The Rights Of Nerves

‘I transform “Work” in its analytic meaning (the Work of Mourning, the Dream-Work) into the real “Work” — of writing.’
— Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary


‘It’s the Demon of Fear. I’m actually scared of everything.’
— Ingmar Bergman, Bergman Island 





As a writer I often feel like I’m in trouble. This is something a writer should never say or admit to. Not if they want to continue to write, and not if they want others to think of them as writers who know how to write. Writing produces constant dread and anxiety: the feeling that I have to write but can’t. That I don’t know how or never will again. This is how writing starts. This means that writing is not simply what I do, it is also what I cannot do and might never do again. Part of the solution to writing for me has been to change and combine disciplines. To not be (just) a writer anymore. To write using other forms.


In the documentary Bergman Island (2006), Ingmar Bergman makes a list of his demons and then reviews each one on camera. Bergman admitted to having many fears, but the one fear he said he had never had was the ‘Demon of Nothingness’, which is ‘quite simply when the creativity of [your] imagination abandons [you]. That things get totally silent, totally empty. And there’s nothing there.’


Bergman Island ends with Bergman describing a fear that he claims to have never had, to have never even known, the absence of which his huge body of work (sixty—three films) corroborates to some extent (the way that a corpus of work always corroborates the ability rather than the inability to work), but which nevertheless burrowed into his life in other ways: across his films characters, often artists – both men and women – grapple with their own fear of Nothingness. In Bergman’s films, characters wrestle with being abandoned and betrayed not by their imaginations (for fears produce their own fantastic fictions), but by the inability to creatively hone, represent, and endure those imaginations.


In Bergman Island Bergman also talks about the Nothingness of death. The way he thought about and was ‘touched’ by death every single day of his life. Then one day while under anaesthesia for an operation, he realised that because death is nothing (‘a light that goes out’), it did not need to be feared. The love that Bergman felt for his last wife, Ingrid von Rosen, to whom he was married (after many other marriages) for twenty-four years until she died, forced him to once again reevaluate death and the question of whether or not death effaces Nothingness. Bergman loved Ingrid, wanted to feel her presence after her death; wanted to be reunited with her, and therefore couldn’t allow himself, he says, to see death as an end to life, for that would have meant an end to Ingrid too.


I saw Bergman Island at the same time as Bergman’s 1968 gothic horror Hour of The Wolf, and considered them companion pieces. I was heartbroken after a break-up and struggling with my writing. The two films confirmed for me how difficult and elusive creative work is. What motivates one person to work, resulting in hyper productivity, is the very thing that makes working impossible – paralysing – for others. While some people work in order to avoid thinking about what is behind their work – that is, in order to not think about what is not working – others work as an attempt to fix, evade, or control what is not working. For some, work works. For others, work fails to work.


Bergman Island reveals that while Bergman (who died a year after the documentary was released) managed to kick the fear of Nothingness, as far as death was concerned, he continued to harbour the rest of his demons. Because fears free-associate and mesh – induce and house other fears, in the way one fear can unveil and morph into another – the fears that plagued Bergman through his entire life could easily have mutated into the catchall fear of Nothingness, with respect to his creativity. Yet rather than not work because he was afraid, or reject fear as a productive source of inspiration, Bergman often made films about fear and in the face of fear; made fear the subject and his subjects afraid. He did not ghettoise fear, nor did he restrict it to the genre of horror.


If you pay attention to Bergman’s list of demons in Bergman Island, you’ll find a Bergman film for every single of one of his fears. You’ll find a film in every demon and a demon in every film. For Bergman, the process of – and reason for – making a film was partly about exploring what it is to be creative without mythologising or romanticising creativity, or even proposing it as an outlet for or antidote to the anxiety which work simultaneously alleviates and produces. I don’t think Bergman believed that creativity was capable of absorbing or softening the blows of fear and doubt. He focused instead on what it means to give up the idea of mastery and control in order to explore something graver: debilitation. As Avital Ronell writes: ‘No event is at all accessible if the self does not renounce the glamour of its culture, its wealth, its health, its knowledge and memory. Let us make ourselves weak and sick, as Proust did.’ Which is what Bergman and so many of his characters did: made themselves sick.


In Wittgenstein (1993), Derek Jarman establishes a similar trajectory regarding the trauma of knowing. Of what it means to know and the ways in which knowing can disable, as well as enable one to live. In Jarman’s film, the search for knowledge does not mitigate the trauma of knowing. For Wittgenstein ‘knowledge’ results in one epistemological and ontological glitch and crash after another, which in the film makes the philosopher slide between different multiplicities and temporalities of being. He is simultaneously weak and sick, child and adult, Austrian and English (the slippages in accent; the slippages in everything), active and passive, hopeful and despairing, brilliant and stupid, gentle and tyrannical. Both Wittgenstein and Blue (1993) take activity and passivity, potentiality and finitude, as their philosophic start-up positions. Wittgenstein is a trans-subjective subject, appearing in the film as the child-philosopher because it is the child who has a view of the future. What Wittgenstein – the child – knows, he has always known. And: could not have known and will never know. While Wittgenstein – the child – knows, uncertainty and doubt belong to the adult Wittgenstein. It is Wittgenstein-the-man who writes (in the Tractatus), ‘What’s more important about philosophy is all the things philosophy can’t articulate. Can’t say.’


Despite Bergman’s assertion that his creativity never failed him, never fell silent, he made Hour of The Wolf, in which Johan, an artist, is unable to paint, and Persona (1966), in which the stage actress, Elisabet Vogler, stops speaking. It isn’t clear, however, which fear blocks Johan and Elisabet, or if the fears in these two films can even be classified. For both characters one fear leads to another, and creativity exposes one to a topology of fears that threaten it.


For Bergman, fear doesn’t always need a direct object. As he illustrates with his catalogues of demons in Bergman Island, fear simply requires a direct stake or address – the naming of that which is unnamable. Like Alma (Elisabet’s nurse), who speaks and doubles for Elisabet in Persona, Alma (Johan’s wife) in Hour of The Wolf catalogues and suffers the blows of Johan’s unspeakable fears. Alma wears the blows of Johan’s fears on her face, as women so often do. Johan’s fear is the source of Alma’s (the way she fears for his fears, fears for herself because of them, and is afraid of him because of it) and thus it is the terrified Alma who, on their way back from the party at the castle, tells Johan: ‘I’m nearly sick with fear… I can see that something terrible is happening. Just because it can’t be called anything —’





In Hour of the Wolf, both the film itself and Alma and Johan are plunged into the phantasmagoria of the eponymous moment: ‘The hour between night and dawn. The hour when most people die. The hour when the sleepless are haunted by their deepest fear. When ghosts and demons are most powerful.’ The hour of the wolf is the Void (in Repetition, Kierkegaard describes this time in the early morning as: ‘that hour when the day battles with the night, when even during the summer a cold chill runs through nature’) you fall into in the “Night of the World” because for Bergman, Night (death, doubt) is the very core of subjectivity.’ To quote Hegel, from his Jena Lectures:


The human being is this night, this empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity – an unending wealth of many presentations, images, of which none happens to occur to him – or which are not present. This night, the inner of nature, that exists here – pure self – in phantasmagorical presentations, is night all around it, here shoots a bloody head – there another white shape, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears. One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye – into a night that becomes awful, it suspends the night of the world here in an opposition. In this night being has returned.


Hegel’s ‘Night of the World’ is the horror genre. We catch sight of this abyss in Janet Leigh’s postmortem eye in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).The female eye/I is also a screen for the male violence that victimises it, enters through it, and witnesses it with its body. The frustrated painter Johan has much in common with the creative neurosis and male hysteria of the writer Jack Torrance in The Shining (1980), where Night (horror and insanity) descends in the form of patriarchal winter – the Dark Night of the Soul. Stanley Kubrick admitted to the enormous influence Bergman had on his work, and in many ways Hour of the Wolf (along with Bergman’s The Silence, 1963, and The Passion of Anna, 1969) is the blueprint for The Shining. The haunted castle, where Johan and Alma attend a dinner party, and that Johan later visits alone in the throes of mental breakdown, shares the gothic tropes and psychosexual furies that flood the Overlook Hotel.


Marooned together for the winter in a snowbound hotel (a seasonal winter that can be characterised as the figurative hour of the wolf), Jack and Wendy are doubles of Johan and Alma, who are stranded together on a remote Swedish island. Both Alma and Wendy are captives of male violence and creative madness. Like Jack’s possession at the Overlook Hotel and Johan’s violent breakdown, one of Bergman’s demons was his own temper. In The Shining, Jack gives up on his ability write productively, instead writing automatically, in a trance state which belongs both to art and horror. Marked by a fatalist countdown of the calendar, we see and hear Jack furiously typing – page in typewriter, a stack of pages piling up on his desk, the days of the week accumulating and appearing on screen. This is what every writer hopes for: Jack is possessed by writing. Later, through Wendy, we see the big reveal of Jack’s manuscript – the film’s monster.


What is terrifying about the discovery of Jack Torrance’s manifesto, ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,’ is the infantilised male tautology it exposes. The Shining unmasks the mourning and horror that work simultaneously conceals and supplants, leaving only the raw and unassimilable impetus (the unusable outtakes and drafts) of creative work. It is rather like Bergman’s list of demons without the extensive filmography to referee and valorise them. Jack’s haunted manuscript is:


  1. Writing as failed work.
  2. Work that fails to look like work.
  3. Work that has failed to be turned into art.
  4. Drafts that have failed to become final.
  5. Life that fails to be saved by art.
  6. Mourning that has failed to be sublimated into work.


The Torrance family moves to the Overlook because:


  1. Jack cannot write under normal circumstances – in his normal environment.
  2. Jack cannot work a normal job.
  3. Jack is an alcoholic and an abusive father.


In Civilisation and its Discontents, Freud cites Theodore Fontane on the necessity of auxiliary constructions. Palliative measures are principally neurotic and enable us to bear the unbearable, paralleling the overriding programme of the pleasure principle. Fontane outlines three primary measures of escape: ‘powerful deflections, which cause us to make light of our misery; substitutive satisfactions, which diminish it; and intoxicating substances, which makes us insensitive to it.’ As a writer and alcoholic, Jack indulges in the second and third auxiliary, rotating between the two; swapping, splitting, and doubling the deflections at various times. When he can’t write, he drinks. When he drinks, it’s not clear if he is able to write. Though an ‘illusion in contrast with reality’ that is not accessible to everyone (Freud in ‘The Relation of the Poet to Daydreaming’: ‘We laymen have always wondered greatly how that strange being, the poet, comes by his material,’) Freud notes that art can be categorised as an effective substitutive satisfaction because of the presence of fantasy in our mental life. Dream-like shots of Jack typing away are revealed as the fantasy of writing a fantasy book. The fantasy of writing – work going well, which is every writer’s fantasy. The illusion of productivity is itself a fantasy. Jack is merely pretending that he can write because he can no longer cope with not being able to. Psychotic mania in the form of possession takes hold as the ultimate intoxicant. The key to happiness, Freud explains, lies not simply in the right substitutes, but in finding the substitutes that work for us. When art no longer works because it cannot give Jack’s phantasies body, deflections like sex and alcohol turn into hallucinations and ghosts. Jack’s manic possession becomes his best fiction. It is Jack at his most creative, uncensored, and inspired.


Jack’s manuscript reveals the demon underneath all creative work. The demon that is possessing Jack and that Bergman refers to as the demon of Nothingness: ‘The Demon of Nothingness, which is quite simply when the creativity of [your] imagination abandons [you]. That things get totally silent, totally empty. And there’s nothing there.’ Jack’s text is a horrific testament to the Nothing behind his work; the nothing (tedium and dullness) that cannot be sublimated or transformed through and into work despite the hundreds of pages of fastidious organisation and re-formalisation of Nothingness. All of his work (‘all work and no play’), we learn, has been in vain. But so, too, has Wendy’s silent and gendered suffering. Jack has ‘worked’ for nothing while Wendy (along with Alma and countless other wives of male artists) has stood by that hostile Nothingness (her man) for nothing. Wendy will now suffer the wrath of her husband’s idle work (work for nothing).



Jack’s manuscript is a de facto record of the futility of a woman’s work when that work is investing in one’s husband’s failed artistic pursuits at the expense of one’s own livelihood and survival. If Jack’s work has been for nothing, then so has Wendy’s, whose incalculable work has been being the wife of a difficult male artist. For what has Wendy – an abused wife and mother (based on the documentary The Making of The Shining that Kubrick’s teenage daughter, Vivian Kubrick, made on set, Wendy was also the abused actress, Shelley Duvall) – suffered if not the artistic turmoil and false ‘genius’ of a psychotic husband – the writer Jack Torrance, who (though again, it is Wendy, like Julie in Kieslowski’s Blue, who is suspected of writing her famous husband’s symphonies, who actually takes care of the Overlook Hotel) has been given the ‘perfect refuge’ to write, yet still cannot write.


Jack’s manuscript in The Shining is also an aesthetic double of the violent – physical and psychic – consequences of male creativity. The regressed and unreliable Father merges with the regressed and repressed text in which the father is infantilised as Jack, ‘the dull boy’, who has lost all paternal credibility and authority. More precisely, Jack’s infantilisation is rearranged and ordered ‘in a new way that pleases him better’ (Freud). Freud writes that ‘play is taken seriously’ by the child and ‘that every child at play behaves like an imaginative writer… The writer does the same as the child at play; he creates a world of fantasy which he takes very seriously.’ In contrast, Wendy experiences the horror of creative misogyny – a taxonomy in its own right – that wives have historically endured. The impotent excesses of Jack’s text are expressed through the amount of times he duplicates the phrase, ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’ One of the many examples of doubling and repetition in The Shining is commensurate with the amount of time Jack has spent doing (writing) Nothing. The compulsion to repeat here is synonymous with failure and is literally expressed through formal word play. When Jack is not playing handball, writing is a game that Jack plays (seriously) because he cannot write. In The Shining, writing is a substitute for: failed writer, failed husband, failed father.


As Freud, Derrida and others have pointed out, when we work we are in mourning, therefore the work of mourning indicates that what motivates us to work is also the very thing that prohibits us from working. Bergman feared his creativity because he knew that creativity is a Pharmakon that can backfire at any moment. In The Shining, Jack’s creativity ceases to work for him. Jack Torrance is afflicted with the Demon of Nothingness, yet unlike Bergman, he has nothing to show for his creative possession. In fact, it is because of his a priori possession by Nothingness, narcissism, and neurotic fear that Jack, much like Guy Woodhouse’s struggling actor in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), is susceptible to other possessions and moral detours.





At the beginning of his lecture ‘Fear and Anxiety’ Freud remarks: ‘It is certain that the problem of fear is the meeting point of many important questions, an enigma whose complete solution would cast a flood of light upon psychic life.’ ‘Fear and Anxiety’ (and later ‘Anxiety and Instinctual Life’, his follow-up essay) distinguishes fear (which needs an object) from anxiety (which is free-floating, without an object), as well as real fear from neurotic fear (nervus vague). Freud points out that ‘neurotic anxiety’, as opposed to ‘realistic anxiety’, is expectant. It is fear in advance, just as melancholy is mourning in advance – fear without preparedness; fear without fight or flight reflex; fear that leads to paralysis. With melancholia, one expects to lose something, one internalises future losses. With neurotic anxiety, one anxiously anticipates fear. Both melancholics and neurotics imagine and await the worst.


Neurotic fear has historically been assigned to women – more specifically, to being female. Real fear belongs to men because men have actual (not imaginary) things to fear; only men are actually threatened; only men can and do take action. Only men have a legitimate (real) relationship with the outside world. It is only in children, Freud argues, that neurotic fear is potentially experienced as real (‘Infantile fear has very little to do with real fear, but is closely related to the neurotic fear of adults’). The question of real and imaginary, inside and outside, is central here. Freud’s definition of fear is itself gendered and neurotic: fear is purely psychoanalytic (within), not ideological (outside).


While fear may need an object, for women men can be the object of fear. Freud writes that with neurotic (not real) fear, inner danger is treated ‘as though it came from without’. Correlatively, women’s fear of men is often treated as though it were neurotic (unfounded) rather than real. Real threats are not treated as real. This is one reason belief and the line between real and imaginary in horror is a trope allocated to the so-called false and overactive imagination of women. To react or act is to always overreact. For women and people of colour to react to psychic and physical threat is to mistakenly treat what is inside as outside, and vice versa. Horror is largely concerned with proving that what is perceived as imaginary (danger) is in fact real (danger). This proof is essential to genre and plot alike, for when one is alone with what one fears, or alone in fearing, it is not acknowledged as reality. With neurotic anxiety, the fear that is sometimes ‘exaggerated out of all proportion’ (‘Anxiety and Instinctual Life’) is instead, in the horror genre, danger seen too late. Freud’s division of neurotic anxiety and realistic fear imposes a discrepancy not only on the right to be afraid, but in who has a right to be afraid of what. While Freud notes that the neurotic is our ‘best source of knowledge’, despite experience, most women do not ‘suffer’ from enough expectant anxiety when it comes to their fear of men. For fear of men, especially white ones, is treated as neurotic (invented), the wrong fear to have if you want to be/feel‘right’. It is Wendy and Danny who experience fear from the threat of Jack’s neurotic violence (he can’t write, he can’t father, he can’t take care of the Overlook) turned real (he tries to kill his family because he cannot find successful substitutes). Men are the external world and the horror genre is predicated on the contract between women doubting their fears and the world doubting women.





Hauntings are always encrypted in writing. Success haunts work. Failure especially haunts success. Success is mostly a reflexive (exterior) phenomenon that is marked by avarice. No one feels successful, they only appear that way to others, and that is one reason why we work — to appear to be living a certain way. Derrida would call this the work of mourning (‘One does not survive without mourning’), Walter Benjamin the rights of nerves (in his essay on Karl Kraus: ‘He found that [the nerves] were just as worthy an object of impassioned defence as were property, house and home, party, and constitution. He became an advocate of nerves’). The impetus, the energy, the pursuit come from nerves: nerves as a call to escape or to beat nerves; nerves as a way to prove your nerves wrong, especially during the moments when your nerves feel so much greater than anything else in your psychic arsenal. When we work we are in mourning about the life we cannot live and the living we don’t know how to do and so put in(to) work. One solution is to record the failure in writing.


In films like Hour of The Wolf and Wittgenstein, fear and madness have a direct correlation to the trauma and problem of knowing. With what can happen when you know. With the fears that knowledge prompts and presents. The hopeless dream of wanting to know — of knowing — is synonymous with the ‘hopeless dream to be’. In a letter to his lover, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein’s teacher and mentor at Cambridge, writes: ‘We both have the same feeling that one must understand or die.’ For Jarman and Wittgenstein, who rejected the bright illuminations of the Enlightenment, the quest for knowledge makes epistemological delineations impossible because knowing is about being in the dark and culling from that darkness, as well as wanting or trying to be in the light. While night is associated with fear for Dr Isak Borg in Wild Strawberries (1957) and Johan in Hour of the Wolf, ghosts and daydreaming artists in Bergman’s films almost always appear in bright sun (in Mourning Diary, Roland Barthes writes solemnly about ‘that South-West sunlight, which has accompanied [his] life’. In ‘The Relation of the Poet to Daydreaming’, Freud asks, ‘Shall we dare really to compare an imaginative writer with one who dreams in broad daylight?’). Night is not restricted to the time of day or to the logos of death. In Bergman Island, Bergman appraises his list of demons with the filmmaker Marie Nyrerod in a room flooded with light, telling her: ‘I’ve never experienced bright light as anything friendly, but as something threatening. My ghosts, my demons, phantoms and spirits, never appear at night. They often appear in bright daylight.’


Bergman’s anxieties, fears, and horrors in broad daylight recall Nietzsche on the beginning of terror in religion in Beyond Good And Evil: ‘Later, when the rabble gained the upper hand in Greece, fear became rampant in religion, too – and the ground was prepared for Christianity’, along with his assertion that ‘our most profound solitude’ (‘most midnightly, most middaily solitude’) collapses and conjoins day and night – a continuum (Nietzsche also refers to the ‘night owls of work even in broad daylight’). Correspondingly, the beginning of terror introduces not just an epistemology of horror, but inverts the time of horror, as well as the time when one is safe from it, which is never. In Hour of The Wolf, the horrors of the day come to roost at night. In The Shining, most of the horror occurs in the morning and afternoon. The white snow is a daylight menace that engulfs the Overlook Hotel.


Derek Jarman, who was losing his sight due to HIV while making Blue, describes a similarly menacing light as ‘atomic bright photos… with yellow infection bubbling at the corner’. In Reveries of the Solitary Walker, Rousseau writes about a ‘horrible darkness’, which he refers to as an ‘uncertain road’ through which he ‘could make out nothing but sinister apparitions’; a nonliteral darkness that is not only a form of doubt, but is also like the dogging, sickly brightness that Proust writes about. It is the same sickness and light, or light as sickness, which Bergman describes and floods his films with, even the early black and white ones – hiding the dark in the light. The way that day can be switched for night, and vice versa, so both day and night, darkness and light, are mirror images of each other. In Wittgenstein and Hour of The Wolf, Night, or ‘Night of the World’, becomes mise-en-scène.


At one point in Jarman’s film, Wittgenstein drops out of Cambridge to write Notes on Logic and flees to an island in Norway ‘at the end of the world’, where he builds a small house like Bergman did on Fårö and Johan and Alma do in Hour of the Wolf. Afterwards, Bertrand Russell tells his hairdresser: ‘I told him it would be dark in Norway. And he said he hated daylight. I told him it would be lonely. He said he prostituted his mind talking to intelligent people. I said he was mad. He said, “God preserve him from sanity.”’ This series of inversions echoes Bergman’s day/night reversals.


Hour of The Wolf is a testament to the work Bergman was able to do in the face of daylight fear, and because of fear, but that swallows Johan whole. Work enabled Bergman if not to face his fears, to bear his fears, while fear made living impossible for Johan, who vanishes without a trace into the hour of the wolf – a place from which no one can return. In The Shining, Jack freezes to death in a maze of daytime snow.


About Persona Bergman stated: ‘At some time or other, I said that Persona saved my life – that is no exaggeration. If I had not found the strength to make the film, I would probably have been all washed up.’ In Hour of The Wolf, Johan writes the following in his diary, which could easily be Bergman’s diary:


Friday night I wake up at 2 a.m. from a very deep sleep. I don’t know where I am. Suddenly feel infected. Merciless anxiety. How can I protect myself against the terror suffocating me? Dear God, don’t let me lose my mind. May I make it through. May I gain strength and joy.



is a writer, critic, and multi-media artist. She is the author of the books Like Someone in Love: An Addendum to Love Dog, Love Dog, LACONIA: 1,200 Tweets on Film Beauty Talk & Monsters, the anthology Life As We Show It: Writing on Film. In 2015, she completed the film Love Sounds, a 24-hour audio-essay and history of love in English-speaking cinema. Her fiction and criticism have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals. She teaches film and gender studies at The New School. Her new film, Time Tells, is forthcoming in 2017.



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