The inescapable affliction

The removal of Laura’s books and files signaled, to use Aristotle’s words, the “approach” of someone with the power “to do something to [her] … [and] … the will to do it.”  She felt “the terrible thing itself … close at hand,” which is “danger.”  Whether that person represented injustice or virtue, the fear was the same.  “And those who can do us wrong are terrible to us when we are liable to be wronged; for as a general rule men do wrong to others whenever they have the power to do it.”  (R.II.5  1382a20—1382b10)

Laura felt the pain of being treated like a nobody, and the pain of indignation and powerlessness at this treatment.  She also felt what Hans Keilson describes as “not fear, [but] something much stronger and more definite than an emerging fear.”  In his novel The Death of the Adversary, Keilson’s narrator, who is never named, comes upon his parents in their kitchen as they struggle to comprehend the threat (also unnamed) to them and their community. The narrator calls this threat “the inescapable affliction,” die unaufhaltsame Bedrängnis (Keilson 2010b 17), which filled the small kitchen, palpable throughout and on each thing in the room, slowly approaching and pressing upon its occupants, who could have kicked it, bit it, pushed against it.  In an earlier post we looked at how this scene conveys the moment of when? in the fear of this family and in our encounter with Laura’s glioblastoma multiforme.  Here we focus on the evil force, the inescapable affliction, imagined taking over every object and every person in the room.

The German noun Bedrängnis, which Ivo Jarosy translates as “affliction,” comes from the verb bedrängen, which literally means “to press hard,” and figuratively, “to oppress.”  English equivalents for the noun include not only affliction, but also distress, oppression, hardship, difficulties, need, straits, trouble.  In this scene and in the novel as a whole, Keilson imagines the force of an inescapable affliction  pressing down on his characters.

Consistent with never naming his main character, the narrator of the story, Keilson also never names this affliction with which the narrator struggles.  I hesitate to use the phrase “rhetorical device” because it might sound dismissive of the way Keilson helps us imagine this unaufhaltsame Bedrängnis so vividly.  By the incidents and the description of the setting, we learn that the narrator is a Jew  living in Germany when Hitler and the Nazis came to power.  None of the proper nouns in the preceding sentence are ever used.  We are reading notes of the narrator’s experiences that he has left with his lawyer in case something should happen to him.  Anticipating that the lawyer might be caught with the notes, the narrator leaves out all the identifying names that the authorities could use to persecute the lawyer for possessing a subversive tract.  The effect of this narrative strategy is that the reader works even harder to imagine proper names and photos and films for every character and event in the story.

This device also allows me to use unaufhaltsame Bedrängnis to describe Laura’s experience without contradicting myself.  As I have said before, I agree with Susan Sontag that cancer should not be used as a metaphor for Nazism.  Using Keilson’s phrase here does not contradict this view because the phrase emphasizes the oppressive dynamics of what unfolds in his story.  Having said that, I must note that rather than negating the uniqueness of the Holocaust, Keilson’s omission of proper nouns makes the reader imagine the specific horror of that time even more strongly.  Sontag might not object to applying Bedrängnis to Laura’s treatment on the job, but she still would probably not agree with the way I have used unaufhaltsame Bedrängnis to describe our encounter with GBM.  Sontag argues that loading names like “cancer” with terror can demoralize people.  She certainly did not espouse PInk Ribbon happy talk, but Sontag did not want people with cancer to catastrophize their situation.  Keilson’s narrator never catastrophizes all that he faces and endures, but he does recognize that he faces power that cannot be eluded.  We cannot avoid some catastrophes. Conflicts over the narrator’s approach in dealing with the inescapable affliction arise repeatedly throughout the story.  Later we will examine these issues in his debate with another opponent of the “adversary” over the story of Job in the Bible.

Emma Crawford, Simone Weil’s translator also uses the English word “affliction” for one of Weil’s key terms for suffering—malheur. Crawford comments:

No English word exactly conveys the meaning of the French malheur.  Our word unhappiness is a negative term and far too weak.  Affliction is the nearest equivalent but not quite satisfactory.  Malheur has in it a sense of inevitability and doom. (Weil [1973] 117 fn.)

Heath’s Standard French and English Dictionary defines malheur as “Misfortune.  Untoward occurrence, calamity. … accident … something untoward. … Bad luck.” Bedrängnis does not have the same connotation of misfortune or bad luck as malheur.

Without getting too far ahead of myself, I must caution that even if she got beyond the title of Weil’s chapter, “The Love of God and Affliction,” Laura would have vehemently rejected Weil’s theistic message on how to deal with suffering or malheur.  But, being the scholar that she was, Laura would have examined whatever insights might be found in Weil, after giving me a sideways glance questioning my sanity, just as she did when she finally noticed the statue of Ganesh outside the door of her sick room.  (Actually, I was covering all the bases. There was a holy card of the Lubivitcher Rebbe on her bed stand in her final month.)

Weil’s analysis of malheur applies most directly to Laura’s situation at work in the following comment.  “There is not really malheur unless there is social degradation or the fear of it in some form or another.”  (Weil [1973] 119)  We saw Laura’s fear of being shamed, of losing social status, in her feelings about her aphasia.  The removal of her books and files was one of the instances when Laura felt she was treated disrespectfully at work.

Malheur occurs at the upper end of Weil’s spectrum of pain and suffering. She considers merely physical pain, like a toothache, as “a very unimportant matter [which] leaves no trace in the soul.”  After “an hour or two of violent pain,” there is “nothing once it is over.”

Weil moves in a non-linear manner among

  • physical pain,
  • prolonged or frequent physical suffering,
  • deep/violent/lasting sorrow,
  • malheur, and even
  • “extreme malheur.”

Although she posits “both continuity and the separation of a definite point of entry, as with the temperature at which water boils,” she does not use these points as marks along a quantitative, invariant scale because they differ from person to person and time to time.  (119)  But the suffering in each is “worse” than the preceding one on the list.

“Real malheur” only happens when an event seizes and uproots a life and then “attacks it, directly or indirectly in all its parts, social, psychological, and physical.”  (119)  Malheur is only happening if all three of these forces are operating at the same time:

  • physical pain,
  • social degradation,
  • psychological turmoil.

“Extreme malheur … means physical pain, distress of soul, and social degradation, all at the same time.”  (134)

In a post on shame and fear, I mentioned that Simone Weil gives three examples of processes that might seem to be “just” psychological, but “though difficult to describe are bodily and exactly equivalent to” physical pain.  These three processes are:

  • fear of physical pain,
  • grief and
  • humiliation.

The posts under “I will miss you” will explore grief.  Here we are looking into humiliation and social degradation as essential ingredients for malheur.

In her Notebooks, Weil classifies humiliation as “among the most painful,” because humiliation hurts both physically and as a sign “felt by the body … as far as tears.”  (Weil [2004] 200)  I witnessed the physical pain and the tears caused by Laura’s humiliations on the job.  Again, Weil’s description fits exactly:

Humiliation is also a violent condition of the whole corporal being, which longs to surge up under the outrage but is forced, by impotence or fear, to hold itself in check. (Weil [1973] 118)

If you want to keep your job, sometimes you have to keep your mouth shut.  I have described how I had to control my tongue to get the medical bureaucracy to respond instead of just rolling on under its own momentum.  When she was trapped in the recovery room for three days, Laura did not hold her tongue despite the advice of her husband and brother.  Later, as the “impotence” of her aphasia and physical decline held her more and more “in check,” she could no longer give voice to her “outrage.”  But she still could use the language of protest after treatment ended when she told people that she had received “three kiss-offs” from her doctors.  When I first heard her use this phrase, I was afraid that she was internalizing a negative feeling about herself.  As I’ve said, I could be really thick, blöde at times.  Far from accepting humiliation, Laura stood up for herself to the end.  The only negative judgment in the “three kiss-offs” concerned the doctors.

What is the difference between humiliation and shame?  Shame is what we feel about humiliation, even the humiliation brought about by physical pain.  Weil associates humiliation with an outside force that causes loss of one’s own power.   Bernard Williams notes that the “root of shame lies … [in] a loss of power” in “being at a disadvantage.”  (Williams 221)  In Weil’s view, the afflicted deeply feel “scorn … disgust … self-hatred … guilt … defilement.” Criminals should have these feelings, but don’t.

Evil dwells in the heart of the criminal without being there.  It is felt in the heart of a man who is afflicted and innocent. (Weil [1973] 121-122)

A better way of putting my point that evil is what we feel or should feel ashamed of.

According to Weil, Job protests his innocence because he’s starting to internalize/feel this evil.  The afflicted become complicit in their own affliction to the point of resisting or avoiding efforts to get out of the situation.  It may sound as if Weil is “blaming the victim,” but there is an element of truth to what she’s saying here.  I have worked for bosses who were abusive to the point where I began to doubt my own competence.  Instead of getting out of there, I would dig myself a deeper hole by trying to please the boss.  Usually I just repeated behaviors that invited the abuse. And afterwards I would ask myself “why did I do that?”  It was easier for me to see this dynamic in Laura than to correct it in myself, leading to a number of arguments over my suggestions about what she should do about some incident at work.  Of course, the psychoanalysts read this and just say, “Duh.”  And some Buddhists can get impatient (they do) with all this wallowing in pain and suffering without just looking at how empty it all is.  Not understanding repetition automatism and not detaching from dukkha are other terms for Weil’s point that we become complicit in our own malheur.

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche makes the general point that pain is all about power, about our control over others and the control of others over us. (Nietzsche [1974] 86)  At least as far as pain goes, what Scarry calls “against,” Nietzsche calls “power.”  When we hurt, we lose control to an other.  As will be discussed shortly, most of our responses to pain seek to restore our control over our bodies, and in the case of malheur, over body, soul, and social setting.  (I know.  This paragraph is just larded with nouns that are all about change, movement, activity.)

The didactic tale at the beginning of the Book of Job makes this same connection between power and pain.  First, YHWH gives haśśātān power over all that Job has, except Job himself.  (Job 1:12)  Hostile tribes, fire, and wind carry off Job’s children, kill his servants, and destroy his property, but Job still won’t curse the God that lets this happen.  Haśśātān tells YHWH that Job will hold on until his “bone and his flesh” are touched.  So, “the Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.” Haśśātān covers Job with “loathsome sores … from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.”   (Job 2: 6-7)

As explained in a note on haśśātān, the Hebrew word śātān means “adversary,” and does not refer to the Satan of Christian doctrine.  Since Hans Keilson was a Jewish refugee from Hitler, it occurred to me that “adversary” was not used accidentally in the title of his novel, The Death of the Adversary, nor to identify the enemy of the narrator in the story.  Unfortunately, I could not ask either Keilson or the translator of that novel if he was deliberately alluding to the Book of Job since they are both deceased.  I did contact the translator of Keilson’s other major novel, Comedy in a MInor Key, who confirmed that seeing such an allusion was not far-fetched.

I can tell you that the German word for “adversary” in Keilson’s title (“Widersacher“) is, as in English, a word sometimes used to translate satan. I am sure Keilson was aware of the meaning of “satan” and very conversant with the story of Job, especially given the conversation about Job in the novel. I don’t know precisely how deeply he studied the Hebrew Bible, but he was certainly engaging with that tradition. (Damion Searls, personal communication)

We will consider whether or not the Keilson’s narrator is a Job-figure when we discuss the narrator’s debate about the meaning of Job’s story.  For the moment, let’s return to that story and to one of the ways it expands on how we imagine being afflicted.

As Job is sitting among the ashes scraping the sores that haśśātān has inflicted on him, Job’s wife tells him to “Curse YHWH and die.”  (Job 2.9)  Job asks her why it is that he should receive good things from YHWH, but not the bad.  HIs three friends arrive, having heard of his troubles, and Job sits with them for seven days, after which he still does not curse YHWH, but does curse “the day of his birth.” (Job, Chapter 3)  This powerful lament ends

Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me,
and what I dread befalls me.
I am not at ease, nor am I quiet;
I have no rest; but trouble comes. (NSRV)

Carol Newsom notes that the most striking feature of this lament is that Job does not address someone else—not YHWH, not his friends, not another human being.  “What makes the fundamental human capacity to address another so problematic to Job is not simply the magnitude of his suffering but its quality, which he describes in … subtle detail ….”  (Newsom [2003] 93)

Job identifies the “characteristic feature of his suffering” in the word “trouble” in the last line quoted above.  The Hebrew word is rōgez.  Carol Newsom translates it as “turmoil.”  With this word rōgez Job summarizes the events of the first two chapters and all of haśśātān‘s afflictions, not “the events themselves, but the way those events are experientially inscribed on Job’s psyche.”   He inscribes his suffering on our psyches with all the ways he finds to lament that he was ever born, finding nothing positive in light, life, family, wealth, only finding joy when he finds the grave. (Job 3.22)  To Newsom these images represent “the dynamics of turmoil itself.”

Newsom ties rōgez to the topics of previous comments in this post—suffering, oppression, and power.  In verses 18 and 19 of Chapter 3, Job says that in the land of the unborn, prisoners can take it easy without hearing their warders, and “slaves are free from their masters.”  Newsom reads Job as portraying “the agony of existence,” i.e., being born, as “lack of autonomy, the condition of being subject to forces one can neither resist nor escape.”  (95)  Verse 17 has already reminded us that the not-born are at rest and not “weary.”  All together these images present what Newsom calls “the agitation/exhaustion that derives from the exercise of power.”  That agitation/exhaustion of rōgez “is to the order of lived experience as chaos is to cosmic order.”  (94)

Newsom’s reading of Chapter 3 in the Book of Job echoes key points in Buytendijk’s description of the physiology of pain.  For Buytendijk exhaustion is not only “a dull, deep pain” and “an antecedent of pain.”  “Weariness” and the pain which arises when we do not “give way to the feeling coming from within the body” help us to understand “the underlying principle of the phenomenon of pain, namely the relationship … between self and body.”  (Buytendijk 54-55)  Buytendijk develops this insight through the physiology of pain, animal pain, and how humans experience pain to see that

Pain is a destructive state of affliction in one’s own organism; it is distressing in that it attacks a formed living unity which to our mind represents a particular sphere and is the scene where our personal life takes place.  …  Pain is not so much a barking watchdog of our health as a cry of distress at the violation of order ….  Painfulness is therefore an insult and injury to the sense of what is right ….  (136-137)

Returning to Buytendijk’s chapter on animal pain, we find another insight into the agitation/exhaustion dynamic in Job.  The “kinetic disorganization, rolling over and sprawling” (his emphasis) of animals responding to “strong continuous stimulation” is “similar to chaotic reactions among humans and higher animals in such situations.”  This disorganized response takes over from the flight reaction because

the boundaries of the physiological functional nexus are severed. The strong stimuli are therefore able to spread themselves without any obstacle throughout the nervous system.  (77)

Earlier in his lament, Job edges over from his call that the night be barren to ask that “those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan” join his curse on the day of his birth.  (Job 3:8)  Carol Newsom calls Leviathan “the chaos monster.”   For the moment I am not going to address all that has been written comparing Moby-Dick and Leviathan in the Bible, nor the comparisons between Captain Ahab and Job. For purposes of  this post about affliction (die unaufhaltsame Bedrängnis, malheurrōgez), I want to close with two images from Melville’s novel.

First, let’s recall a scene we have already visited in Moby-Dick, “the magical, sometimes horrible whale line.”  Previously we looked at the way Ishmael pulls us into the boat to imagine the fear of the sailors entangled in the “horrible contortions” of the line and themselves imagining pulling “into the jaws of death, with a halter around every neck, as you may say.”  Ishmael uses many ways to describe and to understand the terror evoked by the White Whale.  The chapter on “The Line” is perhaps one of the most terrifying, however, precisely because it doesn’t describe or analyze the whale directly at all, only as an anonymous force at the end of the line.  Instead of the whale, Ishmael focuses our imagination on the details of the materials of which the rope is made, how it is made, how it is prepared for use in the boat, how it is wound into a tub, how it is fastened to the harpoon, and then, as we have seen, how it is wrapped around the boat and every man in the boat.

The whale may not appear, but the whale is present in his inescapable power

to run the line out to the end almost in a single, smoking minute … [and then drag] … the doomed boat  … after him into the profundity of the sea; and in that case no town-crier would ever find her again.  (Melville 228)

We do not see the whale, but we do see the rope and how it explains why so many men are “taken out of the boat by the line, and lost.”  First, there is kinetic organization.

For, when the line is darting out, to be seated then in the boat, is like being seated in the midst of the manifold whizzings of a steam-engine in full play, when every flying beam, and shaft, and wheel, is grazing you. (229)

But the “least tangle or kink in the coiling would, in running out, infallibly take somebody’s arm, leg, or entire body off.”  (227)  Worse, the small boat is rocking and pitching the sailors “one way and the other, without the slightest warning.”  It takes very little for surging kinetic organization to turn into deadly disorganization, powered by “the chaos monster Leviathan.”

Secondly, I want to identify Ahab as an afflicted figure.  At first glance Ahab does not seem like Job, but that’s mostly because of how he handles his malheur.   In Ahab’s case, I think that Weil’s word, malheur, with its connotation of bad luck is appropriate.  Ahab also experiences all three of Weil’s components for extreme malheur—“physical pain, distress of soul, and social degradation.”  Ahab’s “frantic morbidness” drives him to see the White Whale as the source of

not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the incarnation of all those malicious agencies, which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left with half a heart and half a lung.  (Melville 156)



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