The Fictional Logic of Pain

About the Project

By focusing on its fictional logic I establish that pain is only comprehensible as a meaningful experience, in a meaningful context.

The aim of the project is to reconstruct the meaning of pain as an existential experience.

Research Concept

  1. Research Questions
    How can we take care of pain?
    How can we understand pain?
    What vocabulary, what signs and images are needed for its (re)construction?
  2. Research Strategies
    Study of literature on pain; extracting pain words and descriptions from poems, journal entries, essays and novels
    Generating a new vocabulary of pain on the basis of the compiled pain words and descriptions; generating pain models supplemented with pictorial material
    Reconstructing the fictional logic of pain.
  3. Theoretical starting points
    In Roland Borgards‘ study on the poetics of pain[1] Goethe’s ode „Prometheus“[2] plays a central role as it drafts the image of human life on the basis of autonomy. In this way it represents the anthropological revaluation of pain in the 18th century: From now on pain in literature and medicine is no longer understood as god’s punishment or a mere disturbance, and so the doors are opened for a research on the meaning of the physical signs of pain.

The study of Roland Borgards includes a history of pain with focus on the time span around 1800 where the significant change in the understanding of pain occurred. This change meant the end of the representational logic of pain and the beginning of a fictional logic of pain.
It is marked by the physiological experiments of Albrecht von Haller and the cultural theories of Johann Gottfried Herder. This fictional logic of pain corresponds with a hermeneutics of pain that reads the signs of pain in regard to what eludes them, in regard to the nature of pain. According to Borgards, the fictional logic of pain not only applies to literary texts but also to legal and medical practices.
The language of literature and the observations of scientific experiments clearly show: There is no access to, no grasping of pain beyond its cultural context in which it is felt, articulated, interpreted and treated. The phenomenon of pain is culturally formed and mediated[3].

Pains therefore are to be considered not as mere symptoms signifying an underlying malfunction or abnormality, but as discrete phenomena of human life, as existential experiences every living and therefore mortal being is confronted with, and as a primary sensation which calls for a complex reflection on life.

New books on pain are titled „Unlearning Pains“ (J. Richter, Schmerzen verlernen, 2013), or „Thinking Pains Away“ (K. Isak, Schmerzen wegdenken, 2012). How does this relate to Borgards‘ notion of the fictional logic of pain? And how does it relate to the notion of pain as a productive force, or, as Elaine Scarry states in her book The Body in Pain,[4] as a precondition for the possibility of human culture?

Reconstructing pain

If we want to take care of pains we have to understand and interpret their signs. In the course of this project it should be attempted to provide rich, multi-dimensional, multi-media descriptions of pain and to generate a vocabulary of pain that accounts for the complexity of this phenomenon. Sources for the pain descriptions are to be found in literature (fiction and non-fiction), poetry, and personal experience. The descriptions are to be supplemented with pictorial material (for an example see supplement b) hence a Catalogue of Pains can be compiled.

Possible practical applications

Pains are often the first reason to see a doctor, but they are a difficult subject to talk about. There are always aspects of bodily processes that are beyond words so that they easily can become the source of misunderstandings between patient and doctor. Common pain questionnaires show a reduced picture of pain, only capturing very view of its dimensions. And the physician’s understanding of pain is formed by her/ his medical training and coined by the abstract clinical terminology that is part of this training, being a possible cause for his/ her separation from the existential dimension of pain.

A catalogue with pain models that emerged from poetical and philosophical sources, equipped with rich descriptions and complemented with pictorial material, could facilitate the dealing with and the care for pain by adding the fictional dimension. And considering the fictional dimension of pain leads to focusing on its meaning – and therefore to the existential dimension of pain.

[1] Borgards, R. (2007). Poetik des Schmerzes: Physiologie und Literatur von Brockes bis Büchner [Poetics of Pain: Physiology and Literature from Brockers to Büchner]. München: Wilhelm Fink.

[2] Goethe, J. W. v. (1779/ 1827). Prometheus (Hymne). In Goethe’s Werke. Vollständige Ausgabe letzter Hand. Zweyter Band. Stuttgart, Tübingen: Cotta, S. 76–78.

[3] As Le Breton emphasizes in his cultural history of pain: Pain is never mere physiological but always subject to a symbolic order. In Le Breton, D. (2003). Schmerz. Eine Kulturgeschichte. Zürich, Berlin: diaphanes, S. 10-11.

[4] Scarry, E. (1985). The Body in Pain. The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.