Platz Angst

David Trotter

  • Repressed Spaces: The Poetics of Agoraphobia by Paul Carter
    Reaktion, 253 pp, £16.95, November 2002, ISBN 1 86189 128 8

The last three decades of the 19th century were phobia’s belle époque. During this first phase of investigation there was, it must have seemed, no species of terror, however febrile, which could not talk its way immediately into syndrome status. In 1896, Théodule Ribot spoke of psychiatry’s inundation by a ‘veritable deluge’ of complaints, ranging from the relatively commonplace and self-explanatory, such as claustrophobia, to the downright idiosyncratic, such as triskaidekaphobia, or fear of the number 13. Twenty years later, in his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud was to respond with similar impatience to the list of phobias drawn up by the American psychologist Stanley Hall. Hall had managed to find 132.

In Freud’s thinking about phobia there is a consistent emphasis on the scale and density of the precautions erected against danger. Phobia’s anticathexis, he observed, takes the shape of a proliferating defensive system. In 1900, in The Interpretation of Dreams, he compared this system to a frontier fortification. In the Introductory Lectures of 1916-17, no doubt mindful of recent innovations in military science, he compared it to an entrenchment. However, elsewhere in the same lecture he spoke of the danger confronted in phobia as ‘tiny’. For Freud, phobia was both immense, in its power to engender avoidance, and utterly trivial. It was a Hindenburg Line built to repel an army of one.

Freud was by no means alone in emphasising the disproportion between stimulus and response. Most psychiatrists of the time regarded phobia as a perverse singling out, more or less at random, of an object or event to be afraid of. In the 1880s and 1890s, a favourite diversion among commentators was to make lists of celebrities unhappily transfixed in this way by the force of circumstance. Charles Féré, for example, wrote in 1892, citing B.A. Morel:

‘Who has not heard,’ says Morel, ‘of the febrile fits which were produced in the savant Erasmus at the sight of a plate of lentils? . . . King James II trembled at the sight of a naked sword: and the sight of an ass, if the chronicle of the time can be believed, sufficed to cause the Duke of Epernon to lose consciousness.’

Other stalwarts included Hobbes (fear of darkness), Pascal (fear of precipices), and Francis Bacon, who experienced syncope during eclipses of the moon. The ass and the plate of lentils are not in themselves especially illuminating with reference to the individual in question; and they remain in turn unilluminated by the intensity of morbid feeling shone at them.

According to Adam Phillips, the phobic person ‘submits to something akin to possession, to an experience without the mobility of perspectives’. It is a secular, bodily possession: ‘A phobia, like virtually nothing else, shows the capacity of the body to be gripped by occult meaning; it is like a state of somatic conviction.’ And yet a disproportion persists, a disproportion amounting to asymmetry, between the intensity of the conviction provoked and the unassumingness of the object that provokes it. Phobia, Phillips adds, is a kind of ‘unconscious estrangement technique’: ‘To be petrified by a pigeon is a way of making it new.’ But if the asymmetry between stimulus and response is stark enough, might we not say that the ‘technique’ enforcing it has become conscious? The phobic person who has, in Brechtian fashion, made a pigeon new by being afraid of it, is still aware that in the popular view pigeons remain familiar and not very frightening. Phobia’s somatic convictions are knowingly whimsical. Its asymmetry might be thought to permit a certain ‘mobility of perspectives’ after all.

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