Laocoön and the expression of pain

Heard the story of Laocoön (pronounced lah-ock-o’-own)? You’ll probably recognise the sculpture. He was a priest of Neptune/Poseidon in the city of Troy. When the Greeks (or well-greaved Achaeans or whatever you want to call them) left the wooden horse outside the city gates, it was Laocoön who said they should burn it where it stood. In the Aeneid, Virgil has him say: “Do not trust the horse, Trojans / Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks, even [those] bearing gifts”.

When he said this, Athena (who was on the Greek side) was furious, so she silenced him by sending a mini earthquake and, not content with that, struck him blind. The Trojans duly wheeled the horse in. Laocoön though did not give up. He flung his spear at the horse and Hera (also on the Greek’s team) send two deadly sea serpents to strangle him and his two sons, Antiphantes and Thymbraeus.

With both his hands he labors at the knots;
His holy fillets the blue venom blots;
His roaring fills the flitting air around.
Thus, when an ox receives a glancing wound,
He breaks his bands, the fatal altar flies,
And with loud bellowings breaks the yielding skies.

So Virgil says he’s roaring and shouting, but look closely at the sculpture. Is he really screaming and bellowing as he desperately tries to save himself and his sons? William Schupbach writing for The Wellcome Trust’s exhibition on pain collected these differing ideas:

Winckelmann: ‘Nobility’
In the eighteenth century, Laocoon and the sculpture were studied in detail by the historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) and the philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781). Both scholars agreed that the sculptor did not show Laocoon bellowing in the manner described by Virgil, but each invoked a different reason for his view.

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.

Lessing: ‘groaning’
Lessing, in his essay Laokoon (1766), treated the sculpture from the point of view of a philosopher of aesthetics. He was concerned to use the sculpture as a case study in defining the difference between visual arts and literature: literature was absorbed in time, and through conventional signs (e.g. letters and words) which in themselves meant nothing. In the visual arts, on the other hand, the dimension of time hardly existed, and the means of representation were similar to the things which they represented.

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.

Bell: ‘Silence’
That however does not exhaust the diversity of backgrounds from which a view of the Laocoon group can be proposed. Another worthwhile critic of the sculpture was the anatomist Sir Charles Bell (1774-1842). Bell’s career include the care of the wounded from the battle of Waterloo, and the depiction of those suffering soldiers in a series of watercolours (now in the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine): valuable experience for a writer on the expression of physical pain.

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:

that most terrible silence in human conflict, when the outcry of terror or pain is stifled in exertion; for during the struggle with the arms, the chest must be expanded or in the act of rising; and therefore the voice, which consists of the expulsion of the breath by the falling or compression of the chest, is suppressed. The first sound of fear is in drawing, not expelling, the breath.

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”.

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