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CHAPTER SIX

RUINED BODIES:
CORPOREAL EXPERIENCE IN LANGUAGE

Physical pain not only resists language, it actively


seeks to destroy it.
(The Body in Pain, Scarry 1981, 4)1

This part of the book will discuss the literary figures of travellers, migrants
and the displaced in the existential situation of confronting bodies in pain,
illness or decay, which I shall call ruined bodies. The metaphorical term
the ruined body as a theoretical concept connects the complex discourses
on embodied human experience with literary images of the abject body
(such as the injured, wounded, bleeding body, handicapped body or sick
body). The significant interconnections between the abject body,
femininity and the notion of experience are particularly visible in the
moment of pain. In language, pain is usually perceived as something both
common to every human being and beyond depiction. Pain is an
experience that can be universally evoked through literary language, but
lived only inside ones own flesh. Pain in literature, therefore, is confined
to the linguistic means by which it is evoked, and through them, becomes
entwined in the construction of gender, age, race and class. At the same
time, however, pain implodes the walls of our skin and, in this sense, acts
as a direct revolt against the stable, neatly self-enclosed notion of
embodiment. But then, the experience of literary pain constitutes a
problem. Is it able to transgress the confines of the world and language,
being, as it is, couched in that very language? Can pain, understood as an
implosion, succeed in destabilizing all the cultural limits imposed by the
language that is its means? Can it thus help us to transcend the epistemic
barriers of gender, age, race or class?
The notions of physical pain and bodily suffering are among the most
important themes connected with melancholy. The main literary devices
employed in pursuing this theme are the various metaphors, comparisons
1

All literary translations, if not otherwise stated and not from published
translations, are by Marek Kazmierski.

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Chapter Six

and epithets (such as pins and needles of pain, a hand inside my brain,
Filipiak 2006, 7) that draw the readers attention to the problem of
language. Poetic language tries to convey that which is unnameable, by
which I mean physical pain. Pain is beyond language, and though it exists
it cannot be fathomed, since, in the words of Elaine Scarry, it is
vaguely alarming yet unreal, laden with consequence yet evaporating
before the mind because not available to sensory confirmation, unseeable
classes of object such as subterranean plates, Sayfert galaxies, and the
pains occurring in the other peoples bodies flicker before the mind, then
disappear. (Scarry 1987, 4)

Language, capable of expressing the most complicated moral


dilemmas, such as that of Hamlet, collapses, dries up in Virginia Woolfs
words, when sufferers want to describe their suffering, even a simple
headache (Woolf 1967, 194). And Scarry adds Physical pain not only
resists language, it actively seeks to destroy it, bringing about an
immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries
a human being makes before the language is learned (Scarry 1987, 4).
Literature attempts to deal with this pre-lingual, inarticulate and hence presymbolic state using figurative tools or exclamations such as: ah, oh, oh,
which are merely a substitute for human pain. Sophocles, in portraying the
pains of the dying Philoctetes, records them in long phrases, words and
cascading syllables. In this way, an excess of description camouflages the
inexpressibility of suffering. The poet Halina Po wiatowska (19351967)
frames this in an ironic fashion, being a writer who was famously
concerned with the suffering body: To create a verseonce upon a time
all that was needed was a vibrating pain in the cells and a range of words
no richer than the screams of a beast. Today, one needs concepts and
arguments, comparative explorations into the depths of dictionaries.2
Here, the poet creates an intuitive mini-history of poetry, of the primal
scream of pain, the sign of our original union with fathomless nature,3
2
3

From the volume Jeszcze jedno wspomnienie (One More Recollection), 1968.
Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, Polish poet, writes about this as follows:
Nature, the all-powerful nature, be my homeland!
I want to be subjected to you with all my bitter heart []
(I am yours whether I want it or not
One day I will be forced to die at your command). /
Ruthless, both for the strong and the weak,
You were the first and will be the last. Victorious
You will come among the ruins at the twilight of humanity

Ruined Bodies

153

replaced by conceptuality, the scream of unarticulated semiotics replaced


by concepts.

Pins and Needles of Pain


Let us compare the descriptions of pain in a few examples of the most
recent writing by women in Poland. The migrant heroine of a story in
Izabela Filipiaks debut book ( mier i spiral [Death and the Spiral],
1992, reprinted in 2006), describes her sensations:
Pain. Pins and needles of pain in my breasts, across the nape of my neck, in
my skull. I hear a moan. Get away from me, I want to say, but cant. It
drags me up with its steel talons. Leave this body. It does. I hold my head
up so it doesnt fall. In a moment, it will stick its hand inside my brain.
(Filipiak 2006,7)

In Tokarczuks Runners, we follow, among others, the story of Philip


Verheyen, an anatomist obsessed with the scarred body and phantom aches
and pains:
My leg hurts. I can feel the pain along the bones, my feet driving me
insane. The toe and its socket. They are swollen, hot, the skin itching.
Herehe leans down and points to a small fold in the bed sheet. (R, 211)

In Marta Dzidos Clam, Magdas belly ache comes at the point when
she realizes how serious her social failing has been:
[I] can feel the strange pain in the pit of my stomach, dull, like someone
was poking my insides, as if a worm was eating me from within. (Dzido
2005, 80)

Like ivy, permanently green on the dead monuments./


Naturo, o wszechw adna, b d mi do ojczyzn !
Twoj chc by poddan ca ym gorzkim sercem
(I tak ni jestem! Z wol , czy pomimo woli,
Zmuszona b d kiedy umrze na twj rozkaz)./
Bezlitosna, zarwno dla silnych i s abych,
By a pierwsza i b dziesz ostatnia. Zwyci sko
Zawitasz po rd ruin o zmierzchu ludzko ci,
Jak bluszcz trwale zielony na trupich pomnikach.