Romantic Circles Blog

Romantic pleasure ushers in slow death of pain

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An article in today's Boston Globe online suggests that Romantic era science helped establish modern medicine's conception of pain. But perhaps emblematically, it wasn't until a slightly later moment that medical researchers--and the culture at large--realized that what could increase pleasure could also curtail pain. Citing a watershed experiment with nitrous oxide at Massachussets General Hospital in 1846 as the turning point in society's perception of pain management, author Mike Jay flashes back to the experiments of Thomas Beddoes and his Pneumatic Institute at the turn of the nineteenth century, describing them as near misses  in the realization of nitrous oxide's anesthetic potential. The problem, it seems, is that the men Beddoes tapped to huff the gas--among them Coleridge, Southey, and Humphry Davy--were more interested in the high:

The experiments, as they unfolded, led the researchers away from any notion they might have had about pain relief. Most of the subjects responded not by losing consciousness, but by leaping around the lab, dancing, shouting, and possessed by poetic epiphanies.

Still, writes Jay, even this rage for pleasure would eventually lead to a new outlook on pain:

The Pneumatic Institution's curiosity about the mind-altering properties of the gas, and particularly its "sublime" effects on the imagination, were emblematic of the Romantic sensibility of its participants, and their search for a language to map their inner worlds. This sensibility, as it spread, would play an important role in transforming attitudes to pain, but its early adopters still held the social attitudes of their time. Davy believed that "a firm mind might endure in silence any degree of pain," and regarded his frequent cuts, burns, and laboratory misadventures as heroic badges of pride. Coleridge, by contrast, was acutely and often morbidly sensitive to pain, but he perceived this sensitivity as a moral weakness and blamed it for his shameful and agonizing dependency on opium.

Ultimately, writes Jay, the "new sensibilities" of a "more genteel and compassionate society" (read: Victorian) would turn the focus from pleasure and guilt to the amelioration of pain. Presumably adapted from Jay's recent book, The Atmosphere of Heaven (Yale UP, 2009), the article goes on to discuss in detail the changing cultural and medicinal viewpoints on pain, charting a general trajectory from a religious notion of pain as a necessary for the preservation of life to a more secular fascination with pain management as a marvel of medical technology. Given that the centerpiece of Jay's book is the intellectual circle surrounding Beddoes and his Pneumatic Institute, one might expect it to offer an even more nuanced take on the beginning of the end for pain.

Read the full article here.

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