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A Tapestry of Pain

July 15, 2013

Chuanfei Chin in The Berlin Review of Books:


‘Without pain our life is unthinkable. With it, life is hardly to be endured’ (7). Most of us share the capacity to feel pain. We accept that having this general capacity is part of being human, yet we avoid specific experiences of pain. This is the first of our seemingly paradoxical attitudes to pain, with which Arne Johan Vetlesen, professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo, opens his book. Secondly, we fear pain and condemn those who wantonly inflict it, though its forms and meanings fascinate us. It has a ‘Janus face’. Thirdly, we alone must endure the pain in our own bodies. Yet we readily observe pain in others and expect that they suffer from it as we do. What is privately suffered is assumed to be potentially shared. Such attitudes alert Vetlesen to the possibility that pain ‘contains something inherently desirable’. He is ‘prepared to be a spokesman for such an opposite view’ (10) – to decry a western culture that has developed ‘the most negative ever’ view of pain (8).

If his opening stance impresses, it has to be conceded that his defence of pain’s desirability disappoints. So far as I can tell, this is summed up later in an aside: Being susceptible to pain means being ‘sensitive’ and so ‘able to experience what is good’. It also makes us ‘want to enrich and expand ourselves through contact with the good’ and motivates us ‘to protect everything that is good’ (92). These ideas – that the capacity for suffering is constitutively and causally related to goodness – have been explored by many who wrestle with the problem of evil. Vetlesen echoes the ideas without responding to the challenges that have been posed to them. (…)

Vetlesen’s model leads to two insights when he adds a social dimension to his cultural criticism. Firstly, when a society suffers from ‘symbolic impoverishment’, its members stop processing their pain on the ‘inside’. Instead, they transport it automatically to the ‘outside’. Violence towards others becomes the ‘favoured answer’ to pain: it is ‘handed down from generation to generation’ as a social norm (115). The result, as observed by others, is a wider ‘culture of callousness’ (117). Secondly, it is not enough for a society to produce ‘good symbolic resources’ which can be used to transform pain. These resources must be distributed to reach those ‘groups’ which need them ‘most of all’ (125). [More]

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