Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Approximation, Suggestion, and Analogy: Translating Pain into Language

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Approximation, Suggestion, and Analogy: Translating Pain into Language

Article excerpt


This paper addresses Elaine Scarry's contention that pain actively destroys language and therefore cannot be represented in words. I use Alphonse Daudet's notebooks, where he writes of the pains of syphilis, to show how literary strategies may translate the experience of pain so that sufferers, and those who observe the pain of others, may gain some understanding of it.

Pain, as an experience, is both common and elusive. Elaine Scarry--perhaps the best known and most influential theorist of pain in recent years--argues that the experience of pain escapes language, leaving the sufferer bemused and silenced by the brute fact of its inexpressibility. Her argument is both complex and interesting, and one of her major contentions is that language is destroyed by pain: the experience is so intense that words can only fail in the face of it. There is, for her, no possibility of its translation from brute bodily experience into a verbal form that conveys the reality of such suffering. As Scarry puts it in her ground-breaking book The Body in Pain, 'physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned'. (1) In this essay I shall be using the thoughts recorded by the nineteenth-century French novelist Alphonse Daudet in his notebooks, as a way of understanding the pain and fear of suffering from syphilis, in order to test the limitations of Scarry's claims, and in an effort to find a chink, a hope for expression and the translation of pain into words.

At times Daudet's own words almost exactly mirror those of Scarry, as the words of the sufferer and those of the theorist coalesce. As Daudet puts it:

How much I suffered last night, in my heel and in my ribs. Sheer torture [...] there are no words to express it, only howls of pain could do so.

Are words actually any use to describe what pain (or passion for that matter) really feels like? Words only come when everything is over, when things have calmed down. They refer only to memory, and are either powerless or untruthful. (2)

Daudet starts with a statement of the fact of his suffering in an attempt to convey its reality; yet he moves on from this, through despair at the paucity of language, to more abstract musings on the ideas of pain and passion themselves. In this, Daudet may be aligned with the later musings of Virginia Woolf on the expressibility of pain in her 1926 essay 'On Being Ill'.

Woolf's much-cited essay is used as verification of the ineffability of pain by diverse writers who take the rationalization of suffering as their subject, from Elaine Scarry, through Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall in their groundbreaking medical text The Challenge of Pain, to Norman Autton's very differently slanted book Pain: An Exploration, (3) a manual of how to listen to those who suffer physically. These, and indeed many other writers, cite just one passage from Woolf's essay:

English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache [...]. The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare, Donne, Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. (4)

Pain, Woolf contends here, stands outside the possibilities of language, and those who suffer must do so in silence. While Woolf, as I shall suggest later in this essay, moves beyond the absoluteness of this position, this statement is often accepted exactly as it stands, closing down the possibilities of expression for those in pain. Elaine Scarry carefully and convincingly articulates her argument for the ineffability of pain using the extreme example of the deliberate infliction of torture, but it is, I think, possible--and useful--to find a chink in such a position. …

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