Apr 062007

Glucklich, Ariel. Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Although this is a fairly academic read, Glucklich’s book has given me a lot of food for thought on the role of pain in human life and society. It’s a shame that Glucklich doesn’t discuss sadomasochism and instead confines himself to medical and religious contexts.

He starts out by criticizing two commonly held tenets about pain.

The first is the connection between bodily injury and pain. You can have one without the other. Phantom limb pain is the most obvious example. Conversely, a friend’s husband once checked into an emergency room as was informed that his kidneys had been decaying to six per cent of their capacity over several years, without the slightest twinge of pain.

The second is that pain is beyond language, something that cannot be talked about, something that directly connects the mind/soul to some external force. Glucklich adequately proves that many things happen on the physical, neurological, psychological and even social levels that influence how pain is perceived. In short, pain is part of society and the self. The same stimulus may be abhorred by one person at one time and embraced by another at another time.

(Any sadomasochist could have told him that.)

To sum up three chapters in three sentences, the more irritation one applies to the body in the form of pain, the less output the central nervous system generates from the areas that regulate the signals on which a sense of self relies. Modulated pain weakens the individual’s feeling of being a discrete agent; it makes the “body-self” transparent and facilitates the emergence of a new identity. Metaphorically, pain creates an embodied “absence” and makes way for a new and greater “presence.”

Pg. 207

So, pain is a means to transform the self, whether on an individual level or as part of a social ritual, as in rites of passage, which brings us back to Victor Turner’s theory of rituals. Rites of passage often involve physical pain and other forms of physical and psychological stress.

Hurting initiates in rites of passage and initiations is a form of applying force on them. Force, or power, is brought to bear by those who already belong to the adult world, or to the society of the initiated. But initiates are not simply brutalized, and highly ritualized force becomes sacrificial pain. Rites of passage are rites of supercession. In order to become adults, the initiates sacrifice or give up their lesser identity as boys or girls. Instead of being victims- however symbolic- the children must hurt in a voluntary manner. Only then can the psychological mechanism of self-sacrifice become effective…. If adults were to hurt their children in a brutal manner and with no ritual, the pain would not be transformative….

…the very ritualization of the torture (after all, families could send their boys to be circumcised in the mission hospital [instead of through this ritual]) creates “resistance,” a mock-autonomous realm that defines ritualized action. This is required if the pain is to be effective as a form of self-sacrifice, a principle of social growth.


I apply Victor Turner’s idea of limoid rituals to BDSM: it functions like a liminal ritual, but brings about no real social transformation. So, a BDSM ritual is like a rite of passage, except at the end, everybody goes back to what they were doing before.

One particularly fascinating chapter was about the early days of anesthesia medicines like ether and chloroform. You’d have thought that the advantages were so obvious that everybody, patients and physicians, would have embraced them. Instead, however, there was great reluctance. Pain in surgery and childbirth was seen as integral to the process, and removing that pain would jeopardize the recovery or the birth. (Kind of the extreme version of the sting from using aftershave; that’s how you know it’s working.) Unconscious patients had lost their autonomy and were disturbingly close to lifeless corpses. Some surgeons regarded a patient’s cries of pain as assurance they were vital enough to recovery.

Nowadays, patients believe they have the right to treatment without pain, and surgery while conscious is regarded as horrifying. That use of pain as a transformative agent, from sick to well, has dropped completely out of our culture. Or has it? Maybe that’s resurfaced in the culture of body modification: self-cutting, breast implants, piercing, etc.

Modern culture has very few fully sanctioned forms of sacred pain, and people seek them out or create them.

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