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THE CULTURE OF PAIN by David B. Morris


by David B. Morris

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1991
ISBN: 0-520-07266-9
Publisher: Univ. of California

Drawing on history, art, literature, psychology, and medicine, Morris (Alexander Pope: The Genius of Sense, 1984) offers an extended commentary, profusely documented and illustrated, on the nature, function, and various meanings of pain in Western culture. Considering pain as both a ``biological fact'' and ``an experience in search of an interpretation,'' Morris interprets the psychic, spiritual, and physical experiences of pain and the symbolic, metaphoric, and symptomatic expressions of it from Plato to Joyce Carol Oates, Freud to Norman Cousins, Job to de Sade. The invention of ether in 1846 altered the meaning of pain but did not eradicate it, and to medical science most pain remains a mystery: chronic pain, hysteria, numbness (which is more dangerous than pain), redemptive or religious pain, visionary or revolutionary pain, edifying pain, tragic pain (``we no longer recognize'' it), and comic pain (the best discussion in the book, though its relation to pain is tenuous). Morris surveys the creative uses of pain by artists, the instructive uses of pain by satirists, the erotic uses of pain by sadomasochists, the political uses of pain as torture, and the aesthetic uses of pain in the sentimental, melancholy, and sublime styles of Romantic writers who associated beauty with loss, suffering, and death. He concludes with a lyrical celebration of ``The Future of Pain'': ``We must begin to proliferate its meanings.'' Such a statement reflects the major problems of the book: the exhortative tone, the use of the implicative ``we'' in place of sound argument, and the very proliferation of meanings so that pain becomes an abstraction, resembling pleasure, detached from the causes—anguish, deprivation, discomfort—however spiritual or mental in origin, that healthy people instinctively avoid and that most philosophers, long before Bentham, believed to be a threat to organized society and civilization. Without ideology, it is still an interesting but poorly organized book and no substitute for Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain (1986). (Thirty b&w illustrations.)