Elaine Scarry is professor of aesthetics and general theory of value at Harvard University. Nathan Schneider reviews her new 640-page book, Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom: The seed of the book lies in Scarry’s first and best-known work, The Body in Pain, a literary, philosophical, and political analysis that since its publication, in 1985, has been a favorite source for those seeking the prohibition of torture.
“I realized that nuclear war much more closely approximates the model of torture than the model of war because there’s zero consent from the many millions of people affected by it,” Scarry recalls, nearly repeating a sentence that appears in the 1985 text. She began working on Thermonuclear Monarchy in earnest the year after The Body in Pain came out — 28 years ago, with the Cold War still well under way.
The monarchy in her title denotes the assertion that “out-of-ratio” weapons such as nuclear warheads, like the perversions of torture, are inherently undemocratic. It is the nature of nuclear weapons to place the lives of billions of people in the hands of the minutely few individuals with access to the launch codes. Regarding U.S. presidents since 1945, she writes, “Louis XIV was powerless compared to each of these men”; future generations, as she put it in The Body in Pain, “may look back upon our present situation the way we now look back upon the slaves building the pyramids of Egypt.” The new book, published by W.W. Norton, implores its readers to undo this condition, to “reacquire our powers of self-government and dismantle the nuclear arsenal simultaneously.”
Those who have been following Scarry’s work the past few decades will find much that is familiar, even redundant. Several of Thermonuclear Monarchy’s arguments appeared in a 1991 University of Pennsylvania Law Review article, while other parts mirror her polemics against George W. Bush-era policies of torture and surveillance. A version of a chunk of it has already come out as a much shorter book with the same publisher. The fastidiousness of her research also resulted in a several-years-long detour more than a decade ago, expressed in a series of New York Review of Books articles, when she proposed electromagnetic interference from military vessels as a possible explanation for the crashes of several civilian airliners, including TWA Flight 800. Though investigators ultimately dismissed it, her theory prompted a federal study and was cited in a NASA report.
Scarry’s assault on the reigning complacency about nuclear weapons rests on her belief in the capacity of an interpretation to reconfigure the world.
To an unusual degree for an English professor, Scarry has gotten into the habit of seeking to have an impact beyond the realm of pure discourse. While [anti-nuclear protester] John Dear keeps his decade-long vigil and Megan Rice lives out the consequences of her [Oak Ridge] break-in, Scarry’s assault on the reigning complacency about nuclear weapons rests on her belief in the capacity of an interpretation to reconfigure the world. [Continue reading…]