“She was not one for emptying her face of expression. ” ― J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
Before I got contact lenses (i.e., before I could see properly on a regular basis, since I always hated that fishtank-feel glasses have) I thought I had some kind of idea of what my life had been lacking without them.
In some respects, I wasn’t far off. My visual field lost its previous oiliness, where only things close up were concrete and distinct and the backdrop slipped and shimmied at will. I wandered around supermarkets, suddenly thick with texture, muttering Macneice (“I peel and portion/ A Tangerine and spit the pips and feel/ The Drunkenness of things being various.”) And it was a kind of drunkenness, a constant immersion in a strange and almost hallucinatorily bright world, that I couldn’t quite believe was just the normal day-to-day one that other people experienced.
If we have our why in life, we shall get along with almost any how. Man does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that. (Nietzsche, TI 12.)
Anchored misery, misery that has something external to the sufferer as as both its cause and its object can, in some ways, be easier to bear. At the end of her penetrating essay ‘Joy’, Zadie Smith quotes Julian Barnes on the subject of mourning: “It hurts as much as it is worth.” If we have a ‘why’ of suffering, it doesn’t diminish it or make it any lighter to drag around with us, but it does give it a place and an importance in our ethical lives. Misery is the appropriate response to loss of something valued, whether that is a person, a relationship, innocence or even a rosebush. Continue reading
[For Part One click here]
Perhaps more than any of the bad pictures of “pain” Wittgenstein attempts to disentangle people from in the Philosophical Investigations, the above picture assimilates our knowledge of other’s pain to our knowledge of stuff, of features of the external world. Here “pain” is a feature of the world (albeit of that part of the world taken up by someone’s body), one which we can know about with a high degree of certainty, or if we are uncertain about it is simply because we do not yet have enough factual information to hand. (“I’m unsure if she is in pain, I’m still waiting on the results of the scan.”)
Yet it stems from the same kind of unease also leading to those pictures which Wittgenstein does address: the thought that if the question “Are they in pain?” is to have any kind of bite there must be something called “a pain” to exist “somewhere” (whether physically or mentally). The “medical” solution (the one I have discussed above) is a picture which does enable us to know someone elses pain, and yet in doing so robs pain of its phenomenological content (and many of the instances we would refer to as pain.) On the other hand attempts to situate this strange object called a “pain” in the realms of “the mental”, have the unfortunate effect of meaning that we can never know if someone is ever in pain at all. Both pictures, however, “yoke” knowledge (of another’s pain) to “certainty”: knowing something is being able to gather the appropriate evidence for it, to be “sure” about it. Continue reading
It seems like a weird question to ask how you can know if someone is in pain or not.
Not that this has really stopped philosophers from continuously asking it, and many of them answering along sceptical lines; you cannot ever know another’s pain, you can only guess at or surmise it. (PI 246) But this is not what I’m talking about. As my philosophy tutor, Bob Hargrave, used to say, the only possible response to a philosopher who claims they can seriously entertain the possibility that someone screaming and writhing under a torturer’s implements isn’t actually “in pain”, is to back away from them slowly. (This goes along with a certain, and largely justified, fashion of seeing most philosophical problems as being abstract and irrelevant to our lives: of course we constantly treat other people’s pain as something obvious and indisputable, whatever the philosophers decide between them is hardly going to have much bearing on that.)
What I’m talking about, though, are the kinds of situations I now encounter all the time. Where a patient on the ward is doubled up, clutching their stomach and the response of the nurses and doctors is simply to label it as “behavioural”- the polite, medicalized way of saying “they’re just faking it to get attention.” Instead of responding to their pain, instead of comforting them (or offering some other kind of relief), we simply have to work out how to manage their problematic behaviour. They very much look like they’re in excruciating pain, but we know that they’re not, so treating them as if they are is inappropriate. Continue reading
I’m currently reading the brilliant, wry and completely heartbreaking ‘May We Be Forgiven’ by A.M. Homes. (With serious thanks to Hannah G for lending it to me.) As some measure of these things, yesterday on the train the man sitting opposite me asked if I was alright because I was making anguished faces and clutching my collarbone so hard with my fingertips that they left marks. After a time I trawled my eyes upward from the page to realise he’d moved away.
Many things struck me in the book, but the below extract struck me because of the obvious relevance to Wittgenstein:
“I’m thinking of days that never were, the perfect childhood that existed only in my imagination. When I was growing up, the playground wasn’t so much a well-coiffed green as an empty lot. Our families had no desire for us to have a safe, clean place to play- as far as they were concerned, playing was a waste of time. Supplies were limited; one guy might have a mitt, another guy a bat, and the rest of us caught barehanded, sucking up the incredible sting, hands smarting not only with pain but with the thrill of success at having plucked the ball out of the sky, having interrupted the trajectory and likely spared someone the cost of replacing a window. The bottom line was, if you had time to play, you didn’t tell anyone, because if your parents knew, they would find something for you to do.
So we played quietly and out of sight, making toys out of whatever happened to be nearby- my father’s shoes made a most excellent navy, his size-nine wingtips gliding in formatting across the carpet, the smell of leather and foot sweat. And what did I use as the aircraft carrier? A silver platter that I borrowed from the dining room. And when my mother discovered the platter surrounded by shoes, she accused me of having mental problems. Why wasn’t it obvious to her that the carpet was the ocean, the battleground? She called me a nogoodnik, and I remember crying and George thinking it was all so funny.” (p. 102)
“Linguistic practice is not for something…[it is not] a means to secure some other end specifiable in advance of engaging in linguistic practice- not adaptation to the environment, survival, reproduction, nor co-operation- though it may serve to promote those ends. Even if.. those functions explain why we came to have language, once we did have it, our transformation into discursive creatures swept all such considerations aside. For discursive practice is a mighty engine for the envisaging and engendering of new ends.” – Robert Brandon
If this is true- which I believe it is- then the languages we use to talk and write are weighty, wonderful things.
But it is also true that there are simpler languages, ones which skulk around the edges of our linguistic practice and cannot hope to transform us in the same way. These languages are sometimes imagined, sometimes stipulated, sometimes required to fulfil a certain role. They rub uneasily against our native languages- too different for adequate translation, too similar for us to not try and attempt it. Continue reading
(Continued from here https://thebeetlebox.wordpress.com/2014/05/28/two-genealogies-of-madness-part-one/)
If our concepts of ‘madness” are socially constructed and as such don’t latch onto to an independent reality, it does indeed seem like a death knell for them. They are just fantasies, and worse than that, fantasies which were created to serve a malign social purpose- that of separation, ostracisation and false-reassurance.
This is where the above discussion of Nietzsche becomes important. The genealogy of morals succeeds in undermining the value of the “value-judgements good and evil” at least partly because Christianity cares about truth, and it cares about it’s value system being tied to some external truth about the world. But we do not need to see the conceptual framework behind the practice of psychiatry in this problematic way, as descriptive of a purely scientific phenomenon which is distinct from us and our own mode of life and flourishing .