February 04, 2006

On Fear IV: Fear and Arts

Another thing that discriminates humans from animals is our awareness of the fact of our inevitable death. Moreover, to the reckoning of many philosophers, the knowledge of the unavoidability of our own death is what makes us humans. In his work Biology and Medicine Mechnikov wrote: all animals avoid death instinctively, without realizing it. Babies and children avoid death based on the same principle, until they later become conscious of the inevitability of their own death, which should be attributed to the outstanding development of human mind. Mechnikov argued that the Fear of death has always been ‘one of the greatest worries for men’ and being aware of death, many people couldn’t live a full life. Mechnikov saw a solution in creating a science that would on one hand help prolong people’s lives and on the other hand – help people realise the naturalness of death, thus making people more at peace with the idea of death and stop fearing it so desperately. At the end of his life Mechnikov created a study of orthobiosis – the kind of life that offers calm and peaceful old age in continuation of an active and busy life, thus helping people feel overwhelmed (even surfeited) with life and welcome death more willingly.

Many scientists argue that the basis of human worry lays in the effect of anticipation. Only humans can fear something that’s not happening or has never happened to them before. Moreover, humans seem to have proved that the intensity of Fear they experience during the anticipation is higher than the intensity of Fear during the actual moment of facing the troubling event (e.g. death).

Fear and Art

The Fear of the unknown and the Fear of death, according to a number of historians and art critics, have always served as the two major propellers of creation and art. Oddly enough, the most common therapy in treating children’s neurosis occurring on the ground of fear is the method of gradual de-sensibilization and the method of ‘drawing fears’. The former involves exposing children to their Fears by making them confront their Fears from the least worrying to the most troubling and scary ones, but only by the means of a dramatised game (e.g. using children’s stories starring scary characters). That raises the question of whether theatre, drama, cinema, opera and ballet are essentially de-sensibilizations for the grown-ups. ‘Drawing fears’, as psychologists reckon, does not deepen the effect of the source of Fear, but quite the opposite, – reduces the sense of worry related to the anticipation of the fearful object. In drawing one’s fears one is led to believe that the horror has already taken place, hence there is little left unknown or to be uncertain about.

Jose Ortega y Gasset assumes that the entirety of human culture and art has essentially been created to help us overcome the Fear of death. Of course, at the current stage of development of human society, death is no longer the only Fear we have, and thus the art now represents our moral and social Fears as well. In all art forms, we try to ‘tell our hearts’, in other words, we try to get rid of our Fears and worries. Worries that are related to the Fear of the unknown, the Fear of death and loneliness can be reduced by reproducing them in arts and confronting them in this form.

Nota Bene.

The reason I chose to translate this piece of work is because of my own curiosity and my desire to understand and analyze fear. The original work is available on link and belongs to the NTV (Independent Television, Russia). This text is a transcript from a television show called Gordon (by the name of the presenter) that used to be quite popular and aired late at night. It has other interesting transcripts talking about all kinds of random things from Stalin to Heretics. In translating this piece I have cut out some bits that were overly scientific and frankly beyond my understanding. I have also intentionally failed to convey the overly patriotic sound of this work. On a number of occasions this work has argued the originality of some theories and methods, claiming they had been discovered by Soviet scientists, stolen and/or plagiarised by the western scientists. I did not do this translation for justice’s sake, hence I chose not to mention the roots of theories and methods altogether. Also, I have not been paying much attention to back-translating names of the western scientists, because they were not important to me. The only name I can be sure of is that of Jose Ortega y Gasset. My views on the subject of fear may differ from that of the one presented by the original text.


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