Pain and Narcosis (1)
Pain hurts. So we try to avoid it. If we can’t avoid it altogether, as none of us can forever, then when it inevitably does come our way we try to numb ourselves against feeling it. Narcotics are good for that, which is why we call them “narcotics,” from narkosis, Greek for “numbness.”
It is worth noting that numbness is also one side of the definitive, two-sided psychic “effect” of trauma, according to Freud, on the psyche—the other side being the compulsion to repeat the traumatic event. The traumatized need take no drugs to achieve narcosis. The numbness comes right along with the trauma, no additional drug taking required.
However, there is narcosis–and then there is narcosis. Trauma-induced numbness is one kind. Sometimes, drug-induced numbness can also be of that same kind. However, the narcosis induced by taking narcotics or their equivalents can also be numbness of a sort very different from that induced by trauma.
The difference at issue is less a matter of the felt quality of the numbness as such than it is of the end to which the numbing is dedicated within the total context of its occurrence –the underlying purpose it serves, the telos or end toward which it is directed and which “animates” it: its intention, in the phenomenological sense. There is, on the one hand, the narcosis that belongs to the flight from pain. On the other hand, there is the narcosis that continues to hold the pain close, at the very heart of the numbness itself, as it were. Instead of belonging to the endeavor to avoid pain, as is the first sort of narcosis just mentioned, this second sort of narcosis belongs to the enterprise of engaging with the pain, in effect, in an ongoing effort to recover in the face of it. Accordingly, I will call the first sort of narcosis the narcosis of avoidance, and the second, the narcosis of recovery.
The narcosis of avoidance invariably worsens the pain, most dramatically and visibly in exponentially increasing the violence and devastation with which pain lays waste to whatever it touches, making it into ever more wasting pain, as we say. “The wasteland grows,” to borrow Nietzsche’s famous line–and the narcosis of avoidance both sows the seed and harvests the bounty of that growth.
Many others besides Nietzsche have written about the underlying phenomenon at issue. That includes Ernst Jünger, who wrote about it in several places, one of them being his essay “Vom Schmerz,” originally published in 1934 in German and available in English as On Pain (New York: Telos Press Publishing, 2008–translated by Peter C. Durst).
Early in the essay Jünger indirectly approaches the all too natural, universally human tendency to try to draw back from pain and avoid it, by beginning with a remark about our experience when we find ourselves in places or situations which, despite our efforts, remind us of the inescapability of pain in our lives. Thus, he begins by making an unexpected remark about archaeology, of all things. “Archaeology,” he writes (p. 7 in the English translation), “is actually a science dedicated to pain; in the layers of the earth, it uncovers empire after empire, of which we no longer even know the names.” Etymologically, the word archaeology means the science (in Greek, logos) of beginnings (plural from the Greek arche); and Jünger’s remark resonates with an at least double sense, which emerges when we go on to read his immediately following remark, which unexpectedly calls our attention to the sense of sadness and loss that can affect us when we find ourselves—physically or only mentally, it makes no difference—at the site of an archaeological “dig” unearthing the buried remains from some long ago forgotten human community. “The mourning that takes hold of us at such sites,” as he writes of such sadness, “is extraordinary.” In thus forcefully reminding us of how transitory are all human endeavors, even those that once established empires, the sense of mourning that can strike us at such archaeological sites confronts us with an even deeper arche or source of human habitation than that revealed in even the most ancient strata of physical remains. It reminds us, with a reminder that is itself all too painful, of how for all of us, regardless of how privileged and fortunate, our life itself begins in pain—and ends there, too.
Our mourning at such sites ultimately above all testifies, perhaps most painfully of all, to the futility of every endeavor to build ourselves some lasting place of safety, secure against the pain that loss inevitably brings us all. As Jünger writes a bit later in the same early section of On Pain (p. 9), the human eye “naturally searches for spaces of shelter and safety at the sight of pain so inescapable and antithetical to [human] values. In sensing the uncertainty and vulnerability of life as a whole, [one] increasingly needs to turn [one’s] sights to a space removed from the unlimited rule and power of pain.”
That all such searching is doomed to be in vain is what the mourning we can come all too easily to feel in such situations as that of visiting an archaeological dig insistently reminds us, revealing yet again to us the illusory nature of all our endeavors to find a place secure from pain. What we feel in such situations puts the lie, as Jünger goes on to note in his very next section (on p. 10), to “the biased belief that reason can conquer pain.”
The belief that, somehow, somewhere, there is a place secure from pain, if only we can find our way there, is nothing new. It, too, has been there almost from the very beginning. It is almost as archaic as pain itself—the pain against which the belief in safety itself first arose as a reaction. It is, as Jünger himself observes right after noting its bias, “a characteristic feature of forces allied with the Enlightment,” at the start of the modern epoch. Not only that, “but it has also produced a long series of practical measures typical for the human spirit of the past century”—which means, given when Jünger first wrote that line, for going on two centuries now, back to the middle of the nineteenth. Jünger then gives as examples “—to name just a few—the abolition of torture and the slave trade, the discovery of electricity, vaccination against measles, narcosis [my emphasis—at issue is the discovery of the narcotic drugs that ever since their discovery have remained at the center of the modern medical techniques of “pain management,” as we’ve long ago grown accustomed to calling it: what I have above labeled “the narcosis of avoidance”], the system of insurance, and a whole world of technical and political conveniences.”
Lest his intent be misunderstood, Jünger hastens to add that, of course, “[w]e still appreciate all these celebrated dates of progress.” He even goes on to remark that “whenever one, let’s say, mocks them, it is due to a romantic dandyism, which flatters itself haughtily as a finer spirit amidst a boundlessly democratic lifestyle”—a sort of John Galt or other Ayn Rand hero come to haunt us before his time, perhaps.
Nevertheless, Jünger goes on to observe, although we who were “[b]orn in full enjoyment of all these blessings,” and for whom they are “now taken for granted,” many things give us pause. At a time when “the War” meant what we have since come to think of as the First World War, the butchery of which is itself second to that of the far more deadly Second World War, Jünger writes (still on p. 10), in words that, if anything, fit better today than they did back then, in the 1930s:
Since the War’s end, the denial of pain as a necessary facet of life has experienced a later revival. These years display a strange mix of barbarity and humanity; they resemble an archipelago where an isle of vegetarians exists right next to an island of cannibals. An extreme pacifism side by side with an enormous intensification of war preparations, luxurious prisons next to squalid quarters for the unemployed, the abolition of capital punishment by day whilst the Whites [read, right-wingers] and the Reds [left-wingers] cut each other’s throats by night—all this is thoroughly fairytale-like and reflects a sordid world in which the semblance of security is preserved in a string of hotel foyers.
No matter how hard we try to avoid it, and struggle to convince ourselves that we still share the Enlightenment’s faith in progress, we never truly manage to escape the deep, unarguable claim that pain has on all of us. “No claim,” as Jünger bluntly reminds us a few pages later (p. 13), “is more certain than the one that pain has on life.” He immediately continues:
Where people are spared pain, social stability is produced according to the laws of a very specific economy, and, by a turn of phrase, one can speak of a ‘cunning of pain’ [against Hegel’s celebration, itself often celebrated, of what Hegel calls ‘the cunning of reason’—which cunning becomes sheer stupidity in comparison to that of pain] that never fails to reach its aim. At the sight of this state of widespread comfort [we might think, for example, of the not-to-be-disturbed comforts of homeland Americans during the still-ongoing wars unleashed under President Bush after September 11, 2001], one is prompted to ask immediately where the burden is borne. As a rule, one will not have to go far to uncover the pain. Indeed, even the individual is not free from pain in this joyful state of security. The artificial check on the elementary forces might be able to prevent violent clashes and to ward off shadows, but it cannot stop the dispersed light with which pain permeates life.
In short, pain will out.
For Americans such as myself, who continue to experience the comforts of home, not struck personally, at least not directly, by the violence of America’s current and recent wars–nor even, in my own and similar cases, by the even more pervasively wasting violence unleashed by the economic collapse of 2008 –it can be sobering to read a remark Jünger goes on to make just a few pages later (on p. 15). There, he writes that those who possess “a mind incapable of differentiating between war and murder or crime and disease will definitely select in territorial struggles the safest and most pitiful method of killing.” (Readers like me might think today of drones, for example.) Shameful as such mental incapacity may be, it certainly has its appeal! After all, such blindness fosters a most comforting sense of security in those who “suffer” from it.
However, as Jünger goes on to write:
The nature of this security . . . lies in the fact that pain is marginalized in favor of a run-of-the-mill complacency. Alongside the spatial economy, there is a temporal one, consisting of the sum of pain that remains unclaimed and amasses as hidden capital accruing compound interest. The threat grows with every artificial increase in the barrier separating man from the elementary forces.
Unfortunately for all of us so far blissfully blind folk, there is no force more elementary than pain, and, as I remarked just a moment ago, pain will out. Inevitably, the scales will eventually be ripped even from our eyes–and, as Jünger’s ominous last, just-quoted sentence warns us, the longer the blindness lasts, the greater grows the pain that will come to us all, eventually, when our vision clears.
Then what are we to do?
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I will try to address—or at least to begin to address—that question in the next post in this series on “Trauma and Intoxication.”