restricted access Knowledge and Pain ed. by Esther Cohen, Leona Toker, Manuela Consonni, and Otniel E. Dror (review)
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Reviewed by
Esther Cohen, Leona Toker, Manuela Consonni, and Otniel E. Dror, eds. Knowledge and Pain. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2012. xviii + 406 pp. Ill. $122.00 (978-90-420-3582-9).

Pain interests us. This volume draws together historical, philosophical, literary, and phenomenological accounts of suffering in order to reflect on the confusing array of cultural and intellectual responses to physical and emotional pain from the twelfth century to the present. Like much work in the field, the essays collapse the traditional distinction between the physical and the emotional. They also problematize historical and contemporary definitions of pain. Indeed, a chapter by the cognitive scientist Sascha Benjamin Fink even recommends that we stop assuming that there is an homogenous experience that is labeled “pain.” Instead, we should be investigating the contexts within which people use pain expressions and the different emotional or affective states that adhere to such contexts.

Some of the chapters radically challenge conventional understandings of empathy. Esther Cohen, for example, skillfully unpicks medieval attitudes to the pain of others. The status of the person in pain was crucial in determining the economy of sympathy that could be allocated to his or her suffering. It also influenced sensitivity to pain, which was why Christ’s sufferings were so exquisite. Na’ama Cohen-Hanegbi also defamiliarizes pain by exploring it in the context of the Middle Ages. In fifteenth-century Italy, a distinction was made among pain as an emotion (dolor), pain of the soul (dolor animi), and the pain of remorse (contrition). Physicians sought to co-opt theological languages in order to demonstrate their healing authority while theologians insisted on the uniqueness of the pain of contrition for much the same reasons. Other chapters trace through similar debates about who possesses authority over pain and the role of interpersonal interactions. These questions are explored in the contexts of lovesickness in early modern Europe and miraculous healings (specifically Parisian Jansenism) in the eighteenth century, as well as the role of narrative in healing processes today. The one chapter on animal suffering—written by Nathanial Wolloch, the author of a number of books on the meaning of “nature” in early modern European [End Page 685] culture—is especially nuanced in its analysis of the role of sympathy in human–animal interactions. His argument that sensitivity to animal suffering was fundamentally anthropocentric is richly argued and persuasive.

One of the most difficult chapters—but also the one most worth reading—is by the distinguished anthropologist and historian of science Otniel E. Dror. Titled “Visceral Pleasures and Pain,” Dror’s chapter is one of the clearest expositions of nineteenth-century discourses on the physiology of the emotions. By studying visceral emotions, scientists critiqued those commentators who assumed that emotions could be “read” by anyone (through observing facial expressions, for instance). They proposed “an alternative cosmology of emotions” that drew attention to “numerous invisible emotions lurking under the skin” (p. 160). Although less “history of science,” Paula A. Michaels’s chapter on obstetric pain is a brilliant exposition of the transmission of medical ideas between the Soviet Union, France, Britain, and America. Through a careful reading of texts, she is able to demonstrate subtle but important differences in the reception about ideas concerning “natural childbirth” and the role of mind over matter in these different countries.

Fictional and autobiographical depictions of pain are also highly suggestive of the meaning of suffering in past cultures. As medieval scholar R. F. Yeager correctly reminds us, “literature, more than the visual arts, is our best evidence of how people felt” (p. 44). John Gower, Geoffrey Chaucer, Anton Chekhov, David Grossman, as well as Christine Brooke-Rose’s pathography, a series of literary representations of dementia, and comic books are subjected to close readings. Memoirs are also unpicked in an attempt to shed light on the hermeneutics and phenomenology of pain. Manuela Consonni raises difficult questions about pain, death, and individual finitude in the context of the Shoah. What does pain mean for peoples whose entire “being in the world” is the camps? Leona Toker follows this question with an equally thoughtful article on the “folk theodicy” of victims of Nazi camps and the gulag. The...