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torture consists of acts that magnify the way in which pain destroys a person's world, sell and voice. . . .
Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain
He that shall humble himself shall be exalted.
When Toni Morrison's Beloved opens with a house "full of baby's venom," it announces the prominent place of pain in the lives of these ex-slaves. The reification of pain as venom - intended to destroy the woman who had slit her baby girl's throat rather than return her child to the slavery by which she herself had been violated - suggests that pain may not point the way to redemption but will instead perpetuate the process of violence in which it found its origin. The novel thus takes to task a tradition of romantic suffering, a tradition that valorizes suffering as the pivotal experience whereby an individual becomes fully human. This formulation of pain predates romanticism, beginning as early as the Christian contemplative tradition, and extends, in a different form, to the African American blues tradition. As Arthur C. Clements notes, contemplation moves an individual through a state of abject mortification and pain to "a radical transformation of sell called 'regeneration' or 'rebirth'" (10). "Regeneration," according to Clements, "is not merely verbal or intellectual grasp of certain principles nor a merely superficial conversion, but rather that deeply realized, radical, and thoroughgoing change in one's mode of consciousness which is both the true beginning and center of the mystic life" (10-11). The sacred model, which Clements describes as a "central paradox of gain through loss, of life through death" (11), is secularized, I want to suggest, in two distinct traditions of literature and music that sublimate and celebrate physical and psychological pain: European romanticism and African American blues.
Why, we might ask, has this recuperative account held such sway over our attempts to understand pain? To be sure, the celebration of suffering as a means of gaining full subjectivity may provide a palatable means of acknowledging the seemingly inevitable agony of the human condition. But the significant transition from acknowledging pain to depending on it for our own validation is dramatic and by no means inevitable. Nevertheless, we make that leap repeatedly, as John Keats demonstrates: "Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!" (2:102).
In spite of a long tradition in Western culture of romanticizing and thereby almost embracing pain, it is nevertheless astonishing to note the prominent place occupied by a similar reading of pain in the writings of groups long victimized by bodily, economic, sexual, and psychological violence. I am thinking in particular of the creative and critical writings within African American literature. The blues tradition, of course, shifts the emphasis of romanticism from the importance of pain to the effort at transcendence. As Houston Baker notes, blues is an "affirmation of human identity in the face of dehumanizing circumstances" (190). Many of James Baldwin's writings demonstrate this progression from pain to its artistic, humanizing effects. The end of "Sonny's Blues," for instance, signals the entrance of two brothers into their full humanity through the only passage available to them - the unfolding pain of their own and their ancestors' lives. As the narrator watches his brother on stage, he begins to understand how that pain serves his own subjectivity:
there was no battle in his face now. I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever. I saw my mother's face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moonlit road where my father's brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel's tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.
In order to rise, fully human, above the "world . . . outside, hungry as a tiger," the narrator, like Sonny, must make it his - the long historical chain of suffering that binds him to his family and to his race.
The blues tradition, of course, differs in at least one crucial way from the romantic tradition that valorizes pain. Baldwin's Sonny, we recall, must come to terms with his suffering not in any private examination, but in the communal space of the bar, surrounded by sympathetic friends. As Sherley A. Williams explains: "The particularized, individual experience rooted in a common reality is the primary thematic characteristic of all blues songs no matter what their structure. The classic song form itself internalizes and echoes, through the statement/response pattern, the thematic relationship between individual and group experience which is implied in these evocations of social and political reality" (127). The blues articulation, then, expands into a public realm what had hitherto been a private experience of suffering, taking the individual outside of himself and his private pains, which might otherwise make the self so achingly present that the world disappears. Romantic treatments of emotion, on the other hand, depend upon "recollect[ion] in tranquillity" (Wordsworth 266), which requires privacy for the sake of contemplation.
In his now famous description of the blues, Ralph Ellison underscores another apparent distinction between this tradition and Western uses of suffering. "The blues," he writes, "is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically" (78-79). In opposing the "near-tragic, near-comic lyricism" to the "consolation of philosophy," Ellison suggests that the blues is not a Western response to pain: transcendence for the blues singer comes not from intellectual reflection on pain, as Boethius counseled, but from the distillation of something passionate into something artistically formed. Unlike Boethius's Lady Philosophy, whose first act of consolation was to drive the muses of poetry into …