The context of the universe

Bloggers are accustomed to detecting bias in homeopathic quantities but I still find something uneasy in Stuart Jeffries’s Guardian interview with Christopher Potter. Potter was a senior publisher at Fourth Estate before a debilitating breakdown forced him to quit his job. As he says:

Fourth Estate had been bought up by HarperCollins and I had been given a very good job, but almost every day I had panic attacks. I got absolutely terrified of going on the tube, which made going to work a daily ordeal.

He’s now written a popular science book called You Are Here, a history of the universe. According to Potter:

I was such a rationalist and materialist. I always joked with my American friends about how everyone there was in analysis. About two months after I had had a dinner in New York, where I was joking about how sceptical I was of analysis, I was in therapy.

To which Jeffries says: ‘one of the reasons, I suspect, the book is so good is that it isn’t filled with scientific triumphalism or the kind of smug rationalism that may have been Potter’s shtick before his breakdown.’ Well, I suppose it was worth this guy suffering serious mental health problems if it made him less smug and rational.

He follows up with: ‘Potter, then, has written a book that concludes we are not the centre of the universe’. But isn’t that any science writer’s default position – indeed, the position of any philosopher worthy of the name?

Jeffries is right, though, in his speculation that ‘it may well have been the breakdown that gave the book these deeply disturbing resonances’. The worst thing about a panic attack is that sense of sheer existential terror. It is as if you’ve been granted a terrible fleeting insight into just how alone and insignificant you are from the universal perspective.

The mind isn’t given to comprehend infinity. The nearest we get to understanding is at a very young age: Potter’s aim was ‘to write a book that would make readers confront the rather lovely but troubling questions we set aside as children: what is everything? What is nothing?’ But fear makes you face the scope of forever, and it’s scary as hell.

You are left with this Lovecraftian illusion that the world we know is just a flapping canvas that barely conceals the movements of cruel, indifferent gods.

(After all – and this is something that the religious always miss – what makes us think that higher beings would be in any way benevolent towards us? As Michel Houellebecq wrote in his masterful study of Lovecraft: ‘In order to imagine how they might treat us were we to come into contact with them, it might be best to recall how we treat ‘inferior intelligences’ such as rabbits and frogs. In the best of cases they serve as food for us; sometimes also, often in fact, we kill them for the sheer pleasure of killing.’)

This existential fear is a major obstacle to recovery. Much of my time in therapy – like Potter, I ridiculed therapy before I needed it – has been spent breaking down my core belief that the world will actually end when I have a panic attack. At the base of the Condition is the delusion that fear is the natural baseline of everything.

I wonder if other panic disorder sufferers have made this connection between fear and the universe. I think that Potter is braver than I am because he’s faced down infinity – more than that, he’s found beauty and value beyond our most potent creation myths. You Are Here contains the wonderful lines:

We want to believe that things last for ever, whether it is love, life, God, or the laws of nature. But death, as Freud continually reminds us, is what certainty looks like. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to live in uncertainty for as long as we can bear it.

I’ve come to believe, more and more, that living with this uncertainty is the meaning of courage.



2 Responses to “The context of the universe”

  1. Brand van der Tramp Says:

    I have shared your experiences up to a certain extent, and have felt my share of existential terror, albeit it not as intense or paralysing. I strongly suggest you read some of Chogyam Trungpa’s writing, especially the notion of “fearlessness.”


  2. M W Guthrie Says:

    >The mind isn’t given to comprehend infinity. The nearest we get to >understanding is at a very young age

    I don’t know, I’d wager that physicists, people under the influence of hallucinogens, and advanced practitioners of meditation get a better understanding (of infinty), each of the three in different ways.

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