Jeremy Davies - Bodily Pain in Romantic Literature. Review by Travis Chi Wing Lau
Travis Chi Wing Lau
University of Pennsylvania
Through four single-author case studies (Jeremy Bentham, the Marquis de Sade, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe Shelley), Jeremy Davies considers the interrelationship between pain and literary production in Romantic writing. Intervening in both pain studies and Romanticism, his book smartly reconsiders the Romantic period not as a bizarre break in a teleological narrative of Enlightenment progress but as a crucial period where we might historicize shifting conceptions of pain outside of the frameworks of an increasingly professionalized medical establishment. For Davies, pain represents a valuable historical topos that can enable us to “see some Romantic-period thinkers in a new light” (xiii).
One of the book’s most useful chapters is the first, which offers a concise yet comprehensive review of contemporary pain studies. While simultaneously justifying pain as an object of historical inquiry, Davies traces the ways in which scholars from diverse, often disparate fields have discussed pain. He rightly critiques pain scholarship not for its “anachronistic attribution of modern pain categories to past societies, but an intermittently specific attention to bodily pain interspersed with unannounced transitions to infinitely more general themes” (12). For Davies, pain experience is “relatively isolable and persistent” for historical analysis and should be studied in terms of a different model than what he has termed to be either the “exceptionalist view” or the “culturalist or humanist approach” (12-13). If the former frames pain as a unique sensation because it resists representation in language and the latter contextualizes pain only in terms of cultural signification, Davies asserts the necessity of an interdisciplinary approach to pain that combines cognitive science and cultural history. Davies’s historical method is thus to “describe pain in the sense of characterizing it rather than in the sense of defining it” (18). He specifically uses a language of irony and reflexivity to characterize pain. Davies entreats us to consider pain’s capacity to remind us of our very receptivity to experience or “our sheer bodily feeling of feeling” (22). In a concluding engagement with Elaine Scarry’s now seminal The Body in Pain (1985), Davies makes a case for what has long been a misinterpretation of Scarry’s argument for pain’s negative capacities, which actually provoke literary production, rather than exceed or disable representation.
Davies attributes this reflexive quality of pain to the Romantic writers in his study. Instead of a conception of pain exclusively in relation to an autonomous subject, Romantic pain challenges us to consider it “in terms of its thoroughgoing receptivity to its circumstances” (27). Ultimately, Davies claims that his reflexive model of pain enables us to better understand why “bodily pain became important to people who were investigating quite other and apparently unrelated subjects” (31). Davies’s method of grappling with the very inconsistencies and contradictions of pain shapes each of his chapters. Beginning with Bentham’s penological writing on torture, Davies traces how Bentham’s psychological theory marks an ambivalence about extreme pain’s capacity to sufficiently overwhelm its victim’s will. Davies then moves to the figure of the Sadean anti-hero, who desires the pain created in his victim. Despite the libertine’s desire to experience the victim’s singular experience of pain, Sadean victims resist the libertine model of homogeneous pain. Chapter 3 examines how pain redirected Coleridge away from a Hartleyan Unitarianism to a Trinitarian vision of Christ’s pain. It is ironically in this latter model of pain, which involves the negation of self or the relinquishing of volition, where Coleridge finds the active, willing self. Moving toward the rise of surgical anesthesia, Davies ultimately concludes with a chapter on Shelley’s understanding of pain as the origin for a “non-teleological, self-revisiting creativity” (132).
Davies is forthcoming about what the book does not do: 1) it is not a comparative study of gendered representations of pain, 2) it is not a study about the religious significance of bodily pain, and 3) it is not a history of medical ideas about the pain of the body. While these omissions do not detract from the overall value of Davies’ study, it is worth considering how these unremarked aspects historically shape an understanding of pain. Davies offers little justification as to why his selection of authors is comprised of primarily canonical white male authors aside from the fact that they are exemplary of how pain and literature are intricately connected. Can a historical method that views pain as “relatively isolable” be still committed to questions of gender and religious belief? Furthermore, Davies’ resistance to both an entirely medical or social model of pain resonates greatly with the growing field of disability studies. His provocative reflexive model of pain would be worth putting in conversation with recent disability studies interventions in pain studies regarding interdependence and the intercorporeal nature of pain.