[Paleopsych] Hedgehog: Jennifer L. Geddes: On Evil, Pain, and Beauty: A Conversation with Elaine Scarry

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Jennifer L. Geddes: On Evil, Pain, and Beauty: A Conversation with Elaine Scarry
The Hedgehog Review - Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture

          Elaine Scarry is the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and
    the General Theory of Value at Harvard University. Her highly
    acclaimed book, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the
    World--described as an extraordinary, brilliant, and necessary
    book--is arguably the most important work on the experience of pain
    and torture. Her most recent books are On Beauty and Being Just and
    Dreaming by the Book.

          The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World focuses
    both on the infliction of pain and on creativity. It's a jarring
    combination, and yet, you see a connection between them. You argue
    that the infliction of pain reverses the process of creation,
    suggesting that it undoes or deconstructs the victim's world and his
    or her ability to make a world. Could you say more about this?

          When I talk about pain and creation, I really do mean in the
    most literal way possible that they are opposites and opposites that
    are, as you say, jarring in their relationship. When I started writing
    the book, I actually had begun by thinking that if I wanted to write
    about pain, I should not begin to talk about creation. As a student
    and young teacher of literature, I knew that often in literary realms
    we refer to the fact that out of suffering comes creation, and I had
    originally felt resistance to that idea just because the relentless
    nature of cancer pain, or burn pain, or pain inflicted in political
    contexts, never has any room in it for creation and, therefore, to
    imagine that great acts of creativity could come about seemed to
    excuse and apologize for the existence of suffering in the world. So
    my original intention was to write only about pain and not to stray
    into creation. And, then, as I began to work on the question of
    torture--and I can almost remember the moment in which this happened,
    as I sat there reading piles and piles of Amnesty International
    materials--I suddenly saw that the structure of cruelty that I was
    observing was actually a kind of standing of creation on its head. Not
    only were suffering and creation not in league with one another; they
    were radical opposites.

          The work of pain is to deconstruct or unmake objects of
    consciousness, as we can see if suddenly you accidentally slam a
    hammer on your hand and your mind goes blank or you see stars. You can
    literally see the unmaking of the objects of consciousness in front of
    the mind's eye. So too with language. If one is suddenly put in pain
    for a moment or an hour or a day or, in a worse situation, several
    days or even longer, you can watch language deteriorate. One's ability
    to say sentences, and then even one's ability to say words,
    disappears. In the initial moment of pain, someone might say an
    expletive, and then a cry; these are half-way points in the
    disintegration of language until, finally, one just surrenders and is
    quiet. That is the rude physical fact of pain.

          In the cultural context I was looking at, in documents from the
    70s, there was a literal acting out of the unmaking of the objects of
    consciousness and the unmaking of the objectifying power of language.
    For example, in torture not only did the torturer inflict pain, but
    there was actually a kind of miming of the unmaking of the world by
    enlisting all the objects of the world into the act. Even if the
    torturer was using a mechanism such as, let's say, a way of inflicting
    electrical discharge into the person, he would also refer to chairs
    and tables and windowsills and baskets and blankets and telephones and
    all kinds of cultural artifacts, and in that way made the body of the
    prisoner somehow a kind of agent for not only experiencing its own
    pain, but for witnessing the dissolution of the made world.

          Sometimes people say to me that bodily experiences are always
    language-destroying, that pain is language-destroying, but so is
    pleasure. I think that that's not correct. There are places where we
    can see that pleasure can interfere with language. Lovers, for
    example, in the moment of making love may begin to speak baby talk.
    But, lovers are also able to call on the greatest powers of
    language-building. They write hymns to one another and write poems and
    romances, and so we have a huge linguistic celebration of love. So,
    too, the pleasure of eating, which is a very physical act, is very
    compatible with conversation, with dinner parties, and that's been
    true from Plato's symposium forward, or actually much earlier, when
    the assemblies of people in Homer are sitting around feasting and
    talking. Physical pain is not just language-destroying, it also
    destroys the objects of consciousness, and conversely, pleasure is
    world-building, or, to put it the other way, world-building is
    pleasurable. I really do see them as opposed.

          How are good and evil related to creation and injury?

          The word "evil" isn't one that I spontaneously think of when I'm
    thinking about this, and yet, it certainly has many features in common
    with what I'm talking about when I describe cruelty or injustice. One
    of the virtues of using the vocabulary of good and evil is that it
    does register an oppositional ground--that is, it does state the fact
    that there are two alternatives, which is something I very much
    believe. My book is divided into Part I on unmaking and Part II on
    making, so that I place injury or the willful infliction of injury in
    opposition to creation. In our own intellectual time, I think we've
    been very discouraged from ever wanting to say: "Look, there are two
    distinguishable things." Instead, we've been asked again and again to
    say "Everything is just a version of its opposite; and it may seem
    that these things are different, but really they're just the same in
    the end." And I don't think that's true. Injustice or (using the word
    you introduced) "evil" not only likes to ape creation and turn it on
    its head, but also very much profits from our getting confused about
    whether what we're looking at is creation or cruelty. Whereas I think
    that genuine acts of making and creation, which are normally on the
    side of diminishing pain, have to, among other things, continually
    keep sorting out and de-coupling creation from its appropriative and
    opposite counterpart of cruelty.

          One definition of evil might be "using the language-destroying
    power of pain to unmake someone's world intentionally." Pain can be
    caused by unintentional actions, but the intentional use of that
    attribute of pain to unmake someone's world could be a definition of
    evil. What do you think about that?

          I think that that's right. The pain that has no human agent,
    such as certain forms of cancer pain or burn pain, are every bit as
    horrible for the person who suffers them, and yet, we can at least
    work to heal that pain, and no one's confused about whether it's a
    good or not. The idea that actually willfully inflicting those kinds
    and levels of pain--if there is such a thing as evil, then that is
    what it is. If I hesitate at all about the word "evil"--let me insert
    a parenthesis in here as to why I hesitate--in some ways "evil" is a
    very resonant term, and I'm sure that for some people it conveys a
    kind of absolute quality that explains why the cruel acts that it
    holds within it have to be absolutely prohibited. For me, for some
    reason, the word "evil" doesn't work in my intuitive, everyday world,
    to carry with it that absolute prohibition in the way that
    "injustice," or a more neutral-sounding word like "cruelty," does. It
    may be because "evil" sounds theological and, therefore, may have a
    slight feeling of excusing the human actors involved, as though it was
    a force beyond them, that they couldn't help participating in. But,
    I'm just saying that as a parenthesis, because I think, for the most
    part, what you mean by "evil" and what I mean by "injustice" or
    "willful infliction of cruelty" or "willful infliction of injury" are
    very close to one another.

          How does the idea of injury fit into your understanding of the
    relationship between evil and suffering?

          Whereas there are a lot of things in the world that are morally
    ambiguous, the willful infliction of injury is not ambiguous, and
    normally one can take that as a kind of center of gravity for
    understanding what's to be aspired to and what's to be avoided. And so
    I think that the language of evil absolutely should have the
    infliction of injury associated with it, if we use it at all. It has
    the benefit of asserting that there is a double ground. It's not that
    everything blends into, or smudges into, each other and that things
    that are good can't be differentiated from things that are evil.

          Some people claim that suffering is the result of evil. Others
    suggest that suffering is the evil against which we should fight. How
    do you see the relationship between evil and suffering?

          I certainly think that suffering that is not willfully inflicted
    is as hateful--as horrible and hateful and to be dreaded--as suffering
    that is willfully inflicted. I think, though, that there is a certain
    advantage in holding out the word "evil" to describe acts of agency,
    that is, acts that are intentional. If what the word "evil" does is to
    mark out something that we plan to work together to eliminate or
    avoid, then that's a virtue of the language. That is, it designates
    something against which we will stand.

          Your work is focused on pain as injury, with torture and war
    being the two primary situations of pain that you discuss. What do you
    think of those instances in which pain is not the infliction of
    injury, for example, the pain associated with medical operations in
    which the goal is the alleviation of an illness or a wound that has
    caused pain, or childbirth, or extreme physical exertion? How does the
    intention of the inflictor of pain relate to whether we view this
    infliction as injury or as evil?

          I think that at the very heart of pain is the felt experience of
    aversiveness. It is something that is immediately palpable as
    something we don't want or one doesn't want. Here again, is something
    that people sometimes get very confused about. They'll say: "Well,
    pain is neutral. It can either be positive or negative." No, that's
    not correct. Pain is negative. It's the felt experience of
    aversiveness. It's something that in the most vivid way possible one
    doesn't want and doesn't want it with all one's being; and therefore,
    it really is a kind of acting against one's will--both because one
    feels the helplessness of one's own will in getting rid of it and
    because, even before one's attempt to get rid of it, the mere fact of
    its existence seems to call into question the power of one's own
    volition, or the power of one's own will.

          So, to go on to your question: what about those situations in
    which there is some voluntary control on the individual's part? I
    think those situations are very different. If I will myself into a
    situation of pain such as a medical therapy, and I agree to go to a
    doctor and let her do something to me that hurts, then it's already
    very different. And it's not just different as an interpretative act,
    but, rather, to say that more clearly, the act of interpretation is so
    deeply grounded in the felt experience itself that if I am actually
    seeking it, it already has a kind of power to transform the pain. That
    is, it is no longer pain, since pain is centrally the felt experience
    of aversiveness. So it may have unpleasant sentient characteristics
    associated with it, but it doesn't fundamentally insult my whole being
    the way physical pain which is unwanted does. If you watch any child
    go into a medical office and watch his or her face as the needle or
    the scalpel approaches, it's a reminder that being able to willingly
    take on pain, as we do when we go to the physician, is a learned
    experience. It is deeply counter-intuitive.

          Isn't it the case that the pain is still unwanted, that there's
    still an aversiveness to pain, but that there's a greater good that
    makes the individual willing to bear it, in which case it's still
    physical pain and still has aversiveness at its core?

          I think that's right. It's certainly the case that one undergoes
    terrible pain by agreeing, say, to chemotherapy. It's just
    unquestionable. And it's certainly the case that childbirth involves
    extremely high levels of pain. But, in both of those cases, as you
    said, there's a good outcome, very great outcome, and also there's
    some recognition that the amount of time involved is limited, which it
    isn't if it's certain other forms of pain. The kind of repudiation
    that would be involved in unwanted pain is not the same.

          Now, here's another crucial element in all these situations: The
    person who's experiencing the pain is also the person who gets the
    benefits of the greater good. It's the person who's chosen the medical
    therapy who will derive the benefits, if there are benefits to be
    derived, from the medical therapy. And it's the person undergoing
    childbirth who will have this wonderful new creature in the world with
    her soon. The problem with these instances being cited is that they
    then get used by people to say that sometimes pain leads to a greater
    good, where it's one person who's being put in pain and somebody else
    who's getting to determine what the greater good is. And, of course,
    this is very clearly true in regimes that torture. I'm sure they're
    telling themselves that they don't really want to inflict pain, but
    for the good of the regime, they have to do it. What is absolutely
    crucial is that the location of sentience for the pain and for the
    assessment of the pleasure or what the good is to be derived have to
    be in the same location. And if they're not, then the thing is a very
    great falsification.

          Torture is one of the most extreme examples of the situation in
    which the suffering of one person is used for the supposed good of
    another: the pain of the victim of torture is directly inverse to the
    good for which the torturer claims he is doing this torturing. Is that
    why you see torture as "close to an absolute immorality"?

          I think you're exactly right that one person's pain is being
    appropriated and its attributes are being objectified and falsely
    conferred on someone else or something else. And, therefore, it does
    represent an absolute of immorality. That's my judgment, but it's also
    a widely shared judgment. It's why international prohibitions on
    torture are stated in unqualified form, and it's why torture has
    extra-territorial jurisdiction in the United States where, unlike any
    other political crime, it doesn't have to have happened on our soil or
    even to involve a U. S. citizen for it to be tried in the country.
    Those are, legally, very unusual circumstances. But it is just for the
    reason you point to: there is a complete lack of consent in the
    situation so that the location of the pain and the location of the
    asserted good to be derived are wholly severed from one another. The
    example of torture shows this in its global features and also in the
    minute workings of it. Very literally you can watch in slow motion
    this transfer across the two locations, so that, for example, certain
    features of pain, like its totalizing power, are transferred over to
    the regime; in this mime that's going on in the prison room, it seems
    to be the regime that's total. Well, the regime isn't total at all.
    It's usually because the regime's in a lot of trouble and doesn't have
    ordinary forms of popular verification and authorization that it's
    resorting to torture, and, yet, for the duration of the act of
    torture, it seems as though the regime is total and totalizing because
    the felt experience of pain is total and totalizing. But it does seem
    to me an absolute standard.

          Once in a while, you'll hear somebody try to make an argument
    like: "Let's imagine a situation where we would all agree to torture.
    Imagine someone has a key secret to some kind of terrible weapon, like
    a nuclear bomb, and only by torturing him or her do you find out where
    it is." Leaving aside the fact that it's been demonstrated over and
    over again that torture leads to a mountain of false information, not
    to true information--even if we can allow that it leads to true
    information, it doesn't change the fact that there's no reason to want
    to change the fact that torturing the person is wrong. It's just that
    in that situation one would be willing to accept carrying out a very
    wrong act in order to do something else. But to say that as though
    what you really want is to absolve somebody--I mean, why would anyone
    in that situation even want to absolve themselves in wrongdoing?
    Presumably they're going to do something for humanity. They are not
    going to ask to be absolved from that.

          There's no reason to try to say that torture is a good
    thing--even if, for example, it does save the world from this nuclear
    bomb. It's still a very bad, destructive thing to torture someone, but
    you might say it was a necessary evil for that particular situation.

          I think that's exactly right.

          Let's talk about beauty and evil, which is a strange
    combination, but you went from writing a book about pain and to
    writing a book about beauty and justice. How do you understand the
    relation between injury and beauty?

          I think the whole sequence of questions you've been asking me
    underscores the bridge, the structure, that connects the earlier work
    I did on pain and the more recent work on beauty. It's in part because
    The Body in Pain is so much about the opposition between pain, on the
    one hand, and creation, on the other, so that creation, which is very
    bound up with beauty, really does stand in opposition to pain. Some
    people who have read the book, On Beauty and Being Just, even when
    they've been incredibly generous to the book, have said: "Well, she
    never talks about ugliness." But, beauty, like anything else, can have
    many different opposites. And the thing that, for me, is the opposite
    of beauty is injury. There is a straightforward continuity between the
    two works. Beauty makes us want to diminish injury in the world. When
    I say that beauty makes us feel adverse to injury, what I'm trying to
    say is that one never wants to cease being opposed to injury.

          The felt experience of standing in the presence of beauty is
    life-affirming; it both makes us salute the aliveness (or if it's an
    artwork, the kind of life-likeness) of the thing before which we
    stand, and ignites or vivifies our awareness of our own aliveness,
    making the pleasurable facts of sentience more emphatic. It's always
    the work of creation to diminish pain, but not to diminish sentience.
    It's the work of creation to amplify the pleasurable forms of
    sensation, such as seeing. Creation helps us see farther, or hear
    better, or with more acuity, or to touch better, but it's only the
    adversity of sentience, of physical pain and injury, that creation
    opposes. Beautiful things incite in us the desire to do one of two
    things: to protect and take care of beautiful things that are already
    existing in the world, to engage in acts of stewardship, and to
    perform new acts of creation. When you're in the presence of something
    beautiful, it often leads you to want to bring yet more beauty into
    the world. So you see a beautiful tree, and now you want to take a
    photograph of the tree, or make a drawing of the tree. The tree is
    already beautiful and yet, now it's going to be supplemented with one
    more beautiful thing, this sketch or this photograph. And the outcome
    may be incredibly great, as is the case if you're Leonardo doing this
    sketch, or it may be something as modest as just the fact of staring.
    When one stares at a beautiful building or a beautiful flower or
    stares acoustically at a beautiful piece of music by playing it again
    and again and again, what one is doing is perpetuating its existence
    in the world, that is, perpetuating, giving it more standing, giving
    it more ground to stand on. And, therefore, that act, though it seems
    very ordinary--the act of staring either with your ears or your eyes
    or your hands or whatever--is very closely bound up to the act of
    creating, since what it tries to do is bring about more of this thing
    that already is.

          I was thinking about your descriptions of pain as the shrinking
    of the world to just the body or the part of the body that is in pain,
    and of seeing beauty or experiencing beauty as a sort of duplication
    or reproduction--there's a certain fecundity to it that is a
    multiplier of sensations, a desire to reproduce the beautiful object
    or to share it or to insure its existence along with one's own.

          I think that that's true: beauty really is distributive in
    nature; pain and injury do throw you back on yourself. One thinks of
    that great definition of aging by Stravinsky as the ever-shrinking
    perimeter of pleasure, where there's only the felt fact of
    aversiveness. And yet, beauty wholly carries one out of oneself, as in
    the descriptions given by Simon Weil and by Iris Murdock as a kind of
    de-centering, in which your own preoccupations about yourself fall
    away. You're actually in the very unusual position of being willing to
    be secondary to or adjacent to or lateral to the figure, and yet being
    at the same time in a great state of pleasure. There are lots of
    things in the world that can make us feel secondary or tertiary or
    lateral, and there are lots of things in the world that can make us
    feel acute pleasure, but usually they don't happen simultaneously, and
    in beauty, they really do. But I hadn't quite seen it so clearly in
    the way that you've just made me see it, as really clearly the
    opposite of the soul-destroying throwing back on the adversity of the
    body that can happen in the brute forms of extreme and sustained
    physical pain.

Do visit these References:

    2. http://religionanddemocracy.lib.virginia.edu/hh/index.html
    3. http://www.virginia.edu/iasc/

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