, and obedience ("Now, lady - jump!" and I jumped). There was none of the paralysing fear that grips your gullet, gives you pins and needles in your hands, makes you want to vomit. How do I know these symptoms? Because I can get them - when I have to catch an early flight, perhaps, or when I think something awful has happened/might happen to someone I care about - not consistently or predictably, but with hideous randomness of occasion and severity, rendering me useless and nauseous and able to think only of the worst possible outcome.

Perhaps Hamlet had it all along. It's "some craven scruple of thinking too precisely on th'event" (outcome, here). I wasn't thinking of the outcome, I was thinking only of the present - or, to be more precise, I wasn't thinking at all. I was doing. Hamlet again, fighting pirates - "In the grapple, I boarded them": he wasn't thinking while he fought, because he had to get on with it; it was only when he allowed himself to fret about the morality of killing his uncle in cold blood that he was in trouble. When his uncle was obviously indulging in wickedness, Hamlet could bump him off in hot blood and die content. (Sorry for the spoiler, if you don't know the story ...)

To round this off, I want to think briefly about war. We've been watching these old guys who were once young and seasick on the approach to the Normandy beaches and who are now lauded as heroes - and yes, they are heroes, and survivors, and human, and ordinary, all at once. When I was a post-war child, listening to my parents' stories, whether of bombs on neighbouring tenements or booby-trapped oases in the Western Desert, I used to wonder how people could bear it. How did they survive at all? Why did they not simply die of fear, curl up in a corner and never come out again? And I suspect that the answer is that when something frightening is happening to you, you get on with it. As long as it's actually happening, and you have to act in some way, there isn't time for the fear to overflow. The adrenaline has other uses than to make you feel sick.  These soldiers who landed on the beaches - they were sick with the sea and God knows what else, but when the ramps were down they were off, and they were soldiers.

And of course, I know all this - but actually I know it as I know far too many things: from fiction. From reading. But it has taken me till now, because someone else landed me in a situation that could have had a very different ending, to own the knowledge  that fear will only paralyse if you let it.

And, not to end on a moralising note, I have to confess that I've been seduced by Bacon, and may read some more of his essays before I close that tab. Because the books are gone, long gone ...

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