IPR Blog: The “Silence” and “Resilience” in Suffering

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October 2nd, 2013

Participants in the IPR seminar have been sharing posts following lectures.  From time to time we’ll also be sharing their thoughts with the broader IPR audience on this blog.  Prof. Harold Schweizer’s lecture on “The Poetry of Waiting and Suffering” (Sept. 18) drew a number of thoughtful reactions, including those of Ron Bernier and Elizabeth Stern, who are this week’s featured bloggers.  Some excerpts below…

–Ron Bernier writes:  “I found much to admire and think further on in Dr. Schweizer’s talk, “The Poetry of Suffering and Waiting.”  In particular I was struck by the consistency of the theme of the “silence” and “indecipherability” of sufferering – that the langauge of suffering, for both the afflicted in his/her solitude in pain and the “waiting” of he/she/we who attend on them is nameless or “unsayable.”  This put me in mind of the theology and philosophy of apophasis – a form of discouse that fundamentally consists of langage that negates itself in order to evoke that which is beyond words, beyond the limits of saying altogether.  “‘Apophasis’ reads etymologically,” explains William Franke (professor of comparative literature and religious studies at Vanderbilt University; see his On What Cannot Be Said, Notre Dame, 2007), “as ‘away from speech’ or ‘saying away’ (apo, ‘from’ or ‘away from’; phasis, ‘assertion,’ from phemi, ‘assert’ or ‘say’), and this points in the direction of unsaying and ultimately of silence” (Franke, vol 1, 2).  Apophasis is fostered by a notion fundamentally opposed to the central tenet of classical Greek philosophy of Being (or ontology) and its claims for autonomous human reason; it articulates, as it were, the utter inefficiency of the Logos to name ultimate reality.  This prompts me to think more about the very possibility of the apophatic body – that is, beyond a matter of the inadequacy of linguistic communication, to what extent can we, as waiting attendant to the sufferer, enter into another type of communication with the apophatic material body.  My worry, however, is about too radical a separation between us and the creaturely reality of the sufferer.  What happens in the space where, in the waiting and silence, purpose or interest or intention (Schweizer’s remarks on Kant) is suspended.  Does this smack too much of indifference – and so, ethically, of quietism – in the face of the needs and suffering of an embodied life?”

–Elizabeth Stern writes:  “I found Schweizer’s overwhelming focus on defining suffering as synonymous with death in a very absolute way challenging. While suffering in life is unavoidable and it is true that some art arises out of the consciousness of unhappiness, I believe that encapsulating suffering in primarily a negative spectrum without also examining the human capacity for resilience, hope, and to endure discourages a full understanding and appreciation of the relationship of suffering to art. It also denies us the ability to witness all of human experience by inhibiting us from internalizing that a peace and gentle grace also exist in the stillness of death.  I also found the importance of discarding labels (eg. Not viewing the sufferer as “a specimen from the social category labeled ‘unfortunate’ “) particularly prudent. Withholding definition enables us to suspend judgment and to witness the sufferer as a human being in a space of openness and presence, to “enter her time” and to allow her, as in the case of Arthur Kleinman’s young burn patient, to show up as she is. When we facilitate this connection, we create a space for healing to begin and for a moment, we dissipate the solitude and silence that often mark the sufferer’s experience of suffering.”

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