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Habituated By Art

(an excerpt – the full text can be accessed at the Michigan Quarterly Review Archive link)

Imagine yourself at an art gallery you have never encountered before. There is no catalogue to consult nor guidebook. The works, arranged in chronological order, appear at first to be randomly selected. You look for a sign directing you to the tour's beginning but find none. Instead, at your side is your personal escort who takes you by the hand and conducts you on a journey through this particular collection -- his attention focused always on you, and the questions that these (not-so-randomly selected) works of art raise.

In Enduring Creation: Art, Pain and Fortitude, Nigel Spivey does precisely this in his exploration of why Western art depicts so much suffering, " ... horror, fear, death, ghastliness and grievous bodily harm." We are not born with feelings of compassion or pity but must learn "the aesthetic of feeling for others." Spivey examines how art might "habituate" us, prepare us for these encounters with the physical pain of life. If pain were made ordinary, perhaps it might become bearable: " ... pain avoided; pain inflicted; pain endured; pain savoured; and pain regarded." He reminds us in his Prelude that there is "no shortage of data." And then you turn the page and ...

You are taking the night train.

You, the reader become the one taking the night train to that town in Poland that held the concentration/death camp of Auschwitz. You are on that train and this is where your journey begins, the cries of the millions still fresh in our ears. Primed for this expedition, we already know not to turn away.

The first stop on this tour is Spivey's own familiar territory: he is a Classicist at Cambridge University and starts with "The Audition of Laocoön's Scream." This chapter is a blueprint of the method of investigation. The statue depicts the dying agony of Laocoön and his sons as they are strangled by serpents. Spivey turns the statue this way and that, examining it and bringing in the commentaries of the time as well as the insights of later generations, making clear the perspective of our assessment. Spivey points out "the sensationalism of our title phrase 'Laocoön's scream'." (Italics mine.) Our. We. You. By having put you, the reader, on that train to the memorial of the death camps and then met you at the door, Spivey keeps you viscerally beside him. Everything he sees, you are seeing; everything he encounters, you encounter along with him. His voice here is not that of the teacher but rather, as Philip Lopate remarks on the writer of the personal essay, "speaking directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom." It is his -- and therefore our -- personal encounter with civilization's response to pain.

Looking next at a woodcut entitled The Miseries of War by Jacques Callout,1633, Spivey describes: "In a glade of stately trees, a cohort of soldiers is ambushed by locals; and these backwoodsmen are not in the mood to show mercy. One exultantly lifts a handful of intestines from the body of his victim." You look intently at this work; it is a busy piece with many details to take in: a hanging, several stabbings, shootings, beatings, slicing open of individuals, cutting down of several others. For a moment, you are nearly overwhelmed by the horror. And then, as if Spivey senses the work's impact, he puts a hand on your arm and whispers, "The recruiting officer never said anything about this." And then you can't help but laugh even if it is accompanied by a groan. Spivey demonstrates for us precisely why a guide such as himself is required.

The subject of the body in pain can be found as far back as Seneca's essay on asthma: "So death is having all these tries at me, is he? Let him, then!" But many writers in our own time have asked the questions that Spivey considers here: Edmund Wilson in The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature examines how a traumatic wound has led to the works of some of our greatest writers. Nancy Mairs returns again and again to the life of being "a cripple." She recreates in her book Remembering the Bone House how there can be "An Erotics of Place and Space" by looking at the rooms she has lived in while dwelling in the "house" constructed of her own steadily MS-afflicted bones. A. D. Nuttal asks us to consider Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure? and what does it say about thousands of years of western culture that it does? David B. Morris wonders about Illness and Culture in the Postmodern Age, insisting that "Illness somehow defines us." James Elkins has recently published the intriguingly entitled Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings.

This shelf, it would appear, is rather crowded. Why then pull Spivey's Enduring Creation off of it? Primarily because his aims are so modest (though his material and learning so vast) that his uncertainties ultimately inform our own. Spivey not only keeps our attention but draws it back again and again to encounters with what we would like least to see.

Enduring Creation: Art, Pain and Fortitude provides a tour through the (sadly) unchanging human condition that makes us create works of art showing the very worst agonies we as a species can inflict upon ourselves. And we are faced with the question: " ... why do we put ourselves out to find and invite the frissons of feeling 'horrified'?"

Yet in the end has it all been worth the journey? Have we become desensitized to pain by all we have seen? Did watching the World Trade towers fall over and over and over on television for days after the attacks of September 11th "habituate" me to the horrors of watching a piece of my hometown reduced to a rubble of graves?

As we turn down the last corridor, Spivey concedes that there is no answer to that question. "Nothing prepares us for the assaults on our flesh when they come, and images of suffering are what they are: beyond first aid." Art provides us only with a venue to collectively express our pain, to face it, name it. But this, the author concludes, does allow us to "go on as if we were sustained by what we have seen." Having taken us along on his survey of our history and guided us through the techniques of how we can look at works of art that delineate our anguish, Spivey has shown us how to find, if not sustenance in the depictions of pain, then at least our collective humanity in acknowledging them. At the end, as we jump off that train and return to our own lives and our own ordinary pain, we take with us the realization that the horrors we have looked at together have permitted a profound understanding of the truest history of the human condition in which we all journey.