Claude’s Body as the Space for Pain Endurance

By Svetlana Fenichel


"My Hands are my Heart" Gabriel Orozco

The psychological transformation undergone by Vyvyane Loh’s protagonist as a result of severe physical tortures by the Japanese invaders parallels the experience of Nayasha, the main character of Nervous Conditions. Both are colonial subject and use their bodies to process – as in Claude’s situation, or challenge – as did Nayasha, the reality of their lives obliterated through the colonial order. Repeating Nayasha’s experience of transformation the body into an alienated space, Claude is able to endure the pain of colonial reality as well as tolerate physical torture. He reaches the stage of self-questioning, a necessary step towards emotional liberation. The process of mind to body transformation has been described by Freud and ascribed to hysteria condition. Boeheme interpreters Freudian theory of body/mind “conversion” as following:

“According to Freud, a key symptom of hysteria is the tendency to take metaphor literally or anatomically, as described by or inscribed on the body. Putting it another way, the hysteric expresses her condition through converting “mind” to “body,” translating her fears and repressions into a language of body images <…>”. (268).

Claude grew to believe that his Chinese body was the only aspect of his identity that prevented him from getting totally Anglicized. He managed to learn English and avoid knowing the language of his ancestors; he adopted English lifestyle, manners and tastes; he made friends among Englishman. The only part of his identity he despised was his Chinese body that bluntly exposed his racial identity. During the cruel torture Claude comes to realization that all that he believed in – English rule, English language, English customs and traditions he so revered – all were vain. He was being tortured by the Japanese, while the British rulers he had faith in did nothing to help him. To cope psychologically with the startling revelation, Claude undergoes a hypnotic-like dissociation between the mind and the body triggered by torture.  His transformation into the alienated Body, provided the space for pain endurance, while allowing the mind to remain sane. The tortured body also became the text of mind that revealed to Claude the falsehood of his believes.



Stephanie Athey points at the evident parallel between Claude’s torture at the hands of the Japanese and his peculiar upbringing in the Anglicized Eurasian home. According to Athey, Loh skillfully juxtaposes the two forms of influence, one of which uses physical body as its transformative tool, while the other is targeted at the psychological aspect of Claude’s identity. In the words of Athey, “Loh deftly connects and compares the painful techniques of Japanese imperial domination with those of British imperial power preceding it” (17). Due to the transformation that Claude undergoes, he comes to the astonishing realization that his body is, in fact, the only true part of his Chinese identity, whereas the mind has been brainwashed by the colonial order.



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