Judith Shklar

  • 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.

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