Throughout European history, pain has not been a subject of philosophical investigation. It has been viewed only in relation to the means of overcoming it – either by cultivating pleasures or exercising virtues (in Antiquity), or through ascetic practice (in Christianity). It is no wonder then that the only direct source of a book like The Palliative Society – Pain Today by Byung-Chul Han is Ernst Jünger’s essay Über den Schmerz (On Pain, 1934). Like Jünger’s essay, Byung-Chul Han’s book is firmly rooted in the history of European philosophy, and relies on the ideas of a long and impressive series of philosophers, thinkers and authors such as Walter Benjamin (who also gives the book’s motto), Theodor Adorno, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, Friedrich Nietzsche, Giorgio Agamben, Ivan Illich, Jean Starobinski, Paul Valéry, Alain Badieu, Franz Kafka, Stefan Zweig, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Emmanuel Lévinas, Elias Canetti or Francis Fukuyama – to mention only the most famous ones. This enumeration already touches on Byung-Chul Han’s intellectual sources and approach. Among the great authors interested in social problems, political thinkers, philosophers of history, prominent Frankfurt School representatives and classical authors, Martin Heidegger’s name may seem atypical from more than one point of view, but it is highly relevant for Byung-Chul Han’s chapter The Ontology of Pain, which is based almost exclusively on Heidegger’s work.
Byung-Chul Han’s book has an unusual structure (in relation to the above-mentioned sources). A brief review of its contents reveals an almost analytical investigation of the subject. Chapters such as The Poetics of Pain, The Dialectic of Pain, The Ethics of Pain, The Compulsion of Happiness or Pain as Truth break down the subject and examine it in various and multivalent ways, which mark milestones that can be closer or more distant from understanding pain as a personal fact, a rational subject or a political instance.
The volume begins with a critique of the present society, characterized by Byung-Chul Han as scared and intolerant of pain. The term the author uses for the “generalized fear of pain” is that of algophobia. “The consequence of this algophobia,” writes the South Korean-born author living in Germany, “is a permanent anesthesia. All painful conditions are avoided […] This algophobia extends into society: less and less space is given to conflicts and controversies that might prompt painful discussions. Algophobia also takes hold of politics. The pressure to conform and to reach consensus intensifies. Politics accommodates itself to the demands of this palliative zone and loses all vitality” [emphasis added]. In his opinion, “Today’s algophobia is based on a paradigm shift. We live in a society of positivity that tries to extinguish any form of negativity. […] Negative thoughts are to be avoided. They should immediately be replaced with positive ones. Positive psychology subjects even pain to a logic of performance. For the neoliberal ideology of resilience, traumatic experiences should be seen as catalysts that increase performance.”
While the above ideas can be interesting and relevant as cultural critique of the consumer society, of the lifestyle of the winners of the capitalist game, the book has a series of limitations that become all the more obvious when reading it in relation to this newspaper: “Even the pain of love is treated as suspect”; “What has been forgotten is that pain purifies. It has a cathartic effect”; “True happiness is only possible as fractured. What stops happiness becoming reified is precisely pain, and pain gives happiness endurance. Pain bears happiness. Painful happiness is not an oxymoron. Any intensity is painful. Passion binds pain and happiness together” [emphasis added]. Such ideas, read in relation to the experiences of victims of violence of any kind, to people in toxic and abusive relationships or made vulnerable by their own physical, psychological or material condition, are not only questionable, but also highly toxic. They are precisely those ideas that undermine the victims’ independence and ability to act; they draw a veil of illusion over their eyes. Regrettably, they are as bad as they are widespread in today’s societies, regardless of how economically developed they are or how highly educated their prophets are.
In my opinion, what follows as very obvious is at least one thing: the return to a generalist manner of philosophizing, even starting from a limited subject like pain, can very easily leave out the multiple and varied experiences of non-standardized readers. If we do not forget that any reading requires and outlines a specific subject, we will also not forget that our good intentions or specific viewpoints do not rule out the possibility of a lack of foresight, of blind spots, in which ideas that we do not have (de)limited can be decisive for acts of concrete or symbolic violence against us or others.
The Romanian translation of the volume The Palliative Society – Pain Today by Byung-Chul Han is scheduled to appear at Contrasens Publishing House, in the Novus Collection, later this year. The book will be launched during the Sit+Read Artbook Fair on Thursday, October 26 2022, from 4:30 p.m., at the “Corneliu Miklosi” Museum in Timişoara, in the presence of the translator Mirela Iacob and the coordinator of the collection Alexandru Condrache.