Why we fear what we fear is a question that has long fascinated LJMU’s own David Tyrer. Coming from an interdisciplinary background, David studies the phenomenon of phobias from a cultural, historical, and sociological perspective. His studies range from the depiction of phobias in pieces of art, to the sociological use of the word as a byword for hatred- such as homophobia and xenophobia.
David opened his talk with a discussion of the history of phobias. Coming from the Greek for “fear”, the term was popularised during the 19th century with many being intrinsically connected to historical events. For example, the concept of claustrophobia and agoraphobia first materialise during the Franco-Prussian War – claustrophobia during the siege of Paris, and agoraphobia following the relief of the city.
As well as their relationship to historical events, David also detailed how phobias were used as political tools. With the modern classification of phobia occurring in 1871, the concepts then went under a medicalization during the fin de siècle with concerns over the metropolis and criminality, claustrophobia – for example – becoming a hatred of work. As the notion of the phobia became more popular – and politicized – over time they also became more contested and nebulous with new and arbitrary phobias being regularly invented by the media.
As our understanding of what constitutes a phobia begins to balloon, the fragile nature of just what a phobia is becomes more and more apparent. As phobias develop through something we cannot describe – namely a displacement of a sense of fear or unease around something, the phobia itself becomes shorthand for that displaced fear. Rather than describing this sense of unease, the phobia becomes that unease. Thus, phobia in itself is inescapably bound within language, whilst also lacking a definite definition.
Tailoring his examination of phobias to his literary audience, David then explored the portrayal of phobia in Patrick Süskind’s 1987 novella The Pigeon. The protagonist of the novella is Jonathan Noel – a 50 year old Parisian security guard of a bank, who undergoes a breakdown when he discovers a pigeon roosting in front of his apartment door. Following this unusual and unexplained fear of the pigeon, Jonathan Noel takes to the streets of Paris on an agoraphobic odyssey. His course through the city begins to take on an increasingly tragi-comic turn as his meticulously ordered life continues to unravel.
Focusing on a close reading of the novel, David discussed how the notion of phobia is encoded onto the actual text itself. The opening pages of the book consciously and knowingly invite a psychoanalytical reading for an explanation of Noel’s unusual reaction to the pigeon, but any reader who attempts this approach will find the absolute density of psychoanalytical tropes and clues to be in itself claustrophobic.
David then drew our attention to Süskind’s self-conscious construction of The Pigeon’s Paris as Freudian, reflecting Süskind’s own preoccupation with critical theory and modernity. Through drawing attention to how Süskind renders Paris as unhemileich, David demonstrated how the author knowingly invites these psychoanalytical readings. Once one begins to focus on these readings, the sheer volume of them makes a psychoanalytical reading in itself difficult to follow with numerous loose and dead ends. This incomprehensibility of a psychoanalytic reading reflects the discourse around phobias such as the indefinable nature of them, the seemingly arbitrariness of them, and their ever increasing proliferation.
Since giving this paper David Tyrer has been awarded a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship to continue his research on the politics and aesthetics of phobia.
Sam Caddick is a Research Masters student at LJMU, working on the fiction of Maud Diver.