Academic journal article Philosophy Today

When Pain Becomes Unreal

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

When Pain Becomes Unreal

Article excerpt

How can the pain suffered by the bereaved in their grief of loss, by victims of political atrocities or by patients in agony, be associated with the unreal? My title: when pain becomes unreal, may not only sound dangerously provocative, but also simply counterintuitive. At any rate this title conflicts sharply with a premise that most theories of pain seem to share: pain seems to make us experience what is real.1 No matter whether we deal with mental anguish, bodily agony, or social suffering, we really know when we are in pain. Though one cannot feel the pain of another person, pain usually serves as a primary example of what it is to have certainty rather than doubt. Also pains that are clearly detached from physical reality, like phantom pain or neuralgia, appear to us as most certainly real. Therefore a vast majority of philosophers see pain not as a counter-- force to reality, but as a power that ex negativum creates what is most real to us. Even pains that seem to be only destructive, are thought to shape what we see as our reality. The contention that pain destructs, or as Elaine Scarry says, "unmakes" reality, is in fact a mere variation of the prevailing opinion that pain is that which, however negatively, "makes" reality.2 Scarry moreover contends that pain unmakes reality whereas imagination makes the unreal. But, as will be shown, in Scarry's contention there is an underlying premise that she does not examine and which is not yet explored in literature on pain: pain unmaking the real subsequently may become a power that itself "makes the unreal." Contrary to Scarry's notion, intense physical, mental and social pain as experienced in the cases of political torture and in the atrocities of the Holocaust, may evolve into a force that, like imagination, drives us into creating that which appears to us as fiction. It is the purpose of this essay to explore this premise. The title "when pain becomes unreal" is the expression of pain being a force that can make our most intense state of experience become fictive.

As will become clear, this title does not render harmless the excruciating pain of, for instance, victims of political atrocities, but on the contrary underlines the abhorrent effect of the like. The comparison of notions of pain like those of Martin Heidegger, notorious for his involvement in Nazi-politics, and Elie Wiesel, a victim of these politics, is not meant to provoke, but rather to critically show the very limitations of a most profound philosophical concept of pain conveying reality.

In the first part of this essay I shall examine Martin Heidegger's notion of pain as an example of the contention that pain is a force making reality. The second and third parts consist of an analysis of extreme pain related to political torture and the Holocaust. In the second part, Scarry's view of the pain of torture, "unmaking" reality, will be discussed. In the third, and most important part, I shall analyze Eli Wiesel's Night, a report of his experience in a concentration camp, so as to explore the underlying premise that pain "unmaking reality" itself might subsequently become a power making the unreal.3

Making Reality

Throughout the history of Western philosophy pain is in different ways associated with a destructive power, one that, as Elaine Scarry puts it, unmakes the world (25ff.). But a majority of philosophers, particularly pessimists like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, see pain not as a counter-force to reality, but the very power of that which creates reality. For Nietzsche, for instance, pain is the major condition of all creation: "all becoming and growing," all that exceeds the present and "guarantees the future."4 Pain is no negative force, but represents an affirmative power. Like suffering renders birth, pain is a force creating reality.5

When pain is seen as a creating or making power, one ascribes to pain agency: pain is no passive sensational or perceptual reaction to stimulation, but is itself a doing agent. …

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