Laocoon and the expression of pain
In the classic marble sculpture, the Trojan priest Laocoon is assailed by a fearsome sea serpent. While clearly in pain, over time the interpretation of Laocoon's countenance has been constantly re-evaluated from different historical perspectives.
Alfred Hitchcock's film Torn Curtain contains a very long, silent passage in which an East German agent is beaten nearly to death, and then asphyxiated by having his head stuffed into an oven. Accused of pandering to sadistic tastes, Hitchcock was keen to defend the authenticity of the scene: how could two people in a kill-or-be-killed situation exchange wisecracking insults in the traditional Hollywood manner when each was saving his breath to try to kill his opponent?
A similar critical question had arisen two centuries earlier, in connection with the classic depiction of pain in Western sculpture, namely the marble group, probably from the 1st century AD, of Laocoon and his sons being attacked by a monstrous sea serpent. The sculpture was excavated in Rome in 1506 and was acquired for the Vatican collections, where it still is today.
In the centre of the group is the Trojan priest Laocoon (pronounced 'lah-ock-o'-own'), entangled by the snakes which had been sent to punish him for his hostility to the will of the god Apollo: in the war between the mainland Greeks and the Trojans, Laocoon had warned the Trojans not to accept into the city of Troy the gift from the Greeks of a wooden horse, which the Greeks had filled with fighting men ready to destroy the city.
Winckelmann, writing in 1755 as a critic and historian of art, identified the essence of ancient Greek sculpture - the sculptors of the Laocoon were Greeks - as 'noble simplicity and quiet grandeur' ('eine edle Einfalt und eine stille Grösse') which, in the case of the Laocoon sculpture, would incite us to noble thoughts and actions by showing, pace Virgil, Laocoon's heroic, dignified and silent struggle to resist the serpent.
Thus literature could describe horrible things without using horrible words, while the representational arts could only represent the horrible by showing us the horrible. As that would produce not a noble work of art but one which would put us in much the same distress as Laocoon, producers of visual representations tend to tone down the unpleasant features, and that is why, according to Lessing, Laocoon is not roaring like bull: his jaw is tightly constricted in a position that would enable him to utter only a low groan. Lessing's difference of opinion from Winckelmann arises from the former's different background as an aesthetic philosopher.
In his book The anatomy and philosophy of expression as connected with the fine arts, Bell argued that Laocoon as he is portrayed in the sculpture could not have roared like a wounded bull, not for the reasons proposed by Winckelmann or by Lessing but for anatomical reasons. The muscles needed to roar are those of the chest. But the chest is also the place where the muscles which have insertions in the arms, and which provide strength to the arms, have their fixed origin. When the arms are strenuously engaged, as Laocoon's certainly are, the ability of the chest to produce a roar, or any violent expiration, is compromised by the work which the chest is already doing for the arms. Hence, says Bell:
Therefore, Bell concludes, "Laocoon suffers in silence", not because to portray him otherwise would have robbed him of dignity, nor because what is permissible in a verbal representation was impermissible in a visual one, but because the sculptor's design was "to represent corporeal exertion, the attitude and struggles of the body and of the arms", an act which would have permitted nothing more than "a low or hollow groan".
A review of studies of the Laocoon show that, in the interpretation of human history, no single form of expertise by itself enables us to understand the past. If we were to allow ourselves to be constrained inside disciplinary frontiers marked 'History of medicine', 'History of art', 'Philosophy' or 'Psychology', we should be prevented from achieving the broad, integrative, context-rich understanding which history can generate when properly studied.
William Schupbach is Curator of the Iconographic Collections of the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine.
Laocoon and his sons fight the sea serpent.
Etching by F Perrier, 1638.
The Wellcome Library, London.
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Essays on the anatomy of Charles Bell.
The Wellcome Library, London.
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