Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

On a Scale from 1 to 10: Life Writing and Lyrical Pain

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

On a Scale from 1 to 10: Life Writing and Lyrical Pain

Article excerpt

Given the notorious resistance of physical pain to textual representation, how does an author write the story of pain? Using Eula Biss's 2005 essay "The Pain Scale" as its touchstone, the article considers lyric essay as pain's most suitable autobiographical genre. A lyric essay, it is argued, can perform the kind of conceptual shift that many theorists of pain have called for, situating pain along the pathways not just of nerves but of subjectivity, of relationships between self and other, imagination and words. By turns elusive, imagistic, ecstatic, associative, and melodic, more often circling and symbolizing life events than narrating them in linear ways, the lyric essay has a unique capacity to represent the self-in-pain, giving pain a rich experiential dimensionality that it may lack in more conventional, particularly medical, accounts. In "The Pain Scale," Biss does not render pain as an adjunct to other physical experiences, such as addiction or disease, but rather capitalizes on the distinctive fragmentation and emotional intensity of the lyrical essay to capture the movement of pain. In a form where pain becomes affirming rather than negating, an avowal of the self's aliveness and of its impact on the world, new articulations can occur-of how we conceive of, and therefore live, with pain.

The body in pain, Elaine Scarry famously contended in 1985, is unrepresentable. Resistant to any scale of measurement other than a subjective one, pain is at once inescapably real to the sufferer and invisible, even unreal, to the observer. The person in pain, wanting nothing more than alleviation, can speak of little else but pain, yet pain notoriously eludes description, defying our efforts to articulate its myriad sensations. Pain reduces everything to itself, dominating consciousness in a way that seems to collapse identity into the maddening persistence of discomfort, but is at the same time experienced as a frighteningly alien presence within, its source-if one can be determined-subject to fantasies of battle, excision, or cure. We are, as students of memory, subjectivity, and life writing have shown, driven to narrate ourselves in the form of story with recognizable structures and point, yet pain interrupts the plot, makes us unrecognizable to ourselves, shifting our habits of being to accommodate it. How, then, do we write our stories of the fact of pain when pain can only be told through metaphor, association, and complaint, rhetorical strategies with tenuous authority?

If "pain is a scandal," as David B. Morris has said (71), it would seem a readily available, even marketable, subject for autobiographical writing, especially in this moment of memoir. It is no longer news that many authors enter into print for the first time through some form of life writing, or that many of those narratives foreground experiences of disability and illness. Ours is a culture greedy for tales of the tawdry and the traumatic, and also for the promise of rehabilitation, transformation, restoration-for a narrative arc, in other words, that climaxes and resolves. If pain disturbs the forward motion of a life story, it might also be said to pursue its own narrative trajectory: it begins, it worsens, it abates; relief follows suffering. Yet pain itself, pain as pain, is rarely the conceptual core of life writing. For one thing, as Morris argues, no one really wants to know about pain, and certainly not the kind that endures without explanation or lasting assuagement. For another, pain, though perhaps understandable as a specific and treatable bodily condition, is also largely unverifiable. "To have pain is to have certainty," as Scarry writes; "to hear about pain is to have doubt" (13). One difficulty facing the writer of pain is thus how to achieve the kind of truth-telling we expect of memoir (particularly in an era somewhat primed by a few outrageous exceptions to be suspicious of the genre, even as we clamor for more of it). Moreover, part of the misery of pain-the pain of pain, as it were-is precisely its unpredictability, its seemingly arbitrary course, its challenge to our methods of saying and knowing who we are. …

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