The Obscenity of Seeing Pain: From Susan Sontag to Christ Crowned with Thorns

The modern era has forgotten the genealogy of the view on suffering. It defines suffering as pejorative, something mistaken and ought to be avoided and condemned. The negativity of suffering is falsely taken to be universal. Rather, the negativity of suffering is a social narrative specific to our age. In Regarding the Pain of Others, in Susan Sontag’s discussion of Bataillie’s obsession with contemplating the photograph capturing a prisoner undergoing “the death of a hundred cuts”, she writes “it is a view of suffering, of the pains of others, that is rooted in religious thinking, which links pain to sacrifice, sacrifice to exaltation” (99). What Bataillie did in his contemplation of this gruesome photograph is precisely a return to the early religious mode of seeing suffering. As Bataillie brings his obsession with seeing pain to his consciousness, he reveals the unspoken dimension of suffering that the modern era wants to move away from — suffering as transfiguration. Though today we want to assert the universal negativity of suffering, such seemingly righteous declaration is only a repression operated by our superego — a repression of our obscene voyeuristic pleasure that arises from seeing the pain of others. 

The exaltation of seeing suffering, however, is more explicitly acknowledged in the middle age. From Crucifixion to Martyrdom, the medieval period glorifies and celebrates the extreme suffering of others. The Passion is precisely Jesus Christ suffering for humanity. The suffering of Christ is the transference of human suffering —“He suffered for me so that I did not suffer”. St. Margaret, similarly, underwent extreme torments that ultimately her sacrifice brought blessing to the humanity, for “all who were ill, the lame and the blind, the dumb and the deaf, when they touched the body of the holy maiden, they were all healed.” (137). Sacrifice by definition links the misfortune of one with the fortune of others. The well-being of witnesses is promised and reiterated through seeing victims suffer. Such promise, for Sontag, constitutes the “voyeuristic lure” (99) of suffering. Therefore, under the modern veil of condemnation lies the obscene pleasure of seeing pain, central to our human nature and expressed in our religion.

The piece Christ Crowned with Thorns drawn by Hendrick Goltzius in the smart museum is a perfect illustration of this obscenity. While Christ is tormented on the bottom left corner of the print, the spectators surrounding him are emotionlessly seeing. No sign of grief but pure apathy. The most striking part is that, on the bottom right corner, there is a man turning his back towards Christ, squatting. His upper body hides behind the man standing in front of him so his face is not shown. Instead of gazing at Christ through his eyes, he takes off his pants and exposes his ass, directly facing Christ — he witnesses the torture of Christ through his anus. It is the most uncanny yet precise illustration of the obscene pleasure of seeing pain. Anus, the erotic profanity, the unspeakable taboo, is present along with the sacrifice of Christ. The sacrifice of Christ, the most divine, invites precisely its opposite, the most profane. Witnesses are all voyeurs, secretly taking the pleasure of being exempted from the torment, being able to transfer their suffering to Christ, being able to enjoy their fortune against Christ’s misfortune. The gruesome scene is arousing for the spectators, and the anus of the squatting man is the ultimate embodiment of the pornographic nature of the scene. The print is therefore self-conscious, suggesting the viewers of the print are also taking erotic pleasure from the sacrifice. We are also facing Christ by our anus, secretly enjoying the most profane satisfaction from the most sacred moment. 

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