Inspired by Elaine Scarry’s extraordinary book, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, this film portrays a young woman whose leg was severely injured in a battle during the American Civil War as she desperately attempted to flee the battlefield. This action “unmakes” her world as pain ensues. The necessary amputation and limb disposal are fiercely depicted.
The woman undergoes an examination of her memory by a Dutch empiricist, Professor Pieter van Geheugen (i.e. ‘Rock of Memory’). Prof. van Geheugen is at the helm of a laboratory inhabited by a curious group of animated creatures. The established hierarchy of the academic environment is subtly challenged by an errant student.
Implications of grief, compassion, sympathy and empathy arise as the examining team acknowledges the woman’s plight and respectfully dispose of the amputated foot. The film raises questions regarding the epistemic claims we make based on empiricism and the role of technology in making these claims.
It is also an act of creativity that helps “make” the world.
the Body in Pain
featuring music by Philip Glass, performed by Kronos Quartet. Available at Amazon.com and iTunes and, of course, Nonesuch.com
What if we could scan someone's memory and then view it back? What would it take to make that experience real to us? In what way do own prior experiences shape the ones that follow?
Through the playful and exploratory process of making this movie, these questions arose. Though initially a critique of war by showing that children play or re-play what the world presents to them, the movie evolved into an exploration of the empirical method and ultimately into questions regarding technology and empiricism, an interest that stems from my years as a resident neurologist, studying under Antonio Damasio, neuroscientist and best-selling author.
As a physician, I have always found it challenging to truly understand the experience of patients. How difficult it is to put yourself in their shoes! No matter how long we listen, how many questions we ask and how competently they describe their plight, the understanding always seems inadequate. Yet, our capacity to show compassion and respect are not diminished. This is the essence of the film. But even this message is muddled in the end, hindered by the action and background that suggests empiricism or alludes to rationalism, such as the chessboard.
I think the fact that the characters who are observing the wounded woman are non-humans stems from my desire to suggest an objective viewpoint of the on-looker. This is something physicians are taught to maintain--objectivity. It is something I strongly believe in, too, for the benefit of the patient. Perhaps this, however, impedes fully sympathizing with a patient.
And so, this conflict of sympathy v. empathy goes on, even in the face of a supposed memory scan that allows one to experience the person’s experience, firsthand.
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