Pain brings us together – we see it in others and try to salve it (Image: Michael Zumstein/Agence VU/camerapress)
Joanna Bourke's The Story of Pain may not be able to tell us how to suffer better, but consoles with the notion that pain can be pleasure
PAIN binds us together. We witness other people's pain, imagine it, try to salve it. We use it as a measure by which to gauge our own capacity for kindness. It renders us incoherent, yet at the same time, it prompts us to communicate with each other.
But when all's said and done, you can't help thinking we might be better off without it. Saints, ecstatics and moralists had us searching the experience of pain for edification and instruction up until the end of the 18th century. Medical developments and the possibility of pain relief have finally put paid to those ideas.
It turns out, though, that such experiences make no secular sense, either. Recently, Peter Salmon of the University of Liverpool, UK, found that in 10 to 20 per cent of the people he studied, there is no obvious link between pain symptoms and underlying disease. What's the point of a physical warning system that half-cripples you, turns your mind to mush and doesn't even provide reliable information?
Joanna Bourke's The Story of Pain conveys sensations with wincing precision and an admirable humanity. But her real business is to show how we "handle" pain, and how doctors acquired the controversial habit described by the Canadian doctor Sir William Osler in the early part of the 20th century as "a callousness which thinks only of the good to be effected, and goes ahead, regardless of smaller considerations".
Let's be blunt: hospitals tend to treat ailments, not patients. In a clinical setting, it is hard to know what to do with a patient's anguish. Distressing, too, as one cynical observer puts it in Bourke's book:
"Having patients describe their pain as a ten is much easier than having them describe it as a hot poker driven through their eyeball into their brain."
So are expressions of suffering a waste of time? Bourke, a professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London, thinks not. "By knowing how people in the past have coped with painful ailments," she writes, "perhaps we can all suffer better."
The Story of Pain falls some way short of this grand purpose, but in so doing, it makes a larger point. Pain is a condition of existence. We can – and absolutely should – attempt to elude, manage and subdue it. But we cannot eliminate it.
Since the second world war, observes Bourke,we have cluttered our pain talk with military metaphors. A "war on pain", however, is no war at all. You can't win it, because it is impossible to imagine what victory would look like. Pain can be pleasure, after all. It can be "ecstasy". And to get rid of it would be to get rid of sensation altogether. It is to Bourke's credit that she offers us this consolation while recognising that it will prove useless once the toothache sets in.
Her study of how we think and talk about pain also reminds us that science is not all about experiment.
There is real knowledge to be gained in close sympathetic observation – hard as it is to remain objective in the face of "the unreason, the waste, the seeming wrong" of people's pain.
This article appeared in print under the headline "This won't hurt a bit"