On Literary Pain: Comic and Tragic (From John Updike and Franz Kafka to Louis CK)

The feeling of pain (what Emmanuel Levinas calls the “little death”) and the existential onset of death are the most private experiences. It goes without saying that nobody can feel my pain or experience my death for me. Even though someone can take notice of pain and say, “I feel you.” He or she really can’t. My pain – and not just my freedom – is what makes me a separate individual. It can be argued that pain gives one a sense of selfhood. What narrative – as opposed to myth – can do is make the reader aware of pain and that all pain is not necessary. The innocent suffer.It can give us a view into the character’s private pain and contrast it to a public which cannot or refuses to see it. A thinker named Rene Girard argues that this perspective is what distinguishes monotheism from paganism.

It is plausible to argue that this perspective on pain is a key ingredient of modern literature. The more we can see the literary pain of a fictional character in contrast to his surroundings or people, the more valuable a piece of literature can be for us. It can help us to understand the relationship of pain to selfhood and the world. However, there is another side to this coin. This perspective is tragic, not comic. Comedy isn’t interested in pain so much as in what Freud would call the release of tension (for Freud the psyche feels pleasure when it releases such tension). In modern literature, we also experience such a release from pain. It may not be complete, but its release does make things better. It may not be as deep but it means a lot to us. When we laugh at ourselves, we can live better.  (To put it simply: pain is heavy; comedy is light.)

John Updike is an interesting Pulitzer Prize winning writer. He tends more toward a fiction that is about pain and sharing that pain as a kind of secret with his audience. I find his theology of pain interesting. His obsession with pain is affected by his belief that suffering has a religious quality (perhaps in a sense similar to Kierkegaard).  In his novel, The Centaur, he takes a Kafkaesque premise (of a human turning into a creature) but instead of having the character turn into a bug he has the main character turn into a centaur. And instead of having this happen in the privacy of the home and within the space of the family, Updike has it happen in the midst of the public sphere (in front of a class). The subject is – immediately – a kind of Christ figure who is publically ridiculed when he “turns.”

Caldwell turned and as he turned his ankle received an arrow. The class burst into laughter. The pain scaled the slender core of his shin, whirled in the complexities of his knee, and swollen broader, more thunderous, mounted into his bowels. (9)

Updike moves back and forth between his private pain and his public ridicule (laughter, here, is not comic; it is a cruel kind of laughter – what the poet, Charles Baudelaire, would call Satanic laughter):

The laughter of the class, graduating from the first shrill bark of surprise into a deliberately aimed hooting, seemed to crowd against him, to crush the privacy that he so much desired, a privacy in which he could be alone with his pain, gauging its strength, estimating its duration, inspecting its anatomy. (9)

The contrast is explicit. Updike’s narrator is telling his reader about how significant private pain is and how the inability to feel one’s own pain – as a result of humiliation – marks the “crush(ing)” of selfhood.

Updike’s close descriptions of the pain suggest that it is not merely a private affair. Its description takes on a kind of religious aura:

The pain seemed to be displacing with its own hairy segments his heart and lungs; as its gripped swelled in his throat he felt he was holding his brain like a morsel on a platter high out of hungry reach. (9)

The following sentences note how Caldwell is overwhelmed by external sensory stimuli. He leaves the classroom to flee it and only comes across more noise as he passes through the hall of the public school.

The narrator suggests that his pain helps Caldwell to grow and mature. He now feels – since he is a Centaur – a split between his lower and upper parts of his body:

His top half felt all afloat in the starry firmament of ideals and young voices singing; the rest of his self was heavily sunk in a swamp where it must, inevitably, drown. (10)

His top and bottom suggest a mind/body dualism. But it is his body and its pain that make him aware of his selfhood. But Updike suggests something interesting about the relationship of pain to the world. While the boys in school ridicule him and force him into himself, the space of nature does the opposite:

Outdoors, in the face of spatial grandeur, his pain seemed abashed. Dwarfed, it retreated into his ankle, became hard and sullen and contemptible.. Caldwell’s strange silhouette took on dignity; his shoulders – a little narrow for so large a creature – straightened, and he moved, if not at a prance, yet with such a pressured stoic grace that the limp was enrolled in his stride. (11)

From here, Updike has him turn toward his home (which, as we can see here, he approaches with a kind of strength). The contrast with Kafka’s bug is suggestive. Updike seems to be exploring a different kind of selfhood. While the Centaur’s pain is shared with you, the reader; we also see that he has a unique relationship with nature. Kafka’s bug has no such relationship. He is confined to a house and lives, suffers, and dies in a house (or to be more specific, in his bedroom). Kafka’s story, it seems, is more tragic. The fate of the soul – apparently, for Kafka – is to suffer privately and to be discarded by his family and the world.

While Kafka’s Gregor Samsa “turns” into a bug sometime while he is asleep, Updike’s Caldwell turns in front of the class. His shame is more public. But he can leave them. He can live his solitude in the world. There is nothing comical about either Updike or Kafka’s creatures.   They are tragic.

Is this the secret of literature? Do we need to deepen our sense of pain? Is Updike associating comedy and laughter with ridicule and crushing the soul? Is that fair? Can’t comedy also be associated with selfhood? How does comedy – in literature – create another kind of solidarity? Doesn’t that solidarity also include aspects of the body and pain – albeit a kind of relief from pain?

Or is it the case that comedy – like that of Louis CK – reminds us that pain is something that we can and perhaps should laugh at because… it won’t just go away? With age, it only increases. And a good deed, as we see in this clip, can always devolve into a bad one. However, this devolution may also give us something to laugh about since we all know what’s it’s like to screw up. Perhaps it’s the event that sticks out in comedy and the private anguish of this or that character. Louis CK brings both into play and brings it all to the surface.

Crossposted with Schlemiel Theory.

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