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Pain is a reoccurring theme in the study of aesthetics and the human experience. John Dewey implies that pain and suffering are necessary for a beautiful world because complacent pleasure is not satisfying: "We envisage with pleasure Nirvana and a uniform heavenly bliss only because they are projected upon the background of our present world of stress and conflict. Because the actual world...is a combination of...breaks and reunions, the experience of a living creature is capable of esthetic quality (1)." For Roald Hoffmann, beauty is found in moments of tension: "Beauty...is to be found, precarious, at some tense edge where...order and chaos contend (2)." Even a less abstract examination of beauty and of our perceptions of beauty is impossible without discussing pain. Beautification, for example, is too frequently painful or unpleasant to ignore the possibility that pain and beauty are related. A discussion of the effect pain has on the afflicted, on the perceiver of suffering, and on society helps to resolve the philosophical and practical questions about pain's inherent beauty or ugliness, to discern the relationship between aesthetics and suffering, and to weigh the significant consequences of both.
Before any discussion of pain's aesthetic consequences can unfold, the inherent ugliness or worth of pain must be established. C.S. Lewis, a 20th century Christian writer, recognizes that pain is an "unmasked, unmistakable evil; every man knows that something is wrong when he is being hurt (3)." Nevertheless, he also makes a convincing argument that pain is a lesser evil: "Of all evils, pain only is sterilised or disinfected evil. Intellectual evil...may recur because the cause of the first error...continues to operate...Pain...may of course recur...but pain has no tendency, in its own right, to proliferate. When it is over, it is over, and the natural sequence is joy." Anyone in chronic pain may scoff at Lewis' flippant dismissal of pain as transient, but his point that pain does not have the tendency to cause more pain sets suffering apart from other evil, which does tend to perpetuate itself. Pain is unique because although we strive to get rid of it, suffering is capable of something benign or even good: pain forces change in order to cope with it and results in spiritual, physical, and emotional strength.
The growth of the sufferer is a result of the vulnerability that pain causes. In pain, people are torn from whatever life they have constructed for themselves and from whatever complacency mars their appreciation for life and the gifts that they have. The "raw" experience of life that may have been smothered by comfort is inflamed.
The intensity of real pain, emotional or physical, makes us more receptive and alert to beauty. There is nostalgia for the complacent quiet life beyond our grasp and openness to new experiences, which could relieve the present suffering. In times of complacency, people do not often seek to expand their beautiful experiences because they are content with the beauty they see. This is reflected in the experience of age: the elderly who have seen the imperfection of their lives and careers and the deterioration of their bodies are disposed to explore and grow as individuals. They do not sit in front of a television and play the video games of youth. They travel, read, and actively seek out beauty more often than the child who has not known intense suffering. The child inexperienced with pain has a passive response to beauty; the person who has painful memories has a proactive yearning for beauty.
As childhood literature reflects, experience trains us to perceive, cope, utilize, and even value suffering in our personal lives. The Giver by Louis Lowry is a common book read in adolescence that tells the story of a boy Jonas who is responsible for bearing and remembering all the pain of the world in order to protect his society. The book teaches that pain is not something to avoid. When Jonas asks the purpose of pain, his mentor responds that "it gives us wisdom (4)." Jonas' adoptive father who has never known pain demonstrates Jonas' contrast. He is the epitome of ignorance born of a life without pain. He is ugly in Jonas' eyes and in the eyes of the reader because he kills young children and elderly. In a society free from pain, he has never learned the dignity of humanity and life. Jonas is saddened that people do not know pain: "They have never known pain, he thought. The realization made him feel desperately lonely." Pain is intrinsic to the human experience; without it something of our humanity and the dignity and beauty of human life is trivialized.
The reoccurring narrative pattern of hero facing conflict and transforming to face it reflects that humanity values emotional, physical, and spiritual pain because it can bestow wisdom, understanding, and even beauty to sufferers. The most admired heroes, like Jonas, are the ones that suffer. The characters that are forgettable and even condemned are the ones that live complacent, pleasant lives and remain static, like Jonas' father. The theme of removal of pain resulting in indifference, oppression, and loss of justice and beauty is not isolated to children's books but rather is common in negative utopia literature like 1984 and Brave New World. In both books, the societies use painkillers to oppress and stunt the growth of individuals.
The beautiful virtues that pain can instill in individual sufferers, like a new awareness of beauty and the wisdom to respect fellow human beings, are not the only meaningful effects of anguish. Suffering ripples out and affects the witnesses of pain as well because everyone has experienced the intensity of grief and physical pain and longs to assuage the pain of others. A movie theatre is a good forum to witness this phenomenon. After the viewing of a comedy, the crowd leaves quickly and is detached emotionally from their movie-going companions. In contrast, after a deeply tragic film, the crowd leaves more slowly and often in silence, holding the doors for others, and generally more aware of the people around them.
Seeing pain has a way of making other people seem more important and the environment in which we share more sacred. In our Beauty Seminar class after we had watched the tragic ending to A Beautiful Life and the clips from Frida, I was more aware of my peers and their personal reactions then I had been at any other time during the class. Watching their tears, stricken body language, and closed eyes, I felt more beauty in the room and more unity in our expression of grief then at any other time during the course. The intensity of everyone's reaction to human pain coalesced into an intense awareness and beauty.
The relationship between beauty and suffering is complex, but there is also an element of simplicity: both beauty and suffering are intense and drive us to react to the rawness of our emotional response. The increased awareness of others and the desire to heal brokenness because of perceived suffering resonates with Elaine Scarry's description of the effects of perceiving beauty: "Beauty seems to place requirements on us for attending to the aliveness or (in the case of objects) quasi-aliveness of our world, and for entering into its protection (5)."
It is possible that pain beautifies society since it motivates us to create a more just and beautiful world. Pain and death are among few characteristics that all people share, and the desire to eliminate it is almost categorically the case. The universality of the desire to resolve pain can provide a common cause that permeates a society and unites people who share almost nothing culturally. For example, among 1.1 billion Catholics from almost every country and culture, the desire to eliminate suffering unifies them in a common identity as Christians.
Nevertheless, the relationship between pain and beauty is even more complex. When we do not seek pain, suffering has no predisposition for perpetuation. We can find beauty during and after suffering because it has the potential to transform the sufferer and inspire empathy and action to resolve the distress. What if the pain is sought, however? Is a meaningful or even beautiful experience possible? This question must be addressed by considering why the pain is inflicted and if the pain is self-inflicted or caused by a second individual.
I don't think a beautiful experience is possible whenever one person inflicts pain on another person. The very nature of our response to pain, the desire to relieve suffering in others, suggests that our aesthetic sense is against inflicting pain. When a mother strikes a child for disciplinary purposes, the response may be a positive one and the child, as an adult, may someday thank the mother for modifying destructive behavior, but neither the child nor the mother looks back on the event with any aesthetic pleasure. Similarly, it is considered tragic, not beautiful, that the United States must imprison thousands of people to protect society and reform convicts.
Inflicting pain on oneself, however, does have the potential to elicit aesthetic pleasure. In America alone we use innumerable painful practices like shaving or waxing our legs, plucking our eyebrows, and exercising to the point of soreness to achieve beauty. Nevertheless, there are several important distinctions between the aesthetic experience resulting from self-inflicted pain and the beauty resulting from unsought pain.
The aesthetic derived from self-inflicted practices is more concrete. It is possible to say "I find that woman's brow attractive because she has plucked her eyebrows," but it is more difficult to explain why sharing, and overcoming, a painful experience is so moving and beautiful.
The aesthetic derived from self-inflicted pain is localized in a particular culture. In the United States, shaved legs and plucked eyebrows are considered aesthetically appealing whereas in Europe, Africa, and many other cultures hair removal is considered unnecessary and even unattractive. On the other hand, the aesthetic appeal of the transformation required to cope with unexpected pain or the beauty of sharing and relieving someone's pain is more universal. It is praised in literature from all over the world and most beautiful narratives of every culture have the element of a painful or distressing conflict that must be overcome and which changes the protagonist into a beautiful and respected individual.
The beauty derived from self-inflicted pain tends to be more transient than the beauty derived from other suffering. Although relationships are often started because of the appeal of painfully constructed beauty, the relationship grows because each partner learns to be whatever type of respite and friend the other needs. A man might be attracted to a woman who diligently diets, plucks her eyebrows, and enlarges her breasts with plastic surgery, but beautiful, enduring relationships are built on the type of sacrifice that comes from enduring the pain and discomfort inflicted by the partner. Self-inflicted painful beautification is not the glue that keeps couples together.
Beauty constructed from self-inflicted pain is, at least in American culture, sometimes less respected and admired than beauty born of surviving unsought conflict. Actors, actresses, and models try to conceal their plastic surgeries, and extreme dieters tell others they are not hungry. In contrast, when someone is called a "beautiful" person, the individual is the often the type that endures unsought, unexpected emotional and physical suffering or discomfort in a quiet and accepting way.
One characteristic common to all experiences of beauty derived from pain, self-inflicted or not, is the perseverance required to maintain or achieve beauty. A beautiful experience that does not result from pain, like the appreciation of a painting, is a passive one; to act to prolong or to share the experience is not a requirement for having the beautiful experience. In fact, although we may feel the desire to share our beautiful experiences, to do so might destroy or trivialize the experience. On the other hand, to have a meaningful experience related to pain, we must act. When suffering inflicted by fate is endured alone, the beauty is lost. As when a tree falls in the forest and does not make a sound because no human ear hears the air disturbances, pain does not result in beauty when no person is there to share the suffering. A person driving past a fatal accident and gaping at the sufferers without stopping to help would not experience any beauty from the painful experience. The passing bystander might instead feel shame for not helping, disgust with the violence, or even indifference. The person who stops to help, however, has a very different experience. They will be distraught by the violence but they might also be moved in a beautiful way when the surviving family reaches out to thank them or when they see the devotion of the paramedics that help the family. A beautiful, meaningful experience that involves pain is more likely to occur when we relieve the suffering of a close friend or family member than when we detachedly watch a tragic movie and never respond by helping end someone's pain. Similarly, beauty derived from self-inflicted pain is proactive in nature. If a small group in the United States would stop plucking their eyebrows and shaving their legs and were able to convince the rest of their country that the practice was no longer aesthetically necessary, the aesthetic appeal of hair removal, no longer proactively pursued, would disappear.
Because pain sometimes results in an aesthetic experience, running from pain threatens to eliminate a form of beauty from society. In fact, because not everyone has the means, money, or health to escape from pain, those that do manage to evade suffering leave in their wake millions of others who suffer and experience beauty in their suffering in a way that is alien to those that don't suffer. If we continue to cultivate a young generation that fears pain and does not embrace it and conquer it as a dignified aspect of their humanity, there will soon be a widening of the societal gap. The wealthier populace who can afford to alleviate pain and put off the grief of death with expensive healthcare will experience life in a way that the poorer can not imagine. The wealthy will grow to love beauty that is passive and detached from pain like art, museums, education, and nature. The poorer will thrive on the passive forms of beauty and the more proactive beauty of working through pain and suffering and assuaging others' distress. There will be two classes of people: those who have found beauty in living through pain and those that have cultivated beauty detached from blood and tears. We will not be able to relate to each other's experiences.
It is unrealistic to think that there will be an end to all pain among a small group of society and the formation of a complete breach between the different classes. Nevertheless, the impact of an era of "a pill for every pain" is already taking shape in American culture. The prosperous are delving into a culture of quick, anesthesia-aided procedures that set the standards of beauty higher than the less wealthy can afford. Others who have learned to cope with pain and use it as a source of beauty are trying to meet the unrealistic plastic surgery standards under more intense and more prolonged physical and emotional pain of self-induced starvation and low-self esteem.
The fissure is even wider between different cultures. In the third world such as certain Latin American countries where painkillers and healthcare are a luxury, religions like Christianity, Buddhism, and others which teach a doctrine of embracing pain as a beautiful and spiritual exercise are exploding. In the United States and particularly Europe, however, where pain is dismissed as unnecessary and even evil and where healthcare stifles prolonged suffering, the number of practicing religious is falling. The character of the third world is becoming very distinct from the morality upheld in the first world because suffering people have a different aesthetic prospective than well-fed, well-medicated people. The gap in perspective is damaging to our global community.
The ultimate paradox is the relationship between beauty and pain. Pain can result in beauty by transforming people into stronger individuals, but we strive to eliminate most of the suffering in the world. The more pain and conflict we eliminate from our own personal experience, the more potential beauty that could result from suffering is lost. We become more and more unable to relate to the sufferers of pain because we lose their aesthetic perspective. Self-inflicting pain can create a kind of localized and transient cultural beauty, yet to inflict pain on others is not beautiful.
It is significant, however, that the pain-beauty relationship is a paradox and not a contradiction. Small, painful cultural practices that we use to beautify ourselves are avenues for us to express our roles as contributing, integrated members of society. We need pain to remind us of our vulnerability and make us constantly alert and aware of the beauty of the world around us, but we also need its end because the resolution is part of the aesthetic experience. Tension implies resolution.
It is possible and necessary to embrace suffering in our personal lives and find beauty and dignity by doing so while also working to relieve the suffering of others. By working to end the pain of others yet not running from it ourselves, we are truly creating a tension that is capable of the beauty Hoffmann describes, a place somewhere between a static heaven and chaotic hell. Life and the search for beauty are constant battles to find the right balance between two worlds that Dewey describes: "There are two sorts of possible worlds in which esthetic experience would not occur. In a world of mere flux, change would not be cumulative; it would not move toward a close. Stability and rest would have no being. Equally true, however, that a world that is finished, ended, would have no traits of suspense and crisis, and would offer no opportunity for resolution. Where everything is complete, there is no fulfillment." The challenge of every true seeker of beauty is to be accepting of their own pain but uncomfortable with the pain of others.
1. John Dewey, "The Live Creature." Art as Experience. 1934; rpt. New York: Perigee, 1980. pp.17.
2. Roald Hoffmann, "Thoughts on Aesthetics and visualization in Chemistry." Preface. Issue on Aesthetics and Visualization. Hyle. pp.4.
3. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain. New York: C. S. Lewis Pte Ltd., 1940.
4. Lowis Lowry, The Giver. Bantam Doubleday book: New York, 1993. pp. 110-111.
5. Elaine Scarry, "On Beauty and Being Fair." On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999: pp. 90.
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