Pain is an overwhelming experience. It imprisons the one experiencing it in a pitiless and all-encompassing present that can only be fully grasped by the one in pain. From Alphonse Daudet’s evocative nineteenth-century notes on pain to Elaine Scarry’s canonical The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, writers have repeatedly emphasized pain’s essentially private and privatizing components. This insight, Joanna Bourke’s and Ronald Schleifer’s new studies suggest, only tells part of the story. Both studies argue that pain is a sharable event, one that mediates between the private and public. However much the pain-event differs for the one being in it and the one witnessing it (and both authors point out that studies using fMRI technologies suggests that these experiences are actually not that far apart), pain is, as Daudet remarks in passing, experienced and communicated to an “entourage.”1 Pain is—however insufficiently—shared, and this process of transmission always draws on the particular environment in which it is experienced.
“Pain events are inherently social and, therefore, integral to the creation of communities” (46). Bourke makes this surprising claim in her ambitious study. And in her exploration of the many narratives emerging out of these communities—homes, hospitals, and workhouses—she carefully takes apart the many layers of cultural construction that partake in the expression of pain, which has been significantly less explored than its alleviation. The sheer diversity and breadth of the exceptionally rich material she examines within the Anglo-American context, from the eighteenth century to the present, and the intellectual vigor of the Foucauldian analysis she constructs in the nine interconnected chapters will certainly make The Story of Pain a useful reference work for researchers working on pain from various disciplines. Additionally, this remarkably well-written book presents historical scholarship in an accessible manner, without sacrificing its academic rigor or compromising its meticulously detailed readings.
In Bourke’s revisiting of a number of well-established claims about pain, she sets out to turn many of them upside down. At the beginning of this immersion into the community-producing nature of pain stands Bourke’s objection to Scarry’s view that pain “resists” and [End Page 225] “destroys” language (4). Bourke posits that Scarry has fallen into an “ontological fallacy” by having reified “pain” instead of having focused on the “person-in-pain,” who cannot but produce language that may or may not voice that resistance (5). Instead, Bourke’s maxim comes from the eighteenth-century English physician Peter Mere Latham’s telling prescription, “let pain be spoken of simply as pain” (9), and what she thereby achieves is to preserve pain’s “unspeakability,” while at the same time emphasizing that this very “unspeakability” is relentlessly spoken about. At the beginning of her third chapter, “Metaphor,” this challenge to speech leads her to take to task Susan Sontag’s call to avoid metaphors when speaking about illness, because metaphors allow us to “impose (and communicate) some kind of order” onto pain-events (55), an order which, again, reflects a wider frame of reference informed by “the way people experience their worlds” at a particular moment in time (58). Bourke substantiates Sontag’s well-known military metaphors of pain with a range of examples that draw on electrical and mechanical images, thereby linking pain metaphors to various stages of industrialization. Different uses of figurative language also reveal different conceptualizations of pain based on gender, religion, and ethnicity. It perhaps comes as no surprise that female sufferers often draw on metaphors from the domestic sphere instead of turning to imagery linked to warfare and industry, and that medical sociologists have found significant differences in the pain-languages used by Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans (85).
Bourke makes peace with Sontag, however, when she turns to one of her less cited short stories, “Man with a Pain,” that portrays the difficulty of finding the “right” metaphor for the...