Monday, December 10, 2007

Books in Review

The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, by Elaine Scarry, begins with an absolutely brilliant account of the interior structure of torture--how it accomplishes what it intends, what it, in fact, intends quite apart from what it purports to intend, how embodiment is configured in the interaction between torturer and victim.

That we are now having something of a national . . . well, debate is too strong a word, isn't it? . . . thought exercise maybe? (of course, it's only a thought exercise for us) on the subject of torture only makes Scarry's chapter seem eerily prescient (the book was published in the mid-nineties).

She then moves to an equally important reading of the structure of war. Following Carl von Clausewitz, she makes the simple (but hardly simplistic) statement that war is an injuring contest whose physical consequences are held to certify the right of the "winner" to author reality for both parties. Each aspect of that statement (injuring, contest, consequences, winning, authoring reality) receives thorough attention, especially to the ways in which the statement's accuracy is masked (whether intentionally or incidentally) in speech about war (histories, media reports, propaganda, personal accounts).

My respect for Scarry's accomplishment in these two chapters is only partially mitigated by the three chapters that follow. The conceptual lenses by which she is able to read war and torture (and later, capitalism) so keenly are themselves less persuasively described.

For Scarry, bodily pain is the ground of creation/civilization and disembodiment is its product. One makes--coats, bread, speech, ideas--in order to alleviate an uncomfortable awareness of one's body (hunger, vulnerability to injury). The made thing, as long as it perdures, gives benefits the force of which is to remake the body of the maker (resistance to cold, increased mobility, ability to communicate with those outside the range of one's physical capacity) in a manner that disguises the limits imposed by human embodiment.

While this analysis has much to recommend it, Scarry's account of pain and creation are too narrow. Pain is not the only experience in which we become attuned to the fact of our having a body; pleasure serves that function, too. (Thomas's account of pain is much more convincing--it is one of the passions, not the paradigmatic fact of human existence.)

And pain is not the only creative prompt. This is, of course, a theological as well as an experiential claim. (Scarry addresses this objection, incidentally, by claiming that apparently gratuitous acts of creativity are only possible in the presence of a cultural abundance itself produced by pain, a claim which has merit but is not sufficient to explain the phenomenon of creativity.) If we are the children of a God who creates out of peace, out of completeness, without external compulsion, then our creativity likewise may not always require the goad of suffering. (I am obviously borrowing from David Hart's book here.)

I must also find fault with her reading of the Old Testament as compared to the New--like all post-Christian liberals, she depends on a trite and anti-Judaic reading of both texts. The "Christianity is an evolutionary improvement on Judaism" motif is too tiresome for words, and the variation played here is neither subtle nor plausible. The Old Testament god functions in the role of torturer; the violence and cruelty of religion is mitigated by the embodiment of god narrated in the stories of Jesus of Nazareth. If god has a body, the concept of god is destabilized in humanity-affirming ways. We make room for peace and democracy and (a Marxist version of) the American way.

I have other, more minor, quibbles with Scarry's work, but these will suffice. In truth, however, none of these quibbles can undermine my respect for what she has accomplished in her first two chapters. Would that I could make these two chapters required reading for participation in civic life!

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