Translating the Individualization of Disease

“The Nature of Suffering” in Consideration of Walter Benjamin

by Lianna Arcelay

tissues and tea, decorative image

This review highlights the distinction between the knowledge of the existence of pain that may originate from a disease and the awareness that individuals experience disease in  different manners, primarily through suffering. The writer turns to Eric Cassel’s “The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine” and Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” to consider Benjamin’s concepts of the signifier and the signified in the context of personal suffering. The writer suggests an individualized experience of disease, dependent on the personal manner of suffering, rather than on the awareness of the physical pain. In addition, the writer presents pity as the acknowledgement of pain and empathy or sympathy as the acknowledgement of suffering from pain. The essay calls for physicians to have more empathy for their patients to improve doctor-patient relationships and the field of medicine as a whole.

In “The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine,” Eric Cassel discusses the critical distinction between pain and suffering. Whereas “pain” solely relates to the physical, “suffering” transcends it, underscoring the significance of personal experience. This essay examines Cassel’s piece in light of Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” and suggests a parallel between Benjamin’s concept of a language’s unique “manner of meaning” and the idea that a disease, dependent on the individual, can be experienced in varying fashions. I suggest that a disease carries various manners of meaning due to its ability to become personalized on the part of the patient, where each manner of meaning alludes to the unique way in which they suffer from the disease, shifting focus beyond physical pain or discomfort.

Cassel notes: “[An] aspect essential to an understanding of the suffering of sick persons is the relation of meaning to the way in which illness is experienced […] The importance of things is always personal and individual, even though meaning […] may be shared by others or by society as a whole” (214). Here, Cassel highlights the significance of disease experienced on a personal level. It is critical to comprehend the distinction between the awareness of the existence of a disease and the awareness of the fact that each individual experiences the disease in a different fashion. Hence, the disease, and the suffering that originates from it, is personalized.

Similar to Cassel, Benjamin, in respect to translation, underscores the significance of a language’s unique manner of meaning. In examination of a word, for instance, two languages may approximate “what is meant” by the word (Benjamin 84). However, each language carries a separate manner of meaning for that word, hence, the two separate manners to vocalize the word, as well as the “approximation” toward the universal meaning that the word carries. To exemplify, “pan” and “pain” both signify bread in Spanish and French, respectively. That each language possesses a different way to signify bread evidences that each possesses a different manner of meaning for the word bread, where bread – or rather, what we envision to be bread – stands as what is meant.

Where Benjamin and Cassel parallel one another emerges in Cassel’s concept regarding the individualization of disease and therefore, suffering. Similar to how a language holds a specific way to transmit the widely understood meaning of a word, each individual, or patient, experiences disease in a unique manner. “Each [injury that causes suffering] is both universal and individual” (Cassel 219). While a physician may be aware of the disease causing a patient physical discomfort, the patient’s personal experience of suffering requires more attention.

suffering, decorative image

One may consider the example given in Cassel’s piece regarding a “35-year-old sculptor with metastic disease of the breast” (209). Cassel notes how the “nausea and vomiting from the chemotherapy” come to be physically distressing for the woman (209). He marks such distress as part of that which induces her suffering. Yet, what emerges as equally significant is the sculptress’s suffering that originates from “threats that [are] social and from others that [are] personal and private” (209). Here, Cassel refers to her personal anxiety about her hair loss and physical appearance, as well as her feeling of isolation, as she “was no longer like other people and could not do what other people did” (209). Hence, in light of Cassel’s example, we see that, while pain is simply associated with the realm of the physical—and may partially cause suffering—suffering primarily originates, and continues to manifest in, the realm of the intangible and personal, becoming of greater significance than pain. Suffering induces our fears; pain is simply there.

As Cassel notes, suffering, unlike pain, “extends beyond the physical”; it is personal, and arises when one lingers in the realm of the phenomenal for too long –– when one broods over his or her experience to an unbearable degree (Cassel 211). Where pain may be known at a universal level, suffering is unique to the individual. The individual suffers from the disease in a unique fashion, and only the individual can convey the unique manner in which they suffer. What is hence crucial for physicians to comprehend is the ability for a disease to become personalized –– that a disease, due to each patient’s unique experience of it, carries various manners of meaning.

Similarly, there exists a distinction between pity and sympathy or empathy, pointing to a continuum along which regard for another’s discomfort is expressed. In light of Cassel’s differentiation between pain and suffering, pity involves the acknowledgement of pain, while sympathy or empathy entails the regard for suffering, respectively. Both of the latter processes transcend the mere acknowledgment of the existence of physical discomfort and place more significance on the understanding of the existence of metaphysical discomfort. In turn, such distinction calls for more sympathy or empathy to regard the suffering of others.

By focusing on empathy or sympathy, both the physician and patient come to rely upon oral accounts detailing individual experience of disease. The physician must also be an active participant in such communication, delving into the patient’s situation beyond the physical symptoms and inquiring into personal sources of suffering. The physician must essentially investigate the patient’s realm of the intangible. After all, “the [sole] way to learn […] whether suffering is present is to ask the sufferer” (Cassel 219). As such, it is crucial that future physicians comprehend the distinction between pain and suffering –– that a patient’s manner of meaning, or conveyance of their experience with suffering, is understood –– in order to improve the relationship between physician and patient and advance the field of medicine as a whole.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator.” Translated by James Hynd and E.M. Valk. Delos: A Journal on & of Translation, 1968, pp. 76-99.

Cassel, Eric. “The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine.” A Life in Medicine, a Literary Anthology, edited by Robert Coles, M.D. and Randy Testa, New York: The New Press, 2002, pp. 208-222.


Acknowledgments: Lianna would like to thank Corina Beleaua for introducing to her the significant relationship between literature and the medical field as a backdrop for this piece. She would also like to thank Dr. Thomas Cerbu for the profundity with which he teaches students to engage with the world, as well as for his patience.

Citation style: MLA

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