Seeing the pain of others

From the invisible to the can't-be-unseen

There is a story of a certain Leontius which throws some light on this question. He was coming up from the Piraeus outside the north wall, and he passed a spot where there were dead bodies lying by the executioner. He felt a longing desire to see them and also an abhorrence of them; at first he turned away and shut his eyes, then, suddenly tearing them open, he said, “take your fill, ye wretches, of the fair sight.” —Plato, The Republic, Book IV (Jowett)


Without microscopy, the COVID-19 virus is invisible. What machinery exists to reveal the torment, antagonism, and immiseration of pandemic?

“Suffering from natural causes, such as illness or childbirth, is scantily represented in the history of art,” observes Susan Sontag; “as if there were no such thing as suffering by inadvertence or misadventure.” The passage is from her late study, Regarding the Pain of Others—a short book, expanding on her earlier book On Photography, in which she critiqued the visual construction of neutrality. Others had limned the problematic promise of photography (perhaps most famously Roland Barthes, in a work of the same name); Sontag brings to bear a ferocity and clarity all her own. Published in the year before her death, Regarding the Pain of Others also follows Illness as Metaphor and AIDS as Metaphor, Sontag’s devastating critical accounts of the experience of victim-blaming and erasure in the midst of cancer and epidemic disease. Whether in conflict or illness, it is the strange erasures of the visual that most concern her: the silence imposed on victims; the flatness and fungibility of the traffic in images of suffering. Images do the work of justice, Sontag seems to conclude, only to the extent they can measure these erasures, bringing them unavoidably to our attention.


Francisco Goya, Los desastres de la guerra, plate No. 59, (1st edition, Madrid: Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, 1863). Museo del Prado.


Suffering is hard to see. This trite observation elides the double sense of difficulty: clinical indications are the objects of long study, observation, and discipline; the medical arts unfold as practices of skillful seeing, embodied in forms of knowledge as esoteric as they are efficacious. Yet suffering is hard to see in another sense as well, even for the skilled examiner—for in suffering we withdraw, contract within the stricken envelope of the body, pull fast our inner doors and curtains. And so, like a negative-pressure laboratory, the clinical experience is designed to keep the images from leaking out. As patients, we bare ourselves to our caregivers; lensless machines probe us to disclose our tissues and humors in graphic tracings, ghostly renders, their own innards secreted behind cowlings and cabinets. This all takes place on veiled stages, in spaces receding behind doors and curtains, within scrims of pleated paper and laundered cloths.

In her remarkable podcast, Pandemic ER: Notes from a Nurse in Queens, radio producer and emergency-room nurse Kate O’Connell describes the barriers to witness that death and suffering build. At the end of a long shift, she sits in her car and looks back at the hospital. “It’s totally quiet out here,” she notes, “and I just look at that building and each of those windows…” The placid facade belies the enormity unfolding within, and O’Connell notes how she struggles to bear—much less to bare—knowledge of it to us outside. “Describing a patient dying,” she notes—“it just kind of stops conversation. Unless I’m with other healthcare workers, who understand and abide that conversation, because they’ve seen it, too” (and there is a whole ethics in that word, abide). Struggling to give shape to her experiences, O’Connell offers a remarkable image: surveying a newly-consigned ICU bustling to overflow, she observes how “it looked like a beehive: every person in there moving quickly and with purpose… except for the sedated patients, who lie in stillness, their chests mechanically rising, falling, each a sedated queen bee surrounded by loyal worker bees.” Swathed in bedclothes, wreathed with blinking apparata, the sleeping patients hide treasuries of suffering and of hope; healthcare workers strive to see these through clinical signs, through charts and readouts, through the labor of skillful regard.

I remember a piece of film work by documentary cinematographer and field producer Valery Lyman, which she shared during a residency at Harvard’s Film Study Center a few years ago. Much of Lyman’s work follows patients and caregivers; the piece she shared at Harvard documented the experiences of a family caring for a loved one at the end of life. For the showing I attended, Valery had cut together only shots of hands going about the work of care. There was no speech, and only fleeting views of faces; instead, the soft choreography of fingers turning down bedclothes, offering spoonfuls of nourishment, washing beloved, withered limbs. I was most struck by the skill of these hands—the skill of succor, of caress. When I noted this, Valery was nonplussed: her informants, she said, had remarked how unprepared they felt in the face of suffering, how little skill they felt they possessed. And yet, hands find their way to knowledge, to wisdom. The caress overcomes erasure, measures these unbridgeable distances with consummate skill.

The philosopher Alphonso Lingis observes the strange and necessary companionship of caregiving:

In the compassion that can do nothing to heal the violence that shatters the fallen one or relieve her pain, there is fear that we shall not be able to endure the suffering of the other and fear that she, mired in pain, may not be able to obey the summons addressed to her. But we do find that in suffering with her, in enduring her time of dying, our embrace extends to the dying one strengths we did not know we had…. There is a consolation in our hand moved by tenderness over the transient surfaces of things; it is not a consolation for our mortality but an accompaniment of things in their transience.

Thinking now of the violence and suffering of pandemic, however, other faces come to mind. I recall the news image, made by Columbus Dispatch photographer Joshua Bickel, which blew up the internet last week: in it, we look out through windows that reflect the darkness within; peering in at us, the gathered faces of protesters, some in Trump hats, others holding flags. These faces are fists of distress: mouths agape, eyes wild, brows ridged and taut. They are stricken, agonized; they seem to be shouting, they seem to be singing. I think we’re right to resent the polarizing force of presidential rhetoric that pits protesters against health, against safety, against their own interests. And yet there also is pain in these faces; pressed against the glass, they seem to seek the sources of that pain, beseeching it to cease.

In the story from The Republic, “Passion,” and its capacity to mediate between Reason and Desire, is the question concerning Socrates. Protecting us from risk and precarity, Reason seeks to divert our gaze from suffering; and yet some animal appetite draws our gaze magnetically back. In the same way, appetite draws us out of lockdown to embrace each other; reason prompts us to hide the afflicted away. Turning to passion to fortify our reason, Socrates argues, we might bend our energies toward justice.

Is it passion we see in the faces of protesters at the window? If so, it’s a passion unmoored, hungry for direction, lacking connection. With Susan Sontag, Kate O’Connell, Valery Lyman, we can glimpse how compassion—feeling-with, accompaniment-in-transience—is what matters here most. Compassion moves us beyond that which cannot be seen, floods our fingers with skill. It is compassion that bends us towards justice, turns our gaze into witness. Like Leontius, eventually we learn to hold open our eyes, to stay with the trouble.