The Body in Pain : The Making and Unmaking of the World, Paperback Book
4 out of 5 (3 ratings)


Part philosophical meditation, part cultural critique, this profoundly original work explores the nature of physical suffering.

Elaine Scarry bases her study on a wide range of sources: literature and art, medical case histories, documents on torture compiled by Amnesty International, legal transcripts of personal injury trials, and military and strategic writings by such figures as Clausewitz, Churchill, Liddell Hart, and Henry Kissinger.

Scarry begins with the fact of pain's inexpressibility.

Not only is physical pain difficult to describe in words, it also actively destroys language, reducing sufferers in the most extreme cases to an inarticulate state of cries and moans.

Scarry goes on to analyse the political ramifications of deliberately inflicted pain, specifically in the cases of warfare and torture, and she demonstrates how political regimes use the power of physical pain to attack and break down the sufferer's sense of self.

Finally she turns to examples of artistic and cultural activity; actions achieved in the face of pain and difficulty.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 400 pages, halftone frontispiece
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press Inc
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Philosophy: metaphysics & ontology
  • ISBN: 9780195049961



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Showing 1 - 3 of 3 reviews.

Review by

Erudite as it is humane, this book undoes the justifications for war and torture, while offering a much needed manifesto for a committed cultural practice.

Review by

Scarry makes some valid (if somewhat self-evident) points about the way hawkish types use rhetoric to mask the real human costs of war. That said, too much of this text is constructed out of dubious assumptions and logical fallacies, all obscured with a lot of handwaving. She defines terms like "pain" and "torture" in counterintuitive ways so that they serve her argument... then she quietly shifts her own definitions to suit different arguments later in the book. The second section, on how creativity is an antidote(?) to pain, is largely unfathomable.

Review by

The first half of this book is both fascinating and readable, clearly organized and compelling in its arguments surrounding the body, pain, torture, war, and the self. While some of the material is difficult to read material-wise, particularly in the torture section, Scarry's points are smart and carefully explained, and examples are given as needed--not overdone. I'd classify the first half of this book as one of the most thought-provoking works of theory that I've come across, and absolutely recommend it to readers interested in cultural studies and/or writings on the body, the self, identity, torture, war, and/or the relationship of pain to the self and the effects of pain on the self.As a sidenote, the notes in this book are carefully and expertly included--I don't know when I've read another work of nonfiction where the end notes have been not only thorough, but only included as actually of interest to casual readers and giving more than basic citations and/or unnecessary details. These endnotes are elaborations---any point of interest that has an endnote has an endnote of interest, in other words, and that seems a rarity.Unfortunately, as engaged as I was with the first half of Scarry's book, the second half loses some of the drive from the first. There's some repetition, and much language that seems needlessly complex or academic, more in the line with what I expect of theory as opposed to the clear and direct language of the first portion of the book. The material is still integral to Scarry's points, and worth pursuing certainly, but it does become a progressively more difficult read. It may be to alleviate that difficulty and complexity that Scarry regularly repeats points and ideas from the first portion of the book, but those repetitions make the second half of the book more difficult to get through, nearly in the style of a collection of articles from a single author as opposed to a single composed argument. In the end, though, I'd certainly recommend the full work to anyone interested, for there's no doubt that this work is smart and thought-provoking, both necessary and worthwhile for anyone willing to work through the ideas.