Reading Pain

Helene Schjerfbeck, A Woman’s face [cousin Hanna ?], small faces, 1879-1880. Photo: Finnish National Gallery

The project “Reading Experiences of Pain: Embodied and Critical Perspectives on Suffering in Literary Narratives” (Kone Foundation 2020-2023) explores the interaction between literary texts and readers from the perspective of narrative representations of physical and emotional pain and trauma. It brings into conversation narrative theory, cultural and medical study of pain, theories of embodied cognition, and feminist theory, and focuses on three interlinked sets of questions:

1. How do literary texts represent pain and trauma and guide their readers to approach painful experiences? Through what kinds of techniques do narratives produce and convey experiences that are particularly difficult to articulate, or even “destroy language” (Scarry, The Body in Pain, 4)? What kinds of reading practices and interpretive frames do the representations of pain and trauma call for?

2. What is reading from an embodied, enactive, and situated perspective? How does the understanding of reading as a bodily practice relate to earlier theories of reading and to empirical research?

3. What could socially and politically conscious close reading look like? What kinds of practices can literature and narrative research offer for individuals experiencing and working with pain and trauma?

The aim is to develop embodied and situated theory of reading and text-to-reader interaction as well as new critical, socially conscious practices of close reading. The research elucidates on the possibilities of literary narratives and reading to create intersubjective spaces in which it becomes possible to encounter and recognize extremely personal and subjective experiences of pain and trauma. Furthermore, it creates concrete methods for teaching and learning through literature: the theory and the analyses developed within the research are applied to the teaching of close reading in multidisciplinary settings.

The project explores the works of several Anglophone and Finnish modernist and contemporary writers, from Virginia Woolf to Toni Morrison and Roxane Gay, and from Tove Jansson to Pajtim Statovci.