Review Essay of The Body in Pain
“Stunningly original, enormously important, powerfully written.”
— Eric J. Cassell, M.D., Cornell Medical Center
In its breadth and humaneness of vision, the density and richness of its prose, above all in the compelling nature of its argument, this is indeed an extraordinary book.” —New York Times Book Review
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.
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Read at no charge: Excerpts from THE BODY IN PAIN.
Elaine Scarry observes that if designating a winner or loser was the essence of warfare, then any other “contest” could be substituted for it—since all contests can equally provide a “means for deciding a winner or a loser.” Does warfare genuinely revolve around the desire to “win” something? In the face of endless wars, it is necessary to interrogate—and deconstruct—conventional ways of thinking about societal violence.
Scarry identifies “injuring” as the essence of warfare. We regularly claim that soldiers (or civilians) are maimed and killed as societies attempt to achieve some objective. However, what if maiming and killing is the central objective of warfare? Scarry suggests that the institution of warfare revolves around producing maimed and dead bodies. What does this mean?
Scarry hypothesizes that wars begin when, within a society, there is a “crisis of belief”: when a defining idea or central ideology is challenged. The dispute that leads to war, Scarry says, involves a process whereby each side “calls into question the legitimacy and thereby erodes the reality of the other country’s issues, beliefs, ideas and self-conception.” Warfare, in short, revolves around the issue of truth, combined with a unique means of verification.
In warfare, the human body is brought to bear upon the process of verification: the “sheer material factualness of the human body” will be borrowed to lend the cultural construct an aura of “realness” or “certainty.” Scarry focuses on the idea of “substantiation.” In warfare, we substantiate or establish the truth of an idea by producing—lining up—dead and maimed bodies—to “lend the aura of material reality” to a construct or ideology.
In war, the “incontestable reality of the body”—the body in pain, the body maimed, the body dead and hard to dispose of—is “conferred on an ideology or issue of instance of political authority” that has been deserted by benign sources of substantiation. Warfare is undertaken in the name of truth. We imagine that what we kill for—that for which we die—must be real.
Scarry observes that there is no apparent advantage to settling an international dispute by means of war rather than by a song contest, or a chess match. Indeed, it is evident that there are simpler, more parsimonious ways to “resolve conflict” that result in less destruction and devastation.
Analysis of specific instances that lead to war, Scarry says, suggests that there were usually many other options—“better” ways that would have prevented further conflict. The entire field of conflict resolution is based on this assumption: that it is possible for nations to find less violent ways to adjudicate differences.
However, what if it is the case that nations do not want to resolve conflicts in less destructive ways? What if other kinds of contests that could determine a winner or loser are felt to be unsatisfactory?
Scarry suggests that the desire to resolve disputes through waging war revolves around the fact that the maiming and destruction of human bodies is necessary—a requirement. War seeks to establish the validity—the truth—of a sacred ideal. Warfare is characterized or constituted by a unique, radical form of verification: the maiming and destruction of human bodies.
The dispute that leads to war, Scarry says, begins when a belief that has had the status of a “cultural reality” begins to be exposed as a “cultural fiction.” By being called into question, a significant social ideology begins to be seen by the population as an “invented structure” rather than a naturally occurring “given” of the world. A process of “derealization” occurs.
The danger for each side is that an idea beginning to be perceived as a social construction might erode into something that is “unreal” or “untrue.” The more the process of derealization continues, the more desperately will each side work to “rectify and verbally reaffirm the legitimacy and reality of its own cultural construction.”
The outline of this competition between ideologies, according to Scarry, is 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’s forms of belief and self-description. Rather, its own beliefs and descriptions contradict that of the other population. The other population—merely by continuing to believe in and reaffirm their own construction—inevitably contributes to the “destruction of the competing construct.”
As each nation or groups reasserts its description of reality, it denies the authenticity of its neighbor’s. In the dispute, each claims that its own constructions are “real” and that the other side’s constructions are only “creations” (and by extension fictions or lies).
In seeking to certify the reality of its own descriptions, each side will “place before its opponent’s eyes and, more importantly, the eyes of its own population, all available sources of substantiation.” Warfare is the way a society seeks to establish the truth of its sacred ideology—through the maiming and destruction of human bodies.
War, Scarry says, represents the “mining of the ultimate substance, the ultimate source of substantiation”: the “extraction of the physical basis of reality from the dark hiding place in the body out into the light of day.” That which oozes out—the “interior content of human bodies, lungs, arteries and brains”—functions as a form of verification: to prove that an ideology is real or true.
Dead and maimed bodies on the field of battle function as a testament or testimonial: warfare’s method for establishing the truth of a sacred ideology. The function of warfare and the battlefield are to provide the occasion and place where soldiers can provide—make manifest—the “precious ore of confirmation.”
Witnessing the dead and maimed bodies, we are persuaded that the ideas for which these men die must have some validity. It is almost inconceivable that all of the sound and fury could have occurred in the name of no-thing.