Xu Xi and David Clarke


Fear Itself


“Fear Itself” is an ekphrastic essay in response to The Promenade des Anglais, Nice 18 July 2011, part of an in-progress collaboration between the author and photographer.


The Promenade des Anglais, Nice, 18 July 2011           Photo copyright © 2011 David Clarke.


So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself–nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance…Happiness…lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.

–Franklin Delano Roosevelt (from his presidential inaugural address, March 4, 1933)



The mountain lake was a pristine blue against the desert sun, and there wasn’t another boat in sight. Sheer cliffs bordered one vista, which made the surrounding waters seem less sea-like. But the waters evoked the South China Sea, where a captained, motorized launch filled with people and laughter and cocktails and food ferried us out on a Saturday afternoon and dropped anchor, at a bay or cove which sheltered us, to water ski, to sunbathe, to swim.

I plunged into the lake.

And then, terror. Unexpected, unreasonable, unlike anything ever experienced before or since. I climbed back onto the boat where my then-husband looked at me quizzically. Here in Arizona was everything I had longed for–icy waters, sunshine, clean air and solitude. I dried off, donned my dark glasses, and remained on board the rest of the ride.

You can hide disappointment, but not fear, behind dark lenses.

Waterskiing in Hong Kong was the most exhilarating experience of my mid twenties. I did it perhaps only half a dozen times, but even years later, the sensation of that experience–its unnatural speed, skimming above the waves, the ecstasy of salt air–will release itself in me viscerally, unlike any other recall. It was not a sport for me, because from the very first time, I popped up without effort, leaned forward as instructed, and flew. Sports required practice, prowess, passion. Waterskiing was a frivolous pastime, environmentally irresponsible and irrelevant to my raison d’etre. It was not something I tried too hard to repeat when its presence in my life disappeared.

I did try to waterski on my own once, after I stopped dating the merchant banker who hosted these summertime boat parties. To own a boat proved impossibly expensive, so I finally put this brief passion to rest with a solo trip to Port Dickson, where I indulged for the last time. My affair with The Banker Man was memorably brief, like almost all the men I dated then. It was impossible to take their concerns seriously: the flowers, the dinners, the booze, the fashion (their own obsessions with appearance and their judgment over what I wore), their letters and phone calls, the trips, the women they lusted after or were married to, their wives or girlfriends they forgot to tell me about until the morning after, the careers and jobs that were always more important than mine, their ex-girlfriends or ex-wives and children, the future children they wished to father, their sports and pastimes and passions for which they needed so much interest while showing little to no interest in mine. My own desires were simpler. I wanted to get on with my writing and fall in love with a man again. In time, the former proved the real imperative while the latter a dispensable one, but in my mid-twenties, I did not know that yet. The banker broke my heart, but it did not suffer prolonged damage, because my heart is a tough muscle, and the breakage more imaginary than real.

That fear. That irrational, incomprehensible fear, immersion in the deep being merely a catalyst. I was no saint, because I professed to love The Foreign Correspondent while dating Banker Man. But I broke up with the journalist while the banker broke up with me. Is that what I fear? The end of love, however brief? The absence of any man to be even in marginal love with? Or something else?

The first man I loved water-skied. He did this in the Adirondacks where his boat was docked on a lake in the woods. I was nineteen. Previously, I had been in love numerous times but the subjects of my passions never had any idea of my deep, true love, probably because each lasted only until the next desirable male image presented itself, something which happened with alarming frequency. Falling in serial love is an exhausting heart sport; the muscles get a thorough workout and if the love is unrequited (which almost all mine were), then you simply get back on that love treadmill and try again. Persistence. What I teach all my writing students to master in the quest to get published.

I also teach my writing students about revision, and so I should revise that initial description–“the first man I loved”–because I am not sure anymore that the love was true, or love, or anything more than passing fancy.

He was The Bartender and he did break my heart, except then, the breakage did not feel imaginary. In fact, his breaking up with me was so profoundly devastating that I attempted one false suicide, only to find that I really did not believe in killing myself. Rather like Dorothy Parker, of whom I was enamored at nineteen. She never succeeded either time she tried and lived to a ripe, but sad old age.

Fear of sorrow. Our Lady of Sorrows, Mother of Sorrows, one of the Mary’s I worshipped in my Catholic childhood. Virgin or whore could you not be both? Parker tried: the virgin wit publicly seated at the Algonquin Round Table and sad whore to the privacy of drink and abandonment by her pretty-boy lovers. A poor role model, but there were so few, so you clutch onto anything that floats, however tenuous, a temporary respite from the deep.

The married ones wrote the most intimate letters. I am going deaf, said The Economist, a Hungarian or Pole or Romanian . . . but anyway, some Eastern European who circled the globe. I am going deaf, he wrote, and I don’t understand why I am writing to you about this, before even telling my wife. This was before the internet, when letters arrived regularly in my mailbox from lovers around the world. Delayed delivery, how I miss that!

It’s merciful not to be constantly in love anymore in this twittering, facebooking, emailing age, because the concerns of these men would take on an even greater, unnecessary, in-your-face urgency, disturbing the peace of my solitude. I read his fear and did not reply. There was nothing to say to a man who needed, most of all, to stop traveling for work and be with his wife.

The married ones told the most intimate tales. Now I cannot even kill a fly, said The Former SAS. He was considerably older than I was then and I do not know if he ever was or even could have been in the special air services, or if he had indeed killed the wrong man at some border checkpoint during the war, or if his wife really did not know, or if MI-5 really still kept tabs on him in the former British colony we both inhabited. It is easier to be former rather than latter, just as I would rather be pre-colonial, as I was as a girl, than post-colonial, as I am too often reminded of as a middle-aged, oftentimes prickly writer. The child’s innocence is a grand affair. You do not yet know politics or people who are strangers, except the ones your parents protectively present, just as you do not know fear except at night, when irrational nightmares startle you awake, and you run to your parents’ bed, whimpering about crocodiles nipping at your toes. By the time you’re marginally an adult, at twenty-three or six, say, innocence is muddled by Freudian slips where docked vessels leak and sink. Dreams of water are psychologically clichéd, and you can only startle awake from that mysterious water’s edge so many times before even your own subconscious is bored.

Those crocodiles. Never smile at the crocodile. Song lyrics make too strong an impression on my subconscious. But dreams, you discover, are predictors of your future, and Jack Frost nipped at my toes, years later on New Zealand’s South Island, the one time I suffered frostbite.

You returned to that water’s edge–admit it–more times than you care to recall.The dreams had no pattern, just as the water’s edge was always unfamiliar. Sometimes you thought, the Aegean, from your prolonged stay in Greece, where you discovered the writer’s life you were meant to live; or East Malaysia, because climbing Mt. Kinabalu was unforgettable; or even Burma and the Irrawady along which you sailed and gazed at those temple ruins, horrified by the piety and waste. But you do not recognize that water’s edge, not even when you tried to make yourself return to it, to its strange allure, to its echo of the morgans of Brittany who peopled a French fairy tale you read as a child, the one with a lavishly illustrated green-grey sea, the home where these mer-people lived.

What Freud thinks is of no import.

You wanted to write about love and the seaside, because the man you’ve loved for, oh, many years now–longer than even the former marriage–once brought you to his sea. He spent his summers as a child on the Jersey shore, in the town dubbed the Irish Riviera, while you got burnt at the nineteen-and-a-half mile beach on the Rambler Channel, downhill from Dragon Inn on the Castle Peak Road. Our circumstances cause us to live apart at present, which we have done for several years, and are likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. We did live together once, and made a home in New York; Hong Kong to New York is a rather more distant than is typical for even the increasingly common “long-distance relationships” of our skyping and emailing internet age. So you wanted to write about the nature of this distant love, this love over time, warmed by the sun and sea of an image, of the smile the mind’s eye can provoke.

Instead, you’ve written about almost-loves and fear itself. Was FDR right? Is the creative effort enough, this presumed “joy”? Is some kind of “achievement” the meaning of life? He was talking politics though, a precursor to his New Deal, at a time when America was in desperate need of re-imagining. But such declarative certainty is the province of presidents and preachers, not of we who persistently ponder existence.

Perhaps I too am seeking a new deal, an entry point into memory that isn’t about fear, a re-imagining of self. You can only pedal in water so long before you either sink or swim. I am pedaling, in abeyance, waiting. Sometimes wondering. Trying not to retreat.


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David Clarke is Professor in the Department of Fine Arts, University of Hong Kong, where he has taught since 1986. He has written extensively on both Chinese and Western art and culture, with a primary focus on the twentieth century, and is also active as a photographer and visual artist. He has published two photo books about Hong Kong: Reclaimed Land: Hong Kong in Transition (Hong Kong University Press, 2002) and Hong Kong x 24 x 365: A Year in the Life of a City (Hong Kong University Press, 2007). His artwork was most recently seen in Market Forces at Osage Gallery, Hong Kong, May-July 2012. Amongst his recent publications are Water and Art: A Cross-cultural Study of Water as Subject and Medium in Modern and Contemporary Artistic Practice (Reaktion Books, 2010) and Chinese Art and Its Encounter with the World (Hong Kong University Press, 2011).

Xu Xi (www.xuxiwriter.com) is the author of nine books of fiction and essays. Her most recent titles include Access: Thirteen Tales (Signal 8 Press 2011), the novel Habit of a Foreign Sky (Haven Books 2010), a finalist for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize and an essay collection, Evanescent Isles: from my city-village (Hong Kong University Press 2008). She is also editor or co-editor of three anthologies of Hong Kong writing in English, and is currently co-editing a new Hong Kong short fiction anthology for CCC Press (UK) to be published in 2013. Forthcoming and recent fiction and essays appear in the anthologies APA Arts Anthology (AALR, New York), The Bedford Introduction to Literature (Bedford/St. Martins, New York), Bridges Around the Globe, (Temenos Publishing, Arkansas); Still (Negative Press, London), Understanding the Essay (Broadview Press, Toronto) and in the journals Toad Suck Review, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review Online, and Arts & Letters. A Chinese Indonesian native of Hong Kong, she long inhabited the flight path connecting New York, Hong Kong, and the South Island of New Zealand, until her mother’s fate ended those peregrinations. She is currently Writer-in-Residence at City University of Hong Kong where she established and directs the first, international, low-residency MFA in creative writing that focuses on Asia.