A Conversation with Elaine Scarry

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Much has been made of Elaine Scarry’s winsome voice, her fey demeanor, her eccentric solicitude for the well-being of each living thing in her garden, to the last sweet pea. Facing this figure of almost Dickensian benevolence, it can take a moment to sink in that she’s correcting you. Sometimes it takes more than a moment. You could be a perfect fool in the company of Elaine Scarry, and she’d suffer you — not gladly, to be sure, but graciously enough that you might remain none the wiser.

In the world of post-9/11 public intellectuals, Scarry, who is a professor of English literature at Harvard, seems cast against type. Her writings regarding the “war on terror” make bold claims, but rhetorically they’re rooted in gentle persuasion and an intricate deployment of technical arcana; there is little in the way of imperial strategy or polemical swagger.

That said, Scarry’s forbearance for fools is measurably diminished in the move from the living room to the printed page. In an essay titled “Five Errors in the Reasoning of Alan Dershowitz,” she praises the lawyer’s “light, bright spirit,” but only after eviscerating the obscure logic of his proposal for “torture warrants” and outlining the casuistry whereby “he protects his arguments by giving them deniability.” If Scarry is a rare bird, something steely glints under the plumage.

Her passionate opposition to torture dates back to her landmark 1985 book, The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World, which considered pain from medical, political, military, legal, and literary perspectives.

In the late 1990s, she stirred controversy by hypothesizing that a series of airplane crashes, including EgyptAir 990, might each have been caused by electromagnetic interference emanating from military exercise areas on the Eastern Seaboard of the US.

Her political writings turn largely on the notion of “consent” — the state of informed willingness on the part of citizens when their country goes to war. In 1991 she argued in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review that the constitutional right to bear arms guaranteed government transparency and citizen participation in military decisions. A 1998 article maintained that the structure by which the American citizenry ratifies acts of war had broken down with the abolition of the draft. And in a provocative response to 9/11 called Who Defended the Country? she compares the actions of passengers aboard United Flight 93 (who voted to attack their hijackers and wrest control of their aircraft) to the helplessness of the official US military response on the same day (scrambling F16s and looking on while the Pentagon was hit); using this example, she makes the case for not only the ethical necessity but the strategic efficacy of a more egalitarian model of national defense. More recently, she debated former Assistant US Attorney General Jack Goldsmith about the applicability of US military manuals of conduct to the treatment of detainees. A detailed study of war and social contract theory is forthcoming.

Meanwhile, Scarry continues to write literary criticism, and in Dreaming by the Book and On Beauty and Being Just develops and expands the phenomenological and aesthetic inquiries latent in The Body in Pain. Here, Scarry sits down with Curtis Brown, an avowedly adoring advisee and student of hers, and takes on literature, war, discipline, and punishment.

Curtis Brown: How did you move from your training in literary scholarship to writing The Body in Pain?

Elaine Scarry: There were so few literary texts with descriptions of physical pain in them that just of necessity I had to look at any kind of text that had a motive for putting something into words about pain. So fairly early on I contacted the international secretariat for Amnesty International and asked if I could come in. And I was amazed that they could send — to people like you and me, who aren’t in pain — a description of people who are in pain, and have you actually get it and be able to do something. Amnesty’s literature remains amazing to me. It’s not just that they communicate pain, but that they do it without letting it flip over into a situation where we’re enjoying our immunity from pain, which can sometimes happen. Suddenly I was able to look at the actual statements of prisoners themselves. And then I looked at the work of a physician named Ronald Melzack. He developed the McGill Pain Questionnaire, after having listened to the patients in his pain clinics and taken seriously the language they were using. This was the late 1970s. In some of these other areas, there was a greater commitment to language as actually capable of communicating something true than there was in English departments.

CB: Literary scholars were almost euphorically invested in making arguments about indeterminacy and incoherence, about the gulf between language and reality.

ES: To my mind, the cost of incoherence is profound. Let’s take, say, nuclear submarines. I now know that they use extremely low frequency radio antennas, and sending three letters of the alphabet takes fifteen minutes — that’s what it means not to have language. Not what people were saying in English departments. I wasn’t writing in a spirit of repudiation, however. It’s just that at the time… I remember, for example, a very inventive and ingenious scholar of eighteenth century literature telling me that the body is just a “construct.” I told him to come tell me that the next time he had a cold. Pain is not a verbal construct. When something like suffering becomes almost impossible to put into language, it’s a disaster.

CB: The Body in Pain is striking in its use of lists, long lyrical lists that include novelistic details, details drawn from testimonials, statistical reports, and so on. The multiple trajectories of your subsequent work — into phenomenology, aesthetics, and public policy — are all there in the earlier work at the level of style.

ES: There was a moment in the writing of that book, in looking at the structure of torture, in which it suddenly seemed the whole thing was laid out before me. That chapter as it appears now is almost identical to how it was written, except one thing: originally, there was a point near the end of it where the central premise germinated. I realized that if this was true about torture, then the following must also be true-and there was a paragraph about war, a paragraph about Biblical writings, a paragraph about the structure of the artifact. Each of those paragraphs eventually became a long chapter; it was as if the whole book’s architecture had been embedded within the focused argument of that first chapter. I began that book with an absolute aversion to talking about creation. At that time, there was this pervasive idea that suffering helps you create. And it just didn’t seem right to me, to think that having cancer, say, would help someone create, that having terrible burns or being blown apart in war could help you create. So I had this prejudice — “creation” was coming nowhere near this project. Then, of course, the entire second half of the book came to be about the structure of creation. Its centrality was made clear to me by laying out the structure of torture. With that laid out before me, I could just see that that’s what torture was, that the infliction of pain was the unmaking of the act of creation itself. That the two things had everything to do with each other.

CB: Just not in their traditional Romantic sense, creation as somehow born of suffering.

ES: Yes. Literature as a discipline has been foundational to me and ninety-five percent beneficial; it is premised on a belief in language, even if there are local forms of disbelief. So I don’t want to be seen to be coming around to another criticism of English departments, but at that time it would have been seen as hopelessly simpleminded to believe in something so stark as an opposition between pain and not-pain. Or making and unmaking. These things were thought to be thoroughly mixed up with one another. I don’t think they are. For example, in the first chapter of The Body in Pain, I use Sartre’s fantastic story “The Wall,” which is about what happens to you when you think you’re going to die in the next few minutes. I remember having it pointed out to me by a philosopher that Sartre (and others) posited a complicity between the prisoner and the torturer, and that I hadn’t included that view. I replied that I had only used the parts from Sartre that were true. I know that there are interesting phenomena such as sadomasochism, but these happen to be phenomena that don’t bear centrally on the nature of pain. Lovers can control the pain they enjoy, if they enjoy it. This isn’t normative for torture.

CB: After Abu Ghraib, Mark Danner described torture as “a scandal that survived its disclosure.” Do you think the status of torture in the American consciousness has altered in the wake of such revelations?

ES: I think it’s incontestable that American practices in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere have not only weakened the laws against torture, but also greatly diminished the taboo. Arguments for torture that previously had been dismissed for their thinness and sophistry are being resuscitated. This is obviously true of the false and self-serving “ticking-bomb” argument. But it’s also true of the so-called “necessity” defense of torture, which has been used to explain every war crime ever committed. It was used at Nuremburg, for example. It’s based on the preposterous idea that the international prohibitions against torture were created without envisioning possible extreme conditions that would make it seem necessary. As all military handbooks say, every international law is written with the idea of military necessity already in mind.

CB: When did the interest in consent first arise?

ES: There’s a moment right at the end of the war chapter in The Body in Pain where that happened. All throughout that chapter, I had been trying to differentiate structurally the “contest” of injury from any other kind of contest you could use to determine winner and loser. I was drawing examples from different forms of war — seventeenth century war, twentieth century war, nuclear war, and so on. At the end of the chapter, I was trying to figure out why it was that people who oppose torture (until the period we’re in now) are absolute about it: there are international prohibitions; there’s extraterritorial jurisdiction in US law — it’s one of the very few crimes that can be tried in US courts even if not committed on US soil or by a US citizen. It’s very unusual and absolute, whereas if you look at all the antiwar literature, there’s nothing like that kind of absoluteness. Even those passionately opposed to war always have provisions allowing countries to go to war if they’ve tried everything else. I realized that the reason for that is that in torture there’s zero consent, whereas in war there’s a great deal of consent. I then realized, however, that in nuclear war this was untrue. Nuclear war much more closely approaches the model of torture than the model of war. At that moment I realized that if that’s true, then I’ve got to work on that, and in discharging the weight of The Body in Pain, I realized there was another equally burdensome project to be done.

CB: You make a point of acquiring specialized languages (tort law, electromagnetic influence, military conduct manuals, constitutional law) before writing about subjects of general public interest (air safety, homeland defense, a compulsory draft, treatment of detainees in the context of the war on terror). Your work, perhaps more than that of other “public intellectuals” to whom you’re compared — Edward Said, Susan Sontag — puts great emphasis on disciplinary expertise. On the other hand, the range and example of your work suggests that such expertise is not about formal credentials, but is available to anyone with the resources and the patience.

ES: Absolutely.

CB: Is this a conscious ethos or a natural result of your work methods?

ES: I think it evolved of necessity. In the case of pain and injury, there just weren’t enough examples in the canonical literature; I had to immerse myself in other materials. Now, is that really true about Edward Said? Take Said and music, for example; he probably knew more about music than I do about any subject at all.

CB: What I mean, I suppose, is that when he weighed in on political issues, he did so as a man of letters, a humanist, a Palestinian speaking truth to power, etcetera. These things, rather than disciplinary expertise, were his source of rhetorical authority. He didn’t debate Jack Goldsmith about the nuances of the Geneva Conventions, international law, and US military conduct manuals.

ES: I see the distinction you’re making. I do have a sort of scholarly caution. There are certainly those who are more confident speaking with a large architectural vision of things. I don’t have that confidence, at least not until I’ve gone across the minute surfaces. I suppose there is also an ethical choice. The structure of one’s position with regards to the suffering of others shapes one’s perceptions and thinking almost completely. This happens to lawyers as much as to prison officials. And I’m sure it happens to those of us who study literature. In The Conduct of the Understanding, Locke says that the surest way to stop thinking is to read in only one field.

CB: Are your various disciplinary endeavors mutually inflecting?

ES: Very few people see them as such. But I have difficulty even imagining them as disparate, they are so folded into one another.

CB: Some themes in your work are idiosyncratic for intellectuals on the left. I’m thinking of your emphasis on the second amendment (the right to bear arms), your argument for reinstating the draft, your argument for a citizen military… Do you have a libertarian streak?

ES: Maybe without knowing it. But one result of my method of thinking — through details instead of in overview — is that I often land on things that are politically inconvenient. After both Who Defended the Country and On Beauty, I had people ask me if I was “giving succor” to the right wing. But you can’t not say something about which you have conviction. I think the extreme parts of the right wing are completely wrong about what the idea of a militia means in the constitutional writings. But their intuition that the population has been disenfranchised by present military arrangements is certainly right.

CB: Did the argument of Who Defended the Country? flow directly out of the extraordinary circumstances of United 93? Or did the story of that flight merely provide the occasion for a thought experiment about the need for more democratic and distributed control of military power?

ES: It’s again the concrete details. I was in Torino on 9/11, at a conference on advanced application of electromagnetic theory. It was mostly electrical engineers and physicists. I had been asked to present the thesis about TWA 800, SwissAir 111, and EgyptAir 990 to a session on electromagnetic interference, with very central people in that field. I actually gave my lecture on the morning of 9/11; it was 3 pm Italian time when the attacks in the US were underway. Watching the coverage on CNN and the BBC, what I couldn’t understand — as someone who’s listened to so many tapes of air traffic controllers — I could not understand the amount of time that had elapsed before the plane hit the Pentagon. It was staggering that within a relatively generous timeframe, the Pentagon couldn’t defend the Pentagon. (With Flight 93, it was still unclear what had happened.) In the context of my work on consent and nuclear war, I had given hundreds of lectures, and someone would always say, “Yes, but these constitutional rules, and the social contract, et cetera, can’t be incorporated into this fast world of nuclear weapons,” and so on. I would always say, “Do we throw out the constitution and social contract? Or do we throw out the things that go too fast?” But I always just accepted that that was a problem. This argument about speed, though, has turned out to be a complete fabrication.

CB: In terms of the reception of your work by specialists, do you find that they want to police the boundaries of their expertise? Do they pull rank?

ES: No. Something like the opposite is true. When I talk to people at the very heart of a discipline, like law, they’re able to look impartially at what I say. And this is certainly true of electromagnetic engineers. Either my work in those areas is convincing or it isn’t. As you take one step back from there into a lay setting, however, people will say, “You can’t say X because you’re not in field X.” Similarly, colleagues in my discipline are not impressed by my work on electromagnetic interference, but those in electrical engineering and physics take it more seriously. We should bear in mind, as we talk about this, how recent the disciplines are, and how interdisciplinary thinkers from the past were. Arthur Waley, the sinologist who translated The Tale of Genji, knew something like eight languages. Thomas Hobbes — whom I’ve been working on for my current book on war and social contract — translated The Iliad. The Iliad is 16,000 lines. That was no hobby.