L'Appel du Vide
In the summer of 2018, my friend introduced to me the notion of “the call of the void.” It is essentially that feeling a person gets when standing on a ledge and thinking, “I could jump.” I had never heard the expression before, but after she explained it, I couldn’t help but identify with the phrase. It resonated with me in a way few words have, perfectly encapsulating my underlying sense of urgency. It turns out I wasn’t alone in my response, as my other friends quickly affirmed, they too had felt this call at one point or another. And here I was, sitting with my friends, thinking that this weird phenomenon was mine and mine only. I was utterly crushed. I was not special in my odd fixation on potential death, but part of the many. This feeling quickly turned to puzzlement, though, the more I thought about it. If this “call of the void” was not that uncommon, why had I never heard of it before? Why was it never talked about, and if it was it was treated as though the person was suicidal, which is not what I am or what this term truly describes. Further research into the expression revealed that it didn’t even originate in English, but in French. L’appel du vide is what the French call it, and it literally translates to “the call of the void.” I also happen to be studying French in school, so my curiosity about this saying doubled. Usually exact translations do not make sense, but without knowing what “the call of the void” means, the idiom is still understandable, still relatable. I, and many others, have had instances where we are going about our normal lives when we think the unthinkable.
As mentioned, the most common type of call is that of jumping off a ledge. Though I have had the feeling when on rooftops or other manmade structures, I am more likely to feel this way on natural ledges, like hills or mountains. On a school trip through Ireland I did a lot of exploring, climbing everything I possibly could. This proved difficult for me, as I have the heart of an adventurer but the physique of a couch potato. Nevertheless, I prevailed. When I got to the precipice of whatever I was climbing, I would peer over the edge, marveling at the freedom I felt being so high up above the world. The wind whipping my hair back was as close to flying I could get, but then I thought what if I could fly? Trailing my gaze, my body would follow suit as I leaned more and more past the edge, past my feet planted solidly on the ground. A little more and I would be falling, or rather flying in a downward projection. I could end it all right there. But I don’t. I stop myself from looking too deep down into the abyss. Consciously I know I have a limit and am able to stop myself before it is too late, but I think peering over just enough goes beyond my conscious satisfaction. Its instinctive, primal even, the survival instinct that kicks in willing me to live. That biological imperative ingrained in our DNA to ensure the survival of our species keeps me from taking myself out. And while I’m sure the same effect would apply standing on the ledge of a skyscraper, there is something about returning to nature that is very appealing. Almost as if I were returning home.
My body recognizes the sensation of “the call of the void” before my brain does. The human body has the uncanny gift of being one of the more fragile systems in the animal kingdom, while at the same time showing great resilience. I could break a bone simply by tripping, but then there are those stories of people falling hundreds of feet walking away with only a few scratches. My body understands this sense of duality, paralleling with “the call of the void.” It wants to belong in an in-between state, so it willingly wants to feel what is out there. The signs are evident: my palms get clammy and my skin tingles, with my feet acting separate from the rest of me in deciding whether or not to jump. The impulse brought on feeds my soul, reminding me that I have free will. I could jump off this mountain, or building, or bridge, but don’t. I always ultimately choose not to, because as much as I love the anticipation, I don’t love the act. I love the sense of danger, the sense of entitlement that goes hand in hand with youth, believing that I am invincible and nothing can hurt me. But then the rational kicks in, my body becomes rigid the closer I get to impending doom. I don’t want to die. Far from it. If anything, I believe that in wanting to jump it means I want to live. I want to live to see another day and make more choices regarding my wellbeing, seeing how far I can push myself. I want to be able to see the brink of death and beat it, without doing the actual work. The urge to fall then, however, all boils down to trust, or maybe the lack thereof. It’s as easy as walking, putting one foot in front of the other, but without the ground to support me. The lack of support keeps me still, but trusting the warm embrace of the air encapsulating me when I descend makes me want to jump. That and what lies beyond my certain death if I ever were to fall.
“The call of the void” does not only apply to heights, but any other activity that would result in peril if I actually went through with it. Since I am not climbing on a day-to-day basis, I could chalk up the call to fall as an anomaly, but driving down a busy road is an all too common occurrence. Driving in and of itself presents as a daunting task to me, so add in the fact that I sometimes think about serving to the left into oncoming traffic is a whole other story. It just seems so simple: one jerk of the wheel and it’s all over. A flick of the wrist and the metal crunch of cars slamming into each other echoes in my eardrums. It would make driving more exciting, if not deadly. What appeals to me the most, I think, is that something so monumental can happen with such a small action. Not only that, the consequences are far reaching, usually affecting multiple people for long stretches of time in one way or another. Again, I have the choice whether to veer off to the left, I have this untold power, but refuse to use it. I know that if I ever did get into a really bad car crash it would be horrific, not tantalizing. The closest I ever got was when I accidently side swiped another car. There was barely any damage, but the main point here is that then I wasn’t even answering the “call of the void.” It was more like it left a message for me on the machine and I had to play it back only after it happened. In the moment I wasn’t thinking it, but the few seconds after the accident, before panic settled in, a peculiar sense of self entitlement washed over me, that feeling of “I did that.” I was practically giddy. My emotions were running on such a high that I ended up bursting into tears trying to make sense of what I did, why I did it and how it felt. I haven’t gotten in an accident since.
Wanting to know the “what ifs” of life is a normal query. Some people spend their whole lives in the hypothetical and theoretical, but no one complains because no one gets hurt. When I was in elementary school, I would fantasize a lot. The only difference between then and now is that now I have a name to what I feel in those urgent existential moments. Back then I just shrugged it off as my own little quirk. One day my “what if” leaped straight out of me and onto one of my unwitting elementary school friends. I was around seven when I was on my friend’s front lawn with my mom and dog. I was holding my dog Rally’s leash as my mom and her mom were talking. My friend was cowering behind her mom, not wanting to go anywhere near my dog. Keep in mind she was more like a puppy, and a Beagle. Beagles are not scary. But the point is I knew she was scared. I knew I had to hold onto the leash so Rally wouldn’t run away, but something inside of me was beckoning, pleading that I let go of the leash. So, I did. In this instance the titular void was not a physical space, but an actionable offense. No longer would the consequences live in a vacuum if I ventured into this uncharted territory. My wanting to be a part of something daring, no matter how inconsequential, overcame any recognition I had that what I was doing was wrong. I let go and Rally bolted across the yard to my friend. Sure, she was all tail wags and smiling, but it still scared the crap out of my friend. She screamed and tried to run away, which made Rally think it was a game, causing her to run even faster after her. We caught her after a few seconds, but my friend was still frightened. My mom and I left shortly thereafter with Rally and the first thing she said was, “why did you do that?” She was upset with me, and rightfully so. I knew how to hold the leash, and that I couldn’t let her run away because of my friend, but I still let go. At first, I couldn’t give her an answer, or at least not the one she wanted. I then told her it was an accident. This was partly true, but not the whole truth. My hands in conjunction with my subconscious were performing the action before my brain had time to stop it, but at the same time I’m not sure if I would have stopped it had I been given the time. I think my mom knew this, as I could tell she didn’t believe me. I think she knew something was up, but couldn’t quite place why. At the time, she probably tallied it up to kids being kids, but looking back I know she sensed what I felt: L’appel du vide. I had used the medium of my dog to take that jump off the cliff, but I was still the one falling. I had the agency to set the scene in motion, and I did. I needed to see the “what if” play out, turning it into “that happened,” which goes directly against the spirit of “the call of the void,” but nonetheless counts as being answered.
Almost more than the feeling itself, what I admire most is that there is a label for it. It makes it real, makes it so I am able to talk about it without sounding insane. By having the term, other people can know what I am feeling, and I myself feel validated. I know it’s not just something in my head. It might be a call that starts internally, but it makes its way out to be seen. The unknown becomes known as the call piques my curiosity. It ultimately is the void that keeps pulling me back in. I view the void as two separate steps. With the example of the ledge, on the one hand the fall is the void, but on the other, it’s death. It is not 100% certain that I would die, an unknown variable, nor is anyone 100% certain what happens after death, the other unknown variable. When you get an unknown and an unknown together, in a way, it becomes known. They complement each other in this perfect storm of ambiguity. I know that I will never know unless I do it, but I never will, rendering it an unknown known. This push and pull of “knownness” is a constant battle that can never be won, leaving the participant, moi, to walk the fine line, lingering in limbo. That is the terminal power of the call, the power of L’appel du vide.