Friday, November 4, 2011


You had to know that someone would break out the Bene Gesserit Litany against fear from Frank Herbert’s Dune series. I am just the geek to do that.
                I must not fear
                Fear is the mind-killer
                Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration
                I will face my fear
                I will permit is to pass over me and through me
                And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path
                Where the fear has gone there will be nothing
                Only I will remain
Look at that third line again: Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.
In the book, the litany comes up when the reverend mother arrives to test Paul. To see, she says, whether or not he’s human. The intimation being that fear reduces human beings to animals. If Paul lets fear conquer him during the test, the Bene Gesserit will kill him. Total obliteration from the little death that is fear.
Some behavioral scientists suggest that fear is the most basic of instincts – wired into the most primitive regions of our brains and bodies. You don’t teach anyone to fear (you can teach specific fears – but fear itself – we’re born knowing it, although there is a rare genetic mutation that erases fear. It’s not a good thing). Fear is the one emotion capable of reducing a perfectly rational, articulate adult into a quivering mass of green Jello. And that’s the point of the litany printed above. No other emotion can so completely erase a personality, verbal skills, control of bodily functions, and reasoning capability the way that strong terror can. It’s as if fear sidesteps millions of years of human evolution and goes straight for the portion of our brains that we share with every living critter with a spine.
It makes me wonder. Is fear the first emotion to visit and the last one to depart a human life? Is fear a byproduct of life? Or the other way around? Without fear, our ancient ancestors would have been little hominid snack packs and none of us would be wondering about fear at all. Did you know it’s one of the universal emotions? Every human being on the planet, except those affected by the mutation I mentioned, recognizes fear in other human faces, regardless of race, color, or culture. Babies recognize fear in pictures of faces at a painfully early age. If you’re a writer or an actor, you get to play on that. Call it the curse of being a social animal if you like, but if you are clear with the body language of fear in your art, you’ll actually evoke a little fear response in everyone reading your work, or seeing your play.
There’s a book out called Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales. Fascinating read. He picks apart stories of survival trying to understand why some people live through something that should have killed them when so many people don’t. Read the book. It’s worth it and there are a lot of factors and subtleties involved, but it ultimately comes back to Frank Herbert and the Bene Gesserit. Can you master fear? Or does fear master you?


  1. This post puts me in mind of Albert Brooks' excellent (IMHO) movie, "Defending Your Life". The central premise there is that the ability to overcome fear is the real yardstick for measuring growth as a person. He tells a story that's all about fear, but presents it through charm and humor and love. That's good story-telling.

  2. I like this bit: "I will face my fear. I will permit is to pass over me and through me." Very Taoist. You don't try to prevent or reject it - you just let it pass through.

  3. I'm going to have to have a look at that movie you mention, Kevin. I hadn't heard of it until now.

    I love the implication that self-mastery is required to separate humans from animals - except for that part where we *are* animals...

  4. That bit you quoted, Marcella, was what truly made me fall in love with Dune. Shades of "there is nothing to fear but fear itself."

  5. Interesting stuff. I often wonder about how atavistic fear that was once useful translates into modern life. I suspect that many of us who were the night watchfolk around the campfires have become anxious, hyperreactive to perceived threats in the modern world. "What's that sound? Is that a predator? Can't sleep. Clowns will eat me."

    And I think still others don't have enough of it to thrive - hunters who no longer have bears to face. See all the folks out there signing up for skydiving lessons and extreme sports. They're not getting the adrenaline charge that early people had.

  6. Sandworms, totally on my list of "askeerts" thanks to Dune.

    Now, Laura has me contemplating the notion of "not enough fear to thrive." I think I'm going to need a bigger balloon of brandy.

  7. It's possible, in the quest for enough fear to thrive, to go too far (and not end up dead) - witness me living on a 300 square foot sailboat with one man and four cats.

    There's adrenaline involved. Swearing, too.