Tag Archives: fear

Fear is the Crisis

For many years now, my conviction has been that the great undeveloped area of human education is a suitable understanding and appreciation of human nature, especially commonalities of the mind—the ways in which we habitually think, and what each of these patterns is suited to do, or ill-suited to do.

One consistent challenge is the persistent underestimation of our primate inheritance.

This was assuredly promoted by indoctrinated human exceptionalism. I presume it was exacerbated by entrenched culture that rates the verbal, and the conscious, far above nonverbal and unconscious aspects which come to us from other animals. Consider our silly expectations to rule over more direct sources of habit by mere assertions of intent to change them.

In a nutshell, humans became far too convinced of special status apart from nature—even a power above their own human nature—by virtue of talking. Now, this means more than an appreciation of our having language, which sets us apart. Our talking about things gives us the power to talk at some distance from concrete matters (abstraction), and to talk around things, for we human beings often talk with detachment from phenomena apparent to the senses or the psyche. This has left us—and our ancestors—able to pontificate or freely wish, instead of remaining tethered to phenomenal realities. We “talk our way into” flattering, unlikely, even impossible notions. This is also how our inquisitive ancestors could have missed the obvious about themselves and their origins for so long. It left them able to spin their own rather preposterous stories, talking their way into a divine origin in which we are separate from the mammals and primates we ostensibly resemble in so many respects. Today, talking willfully above the anthropological facts, which are by now carefully-described, allows many people to ignore them, still.

Essentially, all our “human” emotions are shared with primates, as are many other behavioral routines, like political cliques, reading faces and cue-taking within social groups. To start looking for ethological parallels in earnest is to find thousands, and soon realize that the differences comprise exceptions (albeit important ones). Yet the majority of human beings alive on Earth in the 21st century either flout what evolutionary science says about the descent of Man and dispute their relation to the primate mind and brain, or scarcely think of it.

In my view, denial or neglect of our evolutionary mind—the common failure to reckon with the available knowledge, and better explore it—is the incomparable and potentially fatal error of the modern age, which endlessly gets in the way of much else that needs doing. Misunderstanding oneself will wreck every attempt at social change, every time.

Recent hysteria over this year’s coronavirus reminds me of the same lesson that hysteria over “terrorism” did, not so long ago. A strong case can be made for a more specific contention than the above, that the biggest problem of all is not connecting our primate aversion, fear, and panic to our Homo sapiens information-gathering.

In order for those three feelings and deep mental grooves to become useful assets, we must practice feeling them when deserved, and work to maintain perspective. Otherwise they are not only woefully inadequate to navigating in a world more complicated than the environments in which the hominids or hominins evolved, or the Paleolithic in which the genus Homo evolved; they represent active disadvantages instead of adaptive tools of survival.

Ill-placed fears misdirect resources on a grand scale, and make people easy prey for fearmongers. People fear “terrorists” they will never encounter, while they ignore the politicians and bureaucrats who regularly take their property, or the warmongers who endanger their lives in conflicts fueled by unnecessary hostility. It’s worth remembering, in the context of a pandemic, first that “experts” are human and aren’t immune to feeling fear, and second that appealing to fear can pay off for scientists seeking the lifeblood of their labs and careers: grant money. There are professional incentives for accuracy in science, but there are also incentives for alarmism, particularly in politicized fields that depend on public funding (such as ecology, climate, energy, or pandemic vaccines).

Aversion prohibits seeking advantages because they smell different in some sense, seeming alien or foreign. I would file under this the mistrust of infectious people wearing masks to protect others from coughs and sneezes, a typical, considerate east-Asian practice, widely unaccepted in countries like the United States. But exclusion of people based on aversion towards difference is pervasive and peculiar. During my adult lifetime, I’ve frequently encountered people who were suspicious or hostile towards my wearing black clothing, either because their cultural subgroup wouldn’t, or because of incompetent threat identification based on a hysterical media overreaction to a single incident (the Columbine massacre).

Panic manufactures crises where none exist, or deals with a manageable crisis desperately. Both become more and more dangerous with the accretion of technologies that enable people to do things like communicate hysterical exchanges instantly around the world, or cause accidental nuclear winter if war breaks out between powerful rulers.

A good argument can be made that an ongoing failure to modify our instincts for fear using our capacity for knowledge is the salient cultural immaturity squarely in the way of human potential. I would certainly argue that it’s at least the greatest remaining threat to human beings, who show undeniable ability to navigate and manipulate their external environments, societies, and cultures, except when change requires improved navigation of their inner, psychological environments, also.

Because of the powerful gravity those mental grooves exert, and the general boredom with a modern life characterized by anomie (alienation by mismatched values or lack of values) instead of by participation in life and points of connection, we are drawn to dramatic and apocalyptic conclusions, even if they are illogical or untested.

But if anything kills off the human race, it will almost certainly stem from fear or panic reactions that are uninformed, or do not care about gathering useful information. It won’t come from outside; it will come from inside. The older aspects of mind are more powerful than the newer, and in a perceived crisis, the mind defaults to vertebrate or mammalian routines that predate us by a great many millions of years.

Back to this year’s coronavirus pandemic. I’ve recently observed otherwise-reasonable people who conspicuously lack any knowledge of respiratory disease express shock that the coronavirus is “airborne“, as though every cold or influenza virus does not spread through tiny coughed or sneezed droplets of mucous or saliva in the air. They have no doubt heard this as children, but forget it now. (We have already answered why they forget it.)

No more than casual reading about cold and flu season will also tell them that it’s typical for far more people to die from complications of respiratory infections during a typical season than have so-far succumbed to the recent coronavirus.

Or that the usual pattern of respiratory infections is that elderly people (and those with pre-existing cardiac, lung, and immune risk factors) are the most at-risk of fatality. Yet I have seen expressions of shock and suspicion upon discovering that this coronavirus is doing precisely what one ought to expect, at least one aware of a basic fact of human mortality: old and sick people have frequently been killed by respiratory diseases in history, and continue to be killed disproportionately.

Unfortunately this is normal and natural, not evidence of the end of the world, or a conspiracy theory about the virus, or of mismanagement. If anything, we ought really to be grateful for the unnatural progress made in reducing millions of viral and bacterial pneumonia deaths to thousands, thanks to sanitation, vaccinations, and especially, antibiotics.

I have even seen alarm at hearing that this virus may be “mutating.” Well, yes; viruses normally mutate.

None of this potential application of sense to fear I’ve mentioned so far requires sophisticated understanding of epidemiology, virology, or immunology, but of course that could be beneficial. For example, it’s helpful to know that counting severe cases of respiratory disease tends to inflate estimated fatality ratio, because asymptomatic carriers and those with mild symptoms have no reason to seek medical attention (and be counted).

Another example of specific knowledge: knowing about the much more dangerous phenomenon of a disease causing cytokine storm puts the recent coronavirus into perspective. Cytokine storm turns a healthy immune system against the host, and that means that the young are much more likely to die than from a typical respiratory disease that primarily kills the elderly. This is probably one reason the so-called Spanish flu of 1918, caused by H1N1 influenza, was unusually dangerous to young populations, not just the old or sick (another being soldiers and refugees having been packed together in unsanitary, insalubrious conditions). Greater frequency* of this hyper-inflammatory reaction in cases is also thought to be the reason why the SARS outbreak of 2003 (caused by a different bat coronavirus) was a more dangerous infection to acquire than the coronavirus causing the pandemic of 2020. It would be more reasonable for the healthy people under 50 who are currently afraid of the coronavirus to be afraid of catching a flu more likely* to cause cytokine storm, like the H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic that already happened in 2009, or H5N1 (“avian flu”).

The most ludicrous conspiracy theories and accusations out there—those self-contradictory tales of an engineered bioweapon (inexplicably far less deadly than WWII-era bioweapons), of plots to cull humanity so devious they are publicly discussed, of genetic modification to cross coronavirus with HIV fueled by a withdrawn preliminary paper and attempts at antiviral treatment, and the like—are certainly the work of paranoiac mental illnesses. They attract believers already experiencing paranoia and seeking the delusions to fit—the means to rationalize their existing neurogenic experiences—including believers who suffer from bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Like superstitions that perform a similar role, paranoid delusions are confirmed by frenzied apophenia and never to be questioned, much less disproven.

But it would miss the larger point to separate the crazy reaction to a perceived threat from the fearful reactions of sane people, as though one were irrational and the other rational. The former is simply the delusional reaction instead of the suggestible. Both routines may resist being challenged by facts or contrary information, and stubbornly resort to hostility in defense of an assertion. Although this is all the more likely in support of a paranoid delusion, it is a defensive reaction, ego- and turf-driven, that we are all familiar with. One kind of reaction represents the deep end of fear instead of the shallow, but both sorts represent fear being rationalized after the fact, instead of being driven by facts. The exaggerated pathology of the mind blurs into a much more common misdirection of mental labors. These belong on a continuum, and are not opposites, due to the universal primate propensity for anxiety with or without cause.

Fear is human, not anomalous. Its origin is internal—psychological—not external to our person, in some “fearful threat” outside ourselves. We cannot rid ourselves of reflexive fear by projecting it onto a culprit. We must own it, or we shall be possessed.

 

* Edited 3-21 to clarify this may be a relative distinction, not an absolute distinction. I have now seen some mention in ongoing research suggesting that cytokine storm syndrome might develop in some of the severe COVID-19 cases; previously and at the time of writing, it had seemed there were no cases. If this new picture turns out to be accurate, cytokine storm remains an unusual complication in a subgroup among severe cases, and not a typical immune response. Reactions to virus depend on individual immune systems and are not generic.

 

Excerpt: Soulless Faces and Dread Urges

Here is a Constellation of Man preview taken from recent drafts, just a bit late for Halloween. It illustrates a technique I mentioned in August: developing the subjects I have in mind by intuitive branching from an arresting cluster of imagery, instead of organizing material by topic. Aspects of the human face were the starting point for this part, and a few others. It’s a better way to sort out voluminous material than filling out one abstraction after another, like “human nature.” A compelling journey follows the most memorable lines.
—CPB


To look into human eyes, and see no liveliness, no awareness, or no cleverness there, can unsettle or scare like a nightmare.

So can seeing no recognition, or no empathy. We shiver at a familiar face who suddenly does not act familiarly toward us. We feel as though we have met an impostor or a stranger in their skin, or a perfect copy. Feeling betrayed, we wonder if we have ever known them.

Even provided with a temporary explanation, such as hunger, exhaustion, despair, or catatonia or frenzy induced by an illness or a drug, we get an uncanny feeling from someone we expected to know.

Dread of the soulless, or fear of the automaton following reflexes and instincts, are among the most gripping unconscious fears to have, whether they concern society that surrounds, or reflect a fragile personhood which is contingent—subject to chance and circumstance—or terribly hollow, after all.

What elicits fear in an abject form will suffice to cause anxiety in a moderated form. The same reactions continue to be important and instructive as they commonly occur, not only in rare intensity.

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Dante running from the Three Beasts, illustration for Dante’s Inferno by William Blake, 1824-27.

Consider the great and historic fear of instinct. This is the tension engendered by pretending that men and women, girls and boys are not also animals, whose “ignoble” needs, demands, and urges are not unlike those of other omnivorous, sexual, territorial, social mammals. It is a consequence of maintaining a dichotomy between those instincts and “noble” characteristics unique to humanity, scarcely to imagine that one provisions the other.

The ideologues who severed values for socialized Man from his animal nature no doubt discovered ugliness—the genuine ugliness of stifled, cornered, agitated perversions of instincts, which corrupt refined and civil qualities of mankind. Yet the evidence must have confirmed their culprit, and the moralists redoubled efforts to separate the “spiritual,” human creations and divine experiences, from mortal flesh and base desires that distract.

Those who do not permit primal invigoration make themselves the most vulnerable to frightful instincts. Consider too the ordinary jeopardies of those who do, but insist that sublimations of instinct must shed the bestial, primitive, or irrational character of the source. Perhaps that means they eschew visceral qualities, or disallow sexuality, or emotional honesty, or strangeness. Perhaps they inhibit spontaneity, like an artist who expects to produce inspirations on a schedule.

Even some ferocity might need release in order to move flesh and blood behind the head’s enterprise—or to ever embrace a calling. It is certainly not unusual for acceptable aspirations to be tame, or pursuit of them timid. These are among the old and traditional solutions to that “civilized” ugliness, blamed on vigorous desire.

To refine instincts to the point of thwarting them produces dissatisfactory results, and confounds expectations of pressing them into safe and civilized service, as predictably as forbidding instinct to exist makes it monstrous.

Fear is perpetual among the effete, who are forever chased by denied beasts, and the darkness of a savage past. The modern human looks back, and sees the shadow of an animal behind him, and cannot bear it. Something comes too close. Something bares its teeth. Something creeps along the edges. Escape is hopeless. Wherever Man goes, a creature follows. He is evolutionarily preceded.

Instead the usual man enacts, and he projects. He calls others hostile, possessive, or irrational, and he is afraid of them. He curses the “dark side” of the human race. He has reason to feel anxious in his own company. Some furtive, disallowed compulsion really might catch up, and spoil expectations.

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They Live, written and directed by John Carpenter, 1988.

Consider also the apprehension felt over social conditioning. This is the inherent tension between natural and personal inclinations, and social systems aggregated over the years under various constrictive plans to use individuals.

Social institutions are organized for these designs at the expense of an antithetical vision of how civilization should pass its torch to the next generation: by fostering each person to enable their natural gifts and sustain their expression. Any practicable system is most likely to have to grant some latitude and support, in addition to directing abilities. Few institutions have managed to radically replace and subsume initiative, even briefly. Pragmatic ambitions to utilize a collective depend on cross-purposes: on providing some education worthy of individuals, and indoctrinating them in some mass-produced worldview; on letting them go their own way, and drafting them to serve nominally greater things.

To impose goals, social systems must be intolerant of the diversity present in each new generation of individuals, and antagonistic to realistic inferences of human nature and personal nature, able to raise objections. Any yoke draws attention to itself, but especially by subjugating contrary individuals.

Oppressive means of social control have provoked creative resistance as well as paralysis, including depiction in art, articulation in dystopian fiction (or—in obscured allegories—certain tales of horror), and liberal theories in political philosophy, economics, and other social sciences. More frustration and antipathy has been misdirected to blame or attack every sort of prominent, contemporaneous target.

Even those prepared to conform and not to understand why feel an unconscious unease, at least. Those who are gradually going down in the whirlpool remain too quiet in their desperation. Unable to resist the pull, unable to admit they are losing freedom, spontaneity, and individuality, they are loath even to speak of the threat instead of a more ordinary or narrow complaint, lest anyone think ill of them. They keep smiling, and acting as they should. Unconscious recognition of their plight keeps them twisted up, underneath.

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Happy by Laurie Lipton, 2015

Dread and angst have found their way into lore, set into one story formula after another. Preoccupations in culture would give signs of the times to anyone able to decode, for examples:

  • Medieval revenants (from French revenir, Latin revenire, to come back). They return from death as blood-suffused corpses or ghosts to terrorize the living, usually those they once knew.
  • Masses of these, called mindless zombies. Hungry like starved animals, they want to devour the brains of individuated human beings.
  • Takeovers by automation. First, factory machines threaten jobs. Then robots do, and then computers. Finally, androids threaten to resemble, and artificial intelligences threaten to displace Man.
  • Aliens. Shaped like men, but generic and lacking human sympathies, they abduct the powerless.
  • The apocalypse of callous or thoughtless invaders. Brought about by an alien, robotic, or undead army, the end of the world is not just imagination, but metaphor.

As though the unconscious warns through personal and cultural stories, those who do not live as they could—or have a sense they should—put unconscious fears into metaphors.

Articulated thought may succumb to rationalization, and remain out of touch with the rest of our organism. The greater domains of the unconscious mind beware wretched social regimentation. They know torment by the socialization of instincts managed by suppression rather than acknowledgment. They even take the pulse of automata within—the psychic automatism that contrasts often with avowed decisions and self-image. So it is that:

We are confronted by robots. We are threatened by the rise of machines.

We who fear for our individuality could join the shambling dead.

We who fear for our humanity could become just as pitiless as monsters driven by appetite, or just as devoid of thought as their instinct to kill.

Those come out in nightmares, waking imagery, and stories—unreconciled feelings cast out into the world, like the fears projected onto other things and other people. Recycled into symbols, compounded with other symbols, buried under details added to superstitions and fiction, repeated warnings go unrecognized.

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H.R. Giger built a human skull into the face of the phallic Xenomorph featured in the film Alien.

The psychological significance of horror is readily eclipsed by entertainment when its form of expression becomes a public story told for melodrama and pet scares—the thrills of an apocalypse safely not occurring, a monster safely not under the bed. Many can claim horror as a matter of familiarity without resolving it. Depicted horrors—monstrosities, abominations, dying, gore, and even torture—become unaffecting horrors. Sincere fears remain, unmoved.

Part of the enjoyment of the genre has been comfortable distancing—dissolving empathy with menaced characters who feel fright, agony, or powerlessness. Managing to resist emotion identification with their situations can yield a pleasurable sense of control. Stereotypical or unlikeable characters actually contribute to the appeal of performed horror, because this excuses schadenfreude, and permits the viewer to laugh at them without remorse.

The escapist audience knows they have nothing to fear from any monster shown to them. All the more if they take for granted that the real terror sleeps even closer than under the bed—a monster of exaggerated passions and urges. This is the devil inside who mobilizes darkly-regarded, repressed instincts.

It is not untrue that the faces of anger, arousal, hunger, and defensiveness perch on unsettling thresholds. The threat of the liminal expressions is that we could find ourselves looking into contortions instead of a familiar face. In their ultimacy—rage, lust, ravenousness, and panic—these faces of human nature do not reason, or show mercy. They are single-minded. They do not care about anything else. More than coarse or rough, these turn savage. More than moods, these are like personalities—and not our own, we feel assured. They are disowned people.

Yet each and every human being can transform or be transformed by desperate need, or under duress, or by psychoactive effects including drunkenness, like Jekyll’s potion to bring out Hyde. Upon witnessing this universal susceptibility in their own experience, each human being usually fails to accept it.

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Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, 1931.

The visceral and primal deserve respect lest they become troublesome or dangerous. That is possible if the teachings of culture permit a sanguine interpretation of natural instincts. But the base and vile can only be cast out and destroyed, instead. No organism could ever do that to intrinsic parts of its nature. Many who have lived have learned from moral teachings to expect the impossible from themselves, and specifically to deprecate and banish the roots of disturbances, and to feel guilty when they fail.

Therefore, they have long told story after story commemorating their unsettlement. It has never been uncommon for figments from these stories to take on suggestible reality, because they allowed confessions, of an evasive sort, that were intensely desired. In much the same way that a criminal or a survivor plagued by guilt might see a ghost they had been told about, a superstitious man, woman, or child suffering from a repressed, now-fearsome “shadow” might become convinced they were stalked by a real monster.

Consider the recurrence of folklore across time and place describing some humanoid form, some dead, some not, ravenous for blood or flesh, and often identified with viscera, including the heart. These were creatures with the sympathies and kindness of a demonic enemy of the living, as though possessed by bestial hunger—the vampire’s bite—and rage, and in some incarnations, lustful and beguiling also, like a succubus or incubus.

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Title page from a 1734 “Treatise on the chewing and smacking of the dead in graves, in which the true makeup of the Hungarian vampyrs and blood-suckers is shown” by Michael Ranft. This references a posthumous (and pre-Freudian) oral fixation: reported cases of corpses continuing to masticate after burial, biting coffin linen or their own arms.

As late as the eighteenth century, officials in Eastern Europe were obliged to formally investigate cases of supposed vampires in order to quell rural panics. In some areas, corpses were staked until the twentieth. Modern-era fiction made this trite, losing its significance. Confront it as a close, physical reality: some unspoken, desperate terror linked to vampires was great enough for mourners of recently passed loved ones to impale their bodies. That is no small fear at all. It is not to be rationalized as hysteria over a superstition that was never real, and must instead find explanation in grave, yet incorporeal matters.

The legend by many names speaks to the fear of losing one’s human qualities to appetites, like the vampire and its victims do, losing personality and losing control.

These stories might remember fears of the uncontrollable hunger of the starving, in particular. What the uncontrollable bite can do even includes cannibalism, during famines. Prosperity elsewhere and since led to forgetting what starving people have seen themselves or others do. (Modern people who can generally eat whenever they want get only the slightest of reminders of what they are capable of from the passing viciousness of hypoglycemia.) Unforgettable transformations for desperate survival are hardly to be reconciled afterward, felt to be worse than death.

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Necronom II by Hans Rüdi Giger, 1976.

They sum up alarm at recognizing primitive nature, for having witnessed it: We could be monsters inside. That is, nothing but a beast, when cornered, or famished, or insatiable. The life-force of blood† and viscera; the sex of rape; the ingestion that devours other life without pause—our nature can be reduced to these by severe circumstances.

But it is still more frightening to contemplate if it could happen capriciously, through temptations, which guilt both anticipates, and follows—and which attempted suppression of desire actually intensifies. One succumbs, obedient and bloodless.

Old vampire stories reflect acute fear of the sexual urges which might lead to transgression of taboos, or moral norms of the community, and even fear of consequences for violating religious dictates. It was said in various traditions that numerous different transgressions (such as sex out of wedlock, or improper burial rituals) could produce a vampire, even before death.

The vampire turns soulless (absent from the mirror, in the modern telling) because it is bestial, and therefore, deemed inhuman. It is also a demon: the vengeance of an unacceptable impulse sent down. Suppressed instinct, moralized, socialized, does not go away, as it is told. Damned nature comes back as perversion and hate—that is all a revenant has left. Having been marked as evil, instinct can manifest in no other way.

The vampire trope also points to an alternate, timeless referent which is not universal human nature, but contributes to its blameworthy image. There is a recurring cultural warning about psychopathic characters who lack empathy for others and enjoy tricking, manipulating, and corrupting them. It is easier to express that warning in stories and accept them as inhuman monsters, than to admit they are living among other people in society, as brother, sister, friend, or lover in bed. Like an evil impostor of a familiar face, they pretend affinity until it does not suit them.

 


† As usual, frequent mutation of storytelling complicates tracing a continual meaning of symbolism. Compare with the considerable positivity of emphasis on ‘eternal life’ through curse/gift of blood in modern versions of the story, surely inspired by the gift of eternal life through blood of Christ. In some treatments the curse of blood does not even place the soul (personality) at risk; it is almost entirely a gift of supernatural powers.

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