Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

A history of Fear. Professor Joanna Bourke in interview

“In the words of Archdeacon R.H.Charles in 1931, science may have ‘exposed many superstitions of the dark ages and laid bare the falsity of the religious and secular magic of the past and present, yet in their stead it has introduced legions of new alarms that beset our lives from the cradle to the grave'” – Fear: A Cultural History by Professor Joanna Bourke [pg5]

In 1862 Duchenne de Boulogne, a pioneering French neurophysiologist, published a book, The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression. A remarkable study, where he took the face of an old man, anaesthetised, and through electrocution sought to reproduce various emotions. With various muscles contracted, the emotional portrait of fear that he produced and photographed is as striking as it was thought provoking. According to Duchenne the face reflected directly the emotions (thus a wicked face is indicative of a wicked character). At the same time Darwin was putting forth his arguments for evolution and the ‘principles of expression’, and argued that the face of fear had physical attributes beneficial to survival (the eyes open widely with eyebrows raised, enabling the subject to view all around quickly). Professor Joanna Bourke, in her latest book, Fear: A Cultural History, uses this debate as her introduction to a vast subject, pointing out that while the experts could agree on what the face of fear looks like, they didn’t give us any greater understanding of what fear actually is, and what results from it.

One could imagine that the idea for this fascinating study came somehow through an observation of our post 9/11 world, but the inspiration was more historical. “It was supposed to be a history of emotions more generally: fear, anger, hatred, jealously, love, and so on”, eplains Bourke, who is a lecturer in History at Birkbeck College, London. “The reason for my interest in the history of emotions grew out of an uneasiness with some of my earlier books, which looked at some of the most traumatic moments in modern history through a distinctly dispassionate eye. I had spent a decade reading the letters and diaries of men and women in or near the front lines in war, and yet had failed to really address the issue of emotion. It was a flaw, I believed, that was shared by most other history books I was reading. Historians love to talk about rationale responses and ‘moral economies’ and causality – and are less comfortable with irrationality, a characteristic often given to emotions.”

The book examines the predominant fears experienced and documented in Britain and the United States (also taking in Ireland and Australia), over the past 150 years. Starting in the 1860s with Duchenne de Boulogne’s experiments and finishing up to date with reflections on the ‘war on terror’, the book is a mine of thought-provoking episodes. The chronological approach has allowed Bourke a perspective to suggest fascinating contrasts between the fears that dominated 19th century society and our own: “In the nineteenth century, – says Bourke, giving an example, – fears relating to imminent death were intimately connected to fears about any possible afterlife and related to anxiety about the accurate diagnosis of death (in other words, leading to premature burial). In contrast, in the contemporary world, we are much more likely to be worried about being wrongly obliged to stay alive (denied the opportunity to ‘die with dignity’). Medical personnel, rather than clerics, increasingly preside over death’s terrors. Current debates about euthanasia and assisted deaths are related to these shifts.”

To what extent can Fear: A Cultural History be seen as a companion piece to her earlier books? “To some degree, the Fear book is a companion piece to An Intimate History of Killing. One of the criticisms I faced when the earlier book came out was that I had placed too much emphasis on the pleasures of wartime killing – the glee, excitement, and sheer exhilaration that many combatants expressed just after brutal slaughter. To some extent, I accepted this criticism – my defence being that a book before An Intimate History of Killing had dealt explicitly with the horrors of war (the title of this earlier book tells it all: Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain, and the Great War). Nevertheless, the Fear book is much more than a ‘companion piece’: only three of the eleven chapters are about wartime societies. The Fear book also addresses topics as varied as phobias, fear of God and death, nightmares, children’s worries, sickness, crime, and terrorism.”


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