Ernst Junger’s essay On Pain is a bit too of its time for us to read easily, but his theses are worth summarizing. Junger says that pain is a crucible — how one meets pain, and particularly how one meets the inevitability of pain, determines one’s values. Pain is absolute — though there are of course degrees of pain, only pain and death are certain in human life.
[It’s worth pausing here to note just how well Junger knew the subject. A “storm trooper” officer who served all four years of World War I, he was wounded 14 times, all of them fairly serious. This man was once shot in the head and walked back to the aid station. If anyone’s an authority on the subject of pain, it’s Ernst Junger].
Junger also says that the person who is best able to overcome pain is the one who is best able to regard it objectively — not just the pain itself, but the body experiencing the pain.
There are apparently attitudes that enable man to become detached from the realms of life where pain reigns as absolute master. This detachment emerges wherever man is able to treat the space through which he experiences pan, i.e., the body, as an object. Of course, this presupposes a command center, which regards the body as a distant outpost that can be deployed and sacrificed in battle.
Continuing the metaphor, he states
To link another idea to the human projectile, it is obvious that with such a stance man is superior to every imaginable multitude of individuals. His superiority, of course, is still given even when not armed with explosives, for we are not dealing here with superiority over human beings but over the space in which the law of pain rules. This superiority is the highest; it bears within itself all other forms of superiority.
Spoken like the youngest man to win the Blue Max, right? It also sounds a lot like Nietzsche, a philosopher dear to Junger’s heart. Both of them are so alien to our modern mentality that, though those words make enough sense for an educated person to say “sounds like Nietzsche,” the comparison utterly fails to register. We Postmoderns regard pain as the worst evil, such that we’re required to rejigger human nature to make sure that hypothetical someones somewhere might not be exposed to the mere chance of it.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I think Our Thing is ultimately doomed.
Very few of us have experienced real pain, Junger-style pain — pain with no prospect of amelioration. Unless you’ve been shot and left for dead, Junger-style — or a modern equivalent like a severe car crash — your pain is always in some sense voluntary. You could be a He-Man and not take the anesthetics they give you when they pull your wisdom teeth, but that’s objectively (in Junger’s sense) different from the pain of “the human projectile” — you can tap out at any time; the morphine syringe is always there.
And so we’ve never been trained to deal with pain. Boys with skinned knees used to be told to “rub some dirt on it.” These days that phrase is a joke — you’ll hear lunkheads at the sports bar yell “rub some dirt on it!” as the quarterback is being carried off the field on a back board (a very revealing thing in itself). Pain, for us, is something that requires immediate intervention. Ever call in sick to work with a hangover?
This is not to say we should all start cutting ourselves, or not taking our prescribed medications. What I mean is, Postmodern life is such that we don’t have to experience pain — not real pain, the values-clarifying, meaning-of-life-affirming absolute Junger wrote about — and because of that, our values never get clarified, our lives remain meaningless. When our time comes, we Postmoderns will roll over and wait for the executioner, Shoah-style. Pain is the only motivator that matters, when it comes right down to it, and when it comes, we won’t hardly be able to recognize it, much less sacrifice our bodies to it, like distant outposts being overrun before the counterattack.
Pass the oxycontin.Loading Likes...