LETTER NO. 8: ON SUFFERING
by Chris R. Morgan
It probably would not surprise you that one of my most worn-through books in my collection is the Penguin Classics edition of Essays and Aphorisms by Arthur Schopenhauer. I bought it maybe six years ago. Whether it speaks to the book’s fragmented construction or to the brisk clarity of its author’s style, it’s not one I formally read through, but picked up and dug into whenever the mood struck. That mood is hard to describe, something combined of boredom and glee, but with the latter more or less overcoming me once I’d read. For all his grumpiness and hatred, Schopenhauer is not a dour writer. But perhaps you know this book, or at least the books out of which the writings collected have been culled. Perhaps you know that the opening essay is called “On the Suffering of the World,” and perhaps you assumed that that would be the first thing to which I’d turn in preparing to write to you about suffering. In that case you’d be right. I did take the book out, I skimmed through the essay in question, and left it at my bedside for about a day and a half before putting it back, having realized this little German could not help me.
Schopenhauer is one of those writers you don’t read so much as nod along to as though he was expressing long-held convictions of your own. John Gray is another such writer. Hume is probably one for others. These writers are like costuming much in the same way that eyeliner is costuming for Robert Smith. If Schopenhauer is instructive at all in informing what I know about suffering, it is that I actually don’t know all that much about suffering.
I wonder how many people flock to a writer not for the richness of his philosophy, but because they see themselves reflected in him. In this case they are likely to see an entitled upper middle class wretch, a primordial Grumpy Gus, convinced of the suppleness of his mind while at the same time deeply afraid of pain and discomfort, and with a disinterest in death that whittles itself down the more death catches up. Or maybe it’s just me.
This personal admission, such as it is, is important. With this letter you ask me to venture into a territory with which I have no familiarity. I am a homebody as much in mind as I am in my actual home. I’m comfortable with angst, with dread, with despair, and with anxiety. In other words I know very intimately what I consider to be the pretense of suffering. I have few birthrights outside of the affectations of oncoming catastrophe passed down from my Mad Men-era foreparents. But I should count my blessings that this territory is mapped, at least in the kind of hieroglyphic language of pop culture I know more or less to a fault at this point. (It is very likely you already know the examples I’m going to give, so bear with me if so.)
In 1960, Michael Powell released his film Peeping Tom, which centers on an aspiring filmmaker who souped up his camera with a blade in one of the tripod legs and a mirror underneath the lens. So when he goes out to kill women, he not only is able to document their deaths, but also their literal facing down of it. Tautly written and filmed in the brilliant color one would expect from the director of The Red Shoes, it completely derailed Powell’s career when it was released. I mention it because this was the first thing that came into my mind—after Schopenhauer, anyway—in thinking about the subject. Horror films deal with suffering to degrees of various extremes, but often in ways that make it kind of beside the point. When we watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for instance, are we concerned about the screaming woman tied to the chair or are we dazzled by the frontier grotesque that surrounds her? Peeping Tom is controversial because it is so far the only horror film to put hard emphasis on the victim’s suffering. It is not just frightening, but cruel and not a little bit creepy. But even here it is deficient for me. The methodical execution presents the film more as a thought experiment than a narrative, made either by misogynists or feminists depending on how you look at it. You may argue with its lack of utility here, but my scope is much wider.
Come and See is a Soviet Union film released in 1985—and made after an eight-year struggle to gain government approval. At two and a half hours, it is remembered as much as a horror film as it is as a war drama, placing nightmare and fairy tale alongside history. Set in 1943 during the German occupation of Belarus, it follows two teens, a boy and a girl, through the literally scorched earth of their country. Throughout the duration, they witness or succumb to village massacres, live burnings, minefield explosions, rape, apocalyptic battles, etc. The events take a severe physical and mental toll on both, and the end of the film depicts the boy as having aged several years. It remains a film unequaled in its unrelenting harshness, so much so that ambulances were allegedly called to some screenings and that surviving German soldiers were said to have attested to its accuracy.
Whatever value these examples have from case to case, they help remind me that I’m of two minds on the common subject. On the one hand I’m reminded not simply that I have not suffered but that the prospect of suffering is not something to be welcomed by me or to be inflicted upon others. And if you do inflict it upon others, few other things are more than likely to reciprocate. Suffering, as I see it, is something akin to a psychic natural disaster. Job being tested by God is the signature model, but more often than not it is just man being used by man. It need not always be that, certainly, but I see it as the most worthy of consideration. It is, in a word, oppression. It is the loss of your freedom in exchange for the reinforcement of your weakness, the confirmation of your insignificance. It is the comfort of your particular station in life becoming dramatically less comfortable for whatever reason, perhaps no reason at all. It is more than being humbled, but being degraded. In this sense, my real cultural example should have been Trading Places.
On the other hand, I’m prone to think that some people haven’t suffered enough. And here is where it gets dangerous, where the blob of nuance comes oozing around the corner. Because these are the simple bitter thoughts that come up from me like poisoned food, wherein I tend to see people as sentient cardboard cutouts who, through their own cushioned entitlements, make the world a stupider and more miserable place for people they will never meet. But this sentiment isn’t entirely unique to me. The existence of a film like Come and See is not taken so seriously as to give people pause or to consider the option of not enforcing cosmetic alterations, however seemingly required at first, on human flourishing. Things will be different this time. And the next. And the next. And so on. I want nothing more to upend that dynamic, whether to achieve a kind of balance or catharsis. Of course people have taken that task upon themselves and we see what happens when it does.
I am playing at moralism, clearly, but more bedside than armchair, as there are currently things on my armchair that I refuse to move for some reason. Moralism is a kind of suffering in itself, for the moralist and the moralized. To wit, see me apologize profusely all the while fanning the flames of your burning house. But suffering is more than just suffering. With it you have to account for fear, anger, cruelty, revenge, lust, absurdity, and every other conceivable weakness one human being has at the ready to make able demolition tools against another. I’m not purely logical when I contemplate it. I’m a meat-based engine fueled by fear—and sugar—and it is an embarrassment to me some times, to drop it naked at the feet of the people you admire. Then again, it wasn’t such an embarrassment for Thomas Hobbes or Edmund Burke, far more practical on suffering, the tolls of suffering, and the fear of suffering than Schopenhauer could ever be.
This entry is part of the Christmas epistles series.