I’m in pain at the moment. In Sete, I made some sudden movement that I cannot now call to mind, review my movements as I will – but I noticed, walking along the seashore, a pain in my back. The next day the pain was double, and I went to the doctor, who – after having me hop up on the cot in his office, which required resolution – poked me here and there and had me raise my legs – easy! The trouble was just sitting there. Well, the doctor concluded, obviously lumbago! He wrote me a prescription for painkillers and a heat treatment lotion, warned me to take the pill for my stomach – he was most concerned with the effect of the pills on my stomach, which I consider very French – and ushered me out of the office.
Pain is a strange thing, as it sucks in your ego. Suddenly, the littlest movement becomes subject to a calculus that would have been the admiration of Bentham. A calculus seldom met with in the real world.
I have often thought that I would not survive more than a week in the concentration camps, and wonder how anyone would. Lumbago makes me think of the men working the rock quarry at Mauthausen. If one had what I have – these urbanites of fifty or retired professional men – that would be it. The politics of pain is imbricated with politics altogether. Interesting how Burke’s essay on the sublime could be seen to have proceeded his Essay on the French Revolution. Burke’s paradox there springs from his idea that pain and pleasure are not parts of a continuum, but are positive and distinct qualities. One is not the negation of the other but a whole new thing.
“Pain and pleasure are simple ideas, incapable of definition. People are not liable to be mistaken in their feelings, but they are very frequently wrong in the names they give them, and in their reasonings about them. Many are of the opinion, that pain arises necessarily from the removal of some pleasure; as they think pleasure does from the ceasing or diminution of some pain. For my part, I am rather inclined to imagine, that pain and pleasure, in their most simple and natural manner of affecting, are each of a positive nature, and by no means necessarily dependent on each other for their existence. The human mind is often, and I think it is for the most part, in a state neither of pain nor pleasure, which I call a state of indifference. When I am carried from this state into a state of actual pleasure, it does not appear necessary that I should pass through the medium of any sort of pain. If in such a state of indifference, or ease, or tranquillity, or call it what you please, you were to be suddenly entertained with a concert of music; or suppose some object of a fine shape, and bright, lively colours, to be presented before you; or imagine your smell is gratified with the fragrance of a rose; or if without any previous thirst you were to drink of some pleasant kind of wine, or to taste of some sweetmeat without being hungry; in all the several senses, of hearing, smelling and tasting, you undoubtedly find a pleasure; yet if I inquire into the state of your mind previous to these gratifications, you will hardly tell me that they found you in any kind of pain; or, having satisfied these several senses with their several pleasures, will you say that any pain has succeeded, though the pleasure is absolutely over? Suppose on the other hand, a man in the same state of indifference, to receive a violent blow, or to drink of some bitter potion, or to have his ears wounded with some harsh and grating sound; here is no removal of pleasure; and yet here is felt in every sense which is affected, a pain very distinguishable. It may be said, perhaps, that the pain in these cases had its rise from the removal of the pleasure which the man enjoyed before, though that pleasure was of so low a degree as to be perceived only by the removal. But this seems to me a subtilty that is not discoverable in nature. For if, previous to the pain, I do not feel any actual pleasure, I have no reason to judge that any such thing exists; since pleasure is only pleasure as it is felt. The same may be said of pain, and with equal reason. I can never persuade myself that pleasure and pain are mere relations, which can only exist as they are contrasted; but I think I can discern clearly that there are positive pains and pleasures, which do not at all depend upon each other.”
Such a view of pain and pleasure cannot, obviously, submit to the standard measurements – on the contrary, it not only rejects the utilitarian calculus, but the whole idea of founding societies on ‘indexes of happiness’ in which pain and pleasure, quantified, can be matched against each other. In Burke’s view, it is simply impossible to even speak of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, since this mistakes the essence of happiness. This is what is behind the most famous passage in the Reflections on the Revolution in France:
"It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles, and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in — glittering like the morning star, full of life and splendor and joy. Oh! what a revolution! and what a heart must I have to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists; and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness."
Burke, of course, was writing before Smith’s economics had been joined to Bentham’s utilitarianism. The ‘delightful’ vision of the Queen refers us back to the essay on the sublime once again:
It is most certain that every species of satisfaction or pleasure, how different soever in its manner of affecting, is of a positive nature in the mind of him who feels it. The affection is undoubtedly positive; but the cause may be, as in this case it certainly is, a sort of Privation. And it is very reasonable that we should distinguish by some term two things so distinct in nature, as a pleasure that is such simply, and without any relation, from that pleasure which cannot exist without a relation, and that too a relation to pain. Very extraordinary it would be, if these affections, so distinguishable in their causes, so different in their effects, should be confounded with each other, because vulgar use has ranged them under the same general title. Whenever I have occasion to speak of this species of relative pleasure, I call it Delight …”
Burke’s delight is akin to what Tallyrand, in his memoirs, called the “sweetness” of life under the ancien regime – a phrase much dilated upon by Roberto Calasso in his The Ruin of Kasch.
Burke, of course, was not as steady an advocate for the organic order as all that. He was, in fact, one of Smith’s partisans. It was quite in keeping with Burke’s principles that his loyalty would be at once to an enlightened system that restrained the government from granting monopolies and a feudal political order that largely depended on an ideological monopoly. Burke’s notions about pleasure and pain aren’t mere whims but are fundamental to a philosophical anthropology which reacted against capitalism and socialism (considered to be of the same order), gradually gathering around itself a certain systematicity, one of gestures and not logic (for it never fully lost its suspicion of systems), with a defense of irreducible human and social qualities that became anti-humanistic insofar as these qualities did not match up with the universal qualities projected by economics, physics, and psychology.
There, I’ve wandered widely, and now I am back to thinking: where’s the box of painkillers?
Paul Valery, after a night of incessant coughing, went to the doctor and got his advice. Valery felt that the doctor didn’t take him seriously – him, an old grand mandarin. So he wrote in his notebook: “But doctors have the great habit of never thinking. I have noticed this a hundred times. They have the strange idea that everything falls under a classification, and that which is not marked with a name does not exist. Each new name that we invents, like metabolism, conditioned reflex, etc. renders them the service of diminishing their direct attention to facts and more than anything else, meditation concerning these facts. There is no doctor who has an idea of the globally functioning person. (Valéry, 1943)
One of the social functions of the poet, I think, is to give us an imaginary of that dullest and most intense of inner experiences: pain. In the introduction to her History of Pain – a strange title, when you think about it, blending natural history with its social offshoot – Roselyne Rey writes: “Pain always has a language, even if this is a cry, a sob, a physiognomic wincing, and it is at the same time a language: under this guise it inserts itself into the norms of the licit and of transgression, between what we can let appear and what it is necessary to shut up about and hide, norms and codes that depend on cultural formations…” I suspect Rey is conflating parole and language – for my own part, I think pain signifies without being caught up in the nets and grammar of language. Or, rather, if we extend the notion of language to pain as within her examples, we have to extend the notion of language to the non-human – a step that would definitely change our sense of the human. The dog or the tree, in this sense, can also be, in Buber’s term, a “Du” – a thou.
The Undying by Ann Boyer, her memoir-meditation about cancer, has generated a sort of cult. Unlike most cancer memoirs, Boyer has a firm sense of her illness as an ecological event, connected by a million threads to the atmosphere, water, and ground in our surround. New chemical compounds are produced at a rate of 10 million a year, according to the Smithsonian, although the vast majority of those compounds don’t get out of the laboratory. But of those that do, most are not checked for their somatic effects at all.
“The amount and diversity of pesticides, pharmaceuticals and other industrial chemicals that humans are releasing into the environment are increasing at rates that match or exceed recent increases in CO2 emissions, nutrient pollution from nitrogen fertilizers and other drivers of global change,” Emily Bernhardt, biogeochemist at Duke University and lead author of the article says in a press release. “But our analysis shows we’re not spending anywhere near the amount of attention or money that we should be to assess their impacts.”
"The lack of knowledge about how synthetic chemicals alter ecological processes represents a critical blind spot in the rapidly developing field of global ecology," the researchers write in the paper.”
Boyer is keenly aware that she is a target – not in her person, but in her body, which is in reaction to thousands of factors over which she has no control whatever. Targeting is a theme in the chemotherapy she undergoes, as are the externalities; and targeting, with the notion of “precision”, is part of her poetics. A poetics that goes awry in the cancer ward: “Language is no longer compliant to its social function. If we use words it is to approach as a misplaced bomb.” It goes awry even as the treatment is targeted. Targeting, of course, is our post atom bomb condition – our post firebomb condition. Our drone condition, our chemo condition. Boyer’s book struggles against the non-said in the ideology of cancer solidarity, that individualism of suffering which is the basis of the cancer memoir – as though all cancer sufferers were freed, in their traumatic conditionm from the intersectional chains that bind the “healthy”, even as the healthcare industry is where facts of class and gender become literal matters of life and death, pain and addiction, therapy and time. Those whose time is spoken for are those whose therapies must be intermittent, or self-fashioned. Emergency to emergency, the life that is saved is frittered away and fettered.
From Boyer: “I come across a headline: “Attitude Is Everything for Breast Cancer Survivor.” I look for the headline “Attitude Is Everything for Ebola Patient” or “Attitude Is Everything for Guy with Diabetes” or “Attitude Is Everything for Those with Congenital Syphilis” or “Attitude Is Everything with Lead Poisoning” or “Attitude Is Everything When a Dog Bites Your Hand” or “Attitude Is Everything for Gunshot Victim” or “Attitude Is Everything for a Tween with a Hangover” or “Attitude Is Everything for a Coyote Struck by a Ford F150” or “Attitude Is Everything for Gravity” or “Attitude Is Everything for the Water Cycle” or “Attitude Is Everything for Survivor of Varicose Veins” or “Attitude Is Everything for Dying Coral Reef.”
Attitude is the style of the self-conscious target. To free yourself of targethood is beyond the individualist ideology, which settles for targeted compromises with targethood. I think Boyer’s book is a gesture towards a larger settlement, not with mortality – which is the kind of settlement John Donne tries to make in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions – but with the conditions impinging on the wildly different destinies summarized in the mortality index of contemporary neoliberalism. But there is some faint promise of paradise in Donne too, which winds its way through our cancers and chemo and echoes, to paraphrase Lou Reed even now, we who have so much, and those who have so little, and those who don’t have anything at all:
“Even my spots belong to thy Son's body, and are part of that which he came down to this earth to fetch, and challenge, and assume to himself. When I open my spots I do but present him with that which is his; and till I do so, I detain and withhold his right. When therefore thou seest them upon me, as his, and seest them by this way of confession, they shall not appear to me as the pinches of death, to decline my fear to hell (for thou hast not left thy holy one in hell, thy Son is not there); but these spots upon my breast, and upon my soul, shall appear to me as the constellations of the firmament, to direct my contemplation to that place where thy Son is, thy right hand.”