"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Fear? He wrote the book

Where No Fear Was: A Book About Fear by Arthur Christopher Benson (1914) can be read here.

*   *   *

As front matter for his 1914 study Where No Fear Was: A Book About Fear, A. C. Benson selected this minatory passage from part two of Pilgrim's Progress:

"Thus they went on till they came to about the middle of the Valley, and then Christiana said, 'Methinks I see something yonder on the road before us, a thing of such a shape such as I have not seen.' Then said Joseph, 'Mother, what is it?' 'An ugly thing, Child, an ugly thing,' said she. 'But, Mother, what is it like?' said he. ''Tis like I cannot tell what,' said she. And now it was but a little way off. Then said she, 'It is nigh.'"

This reminded me of another instance of something fearful coming on, in the 1924 short story "A Neighbor's Landmark" by M. R. James:

     At the top [of the manuscript page] was written a motto from Scott's Glenfinlas, which seemed to me well-chosen:

Where walks, they say, the shrieking ghost.

     Then there were notes of his talk with Mitchell's mother, from which I extract only this much: "I asked her if she never thought she saw anything to account for the sounds she heard. She told me, no more than once, on the darkest evening she ever came through the Wood: and then she seemed forced to look behind her as the rustling came in the bushes, and she thought she saw something all in tatters with the two arms held out in front of it coming on very fast, and at that she ran for the stile, and tore her gown all to finders getting over it."

(James was skilled at depicting threats physically approaching his protagonists from a distance, often over open country).

Benson gives another example in the "coming on" mode at the end of Chapter I:

[....] There is an episode in that strange and beautiful book Phantastes, by George Macdonald, which comes often to my mind. The boy is wandering in the enchanted forest, and he is told to avoid the house where the Daughter of the Ogre lives. His morose young guide shows him where the paths divide, and he takes the one indicated to him with a sense of misgiving. 

      A little while before he had been deceived by the Alder-maiden, and had given her his love in error. This has taken some of the old joy out of his heart, but he has made his escape from her, and thinks he has learned his lesson. 

      But he comes at last to the long low house in the clearing; he finds within it an ancient woman reading out of an old volume; he enters, he examines the room in which she sits, and yielding to curiosity, he opens the door of the great cupboard in the corner, in spite of a muttered warning. He thinks, on first opening it, that it is just a dark cupboard; but he sees with a shock of surprise that he is looking into a long dark passage, which leads out, far away from where he stands, into the starlit night. Then a figure, which seems to have been running from a long distance, turns the corner, and comes speeding down towards him. He has not time to close the door, but stands aside to let it pass; it passes, and slips behind him; and soon he sees that it is a shadow of himself, which has fallen on the floor at his feet. He asks what has happened, and then the old woman says that he has found his shadow, a thing which happens to many people; and then for the first time she raises her head and looks at him, and he sees that her mouth is full of long white teeth; he knows where he is at last, and stumbles out, with the dark shadow at his heels, which is to haunt him so miserably for many a sad day....

Benson uses these literary examples to underscore his statement in Chapter I: "How impossible it is ever to learn anything by being told it!"

*   *   *

For many of us the strongest fear is fear of the known, not the unknown. Where No Fear Was is not about the pleasing terror of old houses or lonely tarns or open country, but debilitating and demoralizing social anxieties. 

In armoring ourselves against these fears, Benson endorses a sense of proportion and probity as central when facing all turns in life, whether the turns at first seem positive or negative. He also praises the hard-won skill of looking at fearful situations (fearful to many of us, often innocuous to others) as opportunities to find out how much we might still accomplish.

*   *   *

He has some funny stories about life's little lessons in humility, and how he has learned to appreciate them.

[....] I had to pay a visit of business to a remote house in the country. A good-natured friend descanted upon the excitement it would be to the household to entertain a living author, and how eagerly my utterances would be listened to. I was received not only without respect but with obvious boredom. In the course of the afternoon I discovered that I was supposed to be a solicitor's clerk, but when a little later it transpired what my real occupations were, I was not displeased to find that no member of the party had ever heard of my existence, or was aware that I had ever published a book, and when I was questioned as to what I had written, no one had ever come across anything that I had printed, until at last I soared into some transient distinction by the discovery that my brother was the author of Dodo.

     I cannot help feeling that there is something gently humorous about this good-humoured indication that the whole civilised world is not engaged in the pursuit of literature, and that one's claims to consideration depend upon one's social merits. I do honestly think that Providence was here deliberately poking fun at me, and showing me that a habit of presenting one's opinions broadcast to the world does not necessarily mean that the world is much aware either of oneself or of one's opinions....

*   *   *

As someone who has carried his share of  maiming fears and anxieties through life, I appreciate Benson's boldness and honesty in Where No Fear Was. Yet I cannot help but think: To achieve such a confident tone, ACB must have written this when he was having a very bright day. I have some days like that, too, when fears appear in manageable and realistic proportions. But sufferers know those days are fleeting.

*   *   *

Below are a few excerpts I found worth underlining. 


[....] interrogate the memory as to what have been the most real, vivid, and intense things that have befallen us by the way. We may try to separate the momentous from the trivial, and the important from the unimportant; to discern where and how and when we might have acted differently; to see and to say what has really mattered, what has made a deep mark on our spirit; what has hampered or wounded or maimed us. Because one of the strangest things about life seems to be our incapacity to decide beforehand, or even at the time, where the real and fruitful joys, and where the dark dangers and distresses lie. The things that at certain times filled all one's mind, kindled hope and aim, seemed so infinitely desirable, so necessary to happiness, have faded, many of them, into the lightest and most worthless of husks and phantoms, like the withered flowers that we find sometimes shut in the pages of our old books, and cannot even remember of what glowing and emotional moment they were the record!

[....] long afterwards perhaps, when he has made a mistake and is suffering for it, he sees that it was THAT of which they spoke, and wonders that they could not have explained it better.

[....] We cannot recognise the dark tower, to which in the story Childe Roland came, by any description. We must go there ourselves; and not till we feel the teeth of the trap biting into us, do we see that it was exactly in such a place that we had been warned that it would be laid.


[....] The widespread delusion of the English educated classes, that they are interested in art, was of Ruskin's making.


[....] Our instinctive fears, such as our fear of darkness and solitude, and our suspicion of strangers, seem to date from a time when such conditions were really dangerous, though they are so no longer.

[....] The whole of civilisation is a combat between these two forces, a struggle between the rational and the instinctive parts of the mind.

[....] What then is our practical way of escape from the dominion of these shadows? Not, I am sure, in any resolute attempt to combat them by rational weapons; the rational argument, the common-sense consolation, only touches the rational part of the mind; we have got to get behind and below that, we have got somehow to fight instinct by instinct, and quell the terror in its proper home.

[....] our only chance is to turn tail altogether, and try to set some other dominant instinct at work; while we remember, we shall continue to suffer; our best chance lies in forgetting, and we can only do that by calling some other dominant emotion into play.

[....] the peculiarly paralysing effect of these baser emotions [:] As Victor Hugo once said, in a fine apophthegm, "Despair yawns." Fear and anxiety bring with them a particular kind of physical fatigue which makes us listless and inert.

[....] When I was myself a sufferer from long nervous depression, and had to face a social gathering, I used out of very shame, and partly I think out of a sense of courtesy due to others, to galvanise myself into a sort of horrid merriment. The dark tide flowed on beneath in its sore and aching channels. It was common enough then for some sympathetic friend to say, "You seemed better to-night—you were quite yourself; that is what you want; if you would only make the effort and go out more into society, you would soon forget your troubles.

[....] I am sure that in my long affliction I never suffered more than after occasions when I was betrayed by excitement into argument or lively talk, and the worst spasms of melancholy that I ever endured were the direct and immediate results of such efforts.

[....] to put the mind in easier postures, to avoid excess and strain, to live more in company, to do something different. Human beings are happiest in monotony and settled ways of life; but these also develop their own poisons, like sameness of diet, however wholesome it may be.


[....] The real simplicity is a sense of being at home and at ease in any company and mode of living, and a quiet equanimity of spirit which cannot be content to waste time over the arrangements of life. Sufficient food and exercise and sleep may be postulated; but these are all to be in the background, and the real occupations of life are to be work and interests and talk and ideas and natural relations with others.


[....] It is strange that it should be so, but there is some psychological law at the back of it; and it is certainly true in my experience that the men who have been most eagerly sought in friendship have not as a rule been the most open-hearted and expansive natures.

XIX.    SIN 

[....] There is no joy in the world so great as the joy of finding ourselves stronger than we know....

[....] Hell is rather what we start from, and out of which we have to find our way, than the waste-paper basket of life, the last receptacle for our shattered purposes.


[....] the imaginative nature which lives tremulously in delight will be most apt to portend sadness in hours of happiness, and in sorrow to anticipate the continuance of sorrow. That is an inevitable effect of temperament; but we must not give way helplessly to temperament, or allow ourselves to drift wherever the mind bears us. Just as the skilled sailor can tack up against the wind, and use ingenuity to compel a contrary breeze to bring him to the haven of his desire, so we must be wise in trimming our sails to the force of circumstance; while there is an eager delight in making adverse conditions help us to realise our hopes.

[....] if we look fairly at life, at our own life, at other lives, we see that pleasure and contentment, even if we hardly realised that it was contentment at the time, have largely predominated over pain and unhappiness; a man must be very rueful and melancholy before he will deliberately say that life has not been worth living....

[....] the pleasures of activity and health, the sharp joys of love and friendship, these are surely very great and marvellous experiences....

[....] Men and women do not make pilgrimages to the graves and houses of eminent jurists and bankers, political economists or statisticians: these have done their work, and have had their reward. Even the monuments of statesmen and conquerors have little power to touch the imagination, unless some love for humanity, some desire to uplift and benefit the race, have entered into their schemes and policies. No, it is rather the soil which covers the bones of dreamers and visionaries that is sacred yet, prophets and poets, artists and musicians, those who have seen through life to beauty, and have lived and suffered that they might inspire and tranquillise human hearts.

[....] the hours we spend in fear, in sending the mind in weariness along the desolate track, are merely wasted, for we can alter nothing so. We use life best when we live it eagerly, exulting in its fulness and its significance, casting ourselves into strong relations with others, drinking in beauty, making high music in our hearts. There is an abundance of awe in the experiences through which we pass, awe at the greatness of the vision, at the vastness of the design, as it embraces and enfolds our weakness. But we are inside it all, an integral and indestructible part of it; and the shadow of fear falls when we doubt this, when we dread being overlooked or disregarded....

*   *   *

Three years ago I wrote this post about ACB's strange and supernatural stories. What, this week, could be more exciting than finding the same author wrote a study about fear?

Where No Fear Was: A Book About Fear did not turn out to be the royal road to understanding what motivates a man like Benson to write horror. But it is an impressive example of the depths of human sympathy that a writer achieved and was gracious enough to share with his readers. 

More than just the "brother of the author of Dodo," ACB was a consequential educator, scholar, and artist.


4 October 2022

No comments:

Post a Comment