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Unfiled August 23, 2002
Let's Get Physical!
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 5

It's astonishing how much pain can migrate to those smashed fingers, when a second before they were just one of hundreds of small provinces of the body, nothing newsworthy going on there. The crushed fingers are the center of your one-kid universe. And the more the other people try to console you, the less you believe them. It just isn't true that they feel what you feel. You wish they could: you could split the pain up or just dump it all on them. But you can't.

Physical pain trumps every fine feeling in the dictionary. I remember experimenting as a phlegmatic Catholic child, You burn your finger and try to experience Hell, as that feeling all over your body -- and you realize instantly, yes, that would be a true Hell. Then the hippie priest says something about how we need to understand that "Hell is the suffering of being apart from God" and you know, mutely and wretchedly, that he's wrong. The Baptists got it right with their Hellfire: Hell is a burned finger but over the whole body, and forever.

You start to perform private experiments with pain. At the dentist's, for example. Of course dentists don't hurt any more, and were always overrated as a source of pain, a pain cliche -- but THAT dentist hurt. He was a mean old Armenian who knew my father and gave us cut rates -- mostly, I think, by skimping on the novocaine. They had to drag me into Dr Georgian's office. I'd've betrayed everything that mattered -- which meant my dog, mostly -- just to get out of that dark cigar-smelling office.

The hours in his chair were a grim, private moral education which proved that nothing was true except pain. I'd experiment with pain vs. "higher feelings" in Dr Georgian's torture-chair. Could you still love your dog when his little probe hit a pain node in your molar? -- When he had been drilling for ten minutes? And the big question: could you keep silent if they were torturing you? What if they were trying to make you inform on your own family and they had you in a dentist's chair -- could you hold out?

And the answer was obvious: no. The "higher feelings" are a byproduct of physical wellbeing. They're squatters, making themselves free while the pain's away. When it comes back, they scatter like the phonies they are. Higher feelings are always about somebody else -- and there is nobody else when you're in pain.

Torture comes out of that weird anomaly: the fact that other people's pain doesn't hurt you. I get my finger jammed in a door -- utter agony, the world vanishes, nothing is real except my hurt hand. I jam someone else's finger in a door -- and they make all the same noises I did, but it doesn't hurt at all. That is (as the old dentist joke says), it doesn't hurt ME at all.

And if that's true...well, here is where the high-minded people start trying to jam your signals. They don't want you to go on with that line of thought. Most "philosophy" is an attempt to prove that you DO feel the pain of others. Because, of course, you don't.

Rarely, here and there, someone gets mad enough to tell the truth. Take Sade...please. Sade was just another dilettante aristo until they put him in prison. His eyes swelled up, he gained 100 pounds, he wasn't allowed to mate -- and he started blurting out the "obvious" things about pain and empathy -- things so "obvious" that nobody, ever, ever said them. (Never believe a high-minded person when they accuse you of being "obvious." They mean "indiscreet.")

Sade told the truth for the only reason anybody ever does: revenge. He wallowed in truth like the vindictive swine he was. He said, "If 25,000 people must die in pain in order for you to have a good dinner, let them die -- because you will experience the dinner, but not the deaths of those 25,000 people."

This was so childish and so obvious and absurd that no one else could refute it. Instead they snubbed it, like Southey snubbed Byron. More than two centuries later, we're still supposed to walk past Sade as if he didn't exist, or make him into a coy pet who didn't really mean what he said.

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