Chatham University

Women’s Leadership

Chatham's Harvard Connection
A conversation with Elaine Scarry '68, Ph.D.

Elaine Scarry

Elaine Scarry '68

The following interview with Elaine Scarry '68, Ph.D. by Jane Alexander Givens '63 is reposted from the latest issue of the Chatham Recorder.

Dr. Elaine Scarry is the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University and also the author of a number of acclaimed books, articles, and monographs. She received her BA from Chatham in 1968 with a major in English and a minor in Political Science, then went on to earn both an MA and a Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut.

JG: Elaine, when you were about to graduate from Chatham, did you have a sense that you were headed toward a career in academia?

ES: Students today seem to think a lot in terms of career paths, but I don't think I did. I did know that I wanted to keep studying the things that interested me and I never really considered any other path. When I finished my work at Connecticut, I was extremely lucky to take a faculty position among thoughtful and energetic people at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, teaching the 19th Century novel and modern drama, which led to courses in the representation of human labor and the literature of old age; the latter was taught not only in the English department, but also in the continuing education curriculum and out in local community centers. I became intrigued with the language of truth, beauty, and pain in literature, which ultimately led to my first book "The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World," published in 1985.

JG: I'd like to come back to this book and other writings covering an eclectic mix of topics, but first let's continue to follow this career path you never planned!

ES: In 1989 I was invited to join the faculty at Harvard and I did so the following year, as I was already scheduled to participate in the Institute for Advanced Studies in Berlin. The timing could not have been more amazing, as that put me in Berlin at the time the wall came down. The whole world was caught up in it, with a headiness almost like romantic passion, so you can imagine what it was like to actually be there. The year before, I had written an essay on the art (some might call it graffiti) on the Berlin Wall, and I was invited to contribute it to a volume called “Art in Berlin." My essay focused on the work of Thierry Noir, a Frenchman, whose style was called "fast-form manifest." My September 1989 essay had concluded with the sentence, "Perhaps the wall will disappear before the paint is dry" - a sentence my German editor cut out on the grounds that it displayed American naivete. In November 1989 the wall was open.

JG: It gives me goose bumps just to hear this. What an experience to take back to your new assignment at Harvard. Two decades later, what will your academic year be like?

ES: I'll be involved in all levels, from a freshman seminar to doctoral candidates. In most years I have an unusually large number of dissertation students - over twenty - who are mostly in the English Department but not all, including a couple in the divinity school. Harvard - like Penn -- is highly committed to interdisciplinary work, and that's one reason why both experiences have been so rewarding. In recent years I have had several students writing dissertations about the 19th Century novel, but using the varied filters of astronomy, American slave narratives, and even thermodynamics! I recently advised an undergraduate writing a thesis about the famous South African Delmas trial where the student documented the vital influence of song. And, I'm also on the dissertation committee for a Stanford student in political philosophy who is examining the ethics of forensic investigation of mass grave sites.

JG: You've also been a Senior Fellow on Harvard's Society of Fellows since 1994. What does that involve?

ES: This is a truly wonderful privilege! The Society of Fellows is really about the Junior Fellows. Each year the Senior Fellows choose ten new Ph.D.s or Ph.D. candidates from many nominees in many fields to receive three-year fellowships with no teaching responsibilities and attractive compensation packages. I spend many hours reading extensive dossiers and many more in weekly discussions with the other Senior Fellows about each nominee's body of work. We're dealing with a cauldron of cross-discipline work where the best and brightest minds are doing cutting-edge scholarship. The process is remarkable educational experience for me.

JG: Let's move to your books and other writings. Can you talk a little about how someone who wrote an undergraduate tutorial at Chatham titled "Parallel and Contrary Motion in Shakespeare's Roman Plays," a dissertation on Thackeray's "Henry Esmond," and is a professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard came to write about pain and torture, constitutional law, war, and EMI (electromagnetic interference).

ES: A 2000 New York Times Magazine article quoted me as saying, "There is nothing about being an English professor that exempts you from the normal obligations of citizenship." I've written about many subjects and across many fields, but a consistent core is the relationship between pain and creating. They are opposites. As a literary critic, I study the process of mental creation. When we read, we're carrying out acts of mental composition, performing "athletic acts of the mind" in response to what someone has written. I became aware that sensory experiences - like pain -- are seldom written about in literature, and I became intrigued with this apparent void. Why is literature so good on some things, but says nothing about physical pain? Virginia Woolf actually said it long before I did in her 1926 essay "On Being Ill," in which she wrote: "The merest schoolgirl when she falls in love has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her, but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry."

JG: How did you proceed?

ES: I made contact with Amnesty International in London; they seemed to have a way of making people aware of the impact of torture. They let me read the writings of people who had been tortured, people whose letters had to convey the reality of pain to those who were not in pain in order to get them to understand that they needed to do something about it. I realized that pain was actually the nature of creation turned upside down. Creation amplifies and magnifies the virtues and powers of the body, including language, to diminish adversities; torture does the opposite. The willful infliction of pain is incomprehensible -- it literally destroys language and is the opposite of creation, beauty, and imagination. No wonder it doesn’t often get written about! I was determined to put it into language.

JG: In 2000, you were the co-winner of the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, which is the largest cash prize for literary criticism in the English language.

ES: That was for "Dreaming by the Book," and I was very honored to receive this award. The book was certainly less intense than the one we just discussed, but it still dealt with the transfer of content and meaning from one human to another. I explored the tools writers use to bring things to life for their readers and how that understanding subsequently transforms them.

JG: There are other publications that we won't have time to talk about, but I am struck, in considering the breadth and ethical significance of your topics, by the appropriateness of the name of the chair you hold at Harvard: The Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value.

ES: The chair actually pre-existed me, and I'm very proud to hold it because of its name and also because of its prior holder, the philosopher Stanley Cavell, now the emeritus holder.

JG: You've won literary awards, fellowships, excellence in teaching awards at both Penn and Harvard, and, in 2010, an honorary degree from Northwestern University. Is there any particular recognition that is especially meaningful to you?

ES: Every single one of them has been special, including my 1998 Cornerstone Award from Chatham. A wonderful surprise came in 2005 when two journals, Foreign Policy and Britain's Prospect, published a list of the top 100 public intellectuals and included me. One criterion was public influence "in at least a few countries, if not the entire globe." I was disappointed, however, that this group of 100 included so few women.

JG: On a final note, speaking of Chatham, what comes readily to mind from your undergraduate years?

ES: Wonderful friends and roommates and the benefits of a web of support and friendship. The extraordinary beauty of the campus. Great scholarship jobs as head of the dining hall waitresses and teaching kids of different ethnic backgrounds at a Pittsburgh community center. Inspiring and engaged professors like Drs. Eldredge, McGuire, Lackner, and Adam, to name just a few. But mostly the freedom to study in multiple areas and the pleasure of encountering different disciplines, all while surrounded by acutely intelligent, high-spirited, self-confident women who - in an all - women's college -- had no temptation to step back.


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