Hiding Fear Behind Scientific Words

On how scientific terminology hides the feeling of dread in “The Assault of the Swaying Saber” from Henri Michaux’s “Life in the Folds”.


Fear is a state of anticipated pain.

Broken bones, broken friendships, broken dreams—so many kinds of pain can be anticipated, that it’s possible to rephrase every decision, conscious and not, as a decision made out of fear. I’ll take the longer path because I fear falling on the black ice coating the shorter path; I’ll tell my boss I’m well-suited to take on an important client (even if I’m not sure) because I fear projecting incompetence.

Worse, it’s often a choice between lesser fears: I fear starting a new hobby, because it’ll be time-consuming and difficult; I fear not starting a new hobby, because all my friends have one and I’ll stand out as the only klutz.

As a primal instinct, fear pertains to basic, life-threatening harm or physical pain, but we’ve built up a society where what’s “in your head” is often equally prominent. Accordingly, fictional characters reflect the whole gamut: between rapaciousness due to want and retreating due to fear you can summarise the motivational background of any character.

The stronger the fear, the more dramatic its consequences and the better the story. So how to write fear, transmitting it, not telling about it?

In The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes spends a paragraph addressing this issue. “The language of madness,” he says, “is not available to a man listening to fear rising within himself.” Such statements seem to oversimplify, as the complexities of madness and that of fear overlap, and each writer and reader has their own opinion about what this overlap means.

That said, some rules of prose have proven steadfast: bluster, blather, and a running whine are associated with passionate disorders of the mind such as shock, confusion, anger, madness; the reader readily recognises these states (and is meant to), even if the sufferers do not.

On the other end of the spectrum, coherent reasoning, sensible word choice, and measured cadence are the hallmarks of a stable character’s narrative; the reader sees them as such, sometimes against their better judgement. Banville’s protagonist in The Book of Evidence presents himself in controlled, cool language, yet he could be called a psychopath; Camus’ protagonist in The Stranger, likewise. Knut Hamsun’s starving writer in Hunger most convincingly fears starvation when he is rational about it; least convincingly, when he is feverishly running around, in turmoil.

So one way to write fear, rather than madness (or gross-out)—and transfer the fear to the reader—is by applying a collected, almost technical tone. How many of us would like to read a detailed, if fictional, description of endodontic therapy without anaesthetic? It doesn’t sound too painful until you learn that’s a root canal; I’d be surprised if something inside doesn’t tremor at the thought of arbitrary tooth-drilling. (It’s a horror-film staple.) The scientific terminology shields against reflexive revulsion in the first instance, but the imagination propagates for many instances after that. And the imagination excels at creating personalised nightmares.

Enter Michaux1. In the following excerpt I’ve underlined the words that show his level reasoning and his precise terminology.

There is also the lance raised against me, long, very long.

It tapers; if it didn’t, given that it’s over eight meters long, I don’t think it could be wielded even by six men together. Already at a meter from me, it is pointed as a hypodermic needle and it keeps tapering to such an extent that at fifty centimetres it’s already almost invisible. Thus, when it enters the body, fine as it is, but all the more penetrating for being so, it barely disturbs the nicely assembled layers of the different tissues. So you must not move, not in the slightest (but how not to?), and almost not even breathe. Then perhaps it will withdraw the way it entered, gently.

But woe to anyone who jumps in alarm. A dazzling pain then strikes your depths. A neuron, no doubt, a neuron spits out its electric suffering, a very memorable suffering.

(From The Assault of the Swaying Saber)

Last week I did a series of posts on individual texts discussing different fears—fear of fate, fear of change, and fear of pain—but none of those conveyed the sensation as vicariously as the Saber attempts to do. (Though it’s not unique: for example The Disemboweling apparatus, with its milling machine that seeks the thinnest layer of the dermis, takes a similar approach.)

Other than using numbers and neurones and needles, the Saber is troubling because it offers no perpetrator; the lance is raised against the narrator. Thinking of the root canal again: were you strapped to a chair, and being operated on without anaesthetic, you may plead with whoever is holding the drill, but once the operation begins your attention transfers to the most immediate cause of your fear—the drill itself. Or in Michaux’s case—the lance itself.

Of course, if the torture isn’t as uniform or as focused, the terrible agents at work may have a presence, a voice even—and when you can’t reason with them, fear gives way to utter helplessness. So, next time: a tour of Michaux’s Demolition Workshop.


This post is part of series on the fantastic grotesque.

  1.  Taken from Life in the Folds, translated from the French by Darren Jackson 

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of https://quiverquotes.com

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