“From the inside out”

I’ve mentioned Elaine Scarry’s literary account of pain before, and I’d like to go into it further to talk about the violence in Cinderella Man. She sees pain and imagining as opposite poles on the spectrum of mental experience, one a passive, receptive and aversive state of consciousness, the other active, inventive and free to transform our lived experience into a realm of limitless possibility for supernatural consolations and rewards. In between these poles are the simple verb-object sensations, feelings cognizant of something, as almost all somatic states (she names “hatred for, seeing of, being hungry for”) are mental states that are necessarily referential, whereas pain is without a referent, and the imagination cannot be experienced independently of its referents, in the sense that we cannot imagine in vain for any referent (e.g., don’t think of a pink elephant). For this reason her account of pain is also an account of culture, because to her mind our pain is answered by our imagination, and out of imagining the flowering of culture gives rise to artifacts that mend and succor every cause of suffering. At the same time, the silencing power of pain as a state of consciousness inspires our use of weapons to govern allegiances and convictions with incontrovertible expressions of power, and she dwells at length on the significance of torture as an instrument of oppression that subjugates the victim’s conscience.

I admire her effort to give an account of violence that has depth and complexity, because she can readily show that pain is an especially slippery subject, one we are prone to oversimplify if not discount altogether, in part because it is so difficult to objectify. The topics I tried to capture in my poem about Dan Evans in 3:10 to Yuma are enumerated in a passage in which she reveals how many ways we have of silencing the pain of others in our own minds. (1) Pain is a negation, a feeling of “against” that defies the person experiencing it to have any other psychological characteristics or content, a feeling that the body is become alien to the self, that “other” is intruding onto the body and an “enemy” force has been internalized, violating the self’s integrity and making expression of pain a self-betrayal that admits the “enemy” within; by its very nature pain is deniable and to admit to pain is a corruption of the will to resist defeat. (2) Pain’s internal location creates an illusion of self-agency, implicating one’s own body in the cause of suffering; yet a healthy and whole body is not in pain, hence pain is by definition external in origin; the paradox is totalizing – to resist a force that is at once internal and external is futile, and the only recourse from pain is to deny it any expression. (3) Pain is obscenely humiliating, because it conflates the privacy of felt-experience with the utterly public experience of disability, handicap or punishment; hence the sufferer may be exposed but his suffering is not a shared experience felt by observers. (4) Pain destroys the sufferer’s capacity for language, first by monopolizing language in desperate complaint, then by overwhelming the psyche to the point that it is no longer verbally articulate. (5) Pain is blinding and empties consciousness of all else, so that what speech can be managed has no meaning for the sufferer. (6) Pain is totalizing, a distraction from both the self and the environment, a narrow felt-experience that invades the perceived environment and permeates the body until every object in the inhabited room and every part of the sentient body feels like an instrument of wounding; and finally. (7) Pain is unreal to others because it resists objectification, so that the undeniably real experience of the sufferer can readily be categorically denied by anyone else, doubling the aversiveness of hurt with the psychological aversiveness of negation and rejection, lack of acknowledgement and refusal to be recognized. This is especially true of chronic pain, for we are no sooner made aware of it than we urge the sufferer to seek distraction; here the instinctive recourse to imagination, and also the belief that pain is not objectively real, if the imagination can remove our attention from it at will (a passage in the TOFOG song Danielle belies this dogma that distraction is a cure-all, “Forgettin’s only temporary / In the middle of nothing / My eyes get weary I feel like crying”).

But the scope of her book is much broader than acute or chronic pain, drawing subtler examples of embodied cognizance from The Old Testament and Karl Marx, talking for instance about the sun striking Rebecca’s eyes in the field, or describing labor as a controlled discomfort that realizes the ambitions of the creative imagination by bringing artifacts into the world that serve our comfort and convenience. These less distressing sensations have the same privacy, the same existential subjectivity, interrupting the continuity of sentience with the body’s utterances. In another book, Resisting Representation, she remarks on how unusual depictions of repetitive work and its aversive qualities of boredom and physical strain are in art and literature, as though these parts of our lives were mindless and uneventful, never coming up in our stories about ourselves. We do, however, have ways of making sense of our more embodied moments. I like how Australian poet John Forbes describes them as “diaries of pure sensation,” those stranger parts of our lives that are not quite shareable.

“Flexed suddenly the muscles of the stomach
can make the joints in the back of your neck
go ‘crack’. This clears the room for you,
the way these diaries of pure sensation
balance your responses against how you think
you will respond, leaving a margin of wind
for you to turn into.” – excerpted from Rolling in Money

Scarry sees productive work as a liberating discomfort, where any pains taken are an investment with rich returns. Comically, she goes on for pages about how much more relief a pregnant woman would enjoy if a sympathetic man built her a chair, as opposed to perhaps distracting her from lower back pain with an expressive dance about his sympathetic pain. An object made by hand, like a lever, is expected to reciprocate disembodying relief from the problems of sentience in excess of the effort expended to create it, to exceed the power of work to distract from those problems, and to exceed the duration of this distraction in utility over time. This excess of reciprocation can be appropriated by someone other than the maker of the artifact, but this vulnerability to appropriation gives the maker another advantage – the power to exchange it for something else. On the other hand, the investment of labor in creation may fall short of these attainments if the artifact is a failure, or the fruits of one’s labor can be appropriated with minimal compensation for the work, if tools can be alienated from their users in the form of physical industrial capital.

This must seem like an odd approach to blogging about a boxing movie, but what struck me most about the movie the first time I saw Cinderella Man was the intensity of the violence, and the physical cost of desperate poverty on Jim’s family, in hunger, cold, sickness, separation, humiliation and constant fear. And in the boxing ring, winning meant beating his opponents “from the inside out,” getting inside their heads in a battle of wills that tested his imagination, his ability to confront his opponents with a vision of his own unlikely victory. I didn’t know his story, didn’t believe he could win, so that first time watching the movie was a harrowing experience. The boxing scenes are so cinematically executed, the acting in them so expressive, the camera work so dynamic, I felt the blows without any experience or sympathy for the sport. To be fighting so badly injured, so much of the pain invisible, makes suffering in silence a theme of the movie for me, particularly because of the theme song’s treatment of militated optimism as a toxic oppression in a time of economic despair. At the same time, Jim’s ability not to be destroyed inside by anger or pain is so central to his heroism, it seems to explain why his story has stayed with us as a uniquely inspirational family drama. It shows in a larger than life way how our modest victories over pain, even those that are only temporary distractions, are a special source of dignity in our lives. At their most flimsy, they are evidence of the unlimited powers of the imagination, and when more concrete, they show readily how our inventive imagination invades the real world through our works.

Returning to the poem by John Forbes,

“…the rise &
fall of your chest arches over the day-to-day
posture you impose / on appearing as you are
– that is, not really knowing you’re alive
until the air touches more than your idea of
its following you around. Instead you are
in the wake of the air, preceding your first
impressions: delicate & quick, but here left
out of things, like a law of karma that will
never improve you. Just as a dead calm will
never delay the Owl & the Pussycat in their
beautiful pea-green boat, so you will continue
breathing like a sail & the comic loot from
this effect piles up on the deck, lots of money &
plenty of honey, wrapped up in a five-pound note.”

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Filed under 3:10 to Yuma, Acting, Cinderella Man, Poetry

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