Unspeakable Acts

The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World

by Elaine Scarry
Oxford University Press, 385 pp., $24.95


by Edward Peters
Basil Blackwell, 202 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Elaine Scarry and Edward Peters both teach at the University of Pennsylvania—she teaches English, and he medieval history. Peters has just published a history of torture, and Scarry a book that takes torture as its starting point. There the resemblance ends. Peters has written a straightforward historical account of torture, from the ancient world to the most recent Amnesty International report. Scarry has much greater ambition, as her subtitle announces. She claims to find, in the nature of pain, the key to understanding human creativity and human destructiveness.

It is not easy to explain briefly—or indeed at any length—just what The Body in Pain is about. In her introduction, the author tells us that the book has only a single subject, but that this subject can itself be divided (like the Christian god?) into three different subjects: the difficulty of expressing pain, the political and perceptual complications that arise as a result of that difficulty, and the nature of human creation. The reader may wonder how the third of these subjects is linked with the other two. For Scarry, the connection lies in seeing human creation as a form of expression, and hence as arising from the initial problem of expressing physical pain.

Scarry asks us to picture these three subjects as concentric circles. The “body in pain” of her title suggests the inner space of private sensations, but once we look at how that pain is expressed we find ourselves dealing with a public and, indeed, a political situation; we then find, she claims, that we have all along been standing at the center of human creative activity itself.

Overlying this trinity of subjects is a distinct two-part division—between “unmaking” and “making.” Physical pain inflicted in the process of torture, Scarry believes, is a method of destroying—or, as she prefers to say, “deconstructing”—the language, and indeed the world, of the victim. Yet this process has, she claims, a structure that is part of a general structure of “unmaking.” Next Scarry explores the nature of war, and finds the structure of unmaking present here too. She then discovers, in “unmaking,” the mirror of “making,” and so goes on to examine the nature of creation, both intellectual and material. Much of this latter section is in fact an exploration of two texts: the Bible and the writings of Karl Marx. A final chapter entitled “The Interior Structure of the Artifact” seeks to show that made objects are attempts to make the world “sentient” and that they are projections of those who make them which have a reciprocal effect, “remaking” those who make them. Thus Scarry has traveled from the individual human body in pain to the most universal aspects of human civilization: what it is to live in a created world.

This brief outline may indicate the scope and some of the content of The Body in Pain, but it can give little idea of the author’s distinctive mode of handling her subject. To convey this, we must focus more…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.