Fear: a cultural history by Joanna Bourke

Frights, fights and flights
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The Independent Culture

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Fear is an emotion arising from the body's vulnerability. Things go bump in the night. Footsteps follow us on darkened streets. A siren blares. Lights flash in an inky sky. Smoke rises black from the top of a building. What we fear may vary: pain; mutilation; death. A premature burial in grave or bombed building; or hellfires hereafter.

But the body's response is the same. Or is it? "The heart pounds faster, pumping blood more rapidly to the arms and legs and brain, where the oxygen is needed. The lungs do their part by quickened breathing. Blood pressure goes up. Adrenaline, which is nature's own 'shot in the arm', is poured liberally into the blood to act as fuel." Cited by historian Joanna Bourke, this quotation comes from Psychology for the Fighting Man, a 1943 study which sold 380,000 copies. Its authors, EG Boring and Marforie Van de Water, keen to establish the expertise of their discipline within the wartime hierarchies, were concerned to show that fear was fuel for the human fighting machine.

Joanna Bourke, it seems, is keen to suggest that by taking over the language with which we describe and understand fear and its sometime partner anxiety, psychologists have changed the way we experience it. They have turned us into therapy bunnies who can cope with little except life in risk-free hutches with regular injections of post-traumatic stress talk - especially after the terrors of September 11 and the soon-to-come apocalypses of climate change and uncontainable viruses.

This is only one strand in a book which ranges so widely over its subject that it is sometimes difficult to discern quite what it is attempting to do. There is here a welter of fascinating, often contradictory, material, culled from a rich assortment of sources - anecdotal, archival, professional, arcanely theoretical. The last is used most often to carry on an argument with largely invisible contenders: to prove that the study of terror, its provocation and maintenance, is an appropriate vehicle for understanding history.

Not that Bourke goes back to antiquity to prod at the first millenarian terrors. Her cultural history, squarely British and American apart from its informing theoreticians, begins with the mid- to late-19th century and the poor man's fear of suffering a pauper's burial or the anatomist's knife. It ends with our current terrors: terrorists, Islam, science, environmental apocalypse, all in some measure scares abetted by propaganda and hyped by the media.

She looks at disasters, like the Chicago Iroquois Theatre fire in 1900 which incinerated 600, and the attendant panic, together with the explanations of crowd theorists like Gustave le Bon. Children, and the worries they provoke about their rearing, engage Bourke, as do nightmares, phobias and their contested cures. There is a section on the social hysteria occasioned by Orson Welles's radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds in 1938, which had middle America waiting for Martians to land and annihilate them, as well as on the lesser-known incident of Father Knox broadcasting from the barricades on BBC radio in 1926 - and its attendant panic.

Both broadcasts fell on ears all too primed for fear of aliens or revolutionaries. Deaf to genre, listeners allowed panic to set in. This problem of distinguishing the fictional from the real continues to beset cultures or groups schooled in the literal.

Bourke investigates the body and medical panics: the first about cancer in the 1950s, which had women too scared and shamed to go to their doctors; the second to do with HIV and homophobia in the 1980s. Surprisingly, she leaves out polio epidemics, perhaps because the case for the science establishment helping to coordinate scares cannot be made. Bourke does, however, trace the links between widespread fears of rape and feminist polemics, and focuses on child abuse, though little here equals Marina Warner's subtle explorations in her book No Go the Bogeyman.

The best parts of Bourke's compendium deal with the two world wars, both under the Blitz and on the front. Fear in battle signalled a need for "fight or flight". If neither was feasible, and passivity was enforced, as often happened in the trenches or to men far from action, various war neuroses were more likely to result.

Combat in itself produced responses which could not, according to the experts, be judged by peace-time standards. It was quite normal, Stephen W Ranson of the 7th Army Psychiatric Centre contended, for combatants to suffer "muscular tension, freezing, shaking and tremor, excessive perspiration, anorexia, nausea, abdominal distress, diarrhoea, urinary frequency, incontinence of urine or faeces, abnormal heartbeat", and so on. These were the autonomic response to fear in battle.

On the home front, it was not unusual for fear to be interpreted by individuals as a form of stimulus. The Blitz was exciting, the lights in the sky beautiful. The nuclear threat had none of these pleasures, though it did produce joy in collective protest.

Any history that brings such an accumulation of diverse sources to bear on its subject must be welcome, and Bourke is a tireless researcher. However, Fear has its frustrations. It's not always clear that Bourke has digested her material and is in control of where she wants to guide us. Though she wants us to question the political stage-management of scares, like the current fear of terrorism, the tone of the book sometimes feels flippant about the very emotions she sets out to explore.

The "Afterwords" to each section, in which she takes up methodological battles and questions of definition, are often opaque. And it seems odd to produce a chapter called "Emotionology" (ghastly word), when the history of the emotions has been accepted as far back as Norbert Elias on manners and Philippe Aries on childhood, let alone in the work of Theodore Zeldin.

It reads as if Bourke is so eager to engage with theory because she fears that someone will deny her permission to pursue a historical study of fear. She is equally intent on a battle with Freud, always a good passive agonist as he is safely dead.

She wants to contest his clear distinction between fear and anxiety. For Freud, the first requires a definite object while the second is a free-floating state of anticipating A danger which may be unknown. The notion she stresses, that groups do not behave like individuals and that history changes things, would hardly startle him.

She offers little to put in place of Freud's distinction, except the dubious idea that the prevalence of therapy has made America a more anxious nation than Britain. America is not Woody Allen - would that it were! This kind of generalisation, let alone reduction to a single cause, seems an odd procedure for a historian who has gathered together so many wonderful sources, if not sadly always to the best effect.

Lisa Appignanesi's most recent novel is 'The Memory Man' (Arcadia). Her book 'Freud's Women' (with John Forrester) will be reissued soon by Phoenix

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