Good Pain?

“No Pain, No Gain” and the History of Presence

by Shigehisa Kuriyama

The essay begins:

If you think about it, “No pain, no gain” is a very strange saying. It exhorts us actively to embrace what we ordinarily abhor and are desperate to avoid. Pain is arguably the barest, most primal experience of the bad; and yet “No pain, no gain!” enthusiastically lauds pain as a good to be actively pursued, promoting it even, as the sole source of the good. Which seems not only odd and paradoxical, but also almost willfully perverse—and makes us wonder how such a saying came to be so widely recited as common sense.

Bodybuilders in 1970s America were among its earliest champions. “No pain, no gain” became known as the motto of the celebrated muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger and appeared regularly in advertisements, as the catchphrase, for example, of Soloflex weight training machines. But the saying soon spread beyond devotees of muscle sculpting and was adopted by countless other Americans aspiring just to be healthy and fit. For vast legions of joggers and exercise enthusiasts, the “No pain, no gain” motto voiced a diffuse but earnest faith in the need for a certain strenuousness. Any exercise worthy of the name, any truly effective workout, had to hurt a bit. “Feel the burn!” Jane Fonda urged the sweating and panting followers of her popular aerobics videos. “No pain, no gain!”

There were critics, to be sure. Although “No pain, no gain” was championed as a mantra of fitness, it had scarcely caught hold when it was denounced, intriguingly, by precisely those experts who knew the body best. Physicians called it a foolish misconception, “macho nonsense.” “Physical pain,” one doctor wrote, “is the body’s way of saying that what you are doing goes beyond its limits.” It was a message, nature’s warning against harm, and by ignoring pain aspirants to fitness actually risked serious injury.

Athletic trainers, too, were critical. “Learn to listen to the body,” one counseled:

The “no pain no gain” philosophy is wrong and suited only to masochists. If any activity causes pain, reduce the intensity of the workout or stop the activity altogether, at least for a while.

To ignore pain is foolish, to embrace it is a perversion. The belief that gain demanded pain, that one could enhance the body only by making it hurt, declared a trainer in 1986, was “the most damaging myth in athletics and fitness.” Articles debunking the myth were common, and “No pain, no gain” was cited far more often in condemnation than in praise.

And yet, the belief persisted—and still persists, as witnessed by the criticisms, which also persist. This is what is strangest. Although doctors and athletic trainers regularly attacked “No pain, no gain” as dangerous folly, their need to keep repeating their attacks bespoke the appeal and resilience of the idea. “No pain, no gain” is one of those primordial certainties that mere science cannot easily shake. The arguments against overexertion—the need to heed pain as a warning and the wisdom of moderation—all sound sensible and are backed by expert opinion. But they somehow fail to reach the roots of conviction. Somehow, the tie between pain and gain just feels true, despite the ostensible oddity of seeking the good in the bad, despite the risk of lasting bodily harm.

I want to excavate the archaeology of this deeply felt truth. Once a saying gains common currency, we often cease to reflect on how or why it became common, or even what it really means. Yet if ever there was a notion that called for serious reflection, it is surely the idea of good pain. Few of us would claim that all pain is good, and most of us would probably agree that most pain is bad. But the popularity of “No pain, no gain” suggests that there is a special kind of pain that is widely considered a definite and necessary good. I want to probe the nature of this exception, and trace the history of how and why this pain became special. Continue reading …

“No pain, no gain” exhorts us actively to embrace what we ordinarily abhor and are desperate to avoid. It promotes the idea of good pain. In this essay, cultural historian Shigehisa Kuriyama excavates the historical and metaphysical roots of the idea of good pain and situates the modern slogan in the context of a profound change in the experience of presence.

SHIGEHISA KURIYAMA is Reischauer Institute Professor of Cultural History at Harvard University. His book The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine (1999) received the 2001 William H. Welch Medal of the American Association for the History of Medicine. His recent work includes studies on the history of distraction, the happiness of happenings, the transformation of money into a palpable humor, hiddenness in traditional Chinese medicine, and the web of connections binding ginseng, opium, tea, silver, and MSG.

The Embodied Habitus

Pain and Memory in the Formation of Early Modern Habitus

by Mitchell Merback

The essay begins:

No amount of contextualizing or revision, it seems, will ever free the European Middle Ages from its reputation as an era overcome by social and religious violence, riven by conflicts and cruelties, accustomed to the sight of death, poor in hygiene and other forms of self-care, and possessed of a devotional culture deliriously intimate with pain. Long central to the idea of the premodern as Other, this dreamlike historical image was once dubbed by Umberto Eco the “shaggy” Middle Ages. Its leitmotifs are the presumed plenitudes of violence and pain as well as contemporary attitudes toward them. Inhabitants of this medium aevum, the “shaggy” narrative tells us, did not labor under the neurotic need to eliminate bodily pain but accepted it as a fact of life and, indeed, celebrated it as useful on the path to salvation. Physicians and confessors alike understood pain in this way—as essentially therapeutic—so medieval culture in general, we hear, was not pain-averse but quite the opposite, “philopassianic,” to use a recent scholarly coinage.

As far as medieval-modern comparisons go, this one concerning attitudes toward pain is probably as good as any other; but to take it any further requires making two fundamental distinctions, both of which will be important to the theme of this paper, which is the interdependence of memory training and pain in the formation of an early modern habitus. The first of these is the distinction between pain thresholds and pain tolerances. Pain thresholds are best regarded as neurobiological facts of the species, part of a “hardwiring” that changes little over time (early in the twentieth century, for instance, Charles Sherrington defined pain experiences in terms of nociception, as the “psychical adjunct of a protective reflex”). Pain tolerances are something far closer to cultural products, variable and largely determined by group values and narratives, cultural practices, and the whole ecology of social life. We can be fairly certain that the majority of medieval people, living under conditions that produced an array of ailments and physical discomforts, developed pain tolerances higher than ours in the modern era. Accounting for this difference requires that we attend to the complex conceptualization of pain as both a primary “sensation”—if not the paradigmatic form of individual sensation—and a “hybrid emotion,” that is, an emotion that merges otherwise distinct affective states and modalities of response. And that, in turn, requires us to think in terms of the symbolic significance of human suffering wherein it holds to a positive purpose or end, as well as the degree to which it then stands open to whatever agencies of consolation, therapy, and cure a culture can make available to its members at a given time. Viewed in this biocultural light, medieval Christians appear to have approached pain as any other stratified cultural group would do: they attended to it, worked to alleviate its excesses, and furnished certain members with codes for conceptualizing and communicating what would otherwise be a wholly subjective, internal experience. Such codes and norms translated into more or less conventionalized “scripts” for pain behavior. Through such cultural conventions medieval culture succeeded, at least notionally, in stabilizing pain’s significance—taming and harnessing its uniquely “world-destroying” powers—thus rendering it productive for individuals and groups.

Trying to understand pain tolerances as a symptom of culture already gets us entangled in a second distinction: that between pain experiences and pain expressions. Here we enter upon a field of investigation in which the historian of art feels right at home, since questions surrounding the representation of pain in the visual arts have always been part and parcel of imitative art’s charge to represent psychic states and moral virtues—or their opposites—through coded bodily movements, gestures, and physiognomic signs. But questions of pathetic naturalism only get us so far in explaining why, for example, the famous clenched brow of the Trojan priest Laocoön in the eponymous figure group in Rome, as a physiognomic token of pain, communicated to its beholders a “pain-experience” so different from the one conveyed by its counterpart in the Master of Flémalle’s image of a Crucified Thief. We could rehearse the clichéd contrast between heroic death in pagan tragedy and sacrificial suffering in Christian theology to see that distinct narratives of human suffering and conflict are what drive the transferences between pain experiences, pain representations, and pain perceptions. Would we find that it is the very possibility of narrative that makes pain culturally intelligible in the first place? What’s clear is that the full implications of a culture’s narrative-ideological meanings for pain expression in the visual arts would be lost if we failed to attend to the situated functions of images, the peculiar agency they are granted to enlist the beholder’s effort in realizing their effects and completing their meanings in historically specific situations of use. Something of the logic of that agency can be recovered and measured by the forms of response demanded and structured by the image. We may begin, then, with one kind of image that, in portraying the very response it demands, tells us something about the peculiar way spectacular pain expressions registered in late medieval culture. Continue reading …

Describing the essay, the author writes: “Between the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, pain and memory became interdependent in three domains of social and religious life: religious devotion, education, and criminal justice. The grounds for this affiliation were prepared by a training of individuals in the control of affect and the acceptance of memory training as a regimen of virtual self-wounding, often facilitated by violent imagery. Across the three domains examined here, Christian subjectivity was quietly reformed and an embodied habitus inculcated to meet the demands of an age no longer anchored in unquestioned truths.”

MITCHELL MERBACK is the Arnell and Everett Land Professor in the History of Art at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is Perfection’s Therapy: An Essay on Albrecht Dürer’s “Melencolia I” (Zone Books, 2017). Current projects include a reevaluation of the European tradition of the identification portrait and a study of tragic recognition as theme and metatheme in Christian art before 1500.