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Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag
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One of the great theorists of the erotic, Georges Bataille, kept a photograph taken in China in 1910 of a prisoner undergoing “the death of a hundred cuts” on his desk, where he could look at it every day. (Since becoming legendary, it is reproduced in the last of Bataille’s books published during his lifetime, in 1961, Les Armes d’Eros (The Tears of Eros)). “This photograph,” Bataille wrote, “had a decisive role in my life. I have never stopped being obsessed by this image of pain, at the same time ecstatic and intolerable.” To contemplate this image, according to Bataille, is both a mortification of the feelings and a liberation of tabooed erotic knowledge—a complex response that many people must find hard to credit. For most, the image is simply unbearable: the already armless sacrificial victim of several busy knives, in the terminal stage of being flayed—a photograph, not a painting; a real Marsyas, not a mythic one—and still alive in the picture, with a look on his upturned face as ecstatic as that of any Italian Renaissance Saint Sebastian. As objects of contemplation, images of the atrocious can answer to several different needs. To steel oneself against weakness. To make oneself more numb. To acknowledge the existence of the incorrigible.

Bataille is not saying that he takes pleasure in the sight of this excruciation. But he is saying that he can imagine extreme suffering as a kind of transfiguration. It is a view of suffering, of the pain of others, that is rooted in religious thinking, which links pain to sacrifice, sacrifice to exaltation—a view that could not be more alien to a modern sensibility, which regards suffering as something that is a mistake or an accident or a crime. Something to be fixed. Something to be refused. Something that makes one feel powerless.” (Sontag, pp. 98–99)
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