FEBRUARY 27, 2003
The Varieties of Wounding Experience
Even a cursory reading of the day's news will turn up frequent references to wounds. Whether they occur in military combat, in nightclub disasters, or on city streets, wounds are sites of heightened interest, and too often the visible reminders of unwilled and incomprehensible misfortune. To be sure, the impending war only promises to add to those wounds that command our attention, even while evading our understanding.
The wound is frequently an object of fascination, but at the same time an instigator of revulsion. Indeed, the horror of a wound is matched only by the extreme attention to which it may give rise. The fascination elicited by such a repugnant site can be accounted for by noting that the wound -- a site of rupture and decay -- is a concrete testament to vulnerability, and therefore a link to death.
It is by staring directly and attentively at a wound, recalling the experience of suffering, that the wound communicates with us. As a focus of simultaneous concentration and revulsion, the wound incites a moment of witnessing that in some sense injures the eye of the spectator. And if the wound inspires devotion to such a degree that one becomes wounded by attending to it, then we might speak here of a will to vulnerability, a desire that verges on the pathological.
In his canonical study, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James suggests that the observation of pathologically extreme cases of religious sentiment, by virtue of their exaggerated features, yield the most important insights into the psychology of religious life. And of these "religious experiences which are most one-sided, exaggerated, and intense," it is those of the "sick soul" that occasion the most profound understanding, because the sick soul is most attuned to the vicissitudes of human emotion, evincing the passions at their extremes -- from crippling horror to excessive joy.
According to James, the passions of these sick souls are gifts. And it is "the passion of love" that is the "most extreme example" of a gift that "no process of reasoning can force." If these gifts wound those who bear them, they are nonetheless the source of an exhilarated, non-logical understanding that operates beyond reason -- an understanding that we recognize as compassion. James writes, "And as the excited interest which these passions put into the world is our gift to the world, just so are the passions themselves gifts -- gifts to us, from sources sometimes low and sometimes high; but almost always non-logical and beyond our control."
Would James have us accede to a passion that would threaten to overwhelm us, to exert a will to vulnerability -- a will to see that which would most wound us? I would suggest that many instances among the varieties of wounding experience -- mystical devotion before the wounds of Christ, the Sun Dance of certain Native American societies, the scarification practices of many African peoples, and even the drastic body modification of certain "modern primitives," to name a few -- may dramatize a will to be wounded, and a will to arouse an extreme compassion that would bind people to one another in an acceptance of mortality.
The price of this compassion is high, and its attainment perhaps impossible. But it is this compassionate attention which Simone Weil, that brilliantly sick soul, spoke of when she referred to "the vulnerability of precious things." Opening her eyes onto the wounds of her fellow humans, Weil understood that it was precisely their vulnerability which made them precious, and that only an impassioned will to vulnerability could provide an adequate response to what she saw, even to the point of blindness.
Jeremy Biles is a Ph.D. candidate in Religion and Literature at the Divinity School and a current Marty Center Dissertation Fellow. He is curating the upcoming "Zounds" exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center, which addresses the place of the wound in contemporary art and society.