115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Narrating Fear:  Rilke's Malte and Bachmann's Malina

Lorna Martens, University of Virginia

Can emotions be represented in words?  This paper looks at the “basic emotion” of fear and compares what neuroscientists and literary writers say about its relationship to speech.  Fear can be named, but can it be shown?  Focusing on techniques Rilke’s Malte and Bachmann’s Malina, I investigate its verbal expressibility.



 How are the emotions narrated?  I investigate this question on the example of fear.  Fear is on every psychologist’s and neuroscientist’s list of basic emotions.  The physiological manifestations of fear, automatic nonconscious reactions that precede conscious awareness, are experienced by humans and animals alike.  Variants like “anxiety” and “phobias” have been assimilated to the study of fear; they are said similarly to involve bodily sensations and for the most part to involve the same brain circuits as those provoked by real dangers.  Neuroscience has largely defined “emotion” as a physical response, but in his latest book Anxious (2015), Joseph Ledoux, who specializes in the study of fear, reconceptualizes emotion.  He revises his previous views in The Emotional Brain and parts company with fellow neuroscientists Panksepp and Damasio, insisting that the term “emotion” should not be used to designate a physical response, but instead the conscious awareness that one is experiencing the emotion.  The only certain test of conscious awareness, he posits, is speech.  This means that animals, who do not speak and therefore may not be conscious in the sense that matters to Ledoux, may well not experience the emotion of fear, but just deploy “defensive survival circuits.”  In short, for something to count as an emotion, according to Ledoux in 2015, you have to have been conscious of having it and be able to talk about it.

 Yet literary writers with expertise in this emotion, Rainer Maria Rilke and Ingeborg Bachmann, intimate that fear is wordless:  involuntary, overwhelming, and indescribable.  Do authors in fact find words to convey their characters’ fear?  Although fear is ubiquitous in literature as it is in life, an examination of its literary representation shows that authors are generally not adept at narrating the experience.  Instead, they rely heavily on naming it, on using the word “fear” and its synonyms.   Beyond this widespread reliance on naming, I discuss techniques that writers have devised to convey a character’s fear.   I focus above all on two masterly narratives of fear/anxiety, Rilke’s Malte and Bachmann’s Malina.  Rilke and Bachmann make sparing use of naming—in contrast, for example, to Stefan Zweig in Angst, who pounds incessantly on the word “Angst.”  Rilke and Bachmann devise other, far more ingenious ways to show their protagonists’ “Angst.”    

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