Monday, April 02, 2007

Acrophobia in Hamlet

I’ve always disliked heights.

As a teenager I climbed around the cliff face of a rocky headland at Dee Why in Sydney and, for a second, lost my grip on the loose sandstone. I managed to regain my balance and grip but the sensation of nearly falling to the rocks a hundred feet below led to occasional nightmares for years. Even as an adult I am fairly acrophobic. I don’t enjoy standing on exposed lookouts at height, for example, although, for some reason, flying in a plane doesn’t bother me. As far as I can analyze it my fear of heights now is unrelated to the earlier traumatic event. The feeling I now get if I stand on an exposed platform at some height reflects the bizarre notion that I might be tempted to throw myself off and that this urge might overcome my self-preservation instincts. I don’t want to do it, as some psychologists suggest in their analysis of acrophobia, I only fear that the urge might force me to do it. So the fear is a bit like a latently powerful death wish. I have talked to others over the years with the same fear and have the same rationale for it – it is, in fact, a common analysis in the psychology of acrophobia.

Harold Bloom argues, somewhat preposterously, that Shakespeare created the notion of personality and was therefore instrumental in creating the science of psychology and indeed the idea of human nature. Hence I was pleased to note, while recently rereading Hamlet, that the Bard also identified this fear and its rationale. The scene is where the ghost of Hamlet’s father beckons Hamlet to follow him. Horatio warns him not to go because the ghost might drive him to jump to their death over the rocky cliff face:

‘What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles [i.e. projects] o’er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other, horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereign of reason [your reason of its control over you]
And draw you into madness? Think of it. The very place puts toys of desperation, [fanciful impulses leading to despair and suicide]
Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath’.

Hamlet was brave enough to face such fears – indeed contrary to the popular portrayal of him as being indecisive he drew his sword on Horatio and the guards to force him to allow him to go.

Of course when I am acrophobic I am not dragged off to cliff faces by the ghost of my father but it is essentially the same fear described by Horatio. I feel pleased that a person with Shakespeare’s demoniac insight into human personality observes the fear I experience as a more universal human trait. I am not that weird after all! I’d be interested if readers suffer from acrophobia and can relate to the incident in Hamlet and my fear.


Jan said...

I can relate to what you are saying as I have a variation of that. Edgar Allan Poe called it 'THE IMP OF THE PERVERSE' (see ). It is about perpetrating something because we feel that we should not. Temptation of being irrational. So when I am on the cliff my brain plays this fascinating play of 'what if'. I am never quite sure how close/far I am from jumping...

hc said...

This is an extraordinary passage Jan that contains some amazing insights about procrastination and other things. I am sure behavioural economists would have a field day.

Jan said...

Glad you liked it, his short stories are a must read...