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Making sense of pain: Reading the sensible body of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth -century France

Purdue University
Publication Date
  • Literature
  • Comparative|Literature
  • Romance|Anthropology
  • Cultural
  • Biology
  • Medicine
  • Philosophy


The purpose of this study is to explore the various notions of pain as demonstrated in the medical and fictitious writings of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century France. Enlightenment culture profited greatly from a belief in the power of pain, a natural healing element of the cosmos. Pain was not only part of the diagnostic and prognostic setting, it figured intimately into the therapeutic practices of the physician and surgeon; from the curative power of le cri to the healing prose of the physician, both doctor and patient possessed an arsenal of creative strategies with which to combat this complex sign system. This discussion thus investigates some of the biomedical models of pain in the works of Marc-Antoine Petit, Jacques-Alexandre Salgues, Hippolyte Bilon, François-Xavier Boissier de Sauvages, Ambroise Tranquille Sassard, and other researchers interested in advancing an understanding of the sensible body. This study explores as well the writings of anti-philosophe the Marquis de Sade, equally intrigued with the biology of pain. Drawing heavily upon the medical models of his contemporaries, Sade constructs his own radical theories invoking the creative energies of pain not only as an indispensable component of the boudoir but as a therapeutic sensation in the service of both “patient” and “doctor,” victim and victimizer. Though the utility of pain was inarguably a viable force during this period, it was significantly challenged by various medical discoveries, advancements, and cultural artifacts that sought to question why pain and suffering need necessarily serve a utilitarian purpose. The concept of sensibilité, the discovery of anesthesia, and the invention of the “pain-free” guillotine are examples that engaged both sides of the polemicized debate on the usefulness of pain. In the end, the literature discussed herein provides us with many clues as to why the Enlightenment response to pain—in contrast to a contemporary Western, pill-popping culture obsessed with silencing all of its noisy aches and pains—expressed healthier, more viable strategies for coping with the riddling complexities of this mysterious sensation. ^

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