Illness and Suffering   /   Fall 2006   /    Articles

Telling the Dramas of Suffering

Arthur W. Frank

"llness is primarily a drama,” wrote Anatole Broyard, “and it should be possible to enjoy it as well as to suffer it.”11xAnatole Broyard, Intoxicated By My Illness (New York: Ballantine, 1992) 7. Such a statement risks dismissal as a feel-good sop to reassure the healthy, but Broyard was dying, and he meant to shock his reader into recognizing what is often obscured. Suffering and joy are often more complementary than oppositional; each requires the other. Broyard goes too far for me, but he provides a useful beginning.


I want to explore how the suffering of illness is primarily a drama, and understanding what is dramatic about their experience can help people to survive. Helping people to tell illness as drama, and through that telling to experience their lives as dramatic, is one way to diminish, though never eliminate, the gap between the two recognitions of suffering that pervade Western thinking. Transformative suffering recognizes that suffering can be the foundation of insight and creativity. Rilke’s great line, “Don’t be afraid to suffer,” is a late Romantic expression of this understanding.22xRainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, trans. Edward Snow (New York: North Point, 2004) part 1, no. 4, st. 9. A much earlier expression of the same impulse is found in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “Jesus said: ‘Blessed is the one who has suffered and has found life.’”33xThe Gospel of Thomas, included in Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, trans. Elaine Pagels (New York: Random House, 2004) v. 58. The apparent opposite of transformative suffering is what Emmanuel Levinas called useless suffering.44xEmmanuel Levinas, “Useless Suffering,” Entre Nous, On Thinking-of-the-Other, trans. Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998) 91–101. Useless suffering anticipates no transformation; it only breaks people. Useless suffering is not dramatic because it has no plot: one thing does not happen as a consequence of something prior, and the only sense of an ending is a death that simply extinguishes life. The response to useless suffering is not interpretation; the issues are not hermeneutic. The transparent moral demand is to end the conditions that impose it.

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).