The most hopeful book I teach is Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. That either tells you something about the book (its title is more depressing than the content inside) or about my classes (the material I teach is more depressing than reading a book about bodies in pain). My students can tell you which interpretation is correct.
The Body in Pain is a book about torture, about the way pain is used to turn a body against itself, to turn human beings into objects.
It is also a book about the transformative power of imagination.
In a chapter titled “Pain and Imagining” Scarry tells a story about the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre misses his friend Pierre, so he imagines Pierre, but the imagined Pierre pales in comparison to the real Pierre, so Sartre thinks the fact that the imagined Pierre is inferior to the real Pierre means the imagination is also inferior.
But Scarry argues that Sartre has misunderstood. Sartre made the wrong comparison, she writes. He shouldn’t compare the imagined Pierre to the real Pierre. He should compare the imagined Pierre to the absence of Pierre – that is, to no Pierre at all. It’s better to have a vision of Pierre in your mind than to live in a world without Pierre, to live in a world utterly devoid of his presence.
Even more, Scary argues, imagining Pierre might help make the real Pierre present. When Sartre imagines Pierre, when he brings his friend close in his mind, he will realize he should invite him to visit. He will stand up from his desk and order a telegraph sent to the real Pierre: Come home at once.
You’re hungry, and you imagine an apple, and then you walk to the kitchen, and if there is no apple, you walk to the store to buy one or to the orchard to pick one, and then you eat it, and then you’re no longer hungry.
When the world fails to provide an object, the imagination is there. The imagination is a resource, the first step for generating the objects we need, the objects we don't yet have. Missing, she writes, they will be made up.
“Pain and Imagining” contains a passage on what I think of as “the external loop” – the moment when imagination moves from being a self-contained loop within the body to becoming the equivalent loop now projected into the external world. Scarry calls this work – bringing a physical object into the world where there previously was not one: a fishing net or piece of lace . . . a mended net or repaired lace curtain. This movement out into the world – from my head to my hand, from my head to your hand – means that what was once inside my body, inside my mind, is now out in the world and is, therefore, sharable.
I read Scarry as saying that art illustrates on a small scale what’s possible on a larger scale. I imagine ___ and I paint ___. I take something from inside my mind and put it out in the real world. My imagined unicorn now exists on my canvas. I think Scarry is saying that if we can take an idea from our minds and bring it into the world as art – then we can do it in other situations, too. The apple. The telegraph to Sartre’s friend Pierre.
Imagining a city the human being makes a house; imagining a political utopia, he or she instead helps to build a country; imagining the elimination of suffering in the world, the person instead nurses a friend back to health.
Scarry calls the creation of an artifact – a sentence, a cup, a piece of lace – a fragment of world alteration. And if we can imagine these smaller changes as individuals, she writes, if we can alter the world in fragments, just think what we could imagine together, what we could do. Just think what might be possible: a total reinvention of the world.
Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.