- Suffering and the Remedy of Art
In Suffering and the Remedy of Art, Harold Schweizer reminds us that medicine is virtually silent about suffering. Not so art. In fact, for Schweizer, art not only speaks to and of suffering, but “art is in some fundamental way analogous to suffering.” He believes that “[b]oth art and suffering can be diagnosed, and neither can be understood; both are purposeless and gratuitous” (p. 2), a claim he repeats in the Afterword. Schweizer makes his case by close examination of various, often difficult, texts, some classic (The Book of Job, Antigone, and King Lear), others more modern (the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Paul Celan, Sylvia Plath, and Tess Gallagher). These texts are often beautifully and cogently explicated; other times they are made more difficult by the abstruse language of the literary critic, which will surely put off some readers otherwise drawn to the general topic and specific subjects of Schweizer’s commentaries. Despite this caveat, Suffering and the Remedy of Art, rich in insight and careful argument about suffering and art, is worth the effort of a careful reading.
Schweizer opens one of his best chapters, “To Give Suffering a Language,” with a quotation on reason and suffering from Theodor Adorno—“Rational cognition has one critical limit which is its inability to cope with suffering” (p. 11)—and, a bit later, “Reason can subsume suffering under concepts...it can furnish means to alleviate suffering; but it can never express suffering in the medium of experience, for to do so would be irrational by reason’s own standards. Therefore, even when it is understood, suffering remains mute and inconsequential” (p. 13). It is not surprising, then, that Schweizer, citing Arthur Kleinman, finds medical categories “woefully insufficient to account for the intimate and inward experience of illness” and silent about suffering. Schweizer then tells us that “Adorno’s remedy for such a crisis of understanding is art, the irrationality of which alone could account for the irrationality of suffering” (p. 12). He asks,
What can the medical practitioner learn from art when it continually foils our attempts to appropriate the inexplicable, when it thwarts our desire to make sense out of secrecy? We can learn something about the violence of our hermeneutic, that is to say, about the breathless expediency with which we convert mystery into meaning, suffering into disease, and pain into pathology.(P. 14) [End Page 313]
The Book of Job (subject of an entire chapter) supplies us with an example of the “hermeneutical haste in the face of suffering” (p. 14) of which Schweizer speaks. Job’s friends, at first empathic listeners, too soon make their own interpretations of his suffering, which are rendered with a less than salubrious effect.
But “the remedy of art” is not limited to forbearance, empathic witnessing, and acceptance of the inherent unknowability of suffering. “The remedy of art,” a Nietzschean turn of phrase, is not, says Schweizer, “a remedy for suffering but a demonstration that in order to suffer we need the remedy of art” (p. 42). Nietzsche apparently thought that art was reason (barely) for us to continue with this human existence, grounded as it is in suffering. In the dense chapter “Suffering as Metaphor,” Schweizer carefully describes Nietzsche’s point of view, showing, among other things, that by proper translation from the German, art is not “a remedy”; it is “as a remedy.” The difference between the metaphor and simile is crucial: “The simile persuades us momentarily to believe that art is remedy. But the simile as simile, just as art as remedy, betrays the hope in remedy; it invokes but simultaneously revokes the equation. The metaphor is silent about such a deception....In the simile, art consoles, but it only consoles as art: not ‘art is remedy’ but ‘art as remedy’” (p. 44).
So, is art a “remedy,” or not? I cannot tell you what Schweizer himself believes, but, in Chapter 11, ominously titled “The Failure of the Remedy of Art,” he takes on this question directly...