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Pain and Parentheses

Christopher Benfey
“My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three,” Nabokov writes in Lolita. How many other parentheses like this are there, windows in a wall of verse or prose that suddenly open on an expanse of personal pain?
Galicia, Spain, 1998.jpg
Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos

I’m aware that a good many perfectly intelligent people can’t stand parenthetical comments while a story’s purportedly being told.
—J.D. Salinger, “Seymour: An Introduction”

I began thinking about pain and parentheses when I was reading (I’m tempted to say rereading, but it always feels like the first time) Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and came across the following question: “What does this act of meaning (the pain, or the piano-tuning) consist in?” The passage refers back to an earlier one: “Imagine that you were in pain and were simultaneously hearing a nearby piano being tuned. You say ‘It’ll soon stop.’ It certainly makes quite a difference whether you mean the pain or the piano-tuning!”

What tugged at my attention wasn’t the argument itself, to the extent that I could follow it, but rather the arresting parenthesis “(the pain, or the piano-tuning),” which immediately reminded me of another example of bracketed pain—“the most famous parenthesis in postwar literature,” according to Geoff Dyer—namely, Humbert Humbert’s laconic précis, in Lolita, of the death of his mother:

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory.

I found myself wondering how many other parentheses like this there were: windows in a wall of verse or prose that suddenly opened on an expanse of personal pain. Masquerading as mere asides, they might hold more punch than parentheses are usually expected to hold, more even than the surrounding sentences, and have all the more impact for their disguise as throwaways. Were such parentheses common, I wondered, and if so, why?

The answer to the first question would appear to be yes. Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” (1979) offers playful advice on how to master the “art of losing.” At the culmination of the glib, incremental injunctions—“Then practice losing farther, losing faster: / places, and names…”—an excruciating parenthesis abruptly gapes open, and the poem limps, as if on crutches, to its close:

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Just as famous is the devastating parenthesis in the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse:

[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]

The parenthesis movingly mimics Mr. Ramsay’s outstretched arms, opening on nothing. Another, rhyming parenthesis is accorded the Ramsays’ son: “[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous.]”

Bracketing World War I, literally and figuratively, would seem to be the main strategy of some of the finest writing that that ghastly war gave rise to, a collective goodbye to all that. A particularly striking example is David Jones’s In Parenthesis, a whole book built around the relation of pain and parenthesis:

This writing is called “In Parenthesis” because I have written it in a kind of space between—I don’t know between quite what—but as you turn aside to do something; and because for us amateur soldiers (and especially for the writer, who was not only amateur, but grotesquely incompetent, a knocker-over of piles, a parade’s despair) the war itself was a parenthesis—how glad we thought we were to step outside its brackets at the end of ’18—and also because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis.

The war itself was a parenthesis: this is a wish as much as a description. A parenthesis, according to the OED, is “an explanatory or qualifying word, clause, or sentence inserted into a passage with which it has not necessarily any grammatical connexion, and from which it is usually marked off by round or square brackets, dashes, or commas.” We want war or illness or pain to be a parenthetical interruption in our ordinary lives, “with which it has not necessarily any…connexion, and from which it is usually marked off.”

In such cases, the parenthesis can be seen as a sort of verbal prosthesis, threatening to buckle under the burden of what it has to bear. Think of the “unpretentious bouquet of very early-blooming parentheses: (((())))” Salinger’s Buddy Glass gathers for his brother Seymour, dead by his own hand. “I truly mean them to be taken, first off, as bowlegged—buckle-legged—omens of my state of mind and body at this writing.”

But is it possible to imagine a life without such parentheses—not a life of unrelieved happiness, whatever that might be, but rather a life in which suffering and loss are part of our ordinary existence, not bracketed off from it, not, as we say, “compartmentalized,” but part of our mentality, momentary squalls in the ordinary weather of our shifting and evanescent moods?


The assimilation of pain into normal life happens to be a major preoccupation of the Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein suggests that philosophy, with its damaging quest for certainty, has needlessly alienated us from ordinary life. Here is a parenthetical example of such alienation, from Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain: “To have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt. (The doubt of other persons, here as elsewhere, amplifies the suffering of those already in pain.)” In such cases, skepticism about another’s pain can engender sadism. “I like a look of Agony, / Because I know it’s true,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, jokingly, one hopes.

By inventing a philosophical problem, the so-called “problem of other minds”—by which we are said to know that another person is angry, or in pain, by analogy with our own anger or pain—philosophers, according to Wittgenstein, have contributed to the problem that they purport to solve. He contrasts the way that philosophers talk about pain with the way the rest of us do. “In what sense are my sensations private?” he asks.

Well, only I can know whether I am really in pain; another person can only surmise it.—In one way this is wrong, and in another nonsense. If we are using the word “to know” as it is normally used (and how else are we to use it?), then other people very often know when I am in pain.—Yes, but all the same not with the certainty with which I know it myself!—It can’t be said of me at all (except perhaps as a joke) that I know I am in pain. What is it supposed to mean—except perhaps that I am in pain.

Emerson, as though answering Wittgenstein’s call, refuses to bracket grief:

There are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth. But it turns out to be scene-painting and counterfeit. The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is. That, like all the rest, plays about the surface, and never introduces me into the reality, for contact with which, we would even pay the costly price of sons and lovers.… An innavigable sea washes with silent waves between us and the things we aim at and converse with. Grief too will make us idealists. In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate,—no more. I cannot get it nearer to me.

These lines have often been quoted as a symptom of Emerson’s hardheartedness, his supposed coldness. They are nothing of the kind. As he wrote of Montaigne, “Cut these words and they would bleed.” Suffering is part of the weather of life, he wants to tell us, but it too will disappear, along with the rest of the things we once loved. “Life is a train of moods like a string of beads,” he says, “and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus.”

Emerson’s mention of moods may have a bearing on the odd piano-tuning (Klavierstimmung) parenthesis in Wittgenstein’s passage about communicating pain. The German word for tuning, Stimmung, also happens to be the German word for mood. (I remember this from Stanley Cavell’s aesthetics seminar in 1979, in which I first read both Wittgenstein and Emerson.) To be in a good mood is to feel oneself attuned to the world, in harmony with it. Perhaps pain, then, is one of the many ways in which we can find ourselves out of tune with the world. In that case, pain and piano-tuning might not be so different after all.

Wittgenstein had perfect pitch, and grew up in a house with seven grand pianos. His mother was a pianist and so was his brother Paul, who played concerts and commissioned piano music for the left hand, from Prokofiev and Ravel, after losing his right arm in World War I. Suddenly, I think of D. H. Lawrence’s poem “The Piano,” an elegy for his own mother, with the image of “a child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings”—like a piano-tuner, perhaps—“and pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.”


In his introduction to Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes’s 1979 book about photography, which is also an elegy for his mother, Geoff Dyer compares “(picnic, lightning)” to another parenthesis of mother-loss, the lid of a powder box, opened and closed like a parenthesis, in Camera Lucida:

In order to “find” my mother, fugitively alas, and without ever being able to hold on to this resurrection for long, I must, much later, discover in several photographs the objects she kept on her dressing table, an ivory powder box (I loved the sound of its lid), a cut-crystal flagon, or else a low chair, which is now near my own bed…

Surprisingly, Dyer—he’s introducing Camera Lucida after all—doesn’t mention that Nabokov invokes photography. My very photogenic mother. Is it possible that “(picnic, lightning)” is itself a miniature allegory of photography, a family picnic interrupted by the lightning flash of the camera, just as the lid of the powder box mimes the opened shutter of a camera?

My own mother was very photogenic. She also played the piano. I own two photographs—I included them in my memoir, Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay, published before her death last fall—that show her, on an April afternoon in 1948, with her first fiancé, Sergei Thomas. The pictures were taken when my mother and Sergei were taking a bicycle ride to the Revolutionary War battlefield in Greensboro, North Carolina. A few weeks later, Sergei drowned in a canoe accident on the rain-swollen Delaware River.

My mother looks so young, so happy and carefree. I can barely look at her face in the photographs. And yet, I am strangely implicated in Sergei’s death. After all, he wasn’t, couldn’t be, my father. “As a living soul, I am the very contrary of History,” Barthes writes, “I am what belies it, destroys it for the sake of my own history.”

Picnic, lightning. A calamity for her. But not, in the end, for me.

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