The Danger of Pure Bodily Absorption

I am struck by a seemingly tangential comment about dreaming made by Scarry when discussing the relation between pain and imagining.

The paricular content of the dream images…is itself insignificant beside the overall fact of the dreaming itself, the emergency work of the imagination to provide an object–this object, that object, any object–to sustain and exercise the capacity for self-objectification during the sleep-filled hours of sweet and dangerous bodily absorption (p. 167).

What is striking here is the overt evidence of the mind’s (for lack of a better word) obsession with objects or, one might say, its fear of pure bodily absorption.  Although I cannot forcefully argue it yet, I am led to believe that, contrary to what Scarry argues, it is not necessarily true that insofar as an intentional state lacks its object it approaches pain (e.g., hunger), or, more precisely, that pain is the limit point of bodily absorption.  Instead of identifying pain with that limit point, it should be identified just as what it is, the critical point at which the state of a body has no object.  This more general limit point will, then, include both pain and, we might say, pure bliss.  More interestingly, the mind might fear, or at least try to prevent, like pain, the bodily absorption of pure bliss.  I think this actually follows from much of what Scarry says, although it differs from her (over)generalized claim about pain and what she says about pleasure on p. 166 and especially fn. 6 (p. 355).

Since it’s already quite clear, I won’t spend any time discussing why Scarry thinks pain can be seen as (one) limit point of bodily absorption, whether in torture or in quotidian states such as hunger and thirst.  I will start, then, with one observation concerning the difference between pain and pleasure.  Scarry claims that “physical pain is exceptional in the whole fabric of psychic, somatic, and perceptual states for being the only one that has no object” (p. 161).  However, in the introduction she repeatedly mentions the various ways in which one in pain can substantiate that pain, even if it is as simple as identifying it with the weapon that inflicted it or felt “as if” it inflicted it.  However, the same is true of pleasure.  Of course, it may often be the case that pleasure has an object, it is not very hard to conceive of the state being reached, pure bliss, in which there is none.  Scarry admits that sensations of touch can be distinguished as the pure sense of touching and the touch of some object.  This separation seems even starker in the case of intensely pleasurable experiences.  Finally, it is a mistake to confuse the cause of a sensation with the object of a state or sensation.  Obviously, physical pain must be caused by something, just as pleasure must be; however, this does not mean that either have an object in the way the feelings of hunger or longing do.

Finally, I wanted to comment about the fact that the mind is constantly imagining objects, particularly when, as in sleep, the body is deprived of perceptual or other objects.  It seems clear why in the case of pain, the mind would posit these objects.  According to Scarry, pain can be diminished or eliminating to the extent that it acquires an object, whether real or imagined.  Hunger is diminished when food is consumed; longing can be diminished when the person one longs for, although not physically present, is imagined.  However, I do not think that this obsession with objects is limited to the diminishing of pain.  As the case of dreaming makes clear, completely non-painful, even pleasurable, bodily experiences, like sleep, must be supplemented by dream-objects.  It is as if the danger of pure bodily absorption, whether painful or pleasurable, must be avoided at all cost.  Perhaps the reason, although not an exhaustive one, is that the civilization process itself, the process of making, as Scarry describes, is constantly involved in extending out of the body and into the world.  In a way, the feeling of pure bliss is as uncivilized as is the feeling of pain, that is, it is incommunicable, hidden from the world and other people.  Even Scarry herself seems to identify civilization with happiness and un-civilization with danger and harm.  This same dichotomy can be see, for instance, in common arguments against hallucinatory drugs or science fiction stories about a society in which its citizens are “drugged” to feel constant bliss and what consequence that would have (Brave New World?).  What must be considered is whether pain is the only locus of un-civilization, as in torture and war, or whether pure bliss, and its causes, is equally destructive of humanity and civilization.  More importantly, we must ask whether the very dichotomy between civility/happiness and un-civility/danger should have the validity it seems to have or whether we can imagine wholly new relations between pain, pleasure and society.


1 Comment

Filed under dreaming, Elainne Scarry, pain, politics, sensation, sense

One response to “The Danger of Pure Bodily Absorption

  1. ancientbs

    This is an interesting point about dreaming. We can’t seem to live without picturing some object, even when we’re dreaming. I know some that explain the makeup of our soul using this same type of belief. Our soul learns through our sensation/bodily experience. Once we die, our soul continues to exist, yet lacks the body to inform it through new experience/sensation. Thus, we’re left with what we already know, which will replay in our mind and haunt us, because we can’t learn anything new. Of course, the solution to this problem is a new body, which those that hold this position probably rely on.

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