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THE REVOLUTION OF EVERYDAY LIFE - VANEIGEM
Suffering - Page 20

Desperate fraternity in sickness is the worst thing that can happen to civilization. In the twentieth century, death terrifies men less than the absence of real life. All these dead, mechanized, specialized actions, stealing a little bit of life a thousand times a day, until the exhaustion of mind and body, until that death which is not the end of life but the final saturation with absence; this is what lends a dangerous charm to dreams of apocalypses, gigantic destructions, complete annihilations, cruel, clean and total deaths. Auschwitz and Hiroshima are indeed the 'comfort of nihilism'. Let impotence in the face of suffering become a collective sentiment, and the demand for suffering and death can sweep a whole community. Consciously or not, most people would rather die than live a permanently unsatisfying life. Look at anti-bomb marchers: most of them were nothing but penitents trying to exorcise their desire to disappear with all the rest of humanity. They would deny it, of course, but their miserable faces gave them away. The only real joy is revolutionary.

Perhaps it is in order to ensure that a universal desire to perish does not take hold of men that a whole spectacle is organized around particular sufferings. A sort of nationalized philanthropy impels man to find consolation for his own infirmities in the spectacle of other people's.

Consider disaster photographs, stories of cuckolded singers, the ridiculous dramas of the gutter press; hospitals, asylums, and prisons: real museums of suffering for the use of those whose fear of entering them makes them happy to be outside. I sometimes feel such a diffuse suffering dispersed through me that I find relief in the chance misfortune that concretizes and justifies it, offers it a legitimate outlet. Nothing will dissuade me of this: the sadness I feel after a separation, a failure, a bereavement doesn't reach me from outside like an arrow but wells up from inside me like a spring freed by a landslide. There are wounds which allow the spirit to utter a long-stifled cry. Despair never lets go its prey; it is only the prey which isolates despair in the end of a love or the death of a child, where there is only its shadow. Mourning is a pretext, a convenient way of spitting out nothingness in small drops. The tears, the cries and howls of childhood remain imprisoned in the hearts of men. For ever? In you also the emptiness is growing.

3

Another word about the alibis of power. Suppose that a tyrant took pleasure in throwing prisoners who had been flayed alive into a small cell; suppose that to hear their screams and see them scramble each time they brushed against one another amused him a lot, at the same time causing him to meditate on human nature and the curious behaviour of men. Suppose that at the same time and in the same country there were philosophers and wise men who explained to the worlds of science and art that suffering had to do with the collective life of men, the inevitable presence of Others, society as such -- wouldn't we be right to consider these men the tyrant's watchdogs? By proclaiming such theses as these, a certain existentialist conception has demonstrated not only the collusion of left intellectuals with power, but also the crude trick by which an inhuman social organization attributes the responsibility for its cruelties to its victims themselves. A nineteenth century critic remarked: "Throughout contemporary literature we find the tendency to regard individual suffering as a social evil and to make the organization of society responsible for the misery and degradation of its members. This is a profoundly new idea: suffering is no longer treated as a matter of fatality." Certain thinkers steeped in fatalism have not been troubled overmuch by such novelties: consider Sartre's hell-is-other-people, Freud's death instinct, Mao's historical necessity. After all, what distinguishes these doctrines from the stupid "it's just human nature"?

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