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Oct/Nov 2013 Nonfiction

The Centaur's Blood

by Jascha Kessler

Electronic/fiber artwork by Phillip Stearns

Electronic/fiber artwork by Phillip Stearns


Some years ago, I was invited to participate on a panel at UCLA's Medical School in a series dedicated to conversations between humanists and doctors. The subject I was asked to address was the problem of pain; for this talk it was to take off from trigeminal neuralgia. My medical sponsor provided me with excerpts from the current medical literature as background and briefing for the "humanistic" contribution. Those cases suggested that the problem of pain has forever been central to the healer's concern, perhaps one reason for the trepanned skulls found among Cro-Magnon remains. Certainly it remains so today despite the chemical advances that have been made, discoveries about molecular locks and keys in the brain, blockers and re-channelers and hands-on treatments like acupuncturing that offer temporary relief, if not the surcease that only oblivion offers to acute distress. Fifty years or so ago, one might choose from a few pain-killers in a drugstore; today a walk along that shelf displays dozens of over-the-counter anodynes, and the pharmacist can offer many other stronger-to-strongest preparations answering to whatever Rx you hand in.

If nothing else, reading about trigeminal horrors enlightened me concerning a financier and distinguished art collector I was acquainted with who had suffered from that affliction, as I first learned some years after he'd undergone radical surgery to eliminate it for good. His trigeminal neuralgia explained what had puzzled me about the expression he usually wore: it had seemed unemotional, even cold: his smile was faint, his conversation meager, unwilling. What I had taken for a dignified hauteur, I now understood to be the consequence of a terrific self-control; he must have lived in fear of the slightest waft of cool air, always expecting his face to shatter like the thinnest glass if he waxed animated in conversation; apparently almost anything could trigger the trapdoor into the pit of his hell, where an all-too familiar special cubicle was kept ready for him to howl the night out.

To fall ill is to enter a realm distinct from the community of the well. A straightforward seven-day head cold suffices to teach each of us this commonplace. How distant one's alienation in illness is can be measured not only by the severity of our diseased condition but by the intensity of pain associated with it, pain that theoretically at least will exist as gradation on a seemingly infinite scale; and on that scale each degree of pain presents us with its own exquisite absolute. Pain may be likened to a kind of cell in which its victim has been sealed, a cell without dimensions; or else, its walls are the intensity of the pain itself, which may not be touched though it holds one fast. From the perspective of what little I think I know about pain, however, medicine, from the earliest days of our species, might be regarded as an effort, first, to find out anodynes to release us from our imprisonment by pain; and, second, to restore us if possible to that other community of those who are well, that society from which our illness had, so to say, ex-communicated and exiled us. If we regard pain as a sort of objective thing, an existent, foreign being, invisible to us when we are well, then we may as well say pain is pain is pain. Words don't help us to understand this tautology. Perhaps it's our either/or mode of existence: in pain or not.

What words help us to do is contemplate pain from this perspective, that it is the cause of suffering; that is, words may express what we feel when we feel pain. Let suffering then be thought of as the subjective aspect of pain and it's possible to say, Yes, there is pain, and there is pain, and there is pain. One suffers from pain; one endures that suffering. Even then, if we think about suffering for a moment, we realize that because it is something like pain in its privacy, its uniqueness to the individual, its near-incommunicable nature, its quality is something Literature has sometimes attempted to express.

Usually, Literature offers its examples by delineating them in their extreme. Because it speaks in the extreme it can if we are sufficiently imaginative and sympathetic help us take our bearings. I am skeptical however; I doubt if we can truly know another's suffering, let alone another's pain...at least not until misfortune or calamity brings it, so to say, home to us to make it our very own. The doctor readily supplies us with a catalogue of pain-bringing diseases, the physiological catastrophes—Hamlet's Heart-ache and the thousand Natural shocks/That Flesh is heir to—pains immemorially known to a living creature, so those few examples of extreme pain the very thought of which can arouse in us miserable, fearful anxiety need not be mentioned. When it comes to speaking about suffering, a letter Franz Kafka wrote to a friend provides this:

We are forsaken like children lost in the woods. When you stand before me and look at me, what do you know of my sufferings and what do I know of yours? And if I fell at your feet and cried and told you, would you know any more about me than you know about hell when they say it is hot and sets one shivering? Therefore we men should stand before each other with as much awe, thoughtfulness, and love as before the gates of hell.

 

1.

At this point, I want to make a few allusions. I'll be brief because I am going to take a view of the subject I think few care to contemplate in our era.

When Job sat on his mound of rubbish, scraping his boils with a potsherd, having lost everything but life (and his wife), he was as remote from his former self as it was possible to be. The Lord had granted The Angel Satan permission to afflict Job bodily, because that adversary had wagered that utmost physical pain would destroy his loyalty. His old wife advised him to curse God and die. Three friends and another philosopher came to explain to him that his misery was caused by all manner of sinfulness. None of them seemed to have felt in themselves, however, Job's personal grief, whether mental (spiritual?) or corporeal. As we know, his case was absurd, from the human standpoint purely arbitrary. Job toughed it out until he was granted his right to argue the matter with the source of his sufferings; after which restoration to his former magnificence followed. Of course, those who had been lost to death, his children and their families, were gone forever: there was no remedy for them of the pain they had suffered as they were destroyed.

King Lear was incapable of imagining the sufferings and pain of others, especially the poorest and most destitute of his subjects—until he was reduced to nakedness and madness, bound to a wheel of fire, and lost in a raging storm on the moors. Only then did this powerful and very old man comprehend what it was to be driven to the last extremity; rather, almost, for it is only when Cordelia lies dead in his arms that he is broken by the pain of grief.

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus proposes a definition of tragedy. The tragic emotion, he says, is compounded of two emotions, pity and terror:

Pity is what we feel in the presence of whatsoever is constant and enduring in human suffering, and unites us with the sufferer; terror is what we feel in the presence of whatsoever is constant and enduring in human suffering, and unites us with the secret cause of it.

Good enough. If, however, we consider the matter of pain, we may realize that our understanding of terror may be limited because it seems that we are limited somehow in our capacity to imagine pain that is not our very own. Pregnancy is commonplace for our thinking species; but what male, what father would dare to presume he appreciates the pangs of childbirth, for example? And, insofar as the issue of the scientific understanding of pain is concerned, I will cite the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who, in a late discourse on Technology, proposed that, although our ever more powerful instruments are bringing us closer to the infinitely small and to the infinitely remote, they are nevertheless unable to bring us any nearer to the things of the world. I will adapt his apothegm to the realm of literature and offer one more example.

 

2.

It is Shoah, or, The Holocaust. One of the finest writers on this forbidding subject was the late Primo Levi. It has been disputed whether his death was suicide; I believe it was. His last book, I Sommersi E I Salvati (1986) or The Submerged and the Rescued, its title poorly rendered in English as The Drowned and the Saved, takes up the question of the all-too-many suicides by those who survived Hitler's camps, in particular writers and thinkers he knew in Auschwitz. Like his essays and autobiographies, that last book strikes one by its incredible poise, its aura of an achieved serenity in tone and style, although, of all those books, this is the one that ends with an extraordinary cry of rage, rather of outrage. After its publication, Levi was to come to the United States to meet his audience of readers; instead he threw himself down the stairwell of the apartment house in which he had lived all of his life, before and after the War. Two weeks earlier, he had written Ruth Whitman, the American translator of his poems, a letter saying that he was thinking of not coming after all, adding that he was in the depths of a depression more profound than the same illness he survived after returning from the East. What the title of his book suggests is that those who survived are the same ones who had been submerged—held under—no different from those who went up in smoke. That is most difficult for the living to grasp. But I may hope to make it clear by another example.

In a news article in The Los Angeles Times reporting the euthanasia legislation under debate two decades ago in The Netherlands, a woman named Pit Bakker ("former chairwoman and current board member of the Society for Voluntary Euthanasia") remarked, "I know of a case where a woman had survived Auschwitz. She had outlived her family and she said: ‘Now I'm over 80. When I had my children and my husband, I could live with it. I can't live anymore. Every night I'm back in Auschwitz.'" Bakker added that the woman's request for euthanasia was granted.

In a less ultimate example of the same, I should mention an uncle-in-law, now 92, who was found with his brother in Dachau, having been transported there earlier from Auschwitz. He was almost 25 then, and had grown up in Lodz, which had a very large ghetto right in the center of the city, bordered on one side by a river. A trolley line ran through it, the car windows blackened so passengers were spared the sight of people dying by daylight on the sidewalks. One day, he took it in mind to stroll across the bridge into town just to see the city he had been deprived of for some years. A devout young man, he wore the Orthodox ritual fringes outside his trousers. Walking over, he was stopped by a Wehrmacht trooper at bayonet point and directed to return. He went back to be confronted by the trooper on the ghetto side, who waiting for him with a mounted bayonet simply slashed at those fringes, One, two! and cut them off. Relating the moment that afternoon, he said to me, "Oddly enough, I have never since been able to wear my tzitzes [fringes]. It doesn't take much pain to break a man's spirit, and that was not physical pain. Pain it was, of the most common sort for humanity, loss, grief, terror, whatyouwill—it hurts deeply deep; it wounds forever."

These two examples may suggest a realm of pain that, like all pain, is real and cannot be felt by anyone but the individual, empathy and sympathy notwithstanding. They suggest a universal fact of our very existence, something we all know about, but in point of fact can know only for ourselves alone.

 

3.

That may be something about which Literature can hint. The writer may try to express the condition of solitude, particularly of a solitude in pain, and try to arrive at the source of the emotion of terror that Joyce's Dedalus defined, despite our inability to unite ourselves with its secret source, which has to do as much with our conscious existence of what we are, mortal. Perhaps all such expression, as the work of all art, is fated to be witnessed, felt at one remove—in the imagination alone. We are alone in our lives, within our lives, from the first cry of the naked newborn babe Macbeth mentioned as striding the blast (of existence?), a metaphor taken most likely from the cherubs traditionally painted on a map in those times, four of them containing the world shown within that virtual square. And alone the instant we die. The pain of solitude is agonizing, something even love can only hope to assuage. There is no anodyne for that pain. There is only to endure it. Moreover one is lucky to escape the truly physical agonies that most of us suffer at one time or another, in varying degrees of intensity. That condition of our existence is perhaps most trenchantly proclaimed by the Chorus at the end of Sophocles' King Oedipus:

People of Thebes! Consider Oedipus,
who was a man of might, and a great man
envied by our citizens for his luck,
all because the answer to that famous
riddle was his alone to give. And yet,
a cruel storm blew up and he was wrecked.
So wait, and watch until the day is done.
Not one of us among the living here
should be regarded fortunate unless
our death has come before we ever learn
just what it is to suffer human grief.

 

Notes

Chorus concluding King Oedipus in my translation of the play together with an essay on the work, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press [1998] in Sophocles Two, as part of their Millennial complete Greek plays including comedies for the first time, commissioned to be rendered into English by poets.

Title: The heroic human paragon of the Classical world's myths and legends was Herakles, whose deeds of power were numerous and astounding in variety and scale. In the end he perished in sheerest agony, having donned the gift of a shirt given him by his wife, Deianera. Thinking it would prove a love charm, she'd dipped it in the blood of the Centaur Nessus, slain by Herakles, and its poison blazed up to consume him in fiery horror, the essence of pain itself. Things are seldom what they seem. But pain is an absolute, purely itself.

 

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