VICTORIAN PAIN by Rachel Ablow, Reviewed by Clark Lawlor
 

VICTORIAN PAIN
By Rachel Ablow
(Princeton, 2017) 208 pp.
Reviewed by Clark Lawlor on 2018-03-28.

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Rachel Ablow's fascinating book takes on perhaps the crucial century in the history of pain. Before the Victorian period, pain and suffering were theologically construed as part of God's plan for the universe. As a consequence of the Fall, pain was considered not only punishment for and evidence of original sin, but also a purifying test of authentic religious faith. By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, pain began to seem conquerable. Combined with a wider range and greater effectiveness of analgesics, a better understanding of the nervous system promised some relief from pain, and--better yet--vaccination started to eliminate the scourges of previous centuries. But these medical advances raised a question for the Victorians: why would a benevolent God allow one generation pain relief that had been denied to previous ones?

Developments in the political economy of the previous century had also undermined the case for medicine's triumphal progress. Since Thomas Malthus considered war, disease, and famine as so many brakes needed to check the growth of population, he argued that without them it would explode, outrunning earth's capacity to feed it. Darwin too thought natural wastage or selection of offspring necessary for continuing and evolving life. Was pain thus doomed to be "impersonal," as Ablow puts it? An historical accident unrelated to personal development or status?

In pursuit of alternative answers, Ablow interrogates a range of writers. While theologically-minded theorists construe pain as an inescapable consequence of Original Sin, secular thinkers imply that it depends on the date of one's birth, whether during one of Malthus's cycles of population pruning-by- disease or during an age of anesthesiological advance. These thinkers also explore the tension between the inevitable solitude of pain and its social construction, the meaning or meanings we attach to it in society.

Literary works can play a part in both reflecting and creating pain within and across bodies (and minds). Taking her cue from Thomas Hobbes's famous definition of the life of man as "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short" (4), Ablow notes that while the social contract makes civilized society possible, it is underpinned by the brutal facts of a painful existence. To write about pain, she argues, is to write about society. She aims to show how her chosen writers deployed pain rather than representing it (which implies a certain disconnection), and also to calibrate the different modes and contexts within which pain "speaks" to others, whether desiring recognition, validation, witness, or any other kind of response.

Recent work on the cultural history of pain includes Joanna Bourke's The Story of Pain. From Prayers to Painkillers (2014) and Rob Boddice's Pain: A Very Short Introduction, (2017). These studies have accompanied new work on the history of the emotions as well as work on the body that is more historicized than the theory-led deconstructions of the 1980s and early 90s. Given this recent scholarship, Ablow carves a space for her monograph between two broad methodological perspectives on pain: personal and social.

Exemplified by Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain (1985), the personal approach to pain treats it as individual, private, pre-social and pre-linguistic. Thus defined, writes Ablow, pain is "an epistemological problem--the thing we cannot, but most need to, know" (4). It is beyond language, beyond our ability to express in linguistic terms. Unlike psychological pain, which has its own vocabulary, personal pain is said to be profoundly other, profoundly unknowable. By contrast, the social conception of pain makes it knowable. Deriving from Wittgenstein and elaborated by Stanley Cavell and Veena Das, the social conception of pain takes it beyond liberal individualism. In true deconstructive terms, it reads pain as "always already part of a social world" (4).

The contrast between personal and social pain is elaborated in the first chapter, where Ablow contraposes the views of James Mill and Jeremy Bentham with those of Mill's son John Stuart. While Bentham and the elder Mill represent pain as "profoundly personal, interiorized, and private" (21), with a concomitant vision of the social as a collection of individuals, John Stuart Mill sees those individuals linked by pain. In his Autobiography (1873) and its accompanying analysis of his psychological breakdown, Ablow finds Mill moving pain into the realm of the social, as a phenomenon to be constructed and understood only by means of other people. For Mill, as Ablow observes, the key to this socializing process is poetry. In particular, the poetry of Wordsworth mediated for Mill between the suffering individual (for our actual experience of pain is inevitably individual) and the (liberal) others who place that pain in a social context.

On the other hand, the personal experience of Harriet Martineau, a celebrity invalid as well as a social theorist, exemplifies what Ablow calls "the Impersonality of Pain." Prompted by political theory and the need for an impersonal legislator (a difficult goal in the utilitarian philosophy of self-interest), Martineau is said to have argued that pain has a "unique" and privileged role in freeing the sufferer from social interaction, "the world of face-to-face encounters" (22). While this freedom prevents the sufferer herself from intervening directly in society, it allows her to achieve the ideal impersonality that would make her an ideal legislator.

Turning from social theory to fiction, Ablow finds that Charlotte Brontë's Villette (1853) treats pain as an individual experience that can be recognized even if not shared. In cases such as Lucy Snowe's substitution of physical pain for emotional trauma, Ablow argues, "these carefully staged refusals of readers' sympathy constitute an attempt to offer recognition and acknowledgement ... in place of an implicitly normalizing fellow-feeling" (22). So while an intimate knowledge of the other's pain is impossible, a "recognition and acknowledgement" of it certainly is. Ablow thus pursues the idea of "liberal sociality" she has already introduced: a "compassionate coexistence" shuttling between the privacy that helps to make the liberal subject valuable, and the community needed by a functioning society.

Since Darwin's theory of evolution plays a vital role in the cultural history of the Victorian age, his theory of affect likewise informs Victorian theories of pain. According to what Ablow calls his "strange phenomenology" (23), pain traverses body parts, whole bodies, groups of bodies, and even species. This blurring of the lines between communities and individuals, nature and nurture (or biology and culture), not only challenges the liberal idea that affect belongs to the independent individual, but also enables Ablow to suggest ways of refining contemporary affect theory.

In the fiction of Thomas Hardy, Ablow finds something comparable to Darwin's (dis)location of pain across bodies and populations. Hardy's fiction manifests what she calls "the homelessness of pain--its movement between persons and things, as well as between animals, aspects of the land, qualities of light, states of being, and products of the imagination" (117). Hardy's treatment of pain, in fact, is said to be "post-Darwinian" (23). In The Woodlanders, for instance, Ablow explains how the "vocalised sorrows of the trees" (a familiar classical trope) both do and do not symbolise the sorrows of Marty South herself, the character who hears, or seems to hear, the sound of the trees carried to her by "a lingering wind" (qtd. 117-18). In thus depicting a "universe of pain" (119), Ablow writes, Hardy "pushes the possibilities of the speakerlessness of free indirect discourse to a kind of limit" (120). The readers are cast as "subjects who could hear [the suffering of the trees] if we chose to," and forced to make "structurally impossible" choices in both ethical and affective realms. Yet Ablow also argues that we are not unmoved. Although Hardy's vision is troublingly bleak, his style--his "affectively engaged practices" in Tess as well as in The Woodlanders--is said to make us suffer pain rather than simply observing it. Consequently, what seems at first an apolitical approach to pain becomes a way of analyzing the "differential relations to suffering" in society (23).

Besides reiterating that Victorian or what she calls "modern" conceptions of pain (23) are linked to the social, Ablow's Afterword shows how her chosen authors reformulated the earlier concept of pain as something isolated and isolating. Since this model of pain abetted the atomistic, individual liberalism espoused by Bentham and James Mill, it clearly persevered into the nineteenth century and played its part in the history of Victorian pain.

Ablow has valuably shown how writers working in a range of genres--literature, autobiography, science, and sociology--reconceived pain in the nineteenth century. Though dense and sometimes difficult, this interdisciplinary book rewards the effort needed to reach out across its disciplines. Aesthetically as well as intellectually, literary scholars may find that her readings of some familiar texts will change the way we read them, and that is quite an achievement in itself.

Clark Lawlor is Professor of Eighteenth-Century English Literature in the Department of Humanities at Northumbria University, UK.


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