19 October 2006

Claustrophobia in Bournemouth

(This is a piece of autobiography.)

In my first year at Somerville College I was in a bad way. My life was blackly nightmarish; everything positive had been squeezed out of it long ago by the adverse arrangements that had been imposed upon me.

In one of the vacations, my parents took me to a self-catering apartment in Bournemouth. I remember it, although only faintly, as an experience of the utmost unhappiness and desolation. Existential illumination was a thing of the past; it belonged in my happy former life.

One night in bed I had a headache, which would not go away. Remaining completely still quietened it and it gradually subsided, but any movement re-aroused its throbbing intensity, and a long period of patient immobility was necessary to quieten it again. I began to have existential claustrophobia. Here I was, trapped in a little cave behind my eyes, not free to move and aware only of the presence or absence of pain. My life was hopeless and terrible, my parents cold and hostile. And I was stuck in a kind of reality that I knew nothing about. All that I was sure of was the total uncertainty.

I had a sort of principle of not trying to terminate existential perceptions, shocking though they might be; they were, after all, realistic. But usually in the past they had quickly ended of themselves; as if my mind automatically blocked out too great an intensity of intolerability, rather like blowing a fuse.

Now, however, the claustrophobia, like the headache, persisted and I lay in my enforced stillness wondering when it would come to an end. I became desperate and wondered whether to go and wake my parents. But what would be the use of that? They did not know anything either about what anything was about. I did not even know if they were real beings with separate consciousnesses. For all I knew, they might be only images in my dream. So no relief was to be sought from them.

But eventually I thought that I must find a way of stopping this. I had always thought that my drive to do research arose out of my perceptions of existential unknowability.

So I said to the claustrophobia: ‘Couldn’t you call it off for the moment? I don’t see that I am getting any more out of this than I have already got. I am in a terrible situation and I don’t know anything, but there isn’t anything I can do about it. There is no way of finding anything out.’

‘However, I think the only answer is to say that I will do research. And I will. The way ahead of me is pretty hopeless and I don’t know exactly how, but I will do research, or at least I will always be trying to find a way. So is that all right and do you think you might stop now?’

The claustrophobia ebbed miraculously and I thought, ‘That seems to confirm that I got that psychological connection right.’