Evil   /   Summer 2000   /    Articles

On Evil, Pain, and Beauty

A Conversation with Elaine Scarry

The Penitent Magdalen in a Landscape, c. 1568, Annibale Carracci; Fitzwilliam Museum; Wikimedia Commons.

Good and evil, pleasure and pain, body and language

Jennifer L. Geddes: The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World focuses both on the infliction of pain and on creativity. It’s a jarring combination, and yet, you see a connection between them. You argue that the infliction of pain reverses the process of creation, suggesting that it undoes or deconstructs the victim’s world and his or her ability to make a world. Could you say more about this?

Elaine Scarry: When I talk about pain and creation, I really do mean in the most literal way possible that they are opposites and opposites that are, as you say, jarring in their relationship. When I started writing the book, I actually had begun by thinking that if I wanted to write about pain, I should not begin to talk about creation. As a student and young teacher of literature, I knew that often in literary realms we refer to the fact that out of suffering comes creation, and I had originally felt resistance to that idea just because the relentless nature of cancer pain, or burn pain, or pain inflicted in political contexts, never has any room in it for creation and, therefore, to imagine that great acts of creativity could come about seemed to excuse and apologize for the existence of suffering in the world. So my original intention was to write only about pain and not to stray into creation. And, then, as I began to work on the question of torture—and I can almost remember the moment in which this happened, as I sat there reading piles and piles of Amnesty International materials—I suddenly saw that the structure of cruelty that I was observing was actually a kind of standing of creation on its head. Not only were suffering and creation not in league with one another; they were radical opposites.

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