- Homo Dolorosus. Körper—Schmerz—Ästhetik by Anne-Rose Meyer
Ever since Elaine Scarry’s groundbreaking philosophical meditation on the creative and destructive potential of pain, The Body in Pain (1985), there has been a [End Page 505] steady stream of studies that have uncovered the expressive and discursive possibilities of pain, analyzing how the depiction of pain in art and literature is influenced by an intersection of historical, philosophical, medicinal, and scientific discourses. Anne-Rose Meyer’s habilitation from 2009 and published in 2011 represents a significant contribution to this discourse. The value of Meyer’sbook lies in its focus and its approach. Unlike earlier studies, which tend to connect pain to identity issues, Meyer explores the constitutive role of pain in aesthetics from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries and poses a focused question: what role is pain allowed to play in aesthetics? By limiting the focus of her topic, Meyers is successful at unpacking the complexity of this aesthetics and is able to trace diachronically the many discourses that converge and diverge to create the conventions that inform the ever-changing use of pain in art and literature. Meyer’s interdisciplinary approach also produces positive results, engaging the aesthetics of pain through a large variety of critical lenses. Meyer looks at this aesthetics with the help of “ekphrastischer Aspekte, literaturgeschichtlicher, wahrnehmungspsychologischer, anthropologisch-physiologischer, sozialer sowie kunst-und medientheoretischer” (30) considerations. Meyer does so not to engage simply in theory for theory’s sake but in doing so correctly acknowledges just how important it is to approach pain through the varied perspectives and methods that comprise this very aesthetics.
There is a lot to praise in this dense volume. Particularly significant is how Meyer maps the perception of physical pain within scientific discourse and then shows how this changes the aesthetics of pain. A case in point is Meyer’s comparison, in the first section of her study, of how empiricists such as John Locke, Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, Robert Whytt, and Albrecht von Haller reacted to René Descartes’s theory of the mechanical body. Meyer identifies a gradual paradigm shift in the understanding of pain, showing that, with empiricism, the function of pain becomes secularized and differentiated: pain was now considered to be a physical sensation, a psychological stimulus, and a key component of human sensibility and self-awareness. In a similar methodological move, Meyer explores how philosophical thinkers of this time period engaged in this very scientific discourse to formulate new ideas about aesthetics. Meyer demonstrates that because the physiological functions of pain could be explained empirically, the use of pain in aesthetics became more acceptable and just as varied in its functions. She is able to show that without the advances in medical research, for instance, notions of the sensible self or depictions of hysteria in literature would not have been possible.
Another strength of Meyer’s study is how it makes clear connections between concepts that prefigure and influence the future consideration of pain within aesthetics. A few examples demonstrate Meyer’s adeptness at finding the thread connecting thinkers: Meyer shows how Moses Mendelssohn’s Über die Empfindungen, with its clear distancing of the viewer from the sufferer and its separation of morality and aesthetics, anticipates Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade’s aesthetics and other theories that divorce the depiction of pain from [End Page 506] religious and cultural norms; how Edmund Burke’s theory of the sublime, with its positive connection of pain with the experience of overwhelming beauty, incites the discussion among the thinkers of Weimar classicism as to the acceptable degree to which pain can be used in artistic and literary depictions; and how Johann Gottfried Herder’s Vom Erkennen und Empfinden, with its attempts to integrate the empirical theories of pain with a Christian world view, contributes to a larger discourse that emphasized a thinking and perceiving individual who is able to develop an aesthetic sensibility freed from cultural norms, a fundamental move that allows future aesthetic theories to consider...