Trauma and Intoxication: Pain and Narcosis (2)

Pain and Narcosis (2)

“No claim . . . is more certain than the one pain has on life.”  Ernst Jünger writes in On Pain (page 13 of the English translation), just a few pages after observing that in sensing the inescapability of pain, “the uncertainty and vulnerability of life as a whole,” we immediately try “to turn [our] sights to a space removed from the unlimited rule and prevailing power of pain.”  When we find no such space already carved out for us—no readily accessible womb of bliss and security to which we might return at will–we continue to try to delude ourselves about the very possibility of eluding pain.  Whence come not only flights into purely imaginary paradises where there is no more pain, but also the turn to medicinal and pharmacological means, all the various narcotic substances both natural and artificially synthesized, to numb or narcotize ourselves.  No less narcotizing—indeed, it may well be the most universally and easily accessible narcotic of them all—is “the biased belief that reason can conquer pain” (page 10), if only we can fund the relevant research well and long enough to discover the “cure.”   This blind faith in reason’s capacity eventually to free us from pain is a faith that itself alone already serves to blind us to that same pain, numbing us to it.  It is a faith, writes Jünger (still page 10), that is “not only a characteristic feature of forces allied with the Enlightenment,” but “has also produced a long series of practical measures typical for the human spirit of the past century” (written in the early 1930s, which means that it is drawing toward two centuries, now, in 2013).  Jünger then gives some examples.  One is “the abolition of torture and the slave trade,” or at least what we even today would still like to believe to be their abolition–if not everywhere then at least in some privileged places (such as the United States, if not Guantanamo), and at least for some privileged persons.  Other examples include:  “the discovery of electricity,”or, more recently, of gene-codes, perhaps;  “vaccination against measles,” or against polio, or even the flu; “narcosis,” in the sense of modern pharmacological opioid analgesics; “the system of insurance,” that is, today, financial insurance against everything but insurance itself (unless that too is covered now, and I am just ignorant of the fact); “and a whole world of technical and political conveniences”–today, from airplanes to the Web, balloting to the Sequester to the UN Security Council.

Today no less than eighty years ago, when Jünger wrote On Pain, we—at least those of us such as myself, who are among those segments of global population that most directly participate in, and benefit from, such institutionalizations of the avoidance of pain—are “[b]orn in full enjoyment of all these blessings,” which are for us “now taken for granted.”  However, as Jüger immediately adds, the reality remains that “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,” while simultaneously everywhere “barbarity” is lurking just beneath the surface, or just around the corner.  Thus, he writes, our world today “resemble[s] 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 and the Reds cut each others throats by night,” as Nazis and Communists did in the streets of Germany during the inter-war period when Jünger first wrote those words.

Such public, officially endorsed illusions of “security” are purchased at the price of marginalizing pain “in favor of a run-of-the-mill complacency,” as J ünger says in a passage I quoted near the close of my preceding post.”  It is in that same passage that Jünger calls the system generating such illusory security a “spatial economy,” insofar as it marks out what it proffers as places of supposed safety from otherwise ubiquitous pain.  “Alongside this spatial economy,” as he adds in that passage, “there is a temporal one, consisting of the sum of pain that remains unclaimed and amasses as hidden capital accruing compound interest.”  Thus, the pain we seek to avoid through recourse to such illusions of security does not go away; it just keeps growing.  Far from diminishing in its threatening quality, he concludes the passage, “[t]he threat grows with every artificial increase in the barrier separating [us] from the elemental forces,” as Jünger calls them, those forces to which our ineradicable vulnerability—literally, our capacity for being wounded—always continue to expose us, despite all our efforts to bar their way to us.

Such illusions will not last forever.  Eventually they will all fail.  Then all the compounded pain we have so long been avoiding finally bursts through the bounds within which we have sought to contain it, floods into and over us.  When that happens, as it inevitably will—then what are we to do, as I asked at the end of my preceding post?

Well, what can we do, then? At that point, there is no longer anything we can do.  All we can do is—nothing!  At last, when we are at that last point of all, then that is precisely the only thing we have left to do:  Nothing.

There is nothing, however, harder to do than that–nothing.  Accordingly, we try time and again not to do nothing, but instead to do something–anything, other than that (than nothing).  Each time, of course, we fail again.  Regardless of just what we may choose to do, we just make things worse, since doing anything is doing the wrong thing, when all that remains to be done is nothing.  If we are to avoid that, avoid just making things worse, then we have to stop avoiding what all our doing itself is designed to avoid.  That means we have to stop avoiding the inevitable, which is to say unavoidable (“inevitable”:  from Latin in-, as indicating negation, and evitablilis, from evitare, “avoid”), pain that comes our way–and always will come our way, despite all our efforts to avoid it.

At that point, where we stop doing anything and start doing nothing, we stop running from pain and, in effect, start simply staying with it.  Accordingly, at that point everything shifts.  “Henceforth,” to borrow a way of putting it from Jünger himself (page 16), “all measures are designed . . . not to avoid” pain by “marginalizing pain and sheltering life from it,” but, rather, “incessantly to stay in contact with pain.”

That does not mean to aggravate the pain, to add to it.  That, after all, is precisely what all the endeavors to secure ourselves against pain have ended up doing.  What counts, rather, is to acquire, and then to keep on exercising, a capacity to remain calmly with our pain, remain in it.   In a word, what we need is a proper detachment toward our own pain—a detachment that is itself what allows us not to lapse back into trying to insulate ourselves against pain, to isolate ourselves from it.

During the period of the early 1930s when Jünger wrote On Pain, his own thought was still moving within the circuit of Nietzsche’s, and most especially of what the latter called “active nihilism,” and proposed as the only viable response to nihilism itself, which Nietzsche saw as the problem that contemporary humanity had to face.  Accordingly, in On Pain itself Jünger interpreted the notion of cultivating the attitude of detachment that ceases trying to avoid pain, and instead seeks constantly to stay in contact with it, in “heroic” terms.  Thus, he writes that, once one bottoms out, as it were, on the attempt to avoid pain, and finds one’s way to an alternative, fruitful response to pain’s inevitability, all the efforts one had been expending to secure oneself against pain come to be directed instead toward mastering pain.  Then the point is no longer (page 16) “marginalizing pain and sheltering life from it.”  Rather, he goes on (pages 16-17),

the point is to integrate pain and organize life in such a way that one is always armed against it.  .  .  .  Indeed, [now] discipline means nothing other than this, whether it is of the priestly-ascetic kind directed toward abnegation or of the warlike-heroic kind directed toward hardening oneself like steel.  In both cases, it is a matter of maintaining complete control over life, so that any hour of the day it can serve a higher calling.

However, by the end of the 1960s, when he wrote Approaches:  Drugs and Intoxication, basing that work on his own lifelong experimentation with various narcotic and hallucinogenic drugs, Jünger had at least arguably grown into seeing his own earlier “active nihilism” as itself part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.  After World War II–which in his novel Eumeswil, published even later (1977) than Approaches (1970), Jünger himself characterized as embodying “the final triumph of the technician over the warrior”—he dropped the imagery and terminology of “heroism” and “mastery.”  In fact, even in On Pain, immediately after the remark about the goal being to maintain “complete control,” he already went on to observe (page 17) that, when it came to such matters of detachment “[e]xertions of the will are in particular insufficient,” because “[o]ne cannot just artificially cultivate a ‘heroic worldview’ or proclaim it ex cathedra.”  Then, in a remark anticipating by thirty-five years Heidegger’s posthumously published interview with Der Spiegel magazine entitled “Only a God Can Save Us,” Jünger notes (page 18) that “the advent of a god is independent of human effort.”

Be that as it may, and regardless of whether it is articulated in terms of “active nihilism” or in less “heroic” terms, the key contrast remains.  That is the contrast between two different sorts of “numbness” or “narcosis,” as it were.  The first is narcosis in the service of an ultimately fruitless and counterproductive attempt to attain immunity against pain.  The second is narcosis in service to a very different end, that of ceasing to flee pain, and instead remaining with it.  To borrow an expression the popular Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh has used in speaking of anger (a rather painful, or at least agitating, emotion after all, as Aristotle already taught millennia ago), this second sort of narcosis aims to “cherish” pain, “like a baby.”  It is that second sort of narcosis that I have called “the narcosis of recovery,” in contrast to “the narcosis of avoidance.”

In both forms of narcosis, pain remains.  However, it is only in the first form, that of the narcosis of avoidance, that pain remains the master.  In what I read as the greater wisdom Jünger displays in his later works than in his earlier ones, in the second form of narcosis, that of recovery, there is no longer any master, or further need of mastery.

*     *     *     *     *     *

This completes my two-post sequence on “Pain and Narcosis,” which is itself the last of my longer series entitled “Trauma and Intoxication.”

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’ve learn several just right stuff here. Certainly value bookmarking for revisiting. I wonder how so much attempt you put to create the sort of wonderful informative site.

  2. This is a great corrollary to my re-reading of On Pain, a number of years after I came to it with a certain haste. What is interesting is its relationship to some of the more writings on the subject of pain as institution, such as by contemporary writers Elaine Scarry and Avital Ronell. I will be coming back to this blog and hope to see more.

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