‘Pain and its Meanings’: two days of cultural exploration and discussion at Wellcome Collection

For some, pain means punishment; others believe it brings them closer to God. Bodily pain is not only physical, it’s cultural too. Join a prominent group of thinkers on Friday 7 December and Saturday 8 December at Wellcome Collection to probe the meanings of pain over two stimulating days of poetry, film, music, lectures and discussion.

Nearly everyone has experienced bodily pain, yet describing it is notoriously difficult. In 1930, Virginia Woolf lamented that even a "schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare and 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".

Is pain really so difficult to articulate? Or can it actually generate creative expression? If so, what do these narratives tell us about the meaning of pain?

Some believe it has the power to purge sin; others interpret it as an unjust punishment. Pain might even be regarded as intrinsic to achievement: "no pain, no gain". 'Pain and its Meanings' will bring together creative and scholarly minds to explore the relationship between body, mind and culture.

The event begins on Friday 7 December with an evening of poetry, music and film. In addition to the screening of a short film, 'face2face, duet for pain' by visual artist Deborah Padfield, new works by Costa prize-winning poet Jo Shapcott and composer Daniel Eisner Harle will be presented.

The following day, Saturday 8 December, is devoted to discussion and a programme of public lectures that will be given by world-class scholars, writers and clinicians. A leading spokesperson on disability issues, Tom Shakespeare, will open the day with a personal account on disability and its discontents, followed by medical sociologist Gillian Bendelow, who will focus on chronic pain and the mind/body problem in health and illness.

Historian Javier Moscoso will consider pain and social awareness, and NHS consultant Joanna Zakrzewska will give the final morning presentation examining issues surrounding pain and identity within a clinical setting.

Pain is one of the most influential forces in history, yet we still know remarkably little about how people experienced it in the past. Joanna Bourke will begin the afternoon session by exploring questions about the nature of suffering from the 1760s to the present, followed by a presentation from renowned novelist and cultural critic Marina Warner. Thought-provoking round-table forums will be held at the end of the morning and afternoon sessions.

Joanna Bourke, facilitator of the symposium and Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London, said: "In my research, I am forever asking: What is this experience of pain? How do we communicate it? What does it mean? How do we empathise with sufferers?

"This event is intended to confront some of these questions, head on. It will bring together new and different perspectives from those who work with people-in-pain, both past and present, and who, of course, experience pain themselves. We hope to encourage new ways of thinking about suffering."

Rosie Stanbury, Events Manager at Wellcome Collection, said; "'Pain and its Meanings' takes a familiar subject that all of us have experience of and turns it around so that we consider it from a new perspective. Our event will encourage members of the audience to reflect on this fascinating topic, which will ask how and why we give meaning to bodily pain."

'Pain and its Meanings' is a collaboration between the Birkbeck Pain Project and Wellcome Collection. The Birkbeck Pain Project is funded by a Wellcome Trust Medical History and Humanities Programme Grant.