In patriarchal western art history and society, masculine pain, being it in the context of: war, torture, Christianity or Classicism is tied with pity and heroism, while feminine pain is tied with hysteria, madness or other strong psychological components.
Pain has a range of complexities outside the body; they exist outside its intrinsic nature. As a woman living with chronic pain, I have experienced it, not only as a medical issue, but also as a cultural, societal, political and gendered issue. Scarry in The Body in Pain, affirms that pain destroys language. The conflict of language and pain in its inexpressibility due to his abstract nature can be resolved by using imagined metaphors. Through suffering a syndrome that causes chronic pain I developed an imagined vocabulary, the “as if” that Scarry talks about. I discovered, that by placing the abstract in to the imagined figurative, pain became materialized, therefore resolved. A way of saying, look, this is happening, I don’t know why, but is “as if” insert description and suddenly, that clarification of developing the visual, that tangibility gives the pain sufferer a sense of lifting out the anguish from the physical-organic experience. It resolves in a way the “cryptic mental torture.”
In order to regain control over the “ghost” of pain, taking away its abstractness and re-constructing it with language is an exercise that somehow empowers the sufferer. Trough its objectification the mind takes control over it.
This is my experience, which I turned in to a sound piece:
A body made of fire.
A flowing river
I am one, my body is another
My body, belongs to whom?
Being stabbed with a million knives at the same time.
What is this?
Why is this happening?
Muscles rupturing in unison, joints decaying.
There are big iron balls rotating inside my muscles, tearing down my flesh, crushing my bones…the sensation of agony follows.
Solid, heavy balls, shiny and metallic.
I can feel them wounding my flesh and I want to scream but sound doesn’t come out. Sound takes too much energy. I am screaming a mute scream.
They are ripping out pieces of me. The balls cause wreckage inside my body and I start scooping them out with a spoon, one by one. They keep appearing as if they were reproducing and I keep scooping them out. I am silently crying and crying and crying and clenching my teeth, pursing my lips and my eyes are snapped shut.
I put my hands on my legs to control the violent movement of the balls and it
becomes hell and there is no way out. Is horrible and grows in strength, in strength, stronger worse and worse. Burning, tearing, stabbing, ripping…
My flesh is all torn apart, my sheets are a bloody mess of and I am lying there,
with pieces of my flesh, skin and bones scattered around.
Let me float in the air, let me swim in the ground, let me fly in the water; let me escape from this prison.
I find myself finding my desire to find the strength to break the chains.
Walking, one step after the other, shackles; clang, clang, clang.
I float, fly, swim, cry and laugh.
Made of steel like the shackles.
Pain is the only state of consciousness and perception that takes place solely within the boundaries of one’s own body. It is non-referential, taking nothing for its object, except for the body itself . It is “objectless”, pain has no object is just itself.
Pain is closely related to imagination. Pain is invisible, it is not tangible and incredibly difficult to describe. However pain defines reality for the sufferer. Pain apart from being a physiological issue is a political issue as it has been a protagonist in torture and war, furthermore there are gender differences in the experience of pain.
Elaine Scarry affirms, in “The Body in Pain”:
“Physical pain is not only itself resistant to language but also actively destroys language, deconstructing it on to the pre-language of cries and groans. To hear those cries is to witness the shattering of language. Conversely, to be present when the person in pain rediscovers speech and so regains his powers of self-objectification is almost to be present at the birth, or rebirth of language.”
Cries and groans are not necessarily the language of pain. They often are a reaction to ephemeral pain. When pain becomes a constant, cries and groans mutate, and become mind chaos. As the greatest pain, can leave the sufferer mute and divert all the energy on to the physical pain experience. Pain, can therefore be totally invisible to the outside world, hence taking the sufferer in to a “locked in state” akin to a prison. The body as prison is a concept that has been extensively addressed through religion and its counterpart could be formulated as a somewhat nirvana allegory, the liberation from the prison-body is a philosophical and religious constant. The body in pain is the necessity of existence per se. As long as we will be in pain, we are a body, therefore we are alive. Freud talks about the Death Drive and the desire to return to a mineral state. The mineral state is an ideal for the total annihilation of the pain experience. The metaphor of traveling to a different dimension can be equated to a pain attack. Pain language functions better in the metaphor mode, comparing the sensation to a physical event, makes it concrete in the mind, therefore more bearable. Situating the pain concretely and mentally observing it, when it is inescapable, helps to go through the “pain trip” with a map, rather than in total chaos and confusion. Scarry affirms:
“Conversely to be present when the person in pain rediscovers speech and so regains his powers of self-objectification is almost to be present at the birth, or rebirth, of language. That the person in pain very typically moves through a handful of descriptive words to an “as if” construction…indicates the primacy of the sign in the elementary work of projection in to metaphor.”
The invisible nature of pain, creates differences of how it is experienced in different cultures and how is perceived across gender differences. Western patriarchal culture expects pain and suffering to be an aesthetically unpleasant sight, to be an abject image. Sexism is present in the gendered perceptions of a girl who cries pain.
In the “The girl who cried pain: a bias against women in the treatment of pain.” The author says:
“Regarding physician perceptions of female patients with pain, Hadjistavropoulos and colleagues found that physicians distinguished between their “attractive” and “unattractive” patients. Attractive female patients were perceived as experiencing less pain than unattractive female patients, evidencing a “healthy is beautiful” stereotype.”
The tortured body is therefore victim of cultural and sexist stereotyping. Women judged by beauty standards are dehumanized. An absurd situation is built, where an invisible neurological experience, is deemed to be experienced by what society sees as “ugly.” Are we as a society less sympathetic to the pain of the pretty? ...and for that matter to the pain of women?
The authors of the same book affirm:
“ Historically, the medical literature has portrayed women as hysterical and oversensitive. By extension, physicians often view women’s statements as emotional, rather than objective. In one study of patients with chronic pain, female patients were more likely than their male counterparts to be diagnosed with histrionic disorder, excessive emotionality, and attention-seeking behavior. ”
Women as hysterical and attention seeking lunatics is the oldest sexist stereotype, yet it still haunts us today. This teaches us that the patriarchal system still dismisses and annuls to an extent the suffering of women, as it is not viewed as serious or objective as the one of men. Why is pain gendered? It’s a mystery that deserves a different and separate deep political analysis.
According to an analysis of recent pain research by Hoffmann and Tarzian they say:
“Women are more likely than men to seek treatment for their pain and are less likely to receive it. The authors suggest that physicians may treat women less for pain based on the presumption women can handle more pain or, conversely, that women are in fact imagining pain where none exists.”
Is the patriarchal system still seeing women inherently as reproductive machines, therefore subtracts importance of women’s pain, because of misconceptions that since women are “built” to tolerate the pain of child birth, they must be built to “take it” However way it comes?
One can’t help but see a pattern of hierarchization of sentience. Men on top of the sentience capability pyramid, followed by women, then followed by non-human animals.
Artistically and culturally we have always been force-fed images of men in pain with grandeur. From the Laocoön to Christ, the suffering male invades religious and political imagery that build the social constructs and the visuality of suffering. Masculine pain is iconic, yet images of women in pain are far from reaching icon status and it is hard to picture a quintessential artwork of a woman in pain in the big art historical context. Yet, one can picture a myriad of art works of men in pain, not limited to the suffering of war and often with a component of heroism.
The Pietá and the Laocoön are landmarks of masculine pain representation in art. There are no equivalent works that represent feminine pain with such seminal status. Masculine pain is associated often with grandiosity while feminine pain is often associated with madness.
Christ’s bloody suffering was represented in painting to serve to his humanization, making our perception, as Schopenhauer will put it, the mirror of the object, since suffering is the primal manifestation of live. Therefore we sympathize with masculine pain, regardless of our gender, because it is seen as objective.
Juan De Valdés Leal’s Pietá is a religious painting executed around 1657 to 1660 in Spain notorious for its darkness, crude dramatism and harshness, characteristic of the Spanish painter’s style. Over a dark background the Virgin Mary comforts an agonizing bleeding Jesus Christ who lies in the ground with his head gently rested over his mother’s knee. Jesus’ nude body is wrapped in a white sheet stained with a contrasting bright red blood that runs from his wounds over his skin. However, the subjects in the bloody scene seem calm and resigned, yet we feel their pain, their resigned facial expressions contrast with the grueling scene of suffering that we are witnessing, perhaps a pain too big that has made the body tired of emotions. The different religious allegories where the pained body takes center stage are almost always gendered. Pain, then is transformed from pity to admiration, to heroic.
The process of humanization of Christ begins when we can recognize us in him.
In philosophical terms, for Schopenhauer, the act of willing, produces suffering and pain, therefore, life is suffering. The image of the quintessential suffering of Christ is the moment during or after the crucifixion, it is the moment, when we recognize in him the will, common to all human and not human animals and when we mirror ourselves in the object. So, as a woman one would mirror in Christ’s pain, giving universality to the masculine defacto western pain idea.
Another pivotal work of art and one of the most fundamental examples of pain and masculinity, is the classic Greek sculpture Laocoön. A story which is narrated in the poem Aeneid by Virgil. What is the right way to express pain in art? Lessing calls for the right of suffering loudly, and in an ugly manner too.
For a spectator to experience a mute howl is the quintessence of the Laocoön’s quiet grandeur, however his every muscle speaks to us about his sorrow and catastrophic agony. The agonizing stoic cry of sorrow of a restricted, silenced mouth is like a painful grieving of sadness too deep that eyes can’t shed any tears. The nude priest poisoned by intertwining serpents agonizes next to his sons in the moment of the dramatic inevitable, but a moment that shows no horror, a moment of painful beauty. It is sculpted around a story of punishment and physical and emotional pain, nevertheless a cry that inspires admiration and not pity in the spectator, because the artist’s intention was executed to perfection far from unnecessary out-of-place pathos. The mimesis of the perfect moment frozen in time, that is, the stoic moment, not a second before and not a second later. We can’t experience Laocoön’s story unfolding, as we would in the art of poetry, but the plastic arts have the ability to freeze the moment and contain in the white marble the perfect equilibrium of pain and spirit composed throughout the sculpture.
Gendered pain in visual art, becomes idealized and the perceived masculinity is equated to heroism. While feminine pain, even with heroism --Joan of Arc-- becomes tied with insanity and hysteria. Feminine pain has a stereotyped strong psychological component in our culture to this day.
  Elaine Scarry, The Body in pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.)162.
 Elaine Scarry, The Body in pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.) 5.
 Elaine Scarry, The Body in pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.)162.
 Elaine Scarry, The Body in pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.) 172.
 Hoffmann DE, Tarzian AJ. The girl who cried pain: a bias against women in the treatment of pain. J Law Med Ethics. 2001;29:13-27.
 Hoffmann DE, Tarzian AJ. The girl who cried pain: a bias against women in the treatment of pain. J Law Med Ethics. 2001;29:13-27.