am 20. Dezember 1999
What an odd and wonderful book! It attempts to address three topics -- pain/torture, warfare, and creativity. On the subject of pain/torture it is remarkably acute. The description of what pain is and what it does to consciousness and life's enjoyment is terrific and, in my experience, unprecedented. Similarly, its description of torture and what torture means is stunning in its immediacy. However, when it goes from torture to warfare, the book goes off the rails. It is clear that Ms Scarry has a limited knowledge of warfare and a very limited understanding of what it means and how it is carried out. Warfare is usually a last resort and often involves activity by those who are free against those who are trying to create and perpetuate some form of slavery. (see the work of Victor Davis Hanson, e.g., The Soul of Battle.) This applies whether the war is conventional or nuclear. Her idea that taking the process of war to the civilian population is somehow a function of nuclear war is simply wrong. This approach to war is thousands of years old and, as Hanson points out, important and -- in some contexts -- virtuous. War is a horror, but it is better than slavery, torture, or conquest plus annihilation. Scarry doesn't address this. This book makes the experience of pain clear, but offers a wooly and uncertain explanation of war. Its Marxist approach to creativity is shallow and forgettable.
am 11. Juli 2000
Elaine Scarry's "The Body in Pain", an influential study on the relationship between pain, torture, warfare and creativity is a stunning achievement, from the standpoint of Marxism. I confess that I have not read the sections on the structure of warfare, but I was extremely impressed with the passages on torture. Scarry's central premise is that pain, a radically subjective, hence inexpressible and incommunicable experience, results, during the process of torture, in destroying, or deconstructing the victim's voice (his or her power of articulation) and by extension, the victim's world. It is the prisoner's pain, incommunicable because unsharable, which is denied by the torturer as pain but translated as the wholly illusory phenomenon of power, that of the torturer and the regime he represents. These parts of the book are expounded with considerable insight and sophistication, in dense and convoluted prose. The second part, dealing with how pain is converted to creativity, explains how the radical subjectivity and inexpressibility of the sufferer's pain is mitigated into the objective (hence sharable and communicable) activity of work, which is a self-imposed, milder and socially more profitable form of pain. This treatise is absolutely vital reading for any one who aspires to seriously dabble in literature, psychology or philosophy. A tour de force.
am 31. Oktober 1998
Few works of contemporary philosophy are so underrated (not to mention mis-shelved) as this sweeping study of the relationship between human pain and human creation. I frequently recommend the book to people who have been intimidated by "phenomenology", and who need to return to the roots of this term: the study of raw sense perceptions.
To Scarry, pain not only feels negative but actually IS negation. Pain erases all other perceptions of the world, and it also kills language -- the root our ability to reach out to others and build a world together.
The book begins by considering the obvious fact that "intense pain is indescribable," then moves outward into the political consequences of this inexpressibility. Pain survives in the culture, and can be used as a political tool, precisely because of its muteness. This first half of the book, entitled "Unmaking", corresponds well to Dante's Inferno. Through a study of torture and (less helpfully) war, Scarry details the process by which the human ability to create, and thus to be, is destroyed for political purposes.
The book's second part, corresponding to Dante's Purgatorio, describes how humans move out of pain by creating the world of made objects. The reading of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures that begins this section deserves much wider attention. Scarry reads these texts as an archetypical story of how pain led to creation. Scarry presents this story with a warm, generous, jargon-free style that is welcoming to the intelligent layman.
Parts of this book are, perhaps, more dated than others. The latter sections in each of the two halves (the first on war, the latter on the texts of Marx) seem to step down from the pinnacles of each half's beginning. The reader can be forgiven for setting down the book at the end of the section on the scriptures, feeling that Scarry's powerful effect is complete.
In a world where contemporary philosophy and theory are too easily hijacked by political trends, Scarry's book is a welcome reminder that we are all bodies, and that beneath our divisions of race, class, and gender, we all share a pain that drives us to create our world.
am 2. Februar 1999
Elaine Scarry's central argument is that pain is a state which defies reduction to language, and her remarkable book defies summation outside its own terms. Like all profoundly original works, the book creates its own idiom (making, unmaking) to discuss and compicate the issues it raises -- first, in a brilliant and moving phenomenological analysis of torture and its relation to language, ultimately moving on to a profound and unforgiving commentary on the Judeo-Christian scriptures and those writings' subtle (though, as Scarry explains it, it seems remarkable that one did not notice before) inversions of the given circumstances of human embodiment and the subject's relation to made-things in both in the material world and the imagined one. There is no literary critic (and indeed few novelists) who have provided such goosebump-inducing insights on why human beings should make things (books, statues, laws, gods) at all; and then unmake them just as fervently in acts of unmaking (war, torture). This is an extraordinary book.