Language & violence

“To have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt.” Elaine Scarry


I have finally finished reading Elaine Scarry‘s difficult book The Body in Pain. The subtitle is “The Making and Unmaking of the World,” which offers some idea of how large a topic is under consideration in her text. She examines torture, war, sports as metaphor for war, the creation of god(s), the interiority of and thus the difficulty of assessing pain, the Marxist and Judeo-Christian structures of imagining the world (“making” through art, government, the creation of objects, religions, and concepts), to name a few of her subjects. She considers the utter “unmaking” of torture and war as world-destroying and, ultimately, word-destroying; when the human is in deep pain, the utterances are essentially word-less–moans, grunts, screams–and the experience remains internal and unique to each individual:

“Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language. ‘English,’ writes Virginia Woolf, ‘which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear has no words for the shiver or the headache.’ … Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it.”

I love her theories (are they theories? explorations?) of imagination/imagining and creation/creativity. She develops this set of concepts in the transitional chapter “Pain and Imagining,” then applies her ideas to huge social constructs, not just to objects or individuals. I found it difficult to get my mind around the philosophical aspects of her argument–the denseness of her prose can  be tough, though never impenetrable. pain

What sprang to mind for me, among many other thoughts to mull over, is the pang I feel about recognizing that tools that change or make can also, almost always, be weapons as well. The hand or the fist. The sculptor’s knife or the assassin’s dirk. The stone that grinds corn or the projectile hurled at the opponent. The words that comfort, the words that wound. For a writer–a poet (“maker”)–that awareness hovers, always, in the background.


Also, Scarry’s book made me mindful of how pain and sorrow employ the language of war and torture. This is irrefutable, and it saddens me. I wonder: is there any way around that fact?

If I could rephrase my pain into words that were not violence-based, could I re-frame my pain? Certainly language has a relationship with consciousness; could there be a placebo effect on my interior sensations if I were to re-name my “pain sensations” as something other than burning, stabbing, numbing, sharp?

Could I unmake the world of pain through a mindful habit of personal language?

[Note: this speculation is not where Scarry goes in her text; it’s just a thought experiment that I have considered based upon some of her observations.]






5 comments on “Language & violence

  1. On my to buy list now. Speaking as someone who had a full-back (and down the thigh) tattoo last year, I believe how we experience pain is up to us. There was a spot on my lower back that sent sharp pains along what felt like the inner wall of my abdomen. I kept thinking that under different circumstances it would have been torture. I didn’t try to ignore the pain, I kind of “explored” it. I think I stumbled on Buddhist approach, from what little I know of Buddhism. I think giving it meaning makes all the difference. Like the pain of childbirth.

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    • Not an easy read–took me well over a month to get through Scarry’s text. And so much yet I haven’t explored (coming from my background as the child of a Protestant minister, her chapter on hurting and the Bible narrative was especially interesting).
      I have never considered getting a tattoo because, actually, it seemed too like self-torture to me. But I do see an acupuncturist! So I wonder again: is the difference merely my imaginative framing?

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  2. Sigrun says:

    You quote Scarry saying: “Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it”, which made me think of Gregory Orr (no surprise 🙂 ) talking about finding/creating poetry as a way to restitute when in deep mental pain. Not as an easy way out, but as a possibility in the midst of the catastrophe.

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    • Oh, thanks for making that connection. Orr’s book does speak on many levels to this pain/imagination/creation concept.
      And Scarry briefly mentions the parallels of birth/creation (labor pains).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. […] and how hard it is to express pain of any kind in a manner that conveys anything to other people [see blog on Scarry], I stopped to think about the figure of speech I had […]


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