Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Suffering 1




My subject here is a vast one indeed – one that affects every sentient being or feeling creature. It is a very broad topic indeed that can be discussed in philosophy, ethics, morality, religion, theology, sociology, psychology, psychiatry, politics, history, literature, economics, health studies, social care etc. The list is endless, indeed. Over the next several posts I’ll deal with it under as many headings as I possibly can.

1. Origins of My Interest: My awareness of this issue began many years ago when I was at college in Mater Dei Institute of Education in the late seventies of the last century. I was always interested in philosophical questions and was quite taken with how classical philosophy and theology had managed to square the existence of a Good God with the presence of Evil in the world. Obviously suffering is a subset of the overarching topic of Evil. I went on to read both St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas on this question.

2. First Experiences: Who has not experienced suffering in their lives from the simple toothache right across to other more serious ailments? My own father contracted poliomyelitis when he was in his middle forties. Thankfully, he lost only the use of his right arm while many others at the time lost the use of legs and some even had to live horrible lives in iron lungs. When I was around thirteen years old my Uncle John, a lovely gentle soul, developed gangrene in both legs and lost over a period of some three or four years every toe and then both lower limbs. He finally went blind before he died. I remember, upon hearing the news of his death, my mother putting her head in her hands and crying – as much in relief, I suspect, as in sadness. Why such suffering? Big question, good question – seeking some form of answer. Hence as a young man of 21 years I set out to write my degree thesis on the “Mystery of Evil” in the world.

3. Further Experiences: Within weeks of my writing my thesis, which grew out of my above mentioned two points, my first experience of death by suicide struck. One of my friends called Paulene (I won’t type her second name for privacy sake) took her own life in a very tragic manner. She was only 21 years old. One Friday evening she went home and gassed herself. Her poor grandmother found her. Her father, a Doctor, had died tragically in a car accident in Africa while her mother had never really got over this tragic loss. Poor Paulene was lost, so lost and so lonely and so hurting that she ended her sad life. I learned from one of her close friends that she was writing her thesis on “The Problem of Suffering.” (I often wonder what happened to this and whether anyone ever read it.) Needless to say, all the college staff and students were very upset and not a little confused at this sudden death. About a year later, another tragic incident occurred – the sad death of two student friends of mine in an horrific car accident. One of these friends, Theresa, I had sat with the previous evening for nearly two hours, chatting about bits and pieces. Theresa was a lovely second year only 18 or 19 years old with a brilliant enquiring mind – she had always come out with top marks in Philosophy and Logic. The next day she was dead. These sad occurrences helped humanize or existentialize (if I may coin a neologism) my philosophical musings on the question of evil and suffering in life.

4. The World at War: As readers of these pages will know, I have an abiding interest in the literature and arts that were inspired by both World Wars from poetry to prose, to biography and autobiography; from film to sculpture to painting. I read history in very tangential and indirect ways rather than as pure history. Mere facts do not grasp my attention – rather the human desire to deal with those facts is what sparks my interest. It’s well I remember looking at the wonderful series of television programmes called just that – The World at War – in the early seventies as a young boy of 14 years of age. I was enthralled and moved by the depths of human suffering on such a grand scale. Here is how the WIKI describes this wonderful series: “The World at War is a 26-episode television documentary series on World War II, including the events leading up to it and following in its wake. The series was produced by Jeremy Isaacs for Thames Television (UK). Commissioned in 1969, it took four years to produce, such was the depth of its research. It premiered on ITV in 1973 at a cost of £4 million, a record (at the time) for a British television programme. The series was narrated by Laurence Olivier and its score was composed by Carl Davis.” I have bought this series in DVD format long since.

5. Guernica: During my writing of my Bachelor’s thesis on Evil in the seventies I came across the great painting by Pablo Picasso called simply and eponymously Guernica. This latter is a town in the Basque country of Spain and was the scene of the April 26, 1937 indiscriminate bombing, one of the first aerial bombings by Nazi Germany's Luftwaffe. Sad to say, that this town Guernica has entered the lexicon of “terror bombing” with the two great cities of Rotterdam and Dresden (bombed by the Allies of course) Terror bombing may be defined as the deliberate bombing of civilians to sap the morale of the enemy and cause chaos. As such it would constitute a war crime. The painting Guernica by Picasso depicts suffering people, animals, and buildings broken by violence and chaos. There is simply too much in this painting by way of symbols for me to comment on here, but the depiction of the horse falling in agony at its very centre as it had just been run through by a spear or javelin, I find very moving, because the horse is such a symbol of civilization and beauty and innocence. I am reminded also here that Friedrich Nietzsche threw his arms around the neck of a badly beaten horse in the streets of Turin at the very apogee of his great nervous breakdown. Significant I feel, also, is the shape of a human skull that forms the horse's nose and upper teeth in Picasso’s famous painting.



Needless to say, the above image is that of Pablo Picasso's famous painting called simply and eponymously Guernica.

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