Sunday, February 6, 2011

Reflections: The Banality of Fear

Yesterday I posted some thoughts of the religious writer, Caryll Houselander, on the subject of existential fear. Today I am going to share some words, from his novel The MacGuffin, by contemporary writer of fiction, Stanley Elkin. I found these passages—upon reading them this morning—to be expressive of the kind of pervasive, low-volume, fear with which most of us live our day-to-day lives. Hannah Arendt, an acolyte of the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger, famously coined the term “the banality of evil.” I have found Stanley Elkin to be a master at writing about the banality of fear. I was struck by the coincidence of Houselander’s use of the medical reception room as a locus of our fear in the excerpt from The Reed of God which I posted yesterday, and Elkin’s portrayal of the tailor shop dressing room in which his character, Druff, finds himself as “vaguely medical.” Druff is suffused with a kind of underlying fear, or paranoia, which flavors his every thought, as we follow him through his day in this novel:

xxx“Better try it on, “ the salesman said, “before my tailor goes to lunch.”
xxxDruff following him to the tiny, flimsily contained dressing room with its hard little bench, shallow as a bookshelf, where the man handed over Druffs purchase and left him, the venue suddenly, subtly shifted, vaguely medical now, as though Druff had been called in for devastating examinations, something unforeseen popped up in the blood, the stool. (And this, well, aura, too, like a stall in the gents’ in a restaurant. Something he couldn’t think of as private property, yet understood—from his jacket on the hook on the wall there, like some flag slammed into enemy terrain in a battle—to be his as surely as if blood had been spilled for it, the front lines of the personal here, hallowed ground for sure, if only because of the men who’d occupied it before him, but not so hallowed he didn’t resent them, their collective spoor and lingering flatulence.)

Amazing how closely Elkin’s words echo Houselander’s there.

Druff’s fears are summed up as follows:

xxxDruff’s suit, as his heart had known in advance, did not look good on him. It didn’t. (Druff humiliated by his hologram in the three-way mirror, the comings and goings of his balding, frailing self like a body knocked down on an auction block, going going gone. His image there telling as a CAT scan—of shabby old mortality and downscale being.

Again, the parallels with the passages from Houselander are striking. This is the human condition. And it is the universal human project—the vocation of each individual human lifetime—to learn how to overcome the banality of this existence, as endured in somnambulant passivity.