What have I learned about literature and pain this past week? First, that writers have taken up the topic, just as they take up every aspect of human existence. They imagine what it is like to feel pain and, through poetic images and fictional stories, convey that experience to readers. By entering into the experience, furthermore, they discover different dimensions of that pain.
They reveal, for instance, that suffering is seldom purely physical but has a mental dimension. Ivan Ilych (see yesterday’s post) discovers his pain comes in part from the fear that he has wasted his life. Yet if this fear exacerbates his pain, another insight alleviates it. When, in his final hours, he realizes that his suffering is causing those around him to suffer, he steps into a place of love and compassion for them that relegates the pain to a secondary concern.
A similar drama occurs in Christopher Marlowe’s Tragic History of Doctor Faustus. At the end of his life, Faustus is so torn by regrets over the way he has squandered his tremendous gifts, choosing material gratification instead, that his final moments are a living hell. He doesn’t have to be dragged off to the afterlife by devils, even though that’s what literally happens. We create our own hells, here and now. Marlowe describes hell as a state of mind:
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib’d
In one self-place; but where we are is hell,
And where hell is, there must we ever be:
Or as Milton’s Satan puts it in Paradise Lost, “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell.”
To counter this vision, Marlowe shows us an old man who, rather than focusing on his own impending death,feels compassion for Faustus. Seeing him prepared to commit suicide, he cries out,
O, stay, good Faustus, stay thy desperate steps!
I see an angel hover o’er thy head,
And, with a vial full of precious grace,
Offers to pour the same into thy soul:
Then call for mercy, and avoid despair.
I sense that Faustus chooses to hang on to his despair, and to his pain, rather than open up to other possibilities. In fact, he becomes resentful of the old man and orders the devils to torment him. Surrendering to peace would mean letting go of his ego and his pride, and the prospect of doing that prompts him to lash out in panic:
Torment, sweet friend, that base and aged man,
That durst dissuade me from thy Lucifer,
With greatest torments that our hell affords.
To which Mephistophilis responds,
His faith is great; I cannot touch his soul;
But what I may afflict his body with
I will attempt, which is but little worth.
No doubt one could argue that this is just religious wish fulfillment. In fact, such a debate occurs in Umberto Eco’s book The Name of the Rose where we are treated to two different versions of a martry’s death. Recalling stories of a heretic who has been gruesomely tortured, narrator Adso describes a transcendent moment where the man rises above the red hot pincers in an ecstatic embrace with the divine.
The other recollection, however, is by a man who is about to be tortured and who actually witnessed the death. He describes a man writhing in horrible agony, nothing more. This latter version seems more compelling, in part because Adso is somewhat naïve, a Watson figure to the Franciscan monk/detective William of Baskerville. But also because pain often seems to trump transcendence in our imaginations.
So I don’t want to be facile when I cite the hope that Tolstoy points to at the end of his story. Pain can seem like a black hole, overwhelming any higher thought that threatens to escape its gravitational pull. And yet, out of pain, Julian of Norwich achieved a vision of transcendent love that revolutionized medieval thought—and she herself was drawing on a vision of a man who, although in agony on a cross, found himself able to forgive those who had placed him there.
In her comments to recent posts, Rachel Kranz raises the prospect that it is up to us to invest meaning in the pain we encounter. If we see it as meaningless suffering, then that is what it will be. But if we think that it has something to teach us, then it may not be meaningless after all.
Rachel is currently finishing up her second novel about a man whose unexplainable pain propels him upon a quest to find the source of his inherited wealth. I won’t tell you what he discovers (I’ll announce here when the book appears so you can buy it for yourself), but the quest takes him from a life of quiet desperation to one where he understands and can begin to address the historical wounds that continue to tear at America, especially the wounds of slavery.
As Rachel puts it in her response to Wednesday’s post, our assumption that our pain has been sent to teach us something, or that we have chosen it, may or may not be true. But that’s not the main point. If we operate as though it carries a message, we are offered “a way of coping with tragedy and pain: what am I supposed to learn from this, or what do I get to learn from this that I couldn’t learn any other way? It’s certainly something I think about a lot as I work on my novel about slavery: Given the implacability of that tragedy, and all the horrific deaths and tortures that were part of it, what do we, its inheritors, learn from it? What can we do with it? Whether or not we ‘chose’ that history by being born into it, as Americans, what do we make of it, given that we have it?”
I will conclude with my own experience with intense pain, although this pain was psychological. When my oldest son drowned and I was floundering in darkness, somewhere along the way I found myself thinking, “If this is a curse that will forever blight my life or if it is an event which opens up new life-affirming possibilities depends on me. I must operate as though it is an opening. Otherwise, life is ‘too dark—too dark altogether.’” That is how I went on and lived, and blessings have come from that place. But I will talk about that another day.
Postscript: I have to acknowledge the irony of my surfacing the quote “too-dark—too dark altogether” at that moment of my sorrow. The words are Marlow’s in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and they are his defense for his having told a lie to Kurtz’s Intended. Although he hates lying more than anything, he cannot stand to tear her illusions from her and hides from her how corrupt Kurtz had become. His assumption here is that women have to be protected from the dark affairs of men and that they’re incapable of growing to a greater understanding in the face of emotional pain.
So maybe, in my articulation, I was protecting myself from the utter “horror” of Justin’s death. Maybe I still am, nine years after. And yet, I think that life has flowed from that place of pain.
But because I don’t know for sure, I’ll conclude with lines by a man who wrestled with the same question. I’ve quoted this passage from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” before. It captures both his longing that something good can come from ill and his lack of utter certainty that it will:
Oh, yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final end of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;
That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy’d,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;
That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell’d in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another’s gain.
Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last—far off—at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.