In a civilization preoccupied with images, information, speed and efficiency, a wash of “words, words, words” there is still an origin of knowledge in the body itself that is vastly under attack to such an extent that it has lost its voice, exacerbated by the inability of language to express bodily, “the body in pain,” especially, the body tortured and mutilated, left to die.
The body is constantly barraged with images, perceived by the image, informed by the image, speaks through the image and the text; the body has knowledge that language cannot express. The fallacy of torture is that it seeks from the body knowledge that the body cannot give. In an image-saturated society, the problem of the cogito, both the Cartesian indubitable certainty of mind and the split between mind and body fostered by the Enlightenment and onwards, has erroneously bifurcated the body and the mind, has wedged the two apart by scientific discourse; the mind has become privileged thus being subsumed under the subtitle of peripheral concern. The body, therefore, has become unnoticed, not a substantial claim to certainty, not given a voice in the political realm and not perceived holistically as an agent of viable literary discourse. Nietzsche and Schopenhauer understood this dynamic of pain needing a way to express itself; Nietzsche, forever the romantic, embraces pains because it gives him knowledge, it does not confine him to an unalive corner, but rather, pain, is an expression of life and living dangerously.
So in an effort to give the body back to poetry, the body, corporeal and enfleshed is a text and the contemporary novel is a place of transformation where this body can speak above the technological, 21st-century din and the political discourse that govern legislation, human rights action and world-systems. The body haunts the text in which the cogito, the voice of reason, the privileged discourse of reason holds sway; because of this privileging of mind, “the body in pain” is unmade by the cogito – not into a real, tortured person, but rather a body politic, a set of nations pinned against one another on the global stage, a specter.
An ethical response that is genuine is lost by the cogito because of its insistence to bifurcate and divide, giving literary discourse an emphasis on mind instead of the body.
An agency of language for the body is uncertain in a tyranny of the cogito. “The body in pain” is subsumed by the cogito, the logical slice of reason; it is easier to think about the conflicts of nations instead of the real human beings involved in suffering, torture, and war, thus a feeling emerges that says there is no need for an ethical response to the real suffering of the other.
Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje is an example of the novel being able to give a voice to the pain in the body, speaking in the corners of literary texts, where a single line is enough to expose “the body in pain,” the body mutilated, the body abused (Scarry 11). Ondaatje’s novel is about torture and political violence set in the contemporary sphere of globalization that assumes different approaches to “the body in pain”. Elaine Scarry writes, “Physical pain does not merely resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is heard” (4). The voice of the tortured body, the mutilated body is destroyed by pain, reverted back to a state a priori to language; this is cause for ethical response, a giving back of a voice, The body interrogated, mutilated, evaporated is silenced, made obliterated of content (Scarry 33). The body in pain loses its voice in these novels giving rise to an ethical call to action not written by the cogito which either makes or unmakes the world via a two-pronged model: a creation of the world with Gamini Diaysena, an emergency room doctor and Ananda Udugama, an artist who reconstructs the face of the dead, or an unmaking of the world with the cold, slicing knife of Western reason symbolized by Anil Tissera, a UN forensic anthropologist.
The Body In PainThe seminal work on the inexpressibility of physical pain and the ethical issues at stakes because of this limitation in reason is Elaine Scarry’s book The Body in Pain: the Unmaking and Making of the World. Scarry methodically attempts to plot out an articulation of the suffering pain of another human being and the stakes raised when the question is asked, ‘How does the body become undone, unraveled, unmade in the world and what creative, imaginative, ethical response is there to make, to give creation to the suffering body of the other?’.
She first sets out to claim that physical pain is inexpressible (or nearly inexpressible) in language; either pain cannot be expressed (no matter how monolithic or portentous) or the pain itself seems distant, interstellar and not rooted in our experience (3-4). Pain shatters language, according to Scarry and it obliterates content. By content, Scarry means the psychological material of our minds, in other words, when someone is in pain, the person will not be thinking about the solution to Fermat’s theorem or the square root of negative two; pain obliterates content, it clears away our conscious minds of anything except the pain; you cannot have pain for something but only pain itself.
Scarry goes on to explain the second part of her project, that there are political consequences to the inexpressibility of pain in language that has serious import in how society is structured, how nations are built, and by extension, how our world system is devised (11-12). Because of pain’s inexpressibility and the tendency of language to rid physical pain of a voice, there is a realistic scenario we can think of in the polis, of one person in pain and another person knowing nothing about it (13). There could be a tortured individual standing next to me and I can be unaware of that person’s pain, completely – more aware of the designs of the architecture, perhaps, of the building he is standing next to, but not aware of the pain he is feeling. Or worse I can choose to ignore it. Or think that torture is a reliable and justified means of gathering intelligence.
As a result of the inexpressibility of pain and the reality of unawareness of the pain of the other, our global system is not a priori set up to protect “the body in pain” and the temptation “to ignore it” is greater. This is because our world system is structured around reason rather than body; it is easier to give discourse to property laws rather than regulation prescripting the unknowable physical torture of another or disability acts because our language is bereft of language to give description to pain and therefore pain is secondary in the world’s political discourse.
Physical pain consistently assaults language. Once we try to articulate pain in language, immediately we see that our verbal strategies are limited. The language of agency we ascribe to pain is bare and not sufficient to holistically give description to pain so we are reduced to being able to say merely, ‘benign or not benign, good or bad’. And since pain is intimately connected with the body, the expression of the body itself is subsumed under unknowable discourse and other discourses take precedence in our society.
The epistemological problems this presents are immense, because how are we to know the pain of another, to act on this knowledge and arrive at an ethical response to another’s pain if there is such a limitation to pain’s expressibility? How pain enters into our midst, how we decide to be certain about pain or to be in doubt about pain entails an epistemological strategy to employ an agency of discourse to analogically verify or doubt “the body in pain” (14). Agency of language gives privilege to reason because language lacks the adjectives to articulate pain, so we are left only with “it feels as if” or “it seems as though” (15).
Scarry then introduces the third tier of her project, “The Nature of Human Creation” (19). The concept of creation does not seem to have ethical import at first glance, but that is because we are not trained to think of creation in this way. In fact, creation in of itself has ethical import. To imagine, creating, to make, are seemingly neutral responses and not imbued with any kind of moral authority, but that is the point creation; within the act of creation itself, the thing-in-itself is the moral import. Especially in regards to war, to injustice, to torture, and any kind of violence of a person against another person, the ethical interiority of making is the very center of creation itself.
As Scarry has already pointed out earlier in her argument, language is insufficient to give articulation to physical pain; so of course the structure of war and torture take advantage of this insufficiency of language to express pain by unstructuring, unraveling, making undone, deconstructing the body so it is unmade, unmanifested in the world. Torture and war have a structure, a process by which the body is unmade, a structure that the torturer implicitly understands and the tortured is subjected. What is at stake here are the ethical consequences of this unmaking of the world and what steps are to be taken to give back a voice to the uncreated body in pain, to give creation, instead of destruction (23).
Anil’s GhostFirst, a little background behind Anil’s Ghost to set the stage. The political scene of the novel is a civil war that has been going on for the past twenty-one years between the Sinhalese and Tamil majority, warring ethnic factions within the island country of Sri Lanka and an inept and corrupt government trying to play mediator. Anil is an émigré who comes back home to serve as the UN’s attaché to investigate government-sponsored killings. Anil’s Western training as a forensic anthropologist leads her to a 19th century pile of bones where she finds a 20th century skeleton she affectionately names Sailor. These bones come from a graveyard only accessible to the government; suspecting government foul play, she and her partner Sarath Diyasena, an archaeologist, although with different epistemological approaches, want to pin the death of Sailor on the government.
Anil feels if she can prove the government killed one of these dead men then she can report a human rights violation against the Sri Lankan government in Geneva. She eventually brings the skull to Ananda, an artist who reconstructs the face of sailor, who is eventually identified. Sailor turns out to be a freedom fighter and probably cause for annihilation by the government. Despite Sarath’s wishes to the contrary and paranoid that Sarath is a traitor, Anil brings the evidence to the attention of the Sri Lankan government behind Sarath’s back. When Sarath finds out he tries to help her.
During her deposition, Sarath speaks up to protect Anil from most certain death by the hands of insurgents, risking his own life. When Anil flees the country, his brother Gamini finds Sarath’s body, a medical doctor, in a pile of corpses marked as political deaths. The novel ends on an epagogic note, Ananda repainting the eyes of a vandalized statue of the Buddha.
Western Science and Anil’s UnmakingIn the opening chapter of the novel the theme of the cogito precluding interpretation of “the body in pain” is illustrated. In a flashback sequence, we learn firsthand that Anil cannot describe the grief in a woman’s face who has lost her husband and her brother, and has had to endure the debilitating torture of Guatemala’s civil war. Ondaatje describes the woman grieving was once the “feminine string” between her husband and brother and now all she has left is a face written in pain. But “There are no words Anil knows that can describe, even for just herself, the woman’s face” (6). The woman’s face is unreadable although her face is readable like a book. Anil cannot describe the grief in her face, not because she is unwilling but rather her language, her knowledge, her ability to give voice to this suffering woman has been overridden by her professional discourse. Certainty is not in the face. It is in facts. Reason. Still, with all of her training, her reason, all of her knowledge, she is unable to enter into the suffering of the other and will always remain adjacent. The face is not the ethical sign of the other, an origin point of dialogue between two human beings. The woman’s face is an agency of pain that Anil cannot interpret. “There are no words Anil knows that can describe, even for just herself, the woman’s face. But the grief of love in that shoulder she will not forget, still remembers” (6).
The second example is when Anil first comes home to Colombo as an attaché for the UN, she remarks to a group of interns, concerning a body that is unusually “fresh”, that “Usually the victims of a political killing were found much later (13) after they have decomposed, no longer fresh, deposited in a distant out-post only to be discovered weeks, months, years later by some unsuspecting citizen. Because of this, political murders are easily distanced, easily objectified because the traces of their humanity have been erased, a piles of bones – but Anil cannot stomach the fresh corpse of a man who was murdered yesterday.
“It was the freshness of the body. It was still someone” (14).
The freshness of the corpse jars Anil’s usual methodical, unwavering poise. Anil herself mentions that in all her training women were used to working with “the fresh corpse of an old woman, a young beautiful man, small children” (137). Education and Europe and America had taught her to compartmentalize and not see the body as a real person (7). Except, Anil “would slip into woe … when she saw a dead child in clothes. A dead three-year-old with the clothes her parents had dressed her in (137)”.
Anil is not used to working with fresh bodies but with bones. Anil is comfortable working with the “detritus of history” since it is easier to objectify and distance bones as a body of evidence instead of a real person who experienced real suffering. Anil works with the unhistorical dead (56). Anil realizes she is hiding among the unhistorical dead, bodies that do not have a voice even though her work has exhaustively attempted to sift through the detritus of bones to recreate history, like an historical novel (56) (8). It is in the characters’ own divergent approaches to trace living histories gleaned from the bones of the tortured dead, the detritus of history that forms the meat of the story (Burton 39). Ondaatje writes, “Tectonic slips and brutal human violence provided random time-capsules of unhistorical lives” (55).
The body on the table is not bones. It is the tectonic slip and the brutal violence itself. Visibly shaken, Anil is unable to connect her own fragile humanity to the once tortured and now dead man she sees before her. Because he is still someone. He is not the quantified dead of Hiroshima or the list of names of the Shoah. He is qualitatively and physically a person who has not yet been erased by History. He is someone.
His body, though dead, stands for “the body in pain,” unmade – all the people who have died because of the structure of war and torture – yet Anil makes no ethical response, discovers no agency of language within her own ability to imagine the pain of the other, to articulate within herself and to the interns in the room any semblance of the humanness of the dead human being sprawled out on the table to be autopsied.
A discordant snap breaks. In the same way that a mortician is unaware of the person he is working on is a real, human being, until he meets her parents and notices the similarities in their facial features, Anil connects the dead man to her own life. She places the time of death to the unsettling fact that she knew what she was doing when he died. In resisting the personal nature of this data she allows the cogito to take precedence in her discourse; but the real body of a real man persists. Something shatters.
Anil remembers she was walking in the Pettah market, and she thinks to herself that she never usually translated the time of death into personal time (13). This is not how she is trained; without the distance of time a scientist cannot make any sense or logic out of violence (Ondaatje 55). For the scientist, time is supposed to be evidence; it is empirical data to be collected, not a personal agent interweaving two intermittent lives. As a scientist, Anil is not supposed to relate her own personal sense of time to the time of death of this man. Time of death is one more number to put on the chart, to be collected and analyzed with the rest of the information gathered by science. It is not supposed to be personal. The further Anil attempts to unmake the body before her, to resist giving a voice to the body before her, the empirical data she has collected ironically serves to only to quiver within her own body and her own grasp on what is real and what is fact, what is the viable language of discourse and what is not; what should be divided and objectified and what should not.
A forensic anthropologist is trained in the science of the “I think,” the critical reasoning imbued in Anil’s training to determine cause of death. How did this man die? Anil asks, but the answer she receives threatens further to reveal the unmaking structure of war and torture. Anil is unsettled when one of the medical students examining the body with her suggests that the victim was praying when killed, because his fingers were not damaged but his arms were broken. Anil’s reasonable questions do not get reasonable answers. Or so she thinks. Anil’s scientific training is dangerous when it fails to make the intuitive, creative leap of the student: he was praying; that is why his hands are not cut. The student is able to imagine a voice for this victim of violence that Anil cannot muster in her vocabulary.
Anil is determined to remain nonplussed about the next body that comes in the viewing room. With forensic aplomb she labels it a death by falling from a height of at least five hundred feet to the water, the body’s chest marked with flail fractures on the rib cage, the air knocked of him so it must have been a helicopter (14). Anil’s quick response hints at how she wants to forget her fumbling subjectivizing and get on with it. She had not wanted to be with the interns in the first place. She realizes her inability to give a voice to suffering. Her emotions leave her bereft, unable to express another’s pain.
The third example is a segueway into the second part of the argument, the making of the world. Anil and Sarath discover a man found crucified to a highway tarmac in front of his running truck, the headlights still beaming. Like Christ, someone had hammered a bridge nail into his left palm and another into his right (111) (9). When Anil and Sarath approach the man his face is terrified, as if he thinks they are his torturers coming back to beat him further. It is the face of this man that reads torture, even though he does not say a word (10). There is only pain. He feels not the mechanical engineering of the nail, the texture of the nail punctured into his skin but the pain itself is what he feels (Scarry 166). Pain has no referent, no object, “not ‘of’ or ‘for’ anything – it is itself alone” (162). In this absence of language, there is only the pain itself that marks itself clearly on the man’s face. The silence of the scene is paradigmatic of the body’s response to torture.
Silence permeates the scene, despite the action. There are no dogs barking, no cicadas; “everything was quiet around them as their car crept past” (110). Anil sees that people “slammed and stained by violence lost the power of language and logic” (55). The structure of torture and war unravel a man, strip him bare and nail him to a cross and there is nothing that he can say, there is nothing that he can emit from his mouth that will give any logic or reason, any kind of articulation to his tortured body. It is ironic that Anil knows this about the tortured by not about her own approach to violence, how she stands off, demure, unable to adequately give life back to a body, unable to imagine the pain of the other.
At first, Anil and Sarath think the man is taking a nap in front of his truck, or maybe he’s drunk – they do not realize what is happening. When they turn around to take another look they are horrified to find him nailed to the Kandy road; the man was not sleeping at all. The nails rammed into this man’s body horrify us; the body has been fixed to the earth with manufactured nails; the body made cruciform, like Jesus on the cross. This horrifies us because the state of someone being nailed to the road evinces the pain within our own bodies; we wince because we can imagine the pain. We may feel an imaginary pain in our own body, not empathy for the other person, but a pinprick of pain that makes us flinch.
The silence at once reveals the seeming private nature of pain, its incommensurability in being interpreted by the other and the otherwise public nature of pain and the need to discover a language of discourse. Wittgenstein dismisses the private language of pain and famously reasserted the public nature of pain as a learned trait rather than a concealed interior state unknown to the other. What Wittgenstein terms, “private language” in his book The Philosophical Investigations is an erroneous conclusion to the silence of pain and rather in opposition to Scarry claim that pain is always private. Nevertheless, the two opposing views are not canceled out in the silence in the scene Onndaatje paints on the highway. The silence of the pain of the other is both a private and a public phenomenon; private in that the pain of the man crucified is unspeakable, but public in that the pain is not completely unknowable or there would not even be a way to give the slightest hint that he is pain that the novel depicts.
The body has been forced upon by torture, hammering nails into flesh (an opening has been torn), mocking the autonomy of the other, and violating fleshly space, a chiasmus as Merleau-Ponty refers to it in Doyle’s interpretation, “the space of non-center, of fission, of multiplicity, therefore of possibility, of parts touching to make something which is not them” (Doyle 80) (11).
To lessen the tortured man’s pain, Anil holds his face between her hands while Sarath prizes the nails from the tarmac, freeing his hands, the nails still rammed in his body (111). They put him in the back seat of the car and drive to the nearest village, Galapitigana, to purchase saline solution from men in an illegal beedis factory, working the night shift. On the way to the hospital, Anil pours the salt solution on his hands, calming him down so he won’t go into shock. The man does not speak Anil asks the man his name:
‘What’s your name?’The asking of the man’s name is important. Does Anil ask the man’s name in order to make a human connection? She asks his name to tabulate further empirical evidence to why he was tortured; a name is an indication of ethnicity, socio-economic background, et cetera.
‘Do you live near here?’
The man rolled his head slightly, a tactful yes and no,
and Anil smiled. In an hour they were within the outskirts of
Colombo, and later drove into the compound of Emergency Services (113).
The text does give a reason why Gunesena is tortured or who did it. Anil saw that those who were slammed and stained by violence lost the power of language and logic (55). The absence of this detail is like the obliteration of content by the body in pain, the unmaking of language. The body in pain obliterates all referents to its own pain and the text only discovers the body, crucified to the road, a speechless victim. But we are given a name, a human face, a connection, the ethical sign that originates in a human response to the suffering other. There is a possibility in this scene of Gunesena receiving a language to articulate his pain, a making of the world. It is what we do with the name, the body, that counts.
In the Gamini, sequence touch becomes more important. When they bring Gunesena to the hospital, Gamini dresses his wounds. Again, as Scarry points out, Gamini has a kinship with the tools of the body, the mimicking of dressing the wounds, reshaping fabricated skin, “the delicate fibers mime and substitute for the missing skin” (Scarry 282). Gamini is an image of ‘the making of the world,” not the unknown touch of fear (12). Gamini is not impervious to the suffering of the other; suffering pours over him like the sudsing bath of the Betalima solution that he squirts from a plastic bottle on Gunesena's hands (see 130). Anil notices that Gamini treats Gunesena without gloves or a lab coat, as if he had just come from an interrupted card game, but he doesn’t touch his brother nor does he shake his hand (129-130) (13) With a generous combination of touch and quiet words, Gamini dresses Gunesena’s wounds (130). This surprises Anil. The text does not say but it seems Anil is touched by Gamini’s purity of heart, his unabashed and altruistic relationship with his patients (14).
What touches Anil is that Gamini does not merely wince at the pain of the other as if it is own; he has reconciled himself to the tortured body as a tortured body, as a body in pain – without an object, with referent, except the pure possibility of imagination. That’s the thing. Because pain has no object, it is empty and open for what Scarry says gives this objectlessness nature of pain a possibility to “… give rise to imagining by first occasioning the process that eventually brings forth the dense sea of artifacts and symbols that we make and move about in” (162).
Gamini cannot give Gunesena a room in the hospital because there are none left for his injury level; he says, with a touch of humor, “See, even crucifixion isn’t a major assault nowadays” (130). This humorous remark from Gamini becomes more disturbing when Gamini tells Anil that the hospital receives “a lot like this one” (131). He tells her, “Nowadays we get everything, it’s almost a relief to find a common builder’s nail as a weapon. Screws, bolts – they pack their bombs with everything to make sure you get gangrene from explosions” (131-132). The torturer is not satisfied with a mere chiasmic probing of the body; the torturer is bent on leaving a stain on the body.
Gamini knows the daily tour of terror and violence that plague Colombo but he is jaded by the Human Rights discourse he hears about from the West, and wishes the armchair liberal will join him in his operating room instead of spouting policy from manuals (132-133). Gamini carries with him his own share of torture and pain, a failed marriage with his wife Chrishanti, and estranged relationship with his family.
Gamini is in charge of patients wounded by shrapnel, mines, and torture victims, anyone who comes through the doors of his hospital seeking treatment. Gamini is an example of what Scarry calls, “the making of the world,” the ability of the body to make the interior exterior (278). Gamini believes in “the sexuality of spirit,” in a mother sleeping against her sick children, “the sexuality of care” (Ondaatje 119). The scene of mothers clutching their ill babies evokes the feeling that people can do nothing to stop torture and its violence so we become numb to suffering. But the image of a mother confronted by her wounded child is an example of the agent suffering because she loves her child (see Asad 82). Perhaps we feel we are not like the mother Gamini sees in the hospital, touching her ill child with a tender hand; we forget the sexuality of care that “[shows] us that doing something can also mean holding, soothing, touching, immediately creating a political response to suffering that is outside the relentless privileging of vision in postmodern war” (Orford 216).
It is Gamini’s job as a doctor to repair the bodies torn apart by war and torture; his hands embody the care and concern he has for the living. Gamini has no use for the dead (Ondaatje 212). “He avoided the south wing corridor where they brought the torture victims to be identified” (212). To be able to do his job, Gamini takes speed so he can stay awake, to feel the adrenaline rushing through his body as he cares for patients, barely able to get rest, but it is only the image of the living he can bear (15). So it is not a desire to be numb that drives Gamini but rather an interesting desire to suffer and to love the suffering other (Asad 82). Asad, in talking about we suffer for another person explains that the sufferer does not first access the evidence then chart out a plan of action, like Anil, but rather “lives in a relationship,” compassion and reaching out to the other’s pain. The suffering the other has for another becomes a form of pleasure, another way to create the world. Gamini, like a saint in ecstasy, is fixated on the god of suffering. The reason he sleeps in the pediatric ward instead of the doctor’s station is the comfort and care he feels.
Even so, his own personal woe does not cloud his ability to sense the suffering of another and he is able to see beyond the political lingo and realize intimately the man against man violence and the suffering it produces. Whether it is Sinhalese versus Tamil or Tamil versus Sinhalese (and the government innervated to do anything about it) Gamini is wounded himself, a trauma victim who chooses to do superhuman feats, living with little sleep and constant work. By arresting a hemorrhage or amputating a gangrene infected knee, Gamini creates the world better than any ideology or human rights discourse, able to remove the inflictions of pain on the body, and to undue the terrorist’s unmaking.
Ananda and the Reconstruction of SailorGoing back to the “the making of the world,” as a final image in this paper, there is Ananda, the artist that gives a voice to the silent, abused body, who at one time painted the sacred eyes on the face of the Buddha, a sacred ritual (98-99). Ananda Udugama, in the inland hills, is the artist in the novel, hired by recommendation of Sarath’s mentor Palipana, to reconstruct the face of Sailor, one of the 20th century corpses found in the 19th century graveyard (16). It is the artist’s vision to make sense of the body in pain, to give expression to what cannot be spoken. Just as there is no existence without the eyes painted on the Buddha, there is no voice for the body without an image of the face (see Ondaatje 99). Ananda’s gift is an inherited talent, from grandfather to father, to son, through the generations. Some say he is the best of the three (108).
With school erasers, small needles, and the head of the skeleton, Ananda is able to reconstruct the face of Sailor (163). Anil feels her Western quantitative data is sufficient, the discovery of the “marks of occupation” rather than ritualistic conjuring will identify Sailor. Anil is skeptical of the “the eye-painter turned drunk gem-pit worker turned head-restorer” (168) but she still needs his intuition to reconstruct what Sailor might actually have looked like no matter how much arrack he drinks; she may “know” (albeit a 5 percent margin of error) that Sailor was about twenty-eight but she needs something more than Western science to resurrect Sailor as an image recognizable to someone who may have known him. Ananda’s sailor looks more like a serene Buddha motif – the image of the blessed dead (or “a five-and-dime monster,” (169) according to Anil) – than a real person but coincidentally it does lead to the identification of a real person, Ruwan Kumara, a toddy tapper in the mines and a supposed rebel on the government’s list. Scanlan is correct in saying that Ondaatje replicates the experience of terror like Ananda reconstructs the face of Sailor (302). The face of Sailor is not satisfactorily done, reconstructed out of grief and pain more than the precision of a reconstructionist; it is almost a fluke that Sailor is identified. So what is the point of Ananda? How does he create the world?
Ananda and the Sweet Touch of the WorldAnanda’s story ends the novel, actually. His story gives a creation to the world and articulation of the political stains of a violent century and an open place of innocence where a meeting can sprout. I don’t think it is an accident that Ondaatje ends the novel with Ananda reconstructing the face of the destroyed Buddha because I think, just as Scarry’s argument goes from torture to war to creation, so too does Ondaatje follow a similar path and ends the story with a beam of hope and reconciliation. Ananda has been commissioned to repaint the eyes on the Budhha, a lith that had been carved generations ago in a field called Buduruvagala, vandalized by brigands looking for treasure. The field the Budhha stands in could have been used as a place for torture and violence, a place to dispose the bodies of tortured victims (Ondaatje 300). An innocent statue stands there as an analogy for “the body in pain”; the statue does not speak, loses its vision and its stomach is pried open, not for political reasons but because three men were hungry – and as a last resort toppled the statue to the ground looking for something to sate their desire. So this field is a place where unmaking and making meet. It is place where an ethical beginning sprouts in an in-between place, the place of tension where something other than the facts of harsh violence and religion stand.
Ananda, a dejected artist, an alcoholic, and grieving over the loss of his wife, is hired to reconstruct the face of the Buddha with a team of workers because the Archaeological Department overseeing the complex project believed that he was innovative and creative enough to do it (300). For Ananda, he probably doubted the department’s confidence, seeing himself as someone who had failed to believe in the originality of artists (303). “Invention was a sliver” (303). But of all the work that Ananda did to rebuild the statue of the Buddha became tangential to his primary focus of the work of the artist, the reconstruction of the face of the Budhha, even though he himself had given up painting eyes a long time ago.
Without being an outright religious man, Anada Udugama feels compelled to approach the project of painting the eyes of the Budhha as a religious act. The traces of the old eyes are still discernable, painted by an eye painter like Ananda, years ago, to give a face to the god, the window to the god now closed. The response to the closing of the eyes is an ethical response to create. “But he knew if he did not remain an artificer he would become a demon” (304). The only response that seems right and good is the response to make the eyes of the Buddha become alive again. The image of creation Ondaatje ends with is a liturgy of devotion, the sacred ritual of painting the eyes. The eye is the last thing to paint on a sacred statue of the god. Without eyes the statue is “blank,” “unformed,” “unable to see”; “He was not the Buddha” (306). To further intensify the concept that the Buddha is unformed, not a god, until he has eyes, the Buddha eye ceremony is performed at night and in virtual silence.
Ananda and his nephew, both robed in a turban of fine silk, carrying cloth satchels climb a bamboo ladder to the Buddha’s head to perform the eye ceremony on the new statue” (305). Master and apprentice only on the bamboo steps. They do not speak and it dark; dawn only a few hours away. In a brief moment Ananda has an epiphany that reveals to him sight in his natural eyes as he begins the final procedure for coloring the Buddha’s eyes. Ananda is exhausted, feeling as if magically the blood from his body has entered the body of the Buddha. His nephew still does not say a word. The sun still does not appear on the horizon. It is hot with pre-dawn air. Ananda and the statue look north, to the smells grenade and violence, the grass of the jungle, the stirrings of a woman in the forest, the realization and vision of suffering and pain in the island country of Sri Lanka (307). As a way to beckon creation into the world, as a way to find an object to represent the neverending harsh realities of war and death, Ananda creates. And if “Physical pain is an intentional state without an intentional object” and “imagination is an intentional object without an experienceable intentional state” the act of creation seems impossible and incommensurable (Scarry 164). Peculiarly, Scarry argues that it is appropriate to think of the pain itself as imagination’s intentional state. This means that pain is a priori to imagination. Imagination is drawn from pain. In other words, Ananda the artist, draws from the pain of the world as intentional state of his imagining the eye of the other and creating it on the blank canvas of the face. Just as the worker in the field touches the grain of wheat, touch is the viaduct of the artist, a feeling closer to pain – then say vision (Scarry 165).
“Ananda briefly saw this angle of the world” (307) as things come into focus for the briefest of seconds, a moment as minuscule as the time it takes for my brain to even think, the time between darkness and light, between word and silence, between the silence of the boy at Ananda side and the moment he hands over a chisel or a paintbrush, the time between the unmade eye and the formed eyes, the time between mortality and divinity, the human Buddha and the god. The time between the unmade body, tortured, left to die and the time between sexuality of care and the death of a mother. In this most minuscule of time Ananda’s epiphany is a microcosm of hope. “He felt the boy’s concerned hand on his. The sweet touch from the world” (307).
To recapitulate: the structure of torture, the body’s inability to express pain, the unmaking process that unravels because of this structure and the ethical stakes inherent in this reality of body, pain, torture and creation in Anil’s Ghost and how it relates to the seminal work of Elaine Scarry and others who have argued for a voice for the body. While there is still more to be done, especially project of bringing science and poetry, science and philosophy, science’s injury to body and mind, closer together; I think it is a plausible claim that the novel is an environment where this can begin to take place.
1 Nietzsche wrote about the problematic bifurcation of body/mind in his Gay Science: “We are not thinking frogs, nor objectifying and registering mechanisms with their innards removed” (35). This objectifying that Nietzsche in the 19th century rejected is the same objectifying spirit behind Anil’s (in Anil’s Ghost) search for apodictic, pure knowledge. 2 For more insight into violence in contemporary fiction, see the book edited Laura Tanner, Intimate Violence: Reading Rape and Torture in Twentieth-Century Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1994). This book has essays on 1984, American Psycho and Last Exit to Brooklyn, among others. Other prescient novels of the twentieth century on torture and violence, are Kiss of the Spiderwoman and A Clockwork Orange. Ondaatje cites The Man in the Iron Mask and Les Misérables (54). But it does not take much to see that torture and the body is not only the concerns of twentieth and twentieth-first century writers. Dante’s Inferno is a series of vignettes on torture and the body in pain. 3 Interestingly the tortured body has been twisted, which hearkens back to its etymological roots, the Latin word torquere, which means ‘to twist’. The twisted, tortured body does not only lose a voice, according to Scarry but the “World, self, and voice are lost, or nearly lost, through the intense pain of torture …” (35). 4 The unmaking and making of the world, “is quite literally” what is at stake “in the body in pain” (Scarry 23). What Scarry means by this is an ethical making and unmaking, the making brought on by war and torture and the making created by making the interior exterior, imagining the pain of the other, et cetera. 5 Of course this paper is not the first attempt to use Scarry’s theoretical framework to explore the tortured body in literature but I think because Scarry’s work is so original and so well suited to approaching the text, any criticism on the body in pain has to make reference to her work. Petra Fiero used Scarry’s book and has remarked also on the ability or the inability of language to capture the experience of pain. She writes about Jean Amery, an innocent victim of the Third Reich’s torture machine and his difficulty in finding words to describe the torture he experienced by Gestapo police (Fiero 28). Amery uses the German word gestiche as for his “story”. The word can mean history or story. The gestiche of the body is a history and a story. The body can have a story, actually, and it is in this story, like Jean Valjean’s tattooed prison number, 24601, or Reverend Dimmsdale’s self-inflicted inscription of the word “Adultery” on his chest in Scarlet Letter. 6 Forty-three percent of Americans think torture is sometimes justified, according to a PEW Poll (Associated Press, Aug. 19, 2004). Although a new poll in 2005 has a ten percent decrease in the percentage of Americans who think torture is sometimes justified (Survey by Pew Research Center for the People & the Press Oct. 12-24, 2005; nationwide survey conducted among 2,006 adults). Americans are divided in opinion polls on the subject of torture, partly because no one admits to what torture really is because torture is pain, the action of inflicting pain, and the body is the agent of pain but we still fumble around for a language to articulate the body in pain because pain has no referent in language, no object or true language of agency that gives it a voice so it is rather easy to confine it to the realm of distanced political jargon and not deal with the real suffering body as a real person. Americans are ambiguous on the issue torture because, as Scarry points out, language is insufficient to give a voice to the body in pain so in this inability we put up our hands and wipe ourselves clean of the matter, like Pontius Pilate absolving his own sins in a bowl of water as Jesus goes to crowd for them to execute him or not. Probably none of us would want to be tortured but we find it difficult to name torture as a pain akin to our own; we may have a vague sense of torture from what we seen on television, the story of torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the interrogation of Johnny Walker Lindh, the American Taliban but often these reports from afar do not affect us in a way that calls us to political and ethical action. Torture and aggressive interrogation for a good cause can also lead to murky ethical grounds despite its proud intentions: to stop the bombing of a federal building, to capture a local band of terrorists, or to secure world peace – whatever it is, the hegemonic power uses the dark art of interrogation to win from suspected terrorists knowledge that will advance the cause on the war on terror. Not only is torture and interrogation a murky ethical arena but it is also a repugnant method to achieve knowledge from the body that leaves a human being sunken, emaciated, psychologically spent or killed. Yes, “Torture is repulsive. It is deliberate cruelty, a crude and ancient tool of political oppression” but what if it can save lives, one may ask? Underlying this question is the assumption and belief that knowledge can be gained at any cost because there is a prejudice in the Western mind that the “I think,” the Cartesian cogito is the arbiter of truth so therefore the “I think” has a claim to truth no matter how much blood is spilt. 7 Tangential to this scene of compartmentalizing the body and the mind in relation to the reality of a real person’s body is the behavior of soldiers during wartime. There is a point when the mind cuts itself off from the body, when emotions and heart do not process what the body incessantly screams. For example, Israeli soldiers guarding the checkpoints in Gaza cut off emotional attachment and are able to compartmentalize their feelings, able to put aside the presence of the other and pull the trigger. See Chris Hedges’ article “A Gaza Diary: Scenes from the Palestinian Uprising” (Oct. 2001 Harper’s Magazine). He writes about soldiers who kill Palestinian children who happen to be in the way, the wrong place at the wrong time; an Israeli sniper talks about how he compartmentalized his feelings in this way – to the extent that he had no feelings whatsoever about the suffering or the pain of the other. There is a disconnect here, an inability of the Israeli soldier to see the Palestinian people who come across the border as human beings. 8 Later in the novel, Ondaatje describes Anil’s partner, Sarath, as being able to “read a bucket of soil as if it were a complex historical novel” (151). Not only the bones of a human body are a locus of history, but the body itself, as a hermeneutical body of work; the body is history veiled in a cultural construct posing as History. The skulls, the bones, are spare remains of meaning but at the same time rich texts of meaning. See Antoinette’s Burton’s essay “Archive of Bones” in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature. 9 For more on Christianity and torture see the compelling book Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics and the Body of Christ by William T. Cavanaugh (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998). At first glance a book on torture does not seem to fit into the discourse of theology but it does not take much imagination to realize that the Christian Gospels are rather violent accounts; Scarry points out that Christianity’s highest feast is basically a pain ritual, Christ dying on the cross and Cavanaugh in his book talks about the liturgy of torture in this respect, citing Scarry. 10 It is very important that Ondaatje mentions the face here, because as Emmanuel Levinas points out in his book Entre-Nous: “The face is the very identity of a being ….The sensible presence of this chaste bit of skin with brow, nose, eyes and mouth, is neither a sign allowing us to approach signified, nor a mask hiding it (33). 11 Doyle makes use of Merleau-Ponty’s term chiasmus in referring to a prison guard probing the anus of a prisoner who in turn makes his insides turn outside, spreading excrement over his cell walls. Doyle describes the chiasmatic nature of our bodily being which torture, like rape, forcibly enters and takes hold (see 80-81). 12 Elias Canneti writes, “There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown.” (Crowds and Power 15). Consider Ondaatje’s description of the brain’s amygdala, the almond knot, the storehouse for fear. “[Anil] remembers the almond knot. During autopsies her secret habit of detour is to look for the amygdala, this nerve bundle which houses fear – so it governs everything. How we behave and make decisions, how we seek out safe marriages, how we build houses that we make secure. Driving with Sarath once. He asked, ‘Is your tape recorder off? ‘Yes.’ ‘There are at least two unauthorized places of detention in Colombo. One of the locations is off Havelock road in Kollupitiya. Some of those picked up are there for a month, but the torture itself doesn’t last that long. Most can be broken within an hour. Most of us can be broken by just the possibility of what might happen’ (135). 13 There is a sad irony in how Sarath and Gamini, who share the same blood, relate to one another. In their occupations they are dedicated to reconstructing, healing lives but not so apparently involved in one another’s lives. Anil remarks to Sarath when he suggests that he and Gamini are not close, mentions that Sarath knew when Gamini was at the hospital, implying that Sarath knows more about his brother than he lets known (130). 14 Interestingly, we learn later in the novel that Anil had seen Gamini before the Guenesena incident, when she had gone to Emergency Services to get stitches after cutting herself badly; she remembers the thin Gamini looked like an injured Tamil or Sinhalese gang member, wearing a black coat, drenched in blood, reading a paperback, high on speed (186). 15 The image at once reveals and unreveals pain. An important question to ask that strays from the main objective of this examination of the body in pain in the novel is the question of the image. I make allusion to image within this discussion, but I do not stake any theoretical claims. The question of the image implies the nature of the image; does the image of pain numb pain or does it make us recognize the pain of the other? See the books, by Susan Sontag, On Photography and Regarding the Pain of the Others (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux. 2003). In this small, readable book Sontag examines in her truculent manner, the problems of images and how they actually numb us from feeling pain, unable to truly empathize the pain of others. She writes, “ But then there is Roland Barthes’s book that contends a totally different thesis, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography argues that the image carries the referent within itself, i.e., the image does not numb but rather reveals; Barthes does not speak of torture theoretically as does Sontag, but I think Barthes’ thesis could be applied as a response to Sontag. 16 Palipana, an old, blind Sinhalese epigraphist (a person who deciphers inscriptions), who “was for a number of years at the centre of a nationalistic group that eventually wrestled archaeological authority in Sri Lanka from the Europeans” (79) is also an example of “making the world,” especially in his relationship with Lakma, his niece who witnessed her parent’s murder, the shock of which had “touched everything within her, driving both her verbal and her motor ability into infancy” (103). While going blind, Palipana becomes her guardian and teaches her language again, gives her a voice again, bringing him along on epigraphic expeditions. She becomes his “silent amanuensis for his whispered histories” until his death (105).
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