Torture and Taboo: On Elaine Scarry | The Nation


Torture and Taboo: On Elaine Scarry

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In the summer of 1977, a young literary critic traveled to London to read Amnesty’s accounts of torture. The book that emerged from the trip, The Body in Pain (1985), made its author, Elaine Scarry, now a Harvard professor, our intellectual guide, and nearly thirty years on she remains a valuable proxy for our ethical perspective. According to Scarry, “there may be no human event that is as without defense as torture.”

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About the Author

Samuel Moyn
Samuel Moyn is professor of law and history at Harvard University. His most recent book is Human Rights and the...

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In a certain way, Scarry’s career has paralleled that of the taboo itself. When The Body in Pain appeared, accompanied by breathless endorsements from Susan Sontag and others and garnering stellar reviews in the national press, it instantly became a canonical book. Scarry, then unknown, found herself immediately elevated to the empyrean for her moral intensity and weird charisma. If torture has become our execration, Scarry benefits from something like a sacred aura: that a few notable skeptics—such as Shklar and the philosopher Peter Singer—dared to call out her book for beginner’s incompetence, unverifiable assertion and sheer charlatanry only helped to confirm her status.

Scarry’s writings are simply bizarre—albeit so strange as to disarm criticism. Her first book, like all her succeeding ones, requires the suspension of disbelief that intense visions always do, as Scarry goes her own way and asks you to follow her, with little rational justification, in frequently bewildering directions. Opening with a meditation on Amnesty’s torture reports, The Body in Pain slowly and shockingly gives way to a homespun metaphysics of demiurgic human creativity. 

Pain, Scarry announces, is inexpressible. “English,” she quotes Virginia Woolf saying, “which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear has no words for the shiver or the headache.” The reason, Scarry hypothesizes, is that pain, though it has a cause, has no object; the eye sees something, the ear hears something, the finger touches something, but the body in anguish merely aches. In its most perfect epitome, which is torture, the infliction of pain is an act of appropriation for the sake of empowerment. In torture, language is used perversely to convert the victim’s torment into the interrogator’s fraudulent mastery. Torturers make use of the escalating pain they mete out to build their—and their regimes’—immoral power.

Scarry did not dwell on torture exclusively; instead, she made the body in pain—physical distress of any sort—the foundation of human creativity. Everyone, from the humblest artisan to the most gifted novelist, creates in response to bodily suffering; unlike the appropriation enacted by torture, creation compensates or substitutes for pain. Though torturers destroy or “unmake” the world, pain serves constructively—in texts ranging from the Bible to Karl Marx—as that against which creation is asserted and conducted, whether in the simplest tool or the grandest masterpiece. The Bible, Scarry says, is a series of scenes of injuring, but it underpins the imagination of God himself and the new world he will bring about, while Marx rooted his account of labor’s creativity in physical suffering. The pain of labor materializes in objects of creation. In this way, torture is the inverted likeness of the imagination; where the one destroys, the other fashions.

Scarry’s brief inaugural meditation on “savage” torture, the most famous pages she has ever written, is a pivotal moment in our recent cultural history. Like a secular piece of scripture, The Body in Pain, published during the time when the Convention Against Torture was moving from adoption by the United Nations to global ratification, made what would otherwise seem an inexplicable human evil the center of a vivid system of world-historical meaning. What also made the account famous was that it broke unceremoniously with the critical pieties of its day. Scarry was a new system-builder in an age of “postmodern” theory. Instead of treating the body as an amalgam of conflicting social codes, she insisted that it is a palpable, incontestable reality in response to whose suffering all of human culture is erected. As for the term “deconstruct,” Scarry did use it—but not as the postmodernists did. For them, it named the practice of overturning oppositions in a discourse; for Scarry, it only referred to what torturers do in inflicting pain.

Further, Scarry’s uncomplicated belief in the power of creation to change our lives and save—no, even make—the world seemed, for those who didn’t find it sophomoric, to be genius. Movingly defending beauty and treating it as a moral resource, Scarry broke with a critical culture of suspicion that unmasked art as ideology, instead offering a touchingly naïve appeal to the true, the good and the beautiful as if it were an act of unexampled sophistication. (Missing from her account of Marx is the critique of ideology, along with the class struggle and violent revolution.) And it worked, precisely because literary critics had followed fashion so far as to lose touch with what had always been the aesthetic basis of their role.

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