Emily Dickinson on being in pain

In ‘Pain Has an Element of Blank,’ the poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86) seeks to bring into sharper focus the unique quality of being in extraordinary pain. That quality is expressed in a particular experience of time. She writes,

PAIN has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.
It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.

In ordinary life, we live through a succession of beginnings and endings. The day begins, the week ends. We’re hungry, we eat, we grow full. The bush shivers in the breeze and then is still. The duration of each lived experience is definite, finite, to some degree sharp.

Our ordinary experience of pain also follows this normal pattern of beginning and ending. We speak of ‘twinges’ of pain, of ‘throbbing’ pains, of dull aches, of ‘pulsating’ headaches. Our stiff joints have loosened up by midday, our dry eyes having cleared up by morning. So does ordinary pain come and go, at once passing into the past and projecting us onto a painless future.

In contrast, extraordinary pain belies this rhythm of time, carrying us into an entirely different temporality. Our expectation that pain will go away is soon called into doubt. This is the first shock of horror. In time, we forget what it was like when we were not in pain. The common phrase, ‘living with pain,’ becomes doubly significant. Here is perhaps our first, most poignant introduction to infinity: that which is completely unto itself and without any other. God, for instance, is a being entirely unto himself who is not dependent for his existence on another. But pain also? Pain also infinite? Yes, for a time that is ‘internal’ to extraordinary pain, there is only utter envelopment, an experience of myself-in-relation-to-this, being only inasmuch as being-in-pain.

The being in extraordinary pain can lose, apart from memory of what was otherwise, certain common points of reference: what other lives are like, how the world could be imagined and refashioned, what questions occur to one when one is merely daydreaming or set adrift. The confrontation with the this–its insistence, its utter immediacy, its sheer ever-presentness–is like a hovering beckoning, like a single, continuous fold. Pain, paradoxically, flashes up in urgency yet without diminishing unduly.

Extraordinary pain for the one so in pain is experienced as blacking out with blanks. It is in this sense that pain throws one into darkness-without-light.