What Haunts Us Now

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This is not an ordinary moth; it does not fly toward the light. I watch it disappear into the closet, and although I feel anxiety fluttering inside me, chewing little holes, I don’t move. “What I feel towards mice is naked fear,” wrote Kafka in a letter, lamenting “the unexpected, unwanted, unavoidable, sort of mute, grim, secret-purposeful appearance of these animals.” Maybe I’m just being paranoid; then again, maybe not. In macro images the moth has a golden sheen, like a tatter of embroidery floss. I get up and stick my head into the dark, searching.

If there’s a time for facing our fears, it’s October, the Halloween month, when days shrink and cool and the year’s end trudges toward us, scowling. In a U.S. election year, the season’s dread is further heightened. As the left finds their fears justified and the right spins out into toxic conspiracy-weaving, many stay rabid for information, although we know it will likely not soothe but further enrage us. Others, understandably, are exhausted with reading this year’s slippery text, the unreliable narrator that is Trump. For much too long we’ve been like the townspeople in Stranger Things, trying to figure out the monster, find its Achilles’ heel. (Will a bear trap defeat it? Will fire? Does this comparison make Hillary like Eleven, and should there be a fourth debate where Hillary subsumes Trump’s dark energy back into her psychic force field, destroying herself in the process, leaving us with an empty room, an anticlimax?)

In horror, and yes, in politics, there is usually something there that haunts us, and we must figure out the nature of the beast. Of course in literature, too, characters must face what threatens them. In particular I look for a slightly different kind of fear, stories of paranoia — where the danger may exist but mostly lives in the mind, assuming outsized proportions. Rarely have I encountered real monsters in my life. (I take my head out of the dark and see the moth against the wall. I kill it, but gently, so that I can identify the corpse.) What haunts me, most often, is simply is my own fear.

In the 1938 gothic classic Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier’s nameless narrator finds herself in a hell partly of her own creation. She finds herself newly married to a rich man, Maxim de Winter, and living in his mansion, but her tentative joy is ruined because she believes that he still loves his deceased first wife, Rebecca. Meanwhile the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, is transparently in love with Rebecca’s memory, and actively conspires against the narrator. When Hitchcock adapted this story to film (long before he adapted du Maurier’s short story “The Birds”) he cast dew-faced Joan Fontaine as the lead, and it’s revealing that he got the effect he wanted by telling the young actress that the cast and crew all hated her. Obsessive but mistaken, the narrator misreads every event, every reaction from Maxim, until she is entirely caught up in an anxious fantasy, a tormenting vision that nearly leads her to suicide.

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Who hasn’t helped, at some point, in shaping their own hell? The larvae of the Tineola bisselliella prefer silk and wool, especially when tinged with food or sweat. They are difficult to destroy. I read everything I can about the species, discovering that none of the suggested remedies are easy or guaranteed. My closets emptied, I wash what I can and hang the rest in the heat for days, half my wardrobe on the lines in the back patio, and half baking, as recommended, in my trunk. This state is so peculiar that I can’t help but feel that I am being paranoid, that I am in excess, detached from the reality of the threat. Maybe.

In Kafka’s unfinished short story “The Burrow,” the nameless narrator — whose species is also unclear — is obsessed with the security of his underground home. It is a masterwork of paranoid thinking, although Kafka likely meant it to be funny, and I hope so, as only laughter could release the story’s incredible tension. The creature, not satisfied with his burrow’s security, at times leaves his hole and watches the entrance to make sure nothing enters, all the while imagining ways his safety might be violated, possibly by some “beast.” It doesn’t occur to him to investigate the danger of his own mind, although this above all poses him considerable risk as he works himself up to frantic heights:

“I almost screw myself to the point of deciding to emigrate to distant parts and take up my old comfortless life again, which … was one indiscriminate succession of perils, yet in consequence prevented one from perceiving and fearing particular perils.”

The narrator goes on reflecting in various phases of self-torment, while the ending remains incomplete, with resolution neither in absolute safety nor a cathartic battle against a real adversary.

Rebecca ends more decisively: the mansion burns, while the marriage, at least, is reaffirmed. But before this — when the narrator still believes Maxim yearns for Rebecca — she gives up hope, and tries to surrender her fears to a hazy tenderness: “I don’t want you to love me, I won’t ask impossible things. I’ll be your friend and your companion, a sort of boy.” At the same time, her mind is actually consumed with Rebecca, in a state that uncannily reflects the housekeeper’s love-mania, such that fear and desire parallel each other. Meanwhile Kafka offers his narrator only one outlet for tenderness, the burrow itself, which the creature addresses: “What do I care for danger now that I am with you? You belong to me, I to you, we are united; what can harm us?” As if it were not this preoccupation itself which opens both of them to harm.

In such configurations we can glimpse how paranoia and love might be two strains of a single mode, with a similar orientation toward the world, and similar delusions. Indeed, think of your most intense adolescent crushes, wherein every scrap of information signified, and every look and gesture fed the feeling, which itself had little to do with the facts. Such desire itself is a kind of beast, exceeding reality, torturous, and difficult to comprehend clearly. When du Maurier fell in love with her publisher’s wife she had to confront her own desire, try to understand its terms, which was not particularly easy in the 1940s. At least she did not consider herself monstrous, although she did hate the term “lesbian” and instead considered herself a “phantom, who was neither boy nor girl but disembodied spirit.” (Freud actually once suggested that all paranoid disorders arise from suppressed homosexual love, but that’s a whole other puzzle). In life as much as in literature, the self haunts the self, overwrought, preoccupied, and mistaken.

At least when the monster exists in the world, we don’t need all this tiresome self-reflection. In politics, in Stranger Things, we know what we’re protecting, what we love (the townspeople! our way of life!) and we analyze the external enemy simply in order to defeat it. With any luck this upcoming election will be as cathartic as a T.V. plot line: the monster vanquished, security regained. No such luck with the inward haunting, which remains always unfinished, a wellspring of overthinking. Moths still flutter through my room; I let them flutter. I’ve found no holes yet, but I watch for them.

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