Peur Des Espaces

The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016

Peur Des Espaces

Madame B cluttered up her apartment with furniture. She found nestling into the little hobbit holes made by chairs and wardrobes soothed her. On those occasions she was forced to go outside, Paris’s grand squares and boulevards brought a feeling of tightness in her throat. Worst of all was the prospect of crossing a bridge: imagining herself caught in the flow of people and traffic from one side to the other, she felt dizzy, began to shake, and became convinced that everyone was staring at her.

The late nineteenth century was the era of the phobia. Each week, psychologists seemed to diagnose a new form. By 1914 the list numbered over a hundred, from the entirely understandable thanatophobia (fear of death) to the downright peculiar triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13). Being struck with a terror of public spaces was the most well known of them all. In the late 1870s the French psychologist Henri Legrand du Saulle diagnosed his patient Madame B’s condition as peur des espaces: a fear brought on by open, public spaces. In German, the same symptoms were termed Platzangst (literally: “square fear”); Freud called them “locomotor phobia”; and around the same time the psychiatrist Carl Otto Westphal came up with the name that is now the most widely used: agoraphobia (literally: fear of the marketplace).

Part of what made these fears of public spaces surface in the late nineteenth century were new visions of city life. With their arcades and grand railway stations, Europe’s new modern cities were much-vaunted symbols of progress, supposed to create feelings of awe and freedom in those lucky enough to live in them. Yet, for writers such as Georg Simmel and later Walter Benjamin, the new cityscape brought loneliness and alienation—and also the disorientation that is aroused when we are given too many choices. Since feeling panicky around junctions and bridges, but safer in residential areas, was a particular feature of peur des espaces, the illness seems most of all a response to modernity’s restlessness (see also: WANDERLUST).

Our understanding of peur des espaces has changed little since it was first described a century ago, though various additional theories have been suggested. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that our ancestors were primed to avoid open spaces where they could not hide from predators, and so believe agoraphobia is a kind of glitch, a no longer serviceable instinct bursting through. Researchers at University College London and Southampton University have linked agoraphobia to problems of the inner ear—the vestibular system that helps control our sense of spatial orientation and balance. They argue that people whose vestibular systems are weak become quickly disoriented when visual cues are lacking—for example in empty airports, or amid swarming crowds—and this may account for a feeling of dizziness in open spaces. Feminist critics have drawn attention to the fact that agoraphobia is diagnosed more frequently in women than men (approximately 85 percent of known sufferers are women). They have reminded the medical profession that some women continue to experience public spaces as intimidating—feeling uncomfortable because you are being stared at, or threatened because you are the target of sexually aggressive comments, may well give rise to a fear of public spaces. In such a context, agoraphobia may be not so much a delusion or illness as a reasonable reaction to a hostile world.

Alternatively, see: CLAUSTROPHOBIA; HOARD, the urge to.