In Anthropology of Pain, David Le Breton defines the sensation of pain, in the first place, as an intimate and personal fact that escapes to any extent, to any attempt to isolate or describe it, to any desire to inform another about its intensity and its nature. For the French anthropologist pain is “a failure of language”: Encased in the darkness of the flesh, it is reserved for the intimate deliberation of the individual. It absorbs it in its halo or devours it like a beast crouched inside, but leaving it impotent to talk about that tormenting intimacy. Faced with its threat, the breaking of the unity of existence causes the fragmentation of language. It arouses the shout, the complaint, the moan, the crying or the silence, that is to say, failures in the word and the thought, it breaks the voice and it becomes unknown.
There is no doubt that man is never as alone as when he is in pain. By naming it, language cheats the world and reveals itself in crisis in the face of events that invade the body.
“What is more personal than the death itself that feels to arrive and that moves the human being from the space of life towards that of death?” (Kottow, 2009).
Susan Sontag had exposed on her renowned essay The Disease and its metaphors: Disease is the night side of life, a more expensive citizenship. To all, at birth, we grant ourselves double citizenship, the realm of the healthy and the realm of the sick. And although we prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is forced to identify himself, at least for a while, as a citizen of that other place (2005).
Le Breton understands that, in order to be bearable, the processes lived by the subject in his flesh must have in the feeling that he elaborates, a form and a meaning: when these are undone by the irruption of the unusual, of the suffering, of the intolerable, we have to open a path for them.
While it is true that expressions such as “own body” or “life itself” are used in everyday language, disease seems to play a complex and uncertain role in the universe of “self” and “property.” The disease even refers to the figures of otherness, of the host and even of the invader. As Susan Sontag points out, the disease is metaphorically “the barbarian within the body.” And he continues: As soon as cancer is talked about, the master metaphors do not come from the economy but from the vocabulary of war: there is no doctor, nor attentive patient, who is not well versed in this military terminology. Cancer cells do not multiply: “invade.” From the original tumor, the cancer cells “colonize” remote areas of the body, starting by implanting advanced tiny ones. The body’s “defenses” are almost never vigorous enough to eliminate a tumor that has created its own blood supply and is made up of miles of millions of destructive cells. Also the treatment tastes like army.
The common places of the disease such as invasion, threat or contamination do nothing more than to support the imaginary “immune” we have on health. Imaginary that is based on the idea of a clear distinction between our “own body” identified with health and those parasitic and foreign creatures that occupy a space that does not belong to them, to which they can even be potentially destroyed. The sick body is the subject of a body taken.
In his essay “Literatura+Enfermedad=Enfermedad (Literature + disease = disease)”, Roberto Bolaño starts from the account of a visit to the hospital in Barcelona, in which he was treated for a long time for a liver disease than he suffers and which would lead him to the death later. After receiving the bad news from the doctor, the essay begins with a journey that will allow “reflect on literature, death and desire”. “Fucking is the only thing that those who are going to die want” he says. Yes disease and death are linked to defeat, the only options are sex and reading.
“All life is a demolition process,” Scott Fitzgerald noted in his diary. Similarly, Bolaño seems to maintain in his texts the idea that the disease is not a mere external accident but, rather, the disease is coextensive of life. It would not be about escaping the disease, but rather preferring it, of turning it into a fixed idea capable of dragging us in some new direction.
It is really healthier not to travel, it is healthier not to move, never leave home, be warm in winter and just take off the scarf in summer, it is healthier not to open your mouth or blink, it is healthier not to breathe. But the truth is that one breathes and travels. I, without going any further, began to travel from a very young age, from the age of seven or eight, approximately. From that moment on the trips were constant. Result: multiple diseases. (Bolaño)
The disease is a type of exile, a type of journey. The patient enters a world with its spaces and its special rules; it is not forced to confinement but it is produced anyway. Unlike the great collective epidemics of the past, many current illnesses isolate the individual from the community. As Susan Sontag points out, for the ancients the disease was an instrument of divine wrath that prosecuted the community or an individual while the diseases on which modern myths are concentrated are presented as a form of self-judgment, of self-betrayal.
The intimate relationship with pain does not confront a culture and an injury, but it is a particular painful situation to a subject whose history is unique even if the knowledge of their class origin, their cultural identity and religious confession give precise information about from the style of what he experiences and his reactions.