Feel the burn

Jenny Diski

  • Pain: The Science of Suffering by Patrick Wall
    Weidenfeld, 186 pp, £12.99, July 1999, ISBN 0 297 84255 2

You may have missed out on love, transcendental oneness with the Universe, the adrenaline rush of the warrior, but you’ve had a headache or a bad back. Pain is the one engulfing, undeniable, incommunicable experience we’ve all had. And yet for all its ubiquity, pain is a solitary encounter, a lonely way of discovering the certainty that you exist. I hurt therefore I am is rapidly followed by I hurt therefore I am alone. Two people in pain are not nearly as likely to commit themselves to each other for life, or found a religious community, or become comrades in battle as they are to curl up silently in separate corners of the room to suffer alone what can’t be shared. Nasty business. One of the nastiest we can think of. Fear of death in a secular society is largely fear of pain. It’s not hard to imagine longing for death as a release from pain, but very difficult to believe one would wish to trade the blankness of death for living agony. Even self-confessed masochists are clear that the pain they want is the pain of their choosing, at the time of their choosing and with the sadist of their choosing, not an attack of toothache or appendicitis.

Yet masochism in some more general form must be implicated in the mysterious fact that the technology of pain relief has been so neglected by our pathologically innovative, life-improving species, which has always and everywhere suffered from it. We have developed as far as the pre-washed lettuce and the Flip-Down Magnifying Eye Make-Up Glasses (Innovations, £9.99), but can do nothing for your current migraine attack. Lurking somewhere is the belief that pain is good for you, and/or deserved, because pain as punishment and salvation is our cultural sine qua non. ‘Because you have done this ... I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children,’ our first story tells us. And we are only to be redeemed through the agony of Christ’s crucifixion: a sharp blow to the back of the head or a firing squad just wouldn’t have done. Hold still, darling, while I pour iodine onto your cut, yes I know it stings, but that’s because it’s doing you good. Stop complaining, of course the poultice is unbearably hot: it won’t work otherwise. No pain, no gain. Feel the burn.

Actually, I’d rather not, and the blessed Patrick Wall, neuroscientist and pain doctor, wishes it to be known that pain is almost entirely useless and good for nothing but getting rid of. He cites cancer pain, with the impatience of one who is suffering it himself, as the apogee of pointlessness. Cancer only hurts once the tumour has grown large enough to become an obstruction or irritant. Before that, when something might be done about it, cancer grows in painless silence. Wall has no time for those who justify pain as a warning system.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in