Literature and the allure of suffering

A while ago, I was talking to my friend about whether suffering came with rewards. She had just been offered her dream job after months of struggle in a gruelling interview process. Blood, sweat and tears was the phrase she used, quite literally. Although it was painful, the struggle resulted in her getting what she wanted. This led to us debating whether suffering is, in fact, the key to getting what you want.

The idea that suffering leads to rewards is a myth perpetuated by the Christian narrative. The idea can be seen most clearly in the story of Christ. Christ is condemned to die in one of the most brutal ways imaginable: crucifixion. The story is painful and yet many celebrate it – Christ’s suffering brings Man closer to God as it allows Him to forgive Man of his sins. This narrative of suffering is littered throughout the Bible from Job to Daniel to Joseph. In the Catholic tradition, martyred saints are revered: from Catherine of Alexandria to John the Baptist. We have been told, implicitly, for two thousand years, that suffering is the stuff of saints.

Literature has played a big part in making suffering appear noble. Philip Roth addresses this idea in his book ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’. In it, Portnoy is mourning letting go of a girl he never should have left. He quotes Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ and the “turbid flow of human misery”. Roth notes how poetry makes suffering into something worthy: it makes pain beautiful and this, in turn, makes it desirable. However, when Portnoy encounters this pain himself, he finds it is nothing like what Arnold imagined. “Is this human misery?” Portnoy asks, “I thought it was going to be loftier!”. Literature tells us that suffering is the stuff of poets and tragedy that of kings; it tricks us into pursuing an illusion quite different from the undignified reality of misery itself.

Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’ also weighs in on this debate. It’s a story about a torture machine used against condemned men. The torture lasts twelve hours and the victim is killed at the end. In the sixth hour of this process, something remarkable happens. A kind of understanding is revealed: an ambiguous Truth revealed only to the sufferer, so great that it “might tempt you to join him”. The protagonist of the story is a traveller and he is disgusted by the torturous apparatus. He condemns it and, in a strange turn of events, the officer in charge of the apparatus lays himself inside the machine. He wants to suffer because he knows it’s the only way Truth can be revealed. He willingly throws himself in but just as it’s too late, the apparatus breaks and the officer is killed before the understanding can ever be reached.

As I read this narrative, it made me think of how we all too frequently throw ourselves into the apparatus of suffering. We self-flagellate and tear ourselves down in the subconscious hope that we will one day be rewarded for it. Kafka argues that this is wrong. Suffering won’t necessarily give us answers and it’s not something that we should thrust upon ourselves. Sure, there is a chance that it could give you what you want but who knows? It could also be the very thing that kills you. Writers like Roth and Kafka knew that suffering must sometimes be faced but both agreed, though pain is often romanticised, it is not something that should ever be courted.

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Liz Lane

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April 2021
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