Two weeks ago we all could witness a group of three masked persons reading a statement by the Basque terrorist group, ETA, declaring a permanent ceasefire;
One finds similar phrases, metaphors and images everywhere: for example, in the reactions and public statements about the publication of some cartoons of the prophet Muhammad:
It is clear that the word has very different meanings (and that in itself is interesting). Anyhow, it is also clear that suffering is one of the basic elements of the sentimental landscape of our times: we do not need any explanation to understand what is said in all those situations, it is of common sense to us.
My attempt, in writing In the Eyes of God, was to explore our common sense –its origin, its consequences.
Some recent works –some of them very well known- were heading in the same direction:
So my book tries to continue that debate about our idea of pain and suffering, the morals and politics of humanitarianism. Insofar as it searches for the intellectual and historical construction of our common sense, I think of it as a part of a larger project: a sort of anthropological reflection on our Modernity (when I say “our” I am thinking about Western Civilization –that is: the West, Europe, and the Far West, the American continent).
It deals mainly with past ideas, social movements, writers, but it is not a History of our ideas about suffering: what I tried to do was to reconstruct the different shapes of those ideas, the different settings on which they were conceived, the moments when some ideas or arguments had crystallized, the needs they responded to –in brief: the structure in which suffering fits and the changes it has undergone in the past three hundred years.
What I found (it is not that new or surprising) was not a linear evolution of one single idea, but a large tapestry made of many different threads.
There is a basic structure in the symbolic elaboration of suffering. Any specific instance of pain is transformed into a part, an instance of something else –a superior totality, which transcends that feeling and can give it meaning, whatever that meaning may be. To give it a name, pain has to be converted into a form of sacrifice (and we must admit, from the outset, that contributing to the general harmony of the cosmos, suffering the fury of the gods or absolving original sin can be experiences which offer the same or similar consolation).
According to my argument, there are two basic ways to make sense of suffering: a tragic way, which consists of assuming that misfortune is a result of the capricious will of the gods or of fate, and that neither justice nor any further explanation is possible: it is not fair nor unfair, for there is no human measure for it, it falls upon us regardless of our deeds; and a messianic way, which implies that all pain is a form of punishment or a means of purification, a merit: that there is a moral order of the world, where suffering is inseparable from justice, as it is conceived of by human intelligence.
Most of our culture of suffering has Jewish roots in its messianic character, but springs directly from the New Testament: only there is it explicit the link between our fortunes and misfortunes and the will of a vigilant God that punishes our sins (beginning with the Original Sin) and takes our affliction into account, as merit, for our final redemption.
To that view, suffering is always just (strictly speaking, it is justified). And that will finally turn it into a political issue.
I use as a mark for my explorations the year 1755: the year when Voltaire wrote his poem about the earthquake of Lisbon. Not that the poem itself produced a change, but it shows a deep major movement, echoed –and disputed—by other books around that year (by Hume, Rousseau, D’Holbach). The general trend can be easily described:
* Suffering is justified, in the messianic view, for it is either punishment or merit, to be rewarded;
* but that is only insofar as God is watching, to judge and reward everyone, according to his merits.
* Now, what if God ceases to watch? What if he turns away or was not there in the first place? What is the fate, the meaning of suffering when we are away from the eyes of God?
At some point in the Eighteenth Century began to spread the suspicion, sometimes the certainty that God was not watching over us –whether he existed or not. The traditional explanations were no less rational than had been some decades before, the Theodicy of Lebnitz or Pope, only the were not as appealing as they had been –the last four lines in the poem of Voltaire, modified for publication, to add an uplifting note, sound in fact as a mockery of Divine Providence.
The most striking feature of our culture of suffering from then onwards is that we set aside God, eternal reward and punishment, but we retained the basic messianic structure –that is, we still tied justice and suffering.
The first, immediate effect of that movement was that most of human suffering became, overnight, unjust suffering. Then a wide variety of other problems appeared:
To put it briefly, we need a substitute for the eyes of God, and time and again, under very different masks and disguises, we have had the Society to play the part of God; but we have also held the Society responsible for almost any kind of human suffering: Society as a whole or a part of it, deemed to be guilty of whatever; and of course we have demanded every sort of reward and compensation from Society.
The important point is that we do not yield ourselves to fate. The methods we have to explain social phenomena very easily adapt themselves to the forensic need of assigning blame and responsibility.
In several chapters of the book I explore some of those metamorphoses of the messianic re-interpretation of suffering in secular terms: how they build up the suffering People, the suffering Nation, the intimate, psychological suffering; how they design redemptive and compensatory mechanisms.
One of the most interesting devices is the manufacture of suffering collectivities, which suffer as collectivities, and the faculty we accord to some people to represent and embody those collective sufferings and, in such a character, claim and exact what is deemed to be a fair compensation. Even more interesting: those collective sufferings can be adopted by parties at the other end of the world that acquire a sort of prestige for that reason. Suffering produces a special kind of symbolic capital that can be transferred and used by other people –in fact, a capital that can only be used by other people. He who suffers or is part of a collective that suffers can inspire pity, respect, but those who embrace the suffering of others acquire moral stature.
Not only our politics are embedded in the messianic narrative of suffering and redemption. Even in the most cold, rational and objective explanations of the “dismal science” there is maybe more than just a trace of it –I quote Marshall Sahlins: “Life might be unbearable were it not for the imagined totality that gives purpose and solace to individual suffering or, better, makes the partial evils of an alienated existence the means of universal welfare. Thus, each person maximizing his own scarce resources…”
I would like to end with an apology. My book, so I have been told, is in a way a typical example of the useless amusement produced by scholars devoted to Humanities. After all, who cares if the last chapter in the Book of Job was added some centuries later? What is the use of knowing that William Blake was a muggletonian, that Voltaire modified the last verses of a poem? To what practical purpose can be possibly used the idea of a symbolic structure of suffering?
Well, I think we should care and I think there is a use for all that.
It is beside the point right now if a detached, objective, positive science of Society is possible at all. No one has to convince me of the importance of using simple models, of producing what are called “hard facts” and doing research immediately useful for the design of public policies. Right now, in fact, I am working on an analysis of the publishing industry in the Spanish-speaking world, with a lot of numbers, charts, graphics and percentages, filled with consumer rationality, market shares and revenues. And hopefully it would be useful to support a new legislation and new policies for the publishing industry in Mexico. However, I do not find it far away from the kind of research I did while writing In the Eyes of God. Time and again, for example, I have to ask myself: What is a public? How is it created? How is a reading public different from a television public? How has been altered the symbolic value of books? And that not only out of curiosity, but in order to make sense of the numbers and surveys and the overall evolution of the industry.
Therein lies the value and the use of Humanities. They keep alive the first imperative of the project of the Enlightenment: not to accept blindly the received wisdom –be it that of the Church or that of Science. It is, obviously, a never ending task and very fruitful, to add a reflexive moment to our study of Society –to analyze the tools of our analysis, the basic structure of our science: its methods, its rhetoric, the implicit cosmology to which it responds.