On Pain

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.

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7 thoughts on “On Pain

  1. Pickle Rick

    Like we used to say in the Corps, “pain is weakness leaving the body.”

    This is where I disagree with you. The Jünger style willingness to adjust to physical pain is a learned behavior. And Jünger and I know the metaphor doesn’t just extend to physical pain. That’s the least part of giving yourself to war-it’s learning to cope with mental pain, which obviously, the modern veteran is not equipped to do because our society has stripped us of being able to deal with it like the older warriors.

    The worst part of this half life is knowing that once, as a young man, I had my own version of Jünger’s storm of steel, where life was raw and visceral and real, and then I came home to this shambling corpse of a culture, where nothing is ever going to mean as much to me.

    1. Severian Post author

      That’s just it. I think Junger would agree it’s a learned behavior. I am by no means well read in Junger (and he wrote a LOT in seven decades), but I think this is why he made his peace with the Wehrmacht and joined back up — whatever else they did, the Nazis promoted the hell out of the warrior ethos. Without some version of the warrior ethos available as an honorable life path for those who choose it, we get… well, we get this “shambling corpse of a culture.”

      The Left has gotten really good at rotting the warrior ethos out from within. I remember W.s Iraq War — even on campus, “breasts not bombs”-type lunacy was confined to hippie retreads straight out of 1968. For every cause-head kid out there at the antiwar rally, there were three persyns with gray dreadlocks stopping in on their way from the Social Security office. The best slogan they could come up with was “Support the Troops, Stop the War,” which concedes the moral high ground to the patriots. In PUA lingo, they “bought into our frame,” since the slogan assumes that everyone supports our troops. (And this was only after many frantic attempts to get the Vietnam band back together; I’m sure you know someone who somehow survived that “brutal Afghan winter”).

      Instead, the Left went in for what ivory tower colleagues of mine called, crudely but not inaccurately, “flag-sucking.” The NFL, for example, sent its broadcast teams overseas on USO tours. They made a huge show of “supporting” our troops, without the slightest mention of what those troops were doing there, and why. They still have Air Force flyovers, military bands, etc. before every game, despite the fact that everyone on the field is kneeling for the national anthem. The Left couldn’t end the war — especially when, for eight straight years, it was Obama’s war — so they made it a beauty pageant.

      As late as 1999, the Left would be making pious noises about the plight of veterans, especially minority veterans and veterans of vaginatude, as they struggled to reintegrate with civilian society. Some few of them might’ve actually meant it. Instead, they’ve gone all in on pretending that the only point of a having a military is to do flyovers and parachute drops at sporting events (except when it was Obama who “got” Bin Laden, but even there, they dropped it after a week or two, because as much as they would’ve loved to crow about how Tough on Terror they are, that would acknowledge a very dirty operation on the sovereign territory of a supposed ally in a very dangerous part of the world, carried out by the kinds of guys who actually enjoy football). It’s a long-term plan to hollow out the warrior ethos, and it succeeded beautifully.

    2. Rod1963

      If you want tough men, have them grow up during the depression on a poor subsistence farm where they start earning their keep before they’re 8. Medical, what’s that? Dental is a guy who uses a pair pf pliers to remove your cavities. Step on a rusty nail and get blood poisoning, deal with it.

      When you get older say around 16 you become a itinerant laborer working farms and ranches up and down the West coast, later if you’re lucky you get into the CCC and learn the basics of forestry and logging. The work is hard, fights are common.

      When my father came back from WWII after spending over a year in a German POW camp, he said to effect ‘it was like nothing ever changed’. Jobs were still hard to get if you weren’t connected, nobody gave a shit if you were combat vet. And if your head did get messed up in the war, no one gave a shit, least of all the military or society. You just suffered in your own way and in silence for the most part. It left a lot men bitter. They hated the military and how it used them up.

      It was no different for the European civilians who suffered in the war and from Nazi privations. They didn’t rejoice in their suffering like Junger or today’s military tough guys do, they were just collateral damage no one game a shit about, It left a lot of them damaged for life, some got real good at hiding it, but it would come out under the right circumstances. Others never did.

  2. Pickle Rick

    Naturally, Cat Fancy was meant to appeal to guys like me. Those guys who fought the war while the elites lose them generally aren’t too exited about the return of those same elites- hence my supreme indifference to the deaths of both John McCain and GHW Bush, regardless of the fawning establishment coverage.

    We vets of my generation had our own derisive term for flag waving neoconservatives or NFL/Budweiser/Ford corporate patriots-we called them “dick riders” or “pimping the flag for cash”.

    Since they hollowed out the military to shove trannys, fags, and females to the front, I don’t even care about the flag, or the uniform, or so many of the things I held dear. You won’t see me celebrating the new, Obama style military or, sadly, Mattis- I was hoping he was going to reverse the rot, which he has not done.

    As you say, we’re not returning to a Republic. The armed forces are too far gone to return to the instrument they were in 1945 as well.

  3. Martinian

    A comparison to “Fight Club” may be in order, if only to say that at least 20-30 years ago a significant portion of our male demographic seemed to recognize that painful struggle granted certain benefits unobtainable elsewhere. I don’t see that with the up and coming soyboys, however…in fact, even among guys I knew growing up in the 90s I’ve been seeing a Left-ward tilt in their argumentation to the effect of, “We just want to help everyone live comfortably!”…which of course means purchasing indulgences from personal sacrifices for themselves by making politically coercive collective demands on everyone else.

    …but it’s difficult to make the case that suffering and endurance have good qualities when you’re obviously unwilling to subject yourself to them. I’m reminded of the “freedom to fail” conundrum — What meaning does success even have if failure was never a real option? But then, to what extent have many of the middle-class ever been in a position of serious risk of failure? This is the cheap shot the Leftists tend to pull, though, e.g., comparing your hard-working middle-class normie to a crack baby from the ghetto.

    It seems to me that there’s actually three situations that are being conflated down to two: 1) No real risk of failure (cf. Paris Hilton); 2) Real risk of failure, but also real opportunity for success contingent upon individual effort (most people); and 3) No real opportunity for success (cf. crack baby). It’s in the Left’s interest to argue that option 2 does not exist. If you are in option 2 and succeed, you really were in option 1 all along (cf. “privilege”). If you are in option 2 and fail, you really were in option 3 all along (cf. “oppressed”). This is what makes Leftism so obscene — I agree with them that options 1 & 3 are serious social problems, but instead of actually dealing with the people who embody truly embody them, they focus predominantly on the #2s, tearing down the winners and elevating the poseurs. Under this model, since you can only go to slot #1 or #3, all adversity is unfair because it leads directly to #3. You can’t make the argument that pain, sacrifice, or other forms of loss-endurance can potentially help you because in the end, you can’t help yourself. (“You didn’t build that.”)

    But the question remains: If we’re living in a world where we are gradually yet plausibly eliminating the necessity of pain/sacrifice, but if we nevertheless agree that pain/sacrifice does lead to benefits (individual and/or social), where do we draw the line between therapeutic endurance and cruel infliction? Where is the line between encouraging the kinds of experiences that compel one to face hard truths in a sober manner and be truly grateful for what one doesn’t have to endure (“there but for the grace of God go I…”), the kinds of experiences that amount to macho-juvenile, Lord of the files-style, blond-beast chest-thumping (cf. Fight Club, Antifa. Note the “warrior” in SJW isn’t completely ironic…), and the kinds of experiences that you recognize the value of struggling through and are consequently proud of but would never wish upon anyone else (e.g., going through a tough break-up that nonetheless made you realize things about yourself and your previous partner, getting laid off and having to pull yourself back up)?

  4. Kirk Forlatt

    Slightly off topic, but the delightfully descriptive phrase above, “flag sucking,” got me thinking. Everything we need to know about the recently dead George Herbert Walker Bush is encapsulated in the fact that Google’s colorful homepage logo was a somber gray yesterday in honor of the national day of mourning for the late Mr. Bush. Bear in mind that this is the same homepage that routinely ignores significant Western holidays and birthdays/anniversaries of note in favor of dreck like “102nd anniversary of the birth of Tyrone Shoelaces, who invented the laminated work excuse!” and so forth.

    Ann Barnhardt once observed that a person’s actively SEEKING high political office should automatically disqualify him from that very office. Likewise, the fact that Google stops the presses for GHW Bush should tell us the sort of man he was….and the sort of people who admired him.

    It WAS amusing to watch Slick Willie breathing through his mouth during the Rotunda service, wasn’t it?

  5. Al from da Nort

    I’m not sure that Junger is the counter-example that proves today’s young males are all hopeless. He was an exception in every way and by no means typical even of Imperial Germany: Hence all the Nazi attempts to appropriate his life story (which he resisted as best possible). I did read his wartime recollections and, Wow_! But he was really exceptional even then in the Imperial German Army, not to mention incredibly lucky.

    While we can’t really revisit that culture, middle class types such as Junger didn’t experience real hardship growing up, at least in their own eyes. That came during the war.

    The working classes, sure, they experience plenty of hardship, at least by today’s standards. One big difference with 120 years ago is that every young male was then physically fit, either through physical work or by PT in school. Today, only some are physically fit, largely through individual choice and initiative. Another big difference was that their hierarchal society’s leadership was expected to be selfless, even though it held the usual percentage of dullards and time-servers. But selfish slacker-ism was definitely not tolerated. So it was looked up too. So Junger’s generation had role models that today’s young males too often lack.

    Maybe providing that can be the glue we’re looking for.

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