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Unfiled August 23, 2002
Let's Get Physical!
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 3 of 5
I learned this the hard way, by writing my Ph.D. thesis on Sade's novels. You could write on Sade, but only if you tricked him out in borrowed jargon. Jane Gallop was the model: she wore boots to conferences, which was considered wild and daring, and was about as far as anybody was willing to take Sadean studies. As I discovered when I read her book, though, she had never read Sade. This was my disadvantage: I had read Sade, all of him, several times. Sometimes with one hand, sometimes with two. Well, as Nurse Hardcastle says, "You won't find anybody any good at this job who doesn't enjoy it."

Well, to make a bitter decade short: the dissertation went down badly. It sounded like I was a Sade fan, instead of an embroiderer. Which I was. It all seemed so natural; how could anybody who went through puberty uncool not think of every torture Sade listed? It was, I can't avoid the word, "obvious."

I should have had the courage to move downscale, to the living genres: movies, true-crime, science fiction. They don't pretend to be ignorant of torture. They all wallow excitedly in it. Science fiction is particularly fecund. I just reread Jack Vance's worst novel, The Five Gold Bands, and came across a torture-device called the "nerve suit," which is roughly speaking a virtual-reality torture device. The interrogator can break every bone in your body, pull every tooth out, excise your eyes with a putty knife -- without actually causing any damage at all. So he can come back the next day and do all that again. And the next day. And the next. You can live fifty years in constant agonizing torture -- in perfect health.

It's hard to describe the experience of reading something like this. Terror -- "God, they'll probably be able to do that in a few years...." A sharp pleasure, to be the one doing it, with a little pang of empathy, awed empathy. A sharper feeling of embodiment, and a prudent, superstitious homage to pain, a genuflection before it.

High literature serves a different purpose: to denigrate physical and aggrandize psychological pain. This habit can make liars of the very best writers, as when Dostoevskii has his regrettable Father Zossima declaim, "What is Hell? ...It is the suffering of being unable to love."

That may well be the stupidest line ever written. "What is Hell?" I could make a list a thousand pages long, detailing the tortures used by every tribe known, from Japan to the Sahara, to inflict Hell on their victims. All the tortures they devised have certain things in common, based on the fact that our species has clusters of nerve-endings in zones like the face, hands, feet and genitalia. All are matters of physical pain, not moral anxiety. But beyond that, our species is endlessly inventive in providing Hells for the unlucky.

Koestler you expect to be a liar. But it's tragic that Dostoevskii, a truly great writer, falls for the same lie when he lets Father Zossima define Hell as unlove. No: Hell is burns over your whole body, forever. The Baptists tell the truth about that, if nothing else.

It's a pity that Father Zossima and I couldn't debate the matter face-to-face, because I really do think that given the opportunity, I could convince him of the folly of his view. "Esteemed Father Zossima," I'd say in a polite and collegial tone, "Let us put the matter to the test. I will undergo your version of Hell, 'the inability to love' -- and you will undergo my version, which involves strapping you to a chair and smashing your hands with a hammer -- joint by joint, starting with the tip of the little finger and continuing, one joint per hour, until both your hands are jelly, at which time we will have a volleyball game, with the loser required to cook his smashed hands in a vat of boiling water. We will then proceed to the feet, again moving slowly, one joint per hour, then the slow peeling-off of your skin...."

I feel morally certain that Father Zossima would come around to my perspective within a few hours. Indeed, I venture to suggest that he would soon be pleading to change his mind: "Oh God no please no I'll do whatever you want, I'll turn Muslim, I'll inform on every monk in the monastery, please god no more!"

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