Saturday, October 29, 2011

How Does One Kill Fear?

"I sit down religiously every morning. I sit down for eight hours and the sitting down is all. In the course of that working day I write three sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair. Sometimes it takes all my resolution and power of self-control to refrain from butting my head against the wall. After such cries of despair I doze for hours still conscious that I am unable to write. Then I wake up, try again, and at last go to bed completely done up. In the morning I get up with that horror of the powerlessness...The ideas and words creep about my head and have to be caught and tortured into shape."

Now guess who said that?

No really guess.

Here I'll give you another clue worthy of Halloween:

"One evening coming in with a candle I was startled to hear him say a little tremulously, 'I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.' The light was within a foot of his eyes. I forced myself to murmur, 'Oh, nonsense!' and stood over him as if transfixed.

"Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn't touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror -- of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision -- he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:

"'The horror! The horror!'"

That's right. Joseph Conrad.

Conrad, the great British writer -- made greater in my mind by the fact that he didn't speak English fluently until he was in his twenties -- whose writing and language is so beautiful, so meticulously crafted and so magnificently descriptive, if not a bit thick (never try to speed-read Conrad), and who, with Kurtz's breathy cry, incited now over a century of debate about what exactly "the horror" is meant to signify, struggled with writing.

And he didn't just struggle with writing, but it frustrated him to the point he wanted to bash his head against a wall, he couldn't sleep for all the turmoil it caused him, and it was, at times, so frustrating that it was as enjoyable an experience as performing acts of torture. And yet from that torturous exercise comes such exquisite craft as this:

"Nothing easier than to say, Have no fear! Nothing more difficult. How does one kill fear, I wonder? How do you shoot a spectre through the heart, slash off its spectral head, take it by its spectral throat? It is an enterprise you rush into while you dream, and are glad to make your escape with wet hair and every limb shaking. The bullet is not run, the blade not forged, the man not born; even the winged words of truth drop at your feet like lumps of lead. You require for such a desperate encounter an enchanted and poisoned shaft dipped in a lie too subtle to be found on earth. An enterprise for a dream, my masters!"


The point is this: knowledge of Conrad's pain is comforting; at least now I know I'm in good company.

The above-quoted words of Conrad come from here here and here respectively.

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