- The Body in Pain by Elaine Scarry
Oxford, 385 pp, £30.00, November 1985, ISBN 0 19 503601 8
Books and films about terror and torture are now both more numerous and better than they used to be. The reasons for this are probably bad news. There is more to talk about. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to find a volume as solid and responsible as Edward Peters’s Torture, which traces the history of torture from the extraction of evidence from slave witnesses in criminal trials to the Inquisition, and on to its use, after a brief interruption, in our century as part of the ideological wars of nation-states with their fear of subversion and the importance they attach to intelligence. He says less about political terror, but that also has been properly recorded by now. Not the least value of Peters’s book is its bibliography, which is to be recommended particularly to anyone reading Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, so that they can find out what Amnesty International and similar human rights organisations do and why their work is so important. For in spite of the ecstatic quotes on the blurb and the author’s own introduction to the book, only a few of its pages are concerned with torture, and these are at best misleading.
The subtitle of this book, ‘The Making and Unmaking of the World’, gives one some notion of its pretensions and its contents, but I am by no means sure that I know what is meant by ‘the world’ here. My guess is that it refers to God’s creation in the Old Testament and the ‘constructive’ physical pain that he inflicts on the people of Israel in order to raise them to the spiritual destiny for which they and their Christian heirs have been chosen. For Christians, we are told, believe 90 per cent of what the Jews believe, and the remaining 10 per cent only served to spread the Bible’s civilising mission from the Near East to the rest of the world. One wonders what all that fuss between them was about during all those centuries. Scarry is too sure of a ‘Judeo-Christian’ religion even to ask. That phrase is not without its problems. A symptom of the uneasiness of those Christians who wonder whether they might not have involuntarily contributed to the most recent extermination of the Jews, it cannot alter the fact that religious Jews hold beliefs that are very different from those of devout Christians. In Scarry’s revision, however, it is all one story – which finds its completion in the writings of Karl Marx, who in an unintended parallel offers the same account of how the bodily pain of work creates our ‘world’. The point of this improbable tale is that the ‘troubling’ inflictions of pain that God in his rages visits upon human bodies are really ‘benign’ because they are acts of ‘making’. When we do these things to each other, in torturing or in waging war, however, they are ‘deconstructive’.
If it were not for the 32 pages on torture which it contains, this book might not be worth reviewing, but although Scarry’s intentions are palpably decent, her account is so wholly devoid of historical evidence and political information as to be worse than useless. It is all speculation. Since Amnesty International, especially, relies on publicity to rouse both the public and government agents, its friends might well be tempted to look to this book for support. That would be a mistake, particularly for an organisation which is known for the accuracy of its documentation. Consider, for example, the following bizarre account of AI and the practices it tries to combat:
To acknowledge the radical subjectivity of pain is to acknowledge the simple and absolute incompatibility of pain and the world. The survival of each depends on its separation from the other. To bring them together, to bring pain into the world by objectifying it in language, is to destroy one of them; either, as is the case of Amnesty International and parallel efforts in other areas, the pain is objectified, articulated, brought into the world in such a way that the pain itself is diminished and destroyed; or alternatively, as is torture and parallel forms of sadism, the pain is at once objectified and falsified, articulated but made to refer to something else and in the process, the world, or some dramatised surrogate of the world, is destroyed.
How did Scarry arrive at this piece of mystification? Her account of pain begins sensibly enough with the notorious difficulties that patients have when they try to describe their aches and pains to doctors. To help physicians make diagnoses physiological psychologists have developed a standard set of adjectives for the use of the ill. Some hospitals also use mime to simulate pain for the same purpose. For language is by no means the only way to communicate the experience of pain. Scarry, however, assumes, without evidence or argument, that the exigencies of medicine and its need for precision prove something about the language of pain in general. It is apparently so subjective that it cannot be communicated at all. People in pain have to resort to metaphors of ‘agency’ to express the ineffable – ‘it feels like pin-pricks,’ for instance. This, in turn, makes it possible for torturers who inflict extreme pain on their victims to ‘objectify’ that pain and then ‘appropriate’ it and ‘conflate’ it into a debased type of power. What this means, as far as I can understand, is that the torturer comes to see himself as the pin that does the pricking, and he does this because it gives him a sense of power. Interrogation is merely an act of verbal torture, and the interrogator the agent of an insecure regime, who shares its uncertainties and needs reassurance. The ‘uncontestable’ reality of the pain, transformed into agency, gives his power an ‘uncontestable’ reality which it could not acquire without the act of torture. That act is always the same. It makes no difference at all whether the torturer is an officer of the Inquisition or of the Nazi Party: in neither case is the interrogation anything other than a fictive device to crush the victim’s spirit. Circumstances have no bearing on the issue. In all cases torture is simply ‘stupid’ and ‘savage’.
Stalin’s regime was not unstable, however, and neither was the Dominican Order. We have no way of knowing whether individual torturers seek an ‘uncontestable’ power in their work. Some may, others are conscripted peasant youths who receive pay and privileges for work in support of a regime they trust. Many people, though not all, will torture in response to the orders of authorities they habitually accept and even revere, as Stanley Milgram’s experiments more than suggested in 1974. There is no special personality involved. Some torturers are sadists, others are not. The hangman has always been a puzzle, even in the days when the vocation was inherited by sons from their fathers. Interrogations are not formal exercises. Torture was long used in criminal trials to gather evidence and the confession had a significant place in the proceedings of the Inquisition as well as in those of the Moscow trials of the Thirties. Information is militarily extremely important in contemporary warfare, especially in ideological civil conflicts. Nor is torture ‘stupid’: it works – and it is far from clear in what sense it is ‘savage’. The instruments of torture pictured in many paintings of the Last Judgment reveal some of the most intricate handiwork of the pre-industrial craftsman. Torture takes place in the most primitive as well as in the most advanced societies. Above all, it cannot be understood as a phenomenon that takes place in a chamber between two people, a victim and a torturer. It is always a part of a judicial and political system. To ignore that is to falsify its character and to make any effort to halt or impede it impossible.
I suspect that Scarry is neither describing nor trying to explain torture: she is ‘reading’ social acts as if they were texts, probably in keeping with Paul Ricoeur’s theory of interpretation. In this view the intentions of those who create texts-situations are wholly irrelevant to our ‘reading’ of them. So also is the context within which the situation takes place. No ‘unostensive’ references may be imputed to them. Finally, the reader should make his own ‘world’ out of the materials directly presented to him by his chosen text-situation. Clearly Scarry ‘reads’ the torture chamber as abstracted from everything around it. We have the pained body, the torturer and the imputed meaning of the scene, which is part of the author’s imagined ‘world’, drawn, we eventually learn, from the Old Testament. If the subject of this literary exercise were not the political practice of torture one might shrug one’s shoulders and let it be, but this is different. To peg the prevalence and ‘meaning’ of torture to a universally shared inability to talk about pain, to the debility of its victims, rather than to its social supporters, and above all to our almost universal refusal to listen, is too much. It is the ‘ear’, not our vocabulary, that is at fault.
Let us not be self-righteous. Evidence of torture is hard to come by in the countries where it occurs regularly. Anyone interested in finding out how difficult it is, morally and practically, for civilised, well-meaning people to catch up with their own delinquent governments should see the splendid Argentinian film The Official Story. It is really about fear, a word that occurs only in a footnote in Scarry’s book. And fear of knowing the truth is by no means the least of the many terrors the film presents. At the beginning we see those who support the regime for a variety of personal reasons. They are perfectly normal people for the most part, ordinary in their personal relations. Their trust in the government is sustained by the easiest of all associations of ideas. Most people go to jail because they have committed some crime. Therefore those who are in jail must have done ‘something’, engaged in some subversive or revolutionary activity which would threaten the civil order. What goes on in the centres of detention and why people just disappear is never very clear. No alternative sources of information are available and there is no easy access to critical opinions. An exceptionally honest history teacher begins to suspect that the adopted child whom she adores has been bought by her husband from the state agency which has just destroyed its young parents. The obstacles which she faces, both practical and emotional, until she finds a woman who might be the grandmother of the child, tell us both that the truth is hard to come by and that it may destroy you and those you cherish. Why ask questions when so much depends on not looking for trouble? The real world of torturing regimes is a world of fear and lies, not of ‘inexpressible’ pain. The real task of Amnesty International is to force us to look at it and to do whatever we can, not to ruminate about ‘objectification’.
If Scarry’s ‘reading’ of torture suffers from Lit Crit unintelligibility, her reflections on war are afflicted by an excess of common sense. By ‘common sense’ I mean both the untutored understanding that is our birthright and the source of that understanding, which is generally the shared mind-set of one’s community and nearest associations. Scarry has seen plenty of war on the TV set and she knows what it does: it inflicts injuries on human bodies. Like most common-sense observations, this is not really untrue. War, in her view, is a ‘contest’ – a zero-sum game – between competing cultures. That this definition hardly fits any wars does not matter. The few books she has consulted as well as the media tell us that there have been imperative national reasons for recent wars. Scarry regards all these as pure fiction, as unrelated to the violence of combat. However, since the participants seem to ‘consent’ to war, going off willingly enough to fight for their country, their pain, though unutterable, is not the same as the pain of torture. Nevertheless the injuries that she has so plainly seen have nothing to connect them directly to the fictive purposes to which people consent. This reveals a verbal hollowness which is all the more striking given her view that the ultimate consequences of wars rarely have anything to do with their alleged causes. In this picture of war, in which xenophobia, religious and ideological hatred, revenge and age-old mutual distrust are never even mentioned, war does seem not merely absurd, but quite incomprehensible. It also raises the hope, as old as William James, that some ‘moral equivalent’ for this sport might in time be found. Both the innocence and the ignorance of even American history in this book are shared by most American high-school graduates. So it is not surprising that Scarry writes that if we stacked the bodies of all the boys who died in the American Civil War side by side and then looked at its outcome, we would see no connection between the two, since both sides agreed to accept the victor’s agenda. ‘After the American Civil War, the population of the South comes not only to accept but to take pride in its presence within the larger Union, not only accepts but takes pride in the dissolution of slavery from its territory.’ This gives one some sense of Scarry’s grasp of American history. It may be the official story, but it is not history as a genuine historian, say C. Vann Woodward, tells it.
For Scarry, the disjunction between injury and purpose not only makes war a delusive enterprise, it also radically distinguishes war from torture. Consent makes all the difference here and without a trace of philosophical argument. We all know that governments hold their ‘just powers from the consent of the governed’. What is it, however, that we consent to? To not resisting the draft? To injuring and being injured? To an international system that accepts wars? Or to a specific government which we trust not to fight useless and unjust wars? If the latter is the case, as seems likely, then some victims of torture also consent to it. For while they do not consent to their own torture, they often accept the practice. Can we say that they haven’t consented to their fate but that the children and women routinely slaughtered not only by bombs but by mercenaries and fanatics have consented to theirs? Anyone who wants to make consent part of the idea of war should have a look at the history of the Thirty Years War. Besides, does consent justify everything a regime does? There is no reason to doubt that Hitler was a very popular leader in his days of success. Peron is still worshipped by many in Argentina. If their populations consented to these torturers, what separates them from those who just wage wars? Nor is it true that nuclear war is more like torture than it is like other wars, because no one would consent to it. Has Scarry never heard of ‘better dead than red’? The meaning of consent may have seemed self-evident to the signers of the Declaration of Independence, but it is one of the most ambiguous and complicated terms in the vocabulary of politics. Scarry’s way with political theory is, in short, no better than her treatment of history. She ignores both.
Torture and war are not the chief topics of The Body in Pain. Its main preoccupation is God’s construction of the ‘world’. The Bible is really a text and hermeneutics were invented to make it coherent. And as nothing hangs on Scarry’s hermeneutics, one can take them or leave them. Marx, however, has to be treated differently, and even a very un-Marxian theorist may feel compelled to come to his aid in the face of Scarry’s well-intentioned caricature. Barely escaped from the sentimentalities attributed to him by those who cling only to his philosophical juvenalia, the old man is now reduced to mirroring, in a materialist mode, the message of the Scriptures. All very ‘benign’. No philosophy of history, no class war and no technological imperatives. He is our greatest philosopher of artifacts, apparently. The labour of the body, he tells us, alters the environment, which in turn alters us, so that the pain of labour becomes objectified in creations which are extensions of the body, and, in sum, constitute civilisation. Never mind that this belongs to the story told by Rousseau rather than the one told by Marx: without the division of labour and its transformations neither story is recognisable. As for the accumulation and dominion of capital, Marx’s special contribution to this theory, it is just, Scarry says, a matter of a bit of 19th-century English injustice, soon to be remedied. That is also the official story, but it bears no discernible relation to the writings of Karl Marx. In a world without ambiguities, where there are only good and bad guys, he appears to have found his place among the former. Really?
In the end, Scarry’s story about the structure of artifacts is exactly like her story about torture. Isolated individuals do something in a vacuum. One constructs, the other destroys. In neither case is anything said that is relevant to political thought or action. Yet pain does have an important place in moral and political philosophy. It may well be, as Rousseau thought, that our ability to identify with the physical suffering of sentient beings is our only natural social impulse. At a very different level of thought pain has always been a bone of contention among those who argue about the mind-body problem. Is there, or is there not, a mind apart able to contemplate from outside the agony of the body? Relativism is similarly puzzled. Some twenty years ago Isaiah Berlin argued that anyone who does not care at all whether something that gives him pleasure does or does not cause another human being physical pain is radically defective. From there one might go on to argue for a coherent liberal political theory built on the assumption that cruelty is the summum malum. Pain isn’t a subject that has to be left entirely to biology. On the contrary, like torture and political oppression, pain is everybody’s business, which is why treating it as irresponsibly as Scarry does is so offensive.