24 Nov 2021

A Brief Note on Pain (Whilst Waiting to See the Dentist)

La douleur n'est pas mon fort ...       

Sitting here, with toothache, waiting to see the dentist, one recalls the line by Ernst Jünger with which Byung-Chul Han opens his new study: "Tell me your relation to pain, and I will tell you who you are!" [1]

Well, my relation to pain is a mixture of indifference and irritation. I don't share the universal algophobia that characterises our society today, but, unlike many artists and intellectuals, neither do I fetishise pain or regard suffering as the most crucial aspect of life. 
Thus, whilst I have a relatively high pain tolerance level and very rarely resort to painkillers, I don't think that this makes courageous or morally superior to those who reach for the paracetamol at the earliest opportunity and opt for drug-induced relief.
Pain, says Han, purifies. By which he means it has a cathartic effect. It should thus be recognised as a genuine passion. Which sounds suspiciously Christian to me and I remember Lawrence's remark made in a letter: "Jesus becomes more unsympatisch to me, the longer I live: crosses and nails and tears and all that stuff! I think he showed us into a nice cul de sac." [2] 
Lawrence's view contrasts nicely with the remark by Walter Benjamin which Han chose as an epigraph for The Palliative Society
"Of all the corporeal feelings, pain alone is like a navigable river which never dries up and which leads man down to the sea. Pleasure, in contrast, turns out to be a dead end, wherever man tries to follow its lead." [3]
This characterisation of pleasure as a dead end and affirmation of pain is simply a form of ascetic idealism, is it not? Again, far it be from me to reify pleasure, but I think we might challenge the idea that when pain is suppressed, happiness is attenuated and becomes merely a form of dull contentment. Or that those who are "unreceptive to pain close themselves off from deep happiness" [4].    
It may be Nietzschean to think like this - to give pain metaphysical significance and project it into the symbolic order (to speak of the art of suffering, etc.) - but when a tooth is troublesome who really cares about what this might (or might not) mean? At such times, we all rub our jaw and fall silent like Monsieur Teste ... [5] 
[1] Byung-Chul Han, The Palliative Society, trans. Daniel Steuer, (Polity Press, 2021), p. 1. Han is quoting from Ernst Jünger's On Pain, (Telos Press, 2008), p. 32. 
[2] D. H. Lawrence, The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. V, ed. James T. Boulton and Lindeth Vasey, (Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 322. Letter number 3516 [26 Oct 1925], to John Middleton Murry. 
[3] Walter Benjamin, 'Outline of the Psychological Problem', Selected Writings, Vol. 1, (Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 397.

[4] Byung-Chul Han, The Palliative Society, p. 13. 

[5] With reference to the figure of Monsieur Teste, Byung-Chul Han writes: 
"Paul Valéry's Monsieur Teste represents the modern, sensitive bourgeois subject who experiences pain as meaningless, as purely physical agony. He has completely lost the Christian narrative [...] and thus also the ability to alleviate pain symbolically. [...]
      For Monsieur Teste, pain cannot be narrated. It destroys language. Where the pain begins, his sentences break off. [...] 
      Confronted with pain, Monsieur Teste falls silent. Pain robs him of his language. It destroys his world, traps him in his mute body." [19-20] 
For another brief note on pain and the palliative society, click here.

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