"An element of blank": Reading silences in post-World War II American narratives of pain

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Gregg Lambert


Silences, Postwar, Pain narratives, Elaine Scarry, Stephen Wright, Leslie Marmon Silko

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | English Language and Literature


While David B. Morris contends that chronic pain is an ''immense, invisible crisis at the center of contemporary life,'' medical practitioners view it as a physiological ''puzzle,'' to be solved scientifically. Read in conjunction, these opinions allude to chronic pain's complexity, its biological, psychical, and cultural components. Elaine Scarry claims, and her adherents agree, that pain literally destroys language. Borrowing the interdisciplinary methodology of Disability Studies and Trauma Studies and performing a selective Foucauldian genealogy, this dissertation takes these rather narrow views of pain as its starting point and traces its various epistemological manifestations to reveal chronic pain's transformative potentialities. I argue that chronic pain's psycho-physiological alterations result in and require a concomitant transformation of narrative, specifically, and language more generally.

To build this case, I trace the discursive histories of chronic pain in American medicine, culture, and literature. Combining archival research with theoretical inquiry in chapter one, I demonstrate that in the process of establishing chronic pain as a distinct epistemology, pain medicine relies upon a treatment protocol intent on management and control, producing silent, symbolically dead subjects. Chapter two examines Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain and argues that Scarry both creates and performs chronic pain sufferers' silence. In her effort to narrate the disembodied story of pain itself, she conflates the self, pain, and the body, establishing them as analogous to the structures of torture and war, while simultaneously marking the pain subject as barbaric and immoral. Finally, I look to the veteran reintegration novels of Leslie Marmon Silko and Stephen Wright in chapters three and four, respectively. Reading Ceremony and Meditations in Green, I argue that both authors deploy chronic pain as a positive psycho-physiological and phenomenological creative event-experience, a lively alternative to the deadening official narratives and practices of biomedicine and critical philosophy. Yet, caught in the power/knowledge network, both narratives circle back into a space of containment. For Silko, the irremediably painful condition of the mixedblood holds the only hope for the future. By contrast, Wright's protagonist can only sustain his lively symbolic cycle of death and rebirth in isolation; enacting a proto-institutionalization of the disabled.


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