This can hardly be improved upon as a description of our own world since March. It may not be clear what to call the Hitchcock movie we seem to have been plunged into — “Housebound” instead of “Spellbound”? Perhaps “The Man Who Knew Too Little?”
Yet the feeling of being immersed in one of Hitchcock’s movies can also induce a desire to watch them, or to consume anything comparably tense and dark and riveting. Friends of mine, from rural Wisconsin to the south of France, from Texas to Tel Aviv, have written to say that during the long coronavirus siege they have been devoting themselves to film noirs and classic Hitchcock and Clouzot thrillers, or to Poe and Kafka and Raymond Chandler stories.
In a small New England town, I’ve been doing the same. A tenet of homeopathic medicine is that “like cures like.” I’m not sure that’s true, but perhaps it can at least alleviate it (as, admittedly, can pure, carefree escapism, like the screwball comedies about mostly rich people during the Depression). The art of anxiety may deflect real-life anxiety and simultaneously put it into better focus. Anxiety involves a sharpening of the senses, a heightened awareness. In any kind of treacherous landscape, it helps us keep our balance and see what is hidden.
Like the news, Hitchcock’s movies and Franz Kafka’s stories are often about innocent people falsely accused of a crime or arbitrarily punished. “The Plague,” the suddenly timely and widely reread Albert Camus novel, is about the random executions carried out by the bubonic plague bacillus, which only makes manifest the inherent precariousness of human existence. “What does that mean — ‘plague’?” an old man says to the book’s narrator-hero, Dr. Rieux, toward the end. “Just life, no more than that.”
But art’s advantage over both plague and common predicament is that it is never “just life” — never really a mirror of life. It always gives us a potent intensification or distillation of some aspect of it: tragic, comic, elegiac, erotic or, in the case of the art of anxiety, a sense of disorientation and shadowy, intangible menace. These aren’t pleasant feelings, but any strong and pure distillation, even of fear, can intoxicate us. It can even enchant us. Around the age of 12, I was mesmerized by Edgar Allan Poe stories like “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” Children like scary stories. Hitchcock movies, film noirs and other thrillers, or the perennially popular horror genre inherited from Poe and Mary Shelley, bring us back to a half-forgotten but unconsciously persistent childhood perspective, which is one of being always a little lost, having to find our way in a sometimes perilous world full of unknown things and places and people, most of them much larger than ourselves, and featuring a regularly encroaching, scary nighttime darkness and solitude.
Suspense is both a form of anxiety and a form of enchantment, and it has always been essential to the storytelling arts. But it exists as well in music, which often relies on ominous chords and passages — the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for example — and even in a great painting or photograph, in the sense that there is more there than meets the eye, an archetypal or subliminal something that accounts for a work’s uncanny, hypnotic hold over us.
The power of suspense is a legacy of the long evolutionary and prehistorical periods of humanity, when everyone had to spend a lot of their time anticipating threats, sensing and dodging dangers, and generally being scared to death. Our remote ancestors were terrified of thunder, darkness, predatory animals, snakes, ghosts, sicknesses, strangers and nearby hostile tribes, along with earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and the rest of the catalogue of routine but unpredictable natural disasters.
Civilization has been largely about reducing risk and fear. That was its first excuse and sometimes its only one. The cultivation of staple crops and the domestication of animals that came with the agricultural revolution of about 10,000 years ago promised a more reliable food supply and gradually enabled large numbers of people to gather in relative safety in walled towns and the orderly ancient cities that gave us the word “civilization.” But with that word came new things to fear, such as empires, conquering armies, tyrants, taxes, serfdom, slavery, periodic famines due to crop failure and occasional plagues aggravated by urban crowding. Not to mention alarming metaphysical innovations like wrathful gods, devils and eternities of punishment.
Modern civilization, under the auspices of progress, has had similar mixed results in the department of fear and trembling. Some ancient terrors (endemic disease, frequent maternal and infant mortality, contaminated water supplies) were largely put to rest through scientific medicine and systematic hygiene, and through the large-scale technologies (industrial production, mechanized transportation, fertilizers) that eventually brought unprecedented levels of security, prosperity and material abundance to millions of people. But other menaces were made worse — bigger wars, for instance, and ever more lethal and apocalyptic weapons of war. There is the collateral damage to nature, too: According to a recent United Nations report, three-fourths of all land and two-thirds of the oceans have been severely affected by human activity. A million species may soon face extinction.
Our global megasprawl and its unintended consequences — overpopulation, pollution, gene-altering chemicals, climate change, accelerated pandemics — could eventually have much the same effect on the planet and its biosphere as a stray asteroid once did. This time, we may turn out to be the dinosaurs as well as the asteroid.
“I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature,” Edvard Munch said of his inspiration for “The Scream,” the 1893 painting that became the iconic image of what W.H. Auden would later call “The Age of Anxiety.” It’s the age when, it might be said, we have begun to fear ourselves — a recklessly expansive, hubristic version of ourselves. In movies like “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Strangers on a Train” and “The Wrong Man,” Hitchcock gives us an innocent character who discovers that she or he has a sinister double who has to be confronted and subdued. Anxiety is, in a sense, the discovery that what we fear is here, among us, after we have bolted the door.
Auden remarked that Kafka was to our age as Dante was to his, the Middle Ages: the supreme expression of its spirit. No wonder he became an adjective. “Kafkaesque” is the only precise word for the unappeasable ambiguities of a world of elusive, interlocking technologies and global economic systems susceptible to viruses that cross the planet in 10 hours on comfortable modern transportation and take possession of our public spaces without anyone noticing until it is too late.
Anxiety, when clinical, can be paralyzing and is something to be treated and diminished whenever possible. But sometimes we need to draw on the fundamental, existential anxiety that comes with the precipitous human condition. Anxiety is, as Kierkegaard said, “the dizziness of freedom.” It attends every major choice, every crossroads and new experience. It is inseparable from adventure, and from savoring and surviving it. The imaginative adventures provided by the great artists of anxiety may allow us not only to momentarily escape the anxiety being generated by the pandemic and by deep social and political divisions, but to find our way through it.