In the Eyes of God

[ Latin American Studies ]

In the Eyes of God

A Study on the Culture of Suffering

By Fernando Escalante Gonzalbo

One of Mexico's leading intellectuals offers a major treatise on the history and meaning of suffering and how the idea of suffering helps to shape contemporary political thought.



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6 x 9 | 276 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-71433-5

"Every culture needs to appropriate the universal truth of human suffering," says Fernando Escalante, ". . . to give its own meaning to this suffering, so that human existence is bearable." Originally published in Spanish as La mirada de Dios: Estudios sobre la cultura del sufrimiento, this book is a remarkable study of the evolution of the culture of suffering and the different elements that constitute it, beginning with a reading of Rousseau and ending with the appearance of the Shoah in the Western consciousness—"The memory endures, and this constitutes a fundamental transition for the Western conscience: we have witnessed."

Drawing on writings from the Greeks to Cervantes, Voltaire to Nietzsche, and Freud to William James, Escalante combines his considerable knowledge of politics and political theory with a vast array of literary examples to arrive at an intellectual understanding of the history and meaning of suffering. His investigation encompasses the rise of popular politics, the role of messianism in modern nationalism, and the contemporary implications of the Shoah.

This book will appeal to a wide audience: students of political theory, humanism, and philosophy, as well as the general reader interested in a glimpse into the mind of a highly original Latin American thinker.

  • Preface to the English Edition
  • Introductory Note
  • The Suffering of Rousseau
  • An Argument by Freud
  • The Agony of Messianism
  • Original Sin
  • Voltaire Beholds the Earthquake of Lisbon
  • Blessed Are the Poor
  • William James Beholds the Earthquake of San Francisco
  • Goodbye to All That
  • The Question of Dostoyevsky
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names

Suffering has been a basic theme in political, legal, and philosophical debates in the last twenty years. It should not be surprising: there are more than enough reasons. It cannot be said that there is more suffering in the actual world than ever before. In fact, a great deal of the pain and hardship of everyday life has been alleviated in recent times—at least, for the affluent portions of the world population. Suffering still matters: in a way, it appears more outrageous, unjust, and unbearable than ever before, all the more because we cannot conceive a human society free of pain, injustice, and suffering, and it is hard to imagine on what grounds suffering could be justified.

We are used to enjoying comforts unheard of in any past time. At the same time, we are confronted with the pain of others every day, as an undeniable reality. There is the hitherto very real possibility of witnessing wars' devastation and natural catastrophes; in the media, we see, read, or hear every day and everywhere of people suffering from hunger, persecutions, illnesses, and massacres. And there is the contrast of such suffering as that in Africa, Asia, or Latin America—with the relative comfort and abundance of both Europe and the United States. Suffering is much more evident, present, and familiar; but at the same time, our witnessing of so much suffering is different from witnesses from other eras—we cannot escape the feeling that, to a great extent, much suffering could be avoided.

After both World War II and the processes of decolonization, an acute and vaguely guilty consciousness has arisen in the Western world. How can we do away with the conviction that, somehow, all that pain, all that violence and misery, concerns us all? A new humanitarian consciousness was born with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and over time it has spread out further and further, encompassing new sufferings and new victims, however distant. Moreover, the awareness of distant peoples' torments gradually has become so familiar that it is then projected onto all marginal groups within one's own society. Local sufferings gain metaphoric power and, for instance, ethnic and religious movements, feminists' agenda, or the very therapeutic power of psychology in our surroundings then become echoes of larger generalized suffering in the world.

Above all, there is the memory of Shoah. Of course, the subject becomes banal when symbolic referents are constantly overused (of how many "new Hitlers" have we heard lately?); "Auschwitz" is of great rhetorical utility to deco arguments about segregation and discrimination; "genocide" is mentioned so frequently that it almost loses its meaning. Such abuse, nevertheless, shows that the memory endures, and this constitutes a fundamental transition for the Western conscience: we have witnessed.

In the last few decades of the twentieth century, the argumentum ad misericordium was used as never before as a political and legal resource. In all fields, the belief that suffering requires some sort of compensation is accepted as indisputable. Of course, there have been abuses and distortions of this belief, and a strange competition to occupy the position of supreme victim has developed. The result is confusing. Legal institutions, political discourse, the media's logistics, and the entire system of social representations have been transformed. And it is unclear what all this means and where it is all heading.

Much has been written on the subject. There is, for instance, an insightful discussion on the images of suffering in media in such works as those by Susan Sontag, Michael Ignatieff, and Luc Boltanski. The meaning of the "new humanitarianism" also has been a focus of attention, as have been the unforeseen consequences of Western guilt as well as the cultural construction of the figure of the victim.1 Even the question of theodicy once again has been raised, in secular terms; in particular, the cultural creation of happiness and suffering is dealt with in outstanding books by Rüdiger Safranski and Bronislaw Baczko.

My book can be situated within this discussion, but with one particularity: I do not treat the present. My study ends precisely in 1945, with the appearance of Shoah in the Western consciousness. My concern is with reconstructing the course of a very long process: the evolution of the culture of suffering and the different elements that constitute it. I am specifically interested in examining what parts of our current perceptions we share with those of Rousseau, Voltaire, or William James. Also, what makes our perception different? Why has suffering acquired such a relevant place in social representations? What has been the enduring legacy of such ideas as heroism, sacrifice, injustice, and misfortune? These are the sorts of questions my book aims at addressing.

Of course, there is not just a single course of development of these ideas; there is neither a direct line toward forms of more compassionate consciousness nor anything of the sort. Our culture of suffering is complex and diverse, suitable for producing unpredictable and conflictive results: from the same cultural repertoire emerged, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the humanitarian and progressive approach of John Dewey, William James, and Jean Jaurés, and the sacrificial, heroic, and war-like interpretation of fascism. What can be said is that suffering acquires a fundamental role in philosophical and political thought, from the eighteenth century on, as secularization spreads: the consciousness of suffering is, perhaps, the basic driving force behind the ideas of progress, revolution, or justice, beginning with the Enlightenment. It is a perfectly mundane consciousness of concrete, material sufferings, but one that always shows signs of a previous religious elaboration, much more intricate than can be imagined.

A historical perspective like the one I propose cannot offer a causal explanation of the current representations of suffering, but it can show and explain the logic of its variations. A final word on the use of the "we": against the grain of formal academic Spanish prose, I use the "I" when explaining my positions and analysis. The "we" refers to a collective in which I position myself, but that is part of and more than my race, gender, passport, and mother tongue. The we is this collectivity with many variations and contradictions that we inhabit in different ways, even in this place that I call home: Mexico.

In the process of translation, I have become indebted in many ways to many people and institutions—as always, blissfully, happens. No phrase, however colorful, could adequately convey my gratitude toward Mauricio Tenorio. I feel honored by and grateful to the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin for the invitation and the support given for this translation—I especially have to thank Virginia Hagerty for her sensible and understanding work with a picky and grouchy author. For a careful, attentive, and sympathetic translation, I thank Jessica Locke. Again, I thank—for again thanks are justified—Claudio Lomnitz for his advice and comradeship. And again, for the most challenging criticism and the most unfailing support, I thank Beatriz Martínez de Murguía.

There are books that write themselves, books that one begins one day and that, page by page, create themselves as if they had been fully conceived beforehand. There are books that are written with order and method, diligently. And there are books that are never written. The pages that follow make up one of those books that are never written: they represent a chapter, a passage in the argument of a book that I will never actually write.

In fact, I was tempted to indicate, below the title, that this is merely a collection of notes, or something to that effect, because that is the idea I have of the book that I will never actually write about the forms and the cultural significance of sentimentalism. This is the first part of that book: the culture of suffering.

The basic assumption on which my argument is based is practically a cliché: that feelings, whatever their true and (probably) zoological nature may be, have historical models. That is, their meaning, their importance, the nuances that can be perceived in them are, in all instances, the product of a culture and of a time. And in this way they are linked with the rest of experience and the social order.

Of course, this basic assumption exposes my argument to a rather obvious and unavoidable criticism: as they are "historical" in their expression, feelings require a much more precise, annotated, and qualified study than the one I offer here. An entire volume could be written just to distinguish between the varieties of feelings that indicate "melancholy" and "sadness," and their relative affinity to "nostalgia." It is true: to speak of the "culture of suffering" in the modern Western world is to be immoderate; there are all sorts of national variations, even local ones, shades and overtones of precise chronological settings, that must be taken into account.

This is all true. Knowing this, however, I offer what could be considered a general interpretive outline, something like the framework of an argument that can accommodate an array of variations. My intention is to present a general scheme outlining the cultural metamorphosis of suffering over the past two hundred years in the Western world.

My argument is very simple and, all things considered, it is not shockingly innovative. Every culture needs to appropriate, to some extent, the universal truth of human suffering: pain, sickness, separation, abandonment, death; every culture needs to give its own meaning to this suffering, so that human existence is bearable. In general, such a procedure consists of converting pain into a form of sacrifice, or, in other words, associating the immediate and concrete feeling of pain with a superior totality, which transcends that feeling and can give it meaning, whatever that meaning may be (and, we must admit from the outset, that contributing to the general harmony of the cosmos, suffering the fury of the gods, or absolving original sin can be experiences that offer the same or similar consolation).

According to my argument, there are two basic ways to interpret suffering: a tragic way, which consists of assuming that misfortune is a result of the capricious will of the gods or of fate, and that neither justice nor any further explanation is possible; and a Messianic way, which implies that all pain is a form of punishment or a means of purification, a merit, that there is a moral order of the world, where suffering is inseparable from justice, as justice is conceived of by human intelligence.

Of course, because of its Christian roots, the culture of suffering in the Western world has Messianic tendencies. As the process of civilization progresses, however, the decline of the church and of religious thought in general has caused "suffering" to reemerge as a problem. This is the phenomenon that I seek to explain in the following pages, with the idea that the evolution of this phenomenon is fundamental to the two parallel tendencies that form the secularization of Christianity: the mundanization of the church and the idolization of humanity.2

As always, it is difficult to follow the thread of a single argument without getting distracted, to avoid deviations, digressions, and sidenotes. And I have not avoided them. As a matter of fact, during the writing of these pages, my doubts and uncertainties were innumerable; the vision of other possible paths was ever-present in my mind. I have tried to point out all of them, and for that reason the digressions have multiplied:

(Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take,
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.) (Eliot, Four Quartets)

I trust that the result is not too complicated a framework or too difficult a text to read. The intention is that each chapter be offered as an excursion, a passage that requires calm and curiosity more than anything else.

Perhaps a final chapter entitled "Conclusion" or something of the sort will appear to the reader to be lacking. The truth is that I have not been able to find the "conclusion"—that is, if there even is one. In reality, it would be necessary to write another book just to discuss, analyze, and maybe even refute what I have said in this one. I have limited myself to telling a story. For that reason I do not "conclude" anything, but I understand that conclusions tend to be very useful, particularly for those who are in a rush (impatient) to find out what the book is about. I suggest the following alternative: the reader may more or less skim—depending on his or her haste—the argument of the second chapter and then skip to the final pages; with that, he or she will have an approximate idea of the rest and will save time. (Or, if needed, only the first chapter can be read, and the rest can be reconstructed using a bit of imagination. This is very feasible.)

Perhaps an extensive and well-explained list of acknowledgments is also lacking. I do not know how to do this, either, and the lack is not a result of ingratitude on my part. On the contrary: an author owes so much to so many—too many—people, and the most important thing for which to give thanks, which is life itself, does not relate to the writing of the book ("footfalls echo in the memory"). Everybody knows that. I shall mention, due to my obsession with justice, only those who have helped me directly in the writing process. For reading through the text and for their comments, I thank Ernesto Azuela, Claudio Lomnitz, Jean-François Prud'homme, and Mauricio Tenorio. For two conversations of rare quality, I thank Juan Malpartida. For everything I know about Shoah and concentration camps, to Beatriz Martínez de Murguía: thank you.

By Fernando Escalante Gonzalbo

Fernando Escalante Gonzalbo is Professor of International Relations at El Colegio de México.

Jessica C. Locke is Professor of Literature at the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey in Mexico City.