NPJ Book Review: The Body in Pain, The Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry

The Body in Pain, The Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry (1985)

 A review in the perspective of experience. On my shelf for years I’ve read Scarry’s work in bits and pieces. Over twenty years later and it appears human understanding has changed little about the nature of pain particularly from a political leadership perspective.

The difficulty in reading this extensive work about pain is perhaps best described by the author’s own words and that is “pain shatters language.” How does one adequately talk about physical pain and the emotional effects? 

Scarry’s probing is articulate, compelling and unsettling. She notes in the beginning that she is a addressing a single subject that can be divided into three – the inexpressibility of physical pain, the political and perceptual complications that arise as a result of that difficulty and the nature of the human condition.

Hearing about pain even with another body a few inches away is radically different than having the pain itself, as the essence of pain is that whatever that pain achieves it achieves through its unsharability. Pain resists verbal objectification.

The author digs deep into the nature of torture, war and power and the use of language to manipulate the circumstances, environment, the language and the person who is being tortured. The politics of torture can be viewed today with concentration camps and political prisoners where the torturer is external to the pain the leader administers and subsequently expresses their doubts as they themselves do not feel and experience the pain, though may quietly take sadistic pleasure in it. The structure of torture and the structure of war are thoroughly examined within the context of pain. From the structure of pain to the structure of belief to our own interior structures we find ourselves dealing with a profound lack of understanding of the human condition.

To achieve a political understanding of what is justice for example necessitates our need to understand the making and unmaking of the world in which we live through our pain and subsequent physical struggle….to help realize the sharability of each other’s pain if we are to survive and as the author reminds the reader in the final sentence with a quote from Isaiah 41:6: ”Take Courage!”

This is an intellectually provocative work that reinforces our need to understand the ethics of how we deal with the issues of torture and physical pain and the author writes about it in the most haunting of terms. It’s not an easy read in one sitting but rather to be digested over time. It remains an invaluable reference for anyone whose decisions effect the life of those they serve, lead and share the planet with.