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.

In 1871, Carl Otto Westphal, a psychologist in Berlin, offered the first comprehensive account of the nature and possible causes of a disorder to which he gave the name ‘agoraphobia’ because its symptoms arose when the sufferer was about to set off across an open space or along an empty street, and were at their most intense wherever there was no immediate boundary to the visual field. Westphal’s French counterpart, Legrand du Saulle, spoke instead of a ‘peur des espaces’, which struck not only in streets and squares, but on bridges and ferries, or when looking out of an upstairs window. Legrand’s patients included a Madame B., who found that she could not cross the boulevards and squares of Paris alone, was fearful of empty restaurants, and even needed help mounting the wide staircase to her apartment. Once inside, she was unable to look out of the window. She had filled her rooms with furniture in order to take the edge off their spaciousness.

In July 1904, Olive Garnett spent ten days in Salisbury with Ford Madox Ford and his wife, Elsie, at Elsie’s request; Ford, it seemed, was suffering some kind of nervous breakdown. ‘I think I had never heard of neurasthenia,’ Garnett was to recall in a memoir based on the journal she had kept at the time,

& for a few days all went well; but it was a hot July, & on leaving Lake House . . . to walk over the Plain to Amesbury, Ford had an attack of agoraphobia, & said if I didn’t take his arm he would fall down. I held on in all the blaze for miles, it seemed to me, but the town reached, he walked off briskly to get tobacco and a shave; and when I pointed this out to Elsie she said ‘nerves’. He can’t cross wide open spaces.

Garnett’s arm was not the only support Ford had needed. He got himself across Salisbury Plain by surviving from bench to bench; at each one, restored for the time being to a physical limit, an enclave, he would sit down and rest. All the while he chewed lozenges as a prophylactic against the wide open spaces. When he got back to London at the end of the month, a specialist recommended rest and travel, and he left for Germany, to spend some time with his Hüffer relatives and to undertake further consultations. ‘There’s such a lot of breakdown in the land,’ Ford was able to report contentedly. ‘They’ve a regular name for lack of walking power here: Platz Angst.’

There would seem to be as much disproportion in an inability to cross Salisbury Plain unaided, or to climb the stairs to one’s own apartment, as there is in an aversion to lentils. But is there? Agoraphobia has been said to constitute the most disabling of all phobias. Once we acknowledge that the spaces which bring it on are not just topographically open but public, a social as well as a physical expanse, we may begin to think that there is a great deal in them to disable. From the outset, agoraphobia has been regarded by some commentators as an entirely proportionate response to the escalating dangers of modern life. In 1889, in an angry critique of modern urban planning, the Viennese architect Camillo Sitte put the outbreak of an epidemic of agoraphobia down to the emptiness and vast extent of the spaces carved out by ‘modern thoroughfares’ such as the Ringstrasse. Sitte lamented the decay or destruction of ancient town centres which held panic at bay by means of irregularity, curvature and the balance of masses. More recently, a connection has been made between Westphal’s account of agoraphobia and the analyses of modern alienation undertaken by Georg Simmel, Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin. These analyses restore a certain proportion between stimulus and response. In them, agoraphobia disappears as a category. It is the environment that must be held responsible for causing panic, not individual perversity. The wonder now is not that some of us sometimes can’t step out through the front door, but that any of us ever do.

It is worth noting, however, that 19th-century psychiatry found in agoraphobia exactly the same disproportion between stimulus and response as it found in the other, apparently more frivolous phobias. Knowing that the open public space holds no terrors for other people, the agoraphobic person makes their untroubled progress across it into an enclave. He or she moves out into the void behind a vehicle, or in the centre of a group. Agoraphobes behave like small children, Freud complained: all we have to do to relieve them of their anxiety is to accompany them across the square. But one might also want to say, from a different perspective, that agoraphobes know how to put their disproportionate feelings of panic to good use. One of Westphal’s patients, a priest, experienced an overwhelming anxiety whenever he had to leave the protection of the vaulted roof of his church, but was able to walk in the open beneath an umbrella. A more interesting case, widely circulated in the literature, concerns a cavalry officer who was unable to cross open spaces when dressed as a civilian, but did so with ease when in uniform or on horseback. Here, it is not companionship but performance that saves the agoraphobe from his anxiety. Putting on a show, one accompanies oneself across the open space. The phobic person has learned that incapacity is not the same thing as non-existence, although it often feels like it.

Paul Carter would probably count himself among those who consider agoraphobia a proportionate response to the escalating dangers of modern life. In his view, the anxiety it articulates is collective and realistic. But he insists that any attempt to grasp its cultural significance must start from the fact that it is primarily, as the psychiatric literature amply demonstrates, a movement inhibition. Agoraphobes find themselves unable to enter, or comfortably traverse, a terrain apprehended as an abyss. For them, ‘seeing is no longer connected to moving.’ Carter gives short shrift to the Freudian view that agoraphobia is a fear not so much of the street as of the opportunities for seduction that the street offers; and to the sociological argument that its root cause is the deplorable state of urban design and regulation. We miss the point, he says, if we regard the disorder as ‘a symptom of something else’.

Reproving though he is of ‘soul doctors’ and city doctors alike, Carter nonetheless incorporates their respective methodologies into his own. There is repression in agoraphobia, he claims, but the feelings repressed are the product of an environmental unconscious: an ‘other “other” scene’, at once collective and historical, beyond what has customarily been the subject of psychoanalytic enquiry. This other ‘other’ scene is the agora as it once was in history and myth, and as it might yet become: a place of assembly, encounter and utterance; a place where people are driven together, and apart; and also a time, a (to be) remembered convergence of ‘ideal paths’. The Fall came in Paris in the 1860s, when Baron Haussmann drove his boulevards through this convergence. Since then, across the world, modernity has imposed its abstraction on the other other scene: its orbital roads, its monuments and vistas, its computerised flow of vehicles (traffic signals are said to date from 1905).

In Carter’s view, as in Camillo Sitte’s, agoraphobia is an anxiety associated with the ‘new species of non-place’: ‘Where the sensation of movement is negated by such spatial qualities as immensity, symmetry and lack of orientation, panic attends the act of putting one foot in front of another.’ The agoraphobe, unable altogether to repress a memory of the trajectories ruled out by the new species of non-place, sees in it only their terrifying absence, only the void, and cannot move. ‘The focus of her anxiety,’ Carter adds, in an attempt to distance himself from Sitte’s antiquarianism, ‘is not a lost topography as such, but the assumption of tracklessness.’

I can’t be altogether sure that I’ve done justice to Carter’s main hypothesis. His book is as mazy as the ‘environmental unconscious’ it seeks to excavate and restore. It circles back on itself repeatedly, advancing in a single direction at each turn, but always by means of new and often far-flung lines of enquiry, and fresh evidence drawn from European cultural production in the period from 1870 to 1939. Sitte and Freud are the theorists whose work is most consistently at issue, the latter hailed, on the basis of a report by Theodor Reik, as a closet agoraphobe. But Freud and Sitte are in good and plentiful company here, and it would be easier to list the Modernist sages left out (Ford, for one) than it would those included. The breadth of reference (‘Yet here I am reminded of . . .’) is admirable, the commentary a little hit-and-miss. There are, for example, some brilliant pages on the colonial survey as a form of Haussmannisation – Carter has written extensively about the Australian literature of discovery, exploration and settlement – while Rilke, Le Corbusier and Giacometti are among several thought-provoking additions to the panic encyclopedia. By contrast, the discussion of German ‘street films’ of the 1920s and 1930s is narrow and derivative.

More insidious, perhaps, is the pressure exerted on Carter’s method of enquiry by his determination to produce a ‘poetics’ of agoraphobia. This manifests itself in his characterisation of the disorder not only as a realistic anxiety, but as in some measure ‘critical’, and even redemptive. The agoraphobe stands ‘at a dissident angle to the orthodoxy which identifies stability (mental, political and architectural) with stasis’. He or she is ‘the one who bears witness to the invisible topography of relations, lost or bypassed or still potential’. The poetics of such dissidence should define and encourage a ‘practice of place-making’ that will put people ‘back in touch’ with the ‘environmental unconscious’.

At this point, the book ceases to be a cultural history of agoraphobia understood as ‘place-making anxiety’, and becomes instead a cultural history (and an example) of the post-Romantic aspiration to renew acquaintance with the world by diagnostic-redemptive wanderings in mind and body. As such, it seems fairly predictable. Among those asked to bear witness to a lost topography are the figure of the agoraios (or ‘hanger-out in marketplaces’), a sufferer from manie des voyages, Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge, Walter Benjamin in search of prostitutes, and the storytellers at a roadside assembly in West Virginia. These have their interest. But it is only with great difficulty that some of them can be recruited to the cause of the environmental unconscious (Benjamin, for example, by a highly selective reading of a passage from ‘A Berlin Chronicle’).

What of identifiably agoraphobic Ford Madox Ford? It’s safe to say that he didn’t propose to put people back in touch with the environmental unconscious. But he did make productive use, in his work if not in his life, of agoraphobia’s specificity: the disproportion within it between stimulus and response. In Some Do Not . . ., the first volume of Parade’s End, phobia is one of the various ways in which the two main characters think about and move edgily towards each other. Christopher Tietjens goes for a walk in the country with Valentine Wannop, the young woman for whom, at some point between volumes three and four, he will eventually leave his wife. The path down which they have wandered ends at a stile, with a road beyond. Tietjens, a man of encyclopedic knowledge and almost sublime disinterestedness, falls into a panic. Empty roads terrify him: when told that the next stile lies fifty yards away, he loses his nerve, and breaks into a run, pursued indulgently by Valentine. As they scuttle down the road, they are overtaken by a horse and cart containing Mrs Wannop and an aged retainer. Tietjens’s panic subsides in a display of practical knowledge concerning horses and carts so profound that the aged retainer immediately acknowledges him as ‘quality’.

Valentine knows him, then, or begins to fall in love with him, through the medium of his panic (‘That’s a phobia, like any woman’s’), and of the compensatory assertiveness it generates (‘The feudal system all complete . . .’). Like the cavalry officer who could cross open spaces only when in uniform or on horseback, Tietjens has found a performance that will enable him to outmanoeuvre his anxiety.