, Volume 10, Issue 4, pp 395-405
Date: 05 Jul 2007

The art of useless suffering

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Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to explore the role that modernism in the arts might have in articulating the uselessness and incomprehensibility of physical and mental suffering. It is argued that the experience of illness is frequently resistant to interpretation, and as such, it will be suggested, to conventional forms of artistic expression and communication. Conventional narratives, and other beautiful or conventionally expressive aesthetic structures, that presuppose the possibility and desirability of an harmonious and meaningful resolution to conflicts and tensions, may fundamentally misrepresent the patient’s experience. By drawing on the work of Emmanuel Levinas (on useless suffering) and the aesthetic theories of Nietzsche and T. W. Adorno, it will be argued first that a faith in the possibility of harmonious resolution of suffering is misplaced and does violence to the experience of suffering. Second, it will be argued that the expression of suffering lies not in finding words, images or sounds that communicate the experience of that suffering to others, but rather in the persistent and radical disruption of any illusion of meaning and coherence that might be imposed upon the experience, so that the very possibility of communication is also disrupted.