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The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World

Book Excerpts from: Scarry, E., The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Elaine Scarry is Professor of English and American Literature—as well as the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value—at Harvard University. Her 1999 study, Dreaming by the Book, won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism. Her masterwork, The Body in Pain (1985), an analysis of torture and warfare, shows how ideologies are constructed and verified through the infliction of pain.

8—It would be inaccurate to suggest that either the medical problem of pain or the problem of expressing pain in medical contexts has been solved. But through the mediating structures of this diagnostic questionnaire, language (“as if,” T. S. Eliot might say, “a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen”) has began to become capable of providing an external image of interior events.

13-4—If the felt-attributes of pain are (through one means of verbal objectification or another) lifted into the visible world, and if the referent for these now objectified attributes is understood to be the human body, then the sentient fact of the person’s suffering will become knowable to a second person. It is also possible for the felt-attributes of pain to be lifted into the visible world but now attached to a referent other than the human body. The felt-characteristic of pain—one of which is its compelling vibrancy or its contestable reality or simply its “certainty”—can be appropriated away from the body and presented as the attributes of something else.

This process will be called “analogical verification” or “analogical substantiation.” At particular moments when there is within a society a crisis of belief, when some central idea or ideology or cultural construct has ceased to elicit a population’s belief, the sheer material factualness of the human body will be borrowed to lend that cultural construct the aura of “realness” and “certainty.”

20—The compelling reality of the injured bodies is being used at the end of war to lend the aura of material reality to the winning construct.

21—In war, the persons whose bodies are used in the confirmation process have given their consent over this most radical use of the human body while in torture no such consent is exercised.

36—The torturer’s questions—asked, shouted, insisted upon, pleaded for—objectify the fact that he has a world, announce in their feigned urgency the critical importance of that world, a world whose asserted magnitude is confirmed by the cruelty it is able to motivate and justify.

61—In both torture and war the incontestable reality of the body—the body in pain, the body maimed, the body dead and hard to dispose of—is separated from its source and conferred on an ideology or issue or instance of political authority impatient of, or deserted by, benign sources of substantiation. There is no advantage to setting an international dispute by means of war rather than by a song contest or a chess game…The winning issue or ideology achieves for a time the force and status of material “fact” by the sheer material weight of the multitudes of damaged and opened human bodies.

63—The central question that is asked here—what is the relation between the passive act of injuring and the issue on behalf of which that act is performed.

70—The intricacies and complications of the massive geographical interactions between the two armies of opposing nations tend to be represented without frequent reference to the actual injuries occurring to the hundreds of thousands of soldiers involved: the movements & actions of the armies are emptied of human content and occur as a rarefied choreography of disembodied events. But the quality of abstraction & the apparent distance of these events from the real of human pain cannot be attributed to the evacuation of the body from the text; for the body, exiled in its ordinary form, is allowed to reenter in an only slightly unexpected place.

Each of the two armies periodically becomes a single embodied combatant, with the real human body’s elemental duality of being at once capable of inflict injury & of receiving it. The ordinary five to six foot vertical expanse of the adult person now becomes a colossus with, for example, one foot in Italy, another in northern Africa, a head in Sweden, an arm pulling back toward the coast of France, then suddenly punching forward toward Germany. The crossing of a river is not now an event enacted by many individuals but is rather enacted by a single integrated creature who, if named, takes the name of the division or of the commander, and who steps across in a single step, as when Omar Bradley writes:

Simpson had previously complained of Monty’s orders halting him on the west bank of the Rhine when he could have jumped across it against light opposition.

If such descriptions were sustained over pages or even whole paragraphs, the text would become a mythology of giants lumbering across rivers and stalking through forests.

70-1—It is precisely because this form of description is a widely shared convention that it need not often be sustained over an entire passage. Thus, one’s own army may become a single gigantic weapon, a “spearhead” or a “hammer;” a certain territory or part of the army may become an “appendix” or an “underbelly”; each arm has an “Achilles heel,” or a vulnerable “hinge” or “joint” or a “rear” that may be “penetrated. This shared convention is used with great frequency and agility by B. H. Liddell Hart. Whether he is describing the strategy of Alexander, Napoleon, or the Battle of the Marne, one of the large combatants may begin to enact, with all the grace of slow-motion photography, a dance of shifting weight dispersed across the life and fall of giant limbs.

71-2—This is a convention which assists the disappearance of the human body from accounts of the very event that is the most radically embodying event in which human beings will ever participate. It is not that “injury” is wholly omitted, or event that it is redescribed, but rather that it is relocated to a place (the imaginary body of a colossus) where it is no longer recognizable or interpretable. We will respond to the injury (a severed artery in one giant, a massive series of leechbites in another) as an imaginary wound in an imaginary body, despite the fact that the imaginary body is itself made up of thousands of real human bodies, and thus composed of actual (hence woundable) human tissue.

The would thus becomes a way of articulating & “vivifying” (literally, investing with life) the idea of the strategic vulnerability of an armed forces and will in most instances, if noticed, be accepted as it is intended, as only a “colorful” form of description: a colossal severed artery, if anything, works to deflect attention away from rather than call attention to what almost certainly lies only a very short distance behind the surface of that image, a terrifying number of bodies with actually severed arteries. In fact, when this descriptive convention occurs in close proximity to a sentence referring to actual body damage, it tends to appropriate attention away from the sentence since it is itself, by its very scale, so visually compelling and easy to contemplate.

Unlike a real wound, it will not, however visually startling, stupefy us into silence or shame us with the shame of our powerlessness to approach the opened human body and make it not opened as before…If our attention does not move to the 45,000 dead it may be because it is still lingering with the striking image that immediately preceded the body count, the image of eight or nine German giants. The maimed colossus will typically require neither our sympathy nor our anger nor our shame, and it is often made to look slightly ludicrous in the midst of its mighty catastrophe.

109—The extent to which in ordinary peacetime activity the nation-state resides unnoticed in the intricate recesses of personhood, penetrates the deepest layers of consciousness, and manifests itself in the body itself is hard to assess; for it seems at any given moment “hardly” there, yet seems at many moments there in the metabolic mysteries of the body’s hunger for culturally stipulated forms of food and drink, the external objects one is willing habitually to put into oneself; hardlythere but there in the learned postures, gestures, gait, the ease or reluctance with which it breaks into a smile;there in the regional accept, the disposition of the tongue, mouth, and throat, the elaborate and intricate play of small muscles that may also be echoed and magnified throughout the whole body, as when a man moves across the room, there rotates across his should, head, hips, legs and arms the history of his early boyhood years of life in Georgia and his young adolescence in Manhattan.

The presence of learned culture in the body must at least in part be seen as originating in the body, attributed to the refusal of the body to disown its own early circumstances, its mute & often beautiful insistence on absorbing into its rhythms & posture the signs that it inhabits a particular space at a particular time. The human animal is in its early years “civilized,’ learns to stand upright, to walk, to wave & signal, to listen, to speak, and the general “civilizing” process takes place within particular “civil” realms, a particular hemisphere, a particular nation, a particular state, a particular region. Whether the body’s loyalty to these political realms is more accurately identified as residing in one fragile gesture or in a thousand, it is likely to be deeply and permanently there, more permanently there, less easily shed, than those disembodied forms of patriotism that exist in verbal habits or in thoughts about one’s national identity. The political identity of the body is usually learned unconsciously, effortlessly, and very early.

112—The exceptional nature of going to war (is) the extremity with which or the extreme literalness with which the nation inscribes itself in the body; or (to phrase it in a way that acknowledges the extraordinary fact of the consent of the participating population) the literalness with which the human body opens itself and allows “the nation” to be registered there in the wound. While in peacetime a person may literally absorb the political reality of the state into his body by lifting eyebrows—by altering for the sake of and in unselfconscious recognition of his membership in the larger political community the reflex of a small set of muscles in his forehead—now in war he is agreeing by entering a certain terrain and participating in certain acts to the tearing out of his forehead, eyebrows, and eyes.

The nation may ordinarily be registered in his limbs in a particular kind of handshake or salutation performed for a few seconds each day, or absorbed into his legs and back in a regional dance performed several days each year; but the same arms and legs lent out to the state for seconds or minutes and then reclaimed may in war be permanently loaned in injured and amputated limbs. That the adult human being cannot ordinarily without his consent be physically “altered” by the verbal imposition of any new political philosophy makes all the more remarkable, genuinely awesome, the fact that he sometimes agrees to go to war, agrees to permit this radical self-alteration to his body. Even in the midst of the collective savagery and stupidity of war, the idiom of “heroism,” “sacrifice,” “dedication,” “devotion,” and “bravery” conventionally invoked to describe the soldiers individual act of consent over his own body is neither inappropriate nor false.

112—What is remembered in the body is well remembered; the bodies of massive numbers of participants are deeply altered; those new alterations are carried forward into peace. For example, the history of the United States participation in numerous twentieth-century wars may be quietly displayed across the surviving generations of any American family—a grandfather whose distorted feet permanently memorialize the location and landing site of a piece of shrapnel in France…a cousin whose damaged hip & permanent limp announce in each step the inflection of the word “Vietnam,” and along with the injuries of thousands of his peers assures that whether or not it is verbally memorialized, the record of war survives in the bodies, both alive and buried, of the people who were hurt there.

120—If injuring only worked to provide a means for designating a winner and a loser, any other contest could be substituted in its place, since any one of them is equally able to provide a means for deciding a winner and a loser.

The body tends to be brought forward in its most extreme and absolute form only on behalf of a cultural artifact or symbolic fragment or made thing (a sentence) that is without any other basis in material reality: that is, it is only brought forward when there is a crisis of substantiation.

128—The dispute that leads to the war involves a process by which each side calls into question the legitimacy and thereby erodes the reality of the other country’s issues, beliefs, ideas, and self-conception. Dispute leads relentlessly to war not only because war is an extension & intensification of dispute but because it is a correction and reversal of it. That is, the injuring not only provides a means of choosing between disputants but also provided, by its massive opening of human bodies, a way of reconnecting the derealized and disembodied beliefs with the force and power of the material world.

In the dispute that leads to war, a belief on each side that has “cultural reality” for that side’s population is exposed as a “cultural fiction”: that is, by being continually called into question, it begins to become recognizable it its own population as an “invented structure” rather than existing as it did in peacetime as one that (though on reflection invented) could be unselfconsciously entered into as though it were a naturally occurring “given” of the world. As the dispute intensifies and endures, the exposed “cultural fiction” may seem in danger of eroding further into “cultural fraud,” in danger of eroding from something that is uncomfortably recognizable as “make” into something potentially identifiable as “unreal,” “untrue,” “illegitimate,” “arbitrary.”

The more the process of derealization continues, the more desperately will each side work to recertify and verbally reaffirm the legitimacy and reality of its own cultural construction. Although at a distance human beings take pride in being the single species that relentlessly recreates the world, generates fictions, and builds culture, to arrive at the recognition that one has been unselfconsciously dwelling in the midst of one’s own creation by witnessing the derealization of the made thing is a terrifying and self-repudiating process.

128-9—The outlines of this process are visible in any historic account of the conflict preceding a given war. It is not that a country’s population actively wishes to discredit the other population’s forms of belief and self-description but, rather, that their own beliefs and descriptions contradict the other population’s; and thus by merely continuing to believe in and reaffirm their own constructions, they inevitable contribute to the deconstruction of the competing construct. Whatever the particular descriptions that have collided, what has always collided is each population’s right to generate its own form of self description.

129—As each country reasserts its description, it denies the authenticity of its neighbor’s description; and for either to revise its conception of alliance or territory is to relinquish its own autonomy of self-description, self-belief. Although all men create, what they create differs from country to country, and when the competing creations collide, the revelations that these were “only” creations is intolerable.

Thus, in a dispute, each side reasserts that its own constructs are “real” and that only the other’s side’s constructs are “creations” (and by extension, “fictions,” “lies”). In certifying the “reality” of its own descriptions, each will bring forward and place before its opponent’s eyes and, more important, the eyes of its own population, all available sources of substantiation.

131—When the system of nation self-belief is without any compelling source of substantiation other than the material fact of, and intensity of feeling in, the bodies of the believers (patriots) themselves, then war feelings are occasioned. That is, it is when a country has become to its population a fiction that wars begin, however intensely beloved by its people that fiction is.

137-War is the suspension of the reality of constructs, the systematic retraction of all benign forms of substance from the artifacts of civilization and simultaneously, the mining of the ultimate substance, the ultimate source of substantiation, the extraction of the physical basis of reality from its dark hiding place in the body out into the light of day, the making available of the precious ore of confirmation, the interior content of human bodies, lungs, arteries, blood, brains, the motherlode that will eventually be reconnected to the winning issue, to which it will lead its radical substance, its compelling, heartsickening reality, until benign forms of substantiation come into being.

138—The collective casualties of WWII—the hurt bodies of Allied soldiers, Allied civilians, Axis soldiers, Axis civilians, neutral civilians—all contribute to the “memorialization function” (objectifying the process that just occurred). The substantiation process itself, the collective work of the bodies injured in the external space of conflict, is the same regardless of what it substantiates, is the same whether what it substantiates is a construct suffused with beauty & justice or one containing the very antitheses of these attributes.

143—The extreme of the hurt body and unanchored verbal assertions (pain & interrogation in torture; casualties & verbal issues in war) are laid edge to edge. In each, a fiction is produced, a fiction that is a projection image of the body; the pain’s reality is now the regime’s reality; the factualness of corpses is now the factualness of an ideology or territorial self-definition.

144—In benign forms of creation, a bodily attribute is projected into the artifact (a fiction, a made thing), which essentially takes over the work of the body, thereby freeing the embodied person of discomfort and thus enabling him to enter a larger realm of self-extension.

150—For torture & war, so deeply alike, are at last different in this critical element. If each requires the most atavistic form of the reality-conferring process, in the one it is the nonbeliever’s body and in the other the believer’s body that is enlisted into the crisis of substantiation.

281—Artifacts are a making sentient of the external world. A made object is a projection of the human body. The relation between sentience and its objectifications is made compellingly visible by describing the phenomenon of projection in terms of specifiable bodily parts.

284—What is expressed in terms of body part is more accurately formulated as the endowing of interior sensory events with a metaphysical referent: The making of what is originally interior and private into something exterior and sharable and, conversely, the reabsorption of what is now exterior and sharable into the intimate recesses of individual consciousness.

285—The inclusive phenomenon of projection entails not simply an alteration in degree but a much more extraordinary form of revision in which the original given is utterly eliminated and replaced by something wholly other than itself. What is wholly absent in the interior (the missing objects in the pure sentient condition of utter objectlessness) is made present (through objectification), as conversely, what is wholly present in that interior state (pain) is (when projection is successful) now made absent. Thus, the reversal of inside and outside surfaces ultimately suggests that by transporting the external object world into the sentient interior, that interior gains some small share of the blissful immunity of inert inanimate objecthood; and conversely, by transporting pain out into the external world, that external environment is deprived of its immunity to, unmindfulness of, and indifference towards the problems of sentience.

The phenomenon of projection is part of the work of creating to deprive the external world of the privilege of being inanimate—of, in other words, its privilege of being irresponsible to its sentient inhabitants on the basis that it is itself nonsentient. To say that the “inanimateness” of the external world is diminished, is almost to say (but is not to say) that the external world is made animate.

286—When, as in old mythologies or religions, nonsentient objects such as rocks or rivers or statues or images of gods are themselves spoken about as though they were sentient (or alternatively, themselves endowed with the power of sentient speech) this is called “animism.” The habit of poets and ancient dreamers to project their own aliveness onto nonalive things itself suggests that it is the basic work of creation to bring about this very projection of aliveness; in other words, while the poet pretends or wishes that the inert external world had his or her own capacity for sentient awareness, civilization works to make this so.

What in the poet is recognizable as a fiction is in civilization unrecognizable because it has come true…Marx and the reists are differentiated not by the former’s insistence that objects are inanimate and the latter’s insistence that they are animate, but by the radically different implications the two discover in object-animism: The reist takes that apparent-aliveness as a basis for revering the object world; Marx takes the apparent-aliveness as a basis for revering the actual-aliveness of the human source of the projected attribute.