Taken at The Lighthouse, Glasgow.
A soundtrack for this post: The Fear, Ben Howard.
I encounter fear on a daily basis, more specifically the fear of European society around 500 years ago as it attempted to deal with a new pandemic – the Great Pox (syphilis). I see fear in the doctors’ books, and the accounts of poxed patients. Fear seems so dramatic, the possibility of death, the devastation of nations, the rupturing of a moral façade and reputation. Fear is Other, fear is dramatic. But it isn’t just that. Fear is also mundane, fear can gnaw away inside us like slowly rusting iron and we can ignore it until it destabilises our internal structures. Fear is part of the everyday.
Last Friday I went swimming for the first time in around four years. Before I started university I loved swimming, I’d go every week, it was my stress-breaker during exams, the thing that always made me feel better; it always gave me a huge sense of freedom. Yet when I got into the pool it felt completely alien. I couldn’t remember if I remembered how to swim. The routine, the known suddenly wasn’t either of those things. I don’t know what made me take the decision to kick off from the wall, to test the veracity of my muscle memory. I botched my strokes, and the muscles in my arms ached for more of the weekend than I’d like to admit. I did it badly, I’m terrible compared to four years ago. But I did it. And I’m going to go back this week and do it again, hopefully a little better. And with a bit less fear.
Fear is also committing ideas to a blank page, the attempt to make them more concrete, to expose them. And when you expose something you certainly run the risk of finding the cracks, the weaknesses, or the absolute unsustainability of the structure. Sometimes it works out, sometimes we see it all fall apart, and sometimes someone else brings it down. To challenge the established, to question, to propose something new; it’s like being in a pool of ideas and wondering if you’re going to sink or swim. That’s how I find doing history, I look all around me and I see the towering, apparently sound structures built up by my predecessors. Sometimes it feels like I’m in an overpopulated city with no space left to build. Taking the known, the primary sources, the historiography, and trying to make something new – but more than something new – something useful, something that will provoke thought and debate – that terrifies me some days. And the cursor on the blank page just blinks back at me. It would be really easy to stop. It’s very hard to start, Matt Houlbrook has written excellently on not writing, on the struggle to get things onto the page.
Some days there is a lot of fear, very few words make it onto the page and they may just get deleted the next day. But fear isn’t a wholly bad thing, at least in my opinion. When I am at my most afraid, that is usually when I’m sitting at the edge of something new, a new thought, a new perspective. A lot of other PhD candidates I know feel the same way, a strong sense of doubt and suspicion surrounding our own opinion. Maybe it’s the same for academics further on in their careers too, if I get there I’ll let you know.
To be original, to try something new, to reorder or question the known is frightening. And it can grow and become paralysing too. I’m certainly not saying fear is a wholly positive experience within the context of writing/doing history, but it’s certainly not just negative either.
Between fear and the known, the new sits.
Taken at ‘Weather Forms‘ exhibition, The Lighthouse, Glasgow.