Learning To Live With The Fear Of Heights

I’m terrified of heights; vertigo, nausea, fear, and anxiety instantly make an appearance as I near an airy ledge of any kind. Cliffs in the wilderness, building balconies, these all induce these effects in me. My fear of heights bothers me; I like hiking, I like mountain views, and the best ones are always up among the regions where my fears are at their most insistent, clamoring for attention, demanding control of my body and brain. I gaze at photos of mountaineers on ridges and summits and ice walls, and I’m thrilled and nauseated alike. I want to be up there, but I know what I will feel: terror. During my boarding school years, in the tenth grade, I took up rock climbing in an effort to try to either master, or co-exist with, this fear. Those motivations were quite conscious; I hoped to move on past the worst aspects of those sensations so I could enjoy the mountains. My rock climbing was elementary but I did achieve a moment of acute insight once while abseiling down a training cliff: my feet slipped momentarily, I swung back hard into the rock face, and panicked. Around me, mists swirled, and below me lurked a seemingly bottomless chasm. As I called for help, my instructor yelled at me to push away from the cliff and continue moving down. I was not going to be rescued. A few seconds later, I came to an overhang, pushed out, and smoothly swung down to the floor to come to rest; I was exhilarated. I had encountered trouble in a scary place, and somehow, I had moved on–despite my fears. I had seen a glimmer of a better place; perhaps by controlled exposure to heights, I could learn to live with my fears well enough to be able to travel to places I wanted to see.

Over the years, this insight faded; I left my boarding school in the hills, returned to the plains, graduated from school and college, migrated; I’d gone back to my old ways. I continued to hike in the mountains, but I never took up any kind of climbing again. I remained scared of the heights.

Sometime last year, I began resolving to push myself back to the heights, to train, formally and informally, to get back to trying to ‘master’ those old fears of mine. I took a climbing course in New Hampshire, and an ice climbing course in the Catskills; neither of those classes involved exposure to great heights, but I hoped to start learning those skills and techniques which would let me make a foray to places where I would encounter them. I also hoped to start pushing myself to, er, ‘expose’ myself to, exposure.

This past week’s hike to Mt. Yamnuska–while ostensibly an elementary recreational jaunt, one that thousands of local teenagers pull off every year–thus constituted an integral part of this strategy; the tiny cabled ‘via ferrata‘ section on its approach had filled me with much trepidation when I had first read about it, and so it made eminent sense to attempt it. Online guides said it was not for the ‘faint of heart’; I thought I recognized myself, the very faint of heart. The evening before the hike, I was suddenly struck with fear and doubt; What if I slipped? What if I fell? What if I looked down?

On the day of the hike, the cabled section finally made its appearance; one hiking partner went first, and I followed next. Because the cable is strung tight, it affords a comfortably secure grip as the ledge is traversed; there was one tricky section where the slack in the cable sent me alarmingly into open air. I hung on, slid my hands across, as I hung on tight and moved on. There was some genuine fear in there for a second, but it subsided. A second later, I was done. The summit was a short scramble away. (Interestingly enough, because you have to concentrate on your grip and the placement of your feet, there is little time to think about the exposure behind and below; a very useful lesson.)

I feel faintly ridiculous as I write these words; all I had done was walk across a short section of a cliff ledge, all the while hanging on to a cable. But these sorts of things add up, I suppose, and I can only hope they continue to. I don’t think I’ll ever ‘master’ my fear of heights, but perhaps I’ll learn to live with them in a way that will allow me access to those regions up among the clouds that do so much to lift my spirits.

Ghost From The Machine: Once Again, The Dead Return

Matt Osterman‘s Ghost from the Machine (2010)–originally titled and known internationally as Phasma Ex Machina--is touted by its marketing material as a ‘supernatural thriller’. A low-budget indie, it uses a cast made up of genuine amateurs who sometimes look distinctly uncomfortable and self-conscious on camera, and wears its modest production values on its sleeve. The story sounds hokey enough: a young man, an amateur inventor of sorts, tries to bring his dead parents back to life by building an electrical machine that changes the electromagnetic field surrounding it (I think.) The parents, unsurprisingly, do not return from the dead, but other folks do: a widowed, fellow-garage-tinkerer neighbor’s long-dead wife, and a pair of murderous old folk. (The return to life of this latter bunch makes the movie into a ‘horror’ or ‘ghost’ film; bringing back the garage-tinkerer’s wife would only have made it ‘supernatural.’)

For all that PEM manages to often be genuinely thought-provoking. It is so because its treatment of its subject matter invites immediate analogizing–not comparison–with two cinematic classics: Alfred Hitchcock‘s Vertigo and Andrei Tarkovsky‘s Solaris. In Vertigo, Scottie brings back from the ‘dead’–via an uncanny, painstaking reconstruction–the haunting subject of his obsession, Madeleine, and in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, the dead–in particular, the scientist Kris Kelvin’s dead wife, Hari–come back to life as physical manifestations of long-held, deeply-felt desires and fantasies. In Phasma Ex Machina, the garage inventor’s wife comes back to life; she is, as Hari is in Solaris, made manifest–imperfectly–as his previously unfulfilled desires.

The fantasy at the heart of these movies is similar: primarily, it is that of beating death at its grimly inevitable game. In each case, the agency that makes it so differs. In Vertigo, Scottie makes the immortalizing happen; he forces his new girlfriend–via a kind of physical mortification of bodily appearance and clothing–into the desired mold. This return is only figurative–since Madeleine has never died, Judy brings her back to life by assuming her form. In Solaris, the reconstructing agency is possessed by the mysterious planet–a strange, inexplicable, natural phenomenon, a force field that populates the world with the desires of its inhabitants. In Phasma Ex Machina a similar force field is present, but it is the result of the inventor’s tinkering; it is his mastery of the subversion of nature that brings about the return of the dead.  (The wishing for the parents’ return to life is of course, an especially primeval fantasy; the premature loss of a parent is a particularly terrible loss, perhaps only exceeded in its poignancy by the loss of a child to the parent. Here, the fantasy is made more affecting because the central character–the ‘inventor’–believes himself to have been responsible for his parent’s death. We might even see the death of the parents as an earlier fantasy having gone terribly wrong; the son might have fantasized about his father’s death, but his successful wishing so brought his mother’s death in its wake. Oedipus never stops screwing things up.)

In each of the three movies noted here, the effect of the reconstruction is deeply flawed: the resurrected dead are only real insofar as they are objects of someone’s subjectivity–in each case, the fantasy is shattered. (As Žižek notes in the The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema–in referring to Solaris–this is a “low form of male fantasy’. Here, woman exists only in the imagination of man, her flaws and defects exist insofar as they are present in the male conception of her, the visible shortcomings of which her ultimately make her return so deeply, terribly, frightening.) In PEM too, the dream becomes a nightmare. While the son might only have wished to bring back his parents to life he does a great deal more–as the unexpected appearances of murderers shows. The world then, becomes just a tad more terrifying. For it is revealed to not be indifferent; instead, the world and the natural order might actually respond to our prayers and entreaties but with their own idiosyncratic interpretation of the form and content of our fantasies. Perhaps we might fear the incompletely realized fantasy more than we fear the indifferent world. In one case, we confront a world deaf to our importunations; in the latter we take the chance the world might hear a prayer we had never directed toward it.

One might read some old-fashioned moral instruction into both Vertigo and Phasma Ex Machina–an indictment of the Frankensteinian arrogance and ignorance of the scientist, who blunders on, attempting to remake reality into a form more amenable to him. But I think the movie says more than that.

There is a curiously mixed sensibility–perhaps Nietzschean, perhaps religious–at the heart of Phasma Ex Machina–it preaches to us the virtues of a Stoic acceptance of our fate, of the hand dealt to us, to take on, and not reject, all of our selves, past and present, along with their imperfections and flaws. It suggests an amor fati of sorts: a taking on, an acceptance, of our older lives and actions, of absorbing the consequences of our actions into the lives we choose to live. The young inventor, who with his machine aims to violently disrupt the very fabric of space-time, is urged–by an internal conscience during a moment of internal reckoning–to accept, internalize, and resolve his guilt over his parent’s death, which was not ’caused’ by him, but which invites such an analysis from the grief-stricken. He is urged too, to return to the daily particulars of his life, which include the responsibilities he owes to his younger brother, whose guardian he now is. (PEM gratuitously makes it the case that ceasing his experimentation, destroying his beloved machine, will also have the positive side-effect of saving his younger brother from the murderous attention of the former residents of their house.) This life’s work, its relationship with the living await; attending to the dead is a non-virtuous turning away.

These comparisons with Vertigo and Solaris have only been hinted at here by me; much more, I think, could be said, about the recurring cinematic fantasy of bringing the dead back to life.