Alexander Piatigorsky

On Fear

595534b4a2e7c.jpg‘People have always feared something—death, for example.’ For you, fear is a kind of anthropological constant with a given set of almost eternal ‘fearsome’ things. In any era, it just waits, hiding in the cellars of the collective unconscious until the moment when the ray of someone’s consciousness illuminates it.

But that is nonsense, ladies and gentlemen! We know as much about the fear of an ancient Sumerian as we do about that of a contemporary Papuan or even that of our colleague or neighbour. In any epistemological situation, we deal with different fears, which are united by the common name ‘fear’: in one instance, it is a religious term, in another, psychological, or psychiatric, and in yet another instance it is completely absent. From the point of view of logic, fear as such is an empty concept, since, in every particular case, it will be a different fear. Furthermore, it will not be fear of the same ‘fearsome’ thing, and, what is particularly interesting is that it will not be the same people who fear.

The 1930s, the years of my childhood, knew four main fears, which, for the rest of my life, have been imprinted in my memory: fear of famine, fear of being arrested, interrogated and put in a labour camp (or, at best, deported), fear of tuberculosis and fear of war. It is important to note that all these fears had a precise social distribution. The first fear, which I knew only by word of mouth, was felt by peasants and those who had been peasants before moving to Moscow or other cities. I heard about the second by listening to the conversations of old intellectuals and also new Soviet ones (and both sides of my family belonged to those). A broad swath of the population of Moscow and its suburbs was practically paralysed by the third. Talk of tuberculosis was heard from all sides. As for the fourth fear, the situation was rather complicated. Being, for the most part, a fear held by the intelligentsia and semi-intelligentsia, the fear of war was a theme, not only in the words and terms of the person thinking about it, but also in the state of consciousness characterised by a fear of yet another war—the same kind as the First World War. 

There is little doubt about the historical dimension of thinking about war as a ‘fearsome thing’ already experienced. But, on the other hand, already in the mid-1930s, in the thinking about thinking, which took place in a state of fear, there was a shift from the already familiar old war to a new and totally unknown war which would take place in the near future. Chronologically, this shift occurred as the Soviets and Nazis devised their utopian projects to restructure the future. 

From these two aspects of fear—and this in effect played a decisive role in the ideological preparations for war—follows the apparent contradiction in the psychic attack both the Soviet and Nazi official propaganda made on the people. Soviet propaganda did its utmost to minimise the fear of war, explaining that it would not be ‘that war’ but a completely different one: schoolchildren would continue to go to school, university students to the university, scientists would not interrupt their research, musicians would play their instruments and singers would sing. Meanwhile, the Red Army would carry out ‘decisive assaults’ against enemy troops and only in the enemy’s territory. It would all be over in a matter of days, or, if worst came to worst, in a couple of months. But at the same time, this propaganda maximised the fear of war, calling for a total militarisation and explaining to the population that the war would be fought not by the army, but by the entire nation. 

In the 1950s and 1960s, the fear of war was not only a fear of ‘not that war’ but it was already ‘not that fear’. Since the object of the fear, ‘war’, was thought to be a thermonuclear one, and the subject (and agent) of it could be either governments or groups of governments, fear, to a significant degree, ceased being an individual state of consciousness. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the opposing sides of this potential war expended a great deal of effort to maximise the fear. In known history, there has never been a period of more mutually assured stupefaction (mutual fear mongering) and self-imposed numbskulling (self-scaring) than in the years of the Cold War. Only through concerted effort on the part of the propaganda apparatuses of both sides did they manage—but not all the time—to turn the ‘fearsome thing’, the thermonuclear bomb, into an image of fear of the future war, because the average inhabitant of the planet continued to view this ‘thing’ as a phantom of his or her own consciousness. In order to ‘de-phantomise’ the phantom, it was necessary to convince the man on the street that the thermonuclear bomb would not only destroy the whole world along with him, but that first it would destroy him, or her, and only then the rest of the world. It was not an easy task, even if one were an experienced liar from the medieval Ship of Fools.

And yet this is not what’s most important. Even if we were to accept as an overly strong working hypothesis the banal quasi-psychological assertion that at the core of any fear is the fear that one’s own existence (or thinking) will cease, it is impossible not to see that the other war is phenomenologically associated with a completely ‘other’ death. This alone shows that fear is not always the same state of consciousness. When we talk about ‘the fear here and now’, we always have to deal with an objectively different state of consciousness—different from the one for which we used the word ‘fear’ at a different time or in a different place, or associated with a different thinking being.

Note, however, that the very question ‘What exactly is it that I fear?’ is posed assuming, first of all, that if I am not a superman, I absolutely must fear something, that everyone must fear something, that it is not only me who is afraid of the given ‘fearsome’ thing, but others—and perhaps all ordinary people—as well. This may mean that my fear is not solely my own, and could turn out to be the fear of a particular group of people. 

The question of my fear, despite its triviality, not to say vulgarity, acquires philosophical meaning if we have three provisos in place. First, such a question must be posed only to one given individual: me, you or someone else. Second, the question must imply that the individual in question has already reflected on his fear as a special state of consciousness in which he is carrying out the act of reflection. Third, the individual to whom the question is posed knows fear as a concept, which forms a part of the common, instead of individual, epistemological situation (or does not form such a part and is featured there just as an empty cell within the network of the content of consciousness). As a commonplace concept, fear acts in reverse on the psychic states of people’s consciousness, particularly for those people who do not reflect on their thinking of fear and, because of it, often find themselves—as do you and I—completely at the mercy of the basest, purely psychic kind of fear. The thinking that is subject to such fear begins to immediately ascribe to the objects of fear, the ‘fearsome things’, their own existence, forgetting that they are phantoms born from fear not reflected upon.

Endowing the object of fear with its own existence necessarily leads to ascribing existence to the fear itself. Fear itself becomes the ‘fearsome thing’ and then a phenomenon arises, which today determines the character and functioning of millions of individual consciousnesses: the fear of fear. People are afraid of the fear of death no less than they fear death itself. The fear of negative states of consciousness has long had a place in psychiatry and clinical psychology. But the ‘fear of fear’ problem has reached far beyond the clinic or psychoanalyst’s office. The exaggerated propaganda of fear as a theme and subject of literature, cinema and mass media has done its job. Fear not only exists, it is a part of your everyday life, upbringing, an integral part of your education, and it is a part of ‘theirs’, too. Moreover, it also finds its place in your value system and that of ‘theirs’ as well. Absurd as it may be, in today’s social consciousness, fear has acquired a positive ethical status, a status that unites people more than it separates them. In the slogan of the demagogues of the second half of the twentieth century, ‘We will forever free humankind from the fear of a thermonuclear war’, the negative fear implies the awareness of these demagogues that only fear unites people in their support for these very same demagogues (positive fear). The maniacal propaganda of preventive medicine, cleverly and craftily developed by the same mass media and lavishly financed by the pharmaceutical corporations and governments, has played an equally big role in cultivating the fear of cancer and other medical conditions. 

Today’s fear mongering in the mass media is precisely oriented toward a consumer with a weakened ability to reflect and a vague idea of social responsibility. For that reason, it is hardly surprising that a very popular product turns out to be macro-fear (my term), whose object, after the nuclear hysterics had substantially abated, became such ‘fearsome’ things of the future as global warming, global environmental pollution, global deficit of foodstuffs and, finally, global terrorism. It should be noted that a global increase in stupidity—and not in some distant future, but already now—has not made the list. 

Macro-fear is fear whose subject is some sort of abstract socium, such as ‘the planet’, ‘human kind’, ‘people of good will’, etc. Yet macro-fear becomes real fear only when it is reflected upon by a thinking individual. And this thinking individual, if he is not a total idiot, knows that he cannot (even if he wanted to) take responsibility for any abstract socium. Today, an individual who is aware of his belonging to a particular social structure is in no way capable of considering social macro-fear as his own state of mind. Macro-fear remains a possible state of consciousness with a thoroughly weak psychic energy. However, because it has not been reflected upon, it keeps ever more powerfully affecting the psyche of our contemporaries who are simply incapable of shoving macro-fear within the framework of past knowledge.

A simple example: In the first half of the twentieth century, we knew much less about tuberculosis than we know about cancer today, yet mortality associated with tuberculosis was much higher than from lung cancer today. Even from this crude and superficial comparison, it follows that our knowledge of what we fear—even if it’s objective and diminishes the actual danger presented by this or that ‘fearsome thing’—in no way diminishes our fear, because our thinking about fear seems to occupy a ‘cell’ different from the one occupied by knowledge in our epistemological structure. Because of this, the average inhabitant of Planet Earth, that idiot, still entertains the idea that if he appeals to knowledge (psychological, psycho-physiological, etc.), then he will receive an answer regarding the nature of his fear. He does not understand that he should direct his inquiry at his own self-awareness and not at the collective positive knowledge (albeit with a 50-year delay). Positive knowledge will continue to be tied to the firm belief that all fear can be reduced to the instinctive fear of death. This assumption, however, seems not only hopelessly trivial, but also vulgarly plebeian (not to mention that it simply isn’t true, either historically or anthropologically). Even you and I understand, no matter how poorly, that the fear of dying of cancer or tuberculosis is not simply, and not only, fear of dying; and that the fear of dying in a concentration camp is not at all equal to the fear of dying in the trenches. And as the experience of wars and revolutions of the twentieth century show, the fear of a collective death is not at all the same as the fear of one’s personal, individual death.

What is it, then, that distinguishes one kind of fear from another? First, it is the difference between the objects of fear, the ‘fearsome things’, so to speak. Second, it is the difference in reflection upon the fear of these things, fear that is understood as a special (not the same as any other) state of consciousness. This difference is practically unreachable by positive knowledge. Our knowledge of objects of fear is often incomplete and almost always vague. That is, we know exactly what we fear but have no idea what it is that we fear.

This is plainly evident in the example of fear of terrorism (a fear, incidentally, exaggerated and subject to exaggeration). Have those who fear terrorism ever asked themselves: What is terrorism? About ten years ago, a student of mine (not at all stupid) said that terrorism is when someone does with you (and with himself as well—which is very important) as he pleases. We should note that in this working definition, ‘someone’—in contrast to the incidents of state terrorism, or terrorism under the conditions of a totalitarian regime—remains vague and almost always nameless.

Let us pause here. Let us reflect upon what was said, a little while back, almost ‘right now’, by a young Russian philosopher, a follower of Niklas Luhmann, Dmitry Gorin: ‘In our contemporary culture, which lacks ideology, only two resources of meaning remain (let us not quibble about the postmodernist excesses): fear and freed-up desire.’ The juxtaposition of fear and desire in this statement is not accidental. All right, desire has been released—but from what? Nietzsche replies: from culture. And fear? Is it still connected, tied up with culture? Worse, it is a part of culture. Who knows, maybe today some aging, half-crazed anthropologist of Gregory Bateson’s ilk (if there are still any around) will call all culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries a culture of fear. We are experienced in ‘de-culturising’ fear, beginning with the elementary fear of illness and death. But note that in order to ‘de-culturise’ to the end, fear must first be ‘cultivated in culture’.

The de-culturisation of fear found its ingenious description in The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. In the novel, all the fluctuations of an individual consciousness, which has been caught in the double trap of culture and fear, are analysed in great detail. In the beginning, by way of introduction, we are familiarised with the way the bodies of those who have died from tuberculosis are put on sleds and pushed from the hospital-sanatorium, located at the top of the mountain, down to the village at the foot of it. The development here involves not only a demonstration, a gallery of images, words and ideas whose apperception initiates the fear of illness in the individual; it is a perceptive blow against the individual’s thinking, a blow that results in an irreversible shift both in the states of his consciousness and consciousness itself. All of the patient’s thinking, no matter which direction it takes, flows into the riverbed of fear. Fear becomes a separate, independent structure of consciousness, and thinking around it forms a special mythological world—a world with its own ‘top’, a hospital-sanatorium on a mountain. A couple of years later, the castle in Kafka’s Castle becomes a direct mythological analogue to ‘top’ in The Magic Mountain. Mann’s village is the ‘below’ of the mythological world (cf. Kafka). There is even a forested slope—a typical mythological ‘dead man’s path’ used by the ghostly messengers from interspace. This mythological world in the novel is supplemented by another, parallel, mythological world with its own, also parallel, mythological drive toward war, and fear of death in that war. An exchange of deaths takes place between the parallel worlds: death from consumption is exchanged for death from a bullet.

Yet a genuine myth, just like real life, never develops as smoothly as the linear narrative of a novel, myth or conversation (Hegel never tired of repeating that genuine dialectic, i.e., philosophy, does not care for purity or anything rectilinear). A normal series of events—both in a novel and in life—has two enemies: madness (hubris) and personality. The protagonist’s cousin, a German patriot who is dreaming of battlefield glory and death from a bullet, dies in his bed, whereas the protagonist, Hans Castorp, a confirmed civilian intellectual, is swept from the deadly mountain into the deadly trenches. The crazy Jesuit Naphta himself puts a bullet in his head. But most of all the developments in this factory of fear are disrupted by a personality who appears out of nowhere—Mynheer Peeperkorn. This ‘pirate of fate’ calmly and consciously poisons himself with the deadly snake poison and dies his own unique death. In his case, the subject of reflection finds himself in a double structure of consciousness—‘personality’ and ‘fate’—and thereby his thinking stops experiencing the state of consciousness called fear.

I can offer another version of the mythology of fear in The Magic Mountain, which would supplement the one just laid out. I call this version a yogic one, for it is based on one of the fundamental ideas of Buddhist (tantric) transcendental meditation: the idea of nonphysical bodies, which are artificially created by yogis. These bodies are a kind of condensates of different forces and energies of psyche and consciousness. The nicely cohering personnel of the famous hospital-sanatorium direct all their efforts at artificially forming a body of fear in each and every patient. The body is physically pampered, fed the best food in Europe and, most importantly, intellectually polished and refined. Contemporary medical science, sophisticated psychotherapy, increasingly vociferous psychoanalysis—they use everything, including a wide range of entertainment, useful both for the mind and the heart: the body of fear must be satisfied and modern. The main task of this pseudo-yoga, however, is to do everything possible to interfere with the patient’s battle against fear, the battle of his consciousness with the lowest psychic states, because such a battle may corrode and destroy the basic substance of the body of fear. This yoga aims to thereby impede the formation, in the patient, of his body of consciousness—that eternal symbolic antagonist of the body of fear—for consciousness is not the opposite of any elements of psyche as much as it is the opposite of fear.

Let us return to that extremely interesting question: Is our fear really free now? But instead of an answer, I would like to ask another, extremely childish question: Which do I fear more (and no cheating): cancer or thermonuclear war? If I can’t cheat, I’d have to say cancer, of course. I think that the phrase ‘of course’ in my answer implies that the fear of cancer is closed, is not free and is suppressed in anyone belonging to this culture. The fear of illness is, of course, stronger than any macro-fear, not because it has been suppressed in the Freudian sense of the word, but because it, in contrast to the released desire, remains taboo in a person’s behaviour and speech, sometimes even in a person’s conversation with himself—it is only formally public.

To claim that our culture is a culture of freed desire would be a tasteless truism, but to call it a culture of freed fear would simply be a lie. In order to find out what fear is, one must first understand that as states of consciousness, fear and desire are two completely different things. Or rather, fear and desire are located in different places in the field of reflection and are reflected upon on different hierarchic levels. 

I think that the phrase ‘freed desire’ implies not only an openness and public expression of desire, but, first and foremost, an energetic insufficiency, existential limpness and poverty of desire. In the worst-case scenario, freed sex leads to public promiscuity (whose euphemism is still the good old ‘decline of virtue’) or a vulgar automatic desire for things may result in excesses of consumerism, yet neither one nor the other will change the situation of knowing; whereas, fear unchecked by reflection, and freed from behavioural limitations, may simply lead to madness.

Now, in our philosophising, we should move away from fear that has turned into madness (exactly this way, not from the madness of a subject overcome with fear), and once again address the most difficult question: the relationship between our fear and our knowledge of things, circumstances and events that we fear. 

As knowledge, fear is in no way opposite to the actual state of affairs, no matter what we call it—‘crisis’, ‘depression’, ‘epidemic’ or whatever else. Historically, such a juxtaposition was based on the assumption, existing in ancient and medieval times, that fear arises from not knowing—you are afraid of the actual state of affairs, for you do not know it (in the Buddhist sutras of the Pali canon it is said: ‘One who knows does not know fear, he is fearless.’). So let us reduce our epistemology of fear to two apparently opposite statements: ‘We do not know the actual state of affairs and therefore are afraid of it’, and ‘We know the actual state of affairs and therefore are afraid of it.’ What is this ‘actual state of affairs’? Hard to say.

The point is that all of us who are currently trying to think about our own fear and that of others find ourselves at the mercy of a very powerful epistemological illusion and are only gradually beginning to understand that the actual state of affairs is formed by our fear (at other times it would be hatred, at still others, greed, etc.). In other words, the unknown, or even known, actual state of affairs already includes our own fear. In order to be able to imagine it better, let us remember that fear, as a tendency that determines some states of consciousness, is always oriented toward the future. And until man’s lower range of thinking turns to the current moment in the thinking (and life) of an individual, fear will always be a threat to his thinking, distorting and paralysing it. 

Not long ago, I asked some friends, ‘What do you think, is there such a phenomenon as absolute fear, and if so, what is it?’ The most radical answer was this: Absolute fear determines all other states of consciousness and is so powerful that it is not only completely outside of reflection, but the unthinking ‘we’, ‘you’ and ‘they’ are actually removed from the location of consciousness. And we will no longer be able to say to anyone ‘We are’, for ‘we’ will be removed from our consciousness along with ‘we are’.

The text on fear with the subtitle ‘A Brief Phenomenological Introduction to Discussing Fear’ was written by Alexander Piatigorsky for a class on developing alienated thinking, which took place on 22 April 2009 in London.

Translated by Ieva Lešinska

From Summer 2017 issue

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