Fear, Musings



Originally posted on May 2, 2009 on PEN American Center's blog


What are you afraid of these days? Swine flu and Mexican drug cartels. Pirates. Terrorists.


Unemployment. Salmonella poisoning. ID theft. Plane crashes. Failure.


And also, perhaps, writer's block. Spiders. Computer crashes. Pens in the washing machine. Crane collapses. A bad trip.


hat nobody reads your blog posts.


"Dear God, if you burn people in fire, what's the difference between you and the Devil?" Paul LaFarge pulled that quote from Saadawi's piece in PEN America 10. Danticat's itemization of things feared, delivered by an eloquent Patricia Spears Jones, elicited giggles and nods of agreement from the audience. After selections from PEN America Wayne Kostenbaum swooped in with his radio-ready voice and delighted the audience with outstanding interpretations of fear-themed writings, notably imprisoned Burmese poet Saw Wei's "February Fourteenth."


Kudos to the event organizers for mixing it up. After 30-ish minutes of readings a panel, consisting of Amitya Kumar, Jeffrey Lependorf, Colum McCann, and Anya Ulinich, sat down for a klatch on the role fear plays their work and in the works of artists in general.


Does fear initiate good art? McCann asked this question, and it's a good friggin' question. It reminded me of something I read about Henry Miller who suggested that experiences of poverty or dire straits or hard times (something like this) were essential if an author sincerely wished to grasp his deep emotional and psychological feelings, and that this act of reaching and self-discovery would provide sound, subliminal foundations of good story writing. Think of Tropic of Cancer...


So, can fear stand-in for Miller's destitution? The query lingered in the rhetorical realm. It may be a question that can only be answered on a case-by-case basis. Ulinich took an honest approach, noting that people of her generation have not experienced real fear and terror, and as such these emotions are not reflected in her (our, since we look to be the same age) generation, at least in this country. To quote:

"I actually feel kind of unqualified to talk about the topic of fear because, personally, [people of my generation] never had to feel real fear. Because I have never starved or lived in war-time my fears have all been sort of private. The biggest fear for people in the U.S. is the fear of your own moral failure...other than that, the fears are of disease and global warming, things that are out there but not after me daily."


Picking up on this idea of how abject fear and terror are alien to the American experience (we, unlike some, are not accustomed to bombings being an everyday occurrence), Lependorf wondered how the American artist dealt with this, for lack of better phrasing, lack of tension. "I think it's harder for us [Americans] to understand the kind of art-making that comes from real, abject terror," Lependorf mused. "Most of us haven't really experienced it. If anything the greatest fear might be in attempting to create political art and it having no effect whatsoever. There's probably a greater fear of that than the actual fears expressed in a lot of political art."


Fear is certainly not a pervasive emotion in this country, at least fears of the same phenomena. My parents, living in a quiet Midwestern town, do not experience and struggle with the same fleeting thoughts I must deal with daily in a crowded, rush hour subway car: Can I kick out that window if there is an explosion or gas released? Can I even get to that window? Get me the f*** outta here! Okay, good, here's my stop.


I was just in New Orleans. Walking around the markets, perusing the artwork of local artists, images that just don't occur in New York City street art-flooded squares, helicopter rescues-were pervasive in the Crescent City. You won't see the same images in Denver or Miami.


McCann fired another thoughtful zinger. An important narrative point of departure stems from our first memories. And those memories, McCann said, are often of a frightful event. Generally our first stories of early childhood are ones that intersect with the theme of fear, from something that happened to us. "The beginning of memory is almost the beginning of fear," he posited.


Running with McCann's idea... I wonder, in a generation will cutting edge, expressive art and literature blossom from a New Orleans (and Diaspora) population whose first memories are that of floating corpses, scorching rooftops, and the confusion of living in a country whose government watched them drown for three days?