THE BODY IN PAIN. By Elaine Scarry. Oxford. 385 pp. $24.95. INTELLECTUALS, almost by definition, are persons who are primarily concerned with mental operations; with the relation between concepts; with symbols; with abstractions and not with bodies. No one could be more of an intellectual than Professor Elaine Scarry; but no one, with the exception of Freud, more persistently brings one back to the reality of the body. "It is only when the body is comfortable, when it has ceased to be an obsessive object of perception and concern, that consciousness develops other objects, that for any individual the external world (in part already existing and in part about to be formed) comes into being and begins to grow."
The first part of this original, stimulating book is concerned with "The Structure of Torture." Scarry points out that severe physical pain is unique among states of consciousness in possessing no external referent. If we are frightened, we are frightened of something. If we love, we love something or someone. But if we are in pain, we are just in pain without reference to anything in the external world. This is why, in Scarry's view, another's pain is so difficult to appreciate, and why pain is so hard to describe in words. She underlines her contention by pointing out that physical pain is rarely represented in literature, while psychological suffering is, of course, the very stuff of fiction.
The deliberate infliction of severe pain which occurs in torture causes the disintegration of the prisoner's world. His ultimate, almost inevitable "confession" attests the fact that pain has become his only reality; that everything which formerly constituted his life, his family, his country, his friends, and his ideals have been dissolved in agony. Moreover, torture forces upon the prisoner the distorted belief that he is partly responsible for his own pain as well as for his self-betrayal. Torturers frequently force prisoners to adopt postures or perform exercises which cause intense pain, thus making the prisoner a seemingly active agent in producing his own distress.
I am sure that Scarry is right in affirming that the ultimate purpose of torture is not so much the extraction of confessions as the assertion of the power of the torturer. When contests for superiority occur among animals, the winner is usually content to let the loser escape without inflicting further injury. Man is the only creature who habitually humiliates and inflicts pain upon those whom he has already defeated. It is as if the conqueror could never quite believe in his own power; as if he still harbored lingering paranoid suspicions that his enemy could somehow destroy him by evil machinations. Only when pain has rendered his victim incapable of magination or rational planning can the torturer feel temporarily secure.
Torture and war are alike in that both inflict injury upon bodies. Scarry calls them "the two events in which the ordinary assumptions of culture are suspended." Although war is generally regarded as less horrifying than torture because those participating have at least some choice in whether or not they expose themselves to injury, Scarry makes the point that no such choice exists for the majority in nuclear war. Hence the structure of nuclear war is closer to that of torture than that of conventional war.
The impossibility of finding adequate language to convey the reality of pain and injury has led to the use of euphemisms which conceal the horror of war. Scarry insists that "the main purpose and outcome of war is injuring," but that misuse of language all too often obscures this central fact. The soldier may say that he is off to die for his country; he seldom states that he is off to kill for his country. "Cleaning up," "neutralizing," or "pressing hard upon" the enemy are phrases which do not convey the reality of severing arteries, ripping open bellies, blinding, piercing and decapitating. Military historians personify military leaders as if they were mythological giants engaged in single combat rather than commanders whose aim is to make their men kill or maim as many enemy soldiers as possible. At the end of World War II there were between 47 and 55 million corpses, yet these corpses are often referred to as an "inevitable by-product" of war. "But if injury is designated 'the by-product' what is the product?" asks Scarry.
SHE ADDRESSES the interesting problem of why disputes between nations are settled by such a destructive form of contest rather than by less damaging competitions. It is said that certain tribes of Eskimo used to settle disputes by song contests. Why cannot Western man do the same? Scarry holds out some hope that surrogates for war will one day be adopted, but affirms that this will only happen if the nature of war is more accurately described than it usually is at present. Although winning a war does not necessarily mean that the victor will be able to enforce his will, the infliction of physical injury has a compelling reality and a lasting, visible effect which makes it seem that the outcome of war is more absolute than in fact it is. Only when we acknowledge that our sense of reality is both determined by, and distorted by, the body, will we be able to transcend the atavistic, primitive way of settling conflict which war constitutes.
Having described how inflicted pain narrows a person's world and destroys his power to imagine, Scarry proceeds, in the second part of this deeply thoughtful book, to describe how the human imagination becomes projected and then transmuted into material artifacts. "While pain is a state remarkable for being wholly without objects, the imagination is remarkable for being the only state that is wholly its objects." Torture destroys the world; imagination makes it. Artifacts are originally projections of the body. A bandage is a substitute for skin. Spectacles, microscopes, telescopes and cameras are extensions of the human eye. Less obviously, a chair is a concrete realization of an imagined state; the state in which one's weight is taken off one's feet. We have come full circle. Pain, or at least discomfort, can act as a stimulus to the imagination as well as be its assassin. Elaine Scarry has written a richly original, provocative book which makes one reconsider torture, war, and creativity from a new perspective.