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.

On eating properly and ‘two kinds of quantity’

I don’t believe that calories–this unit of measure–is a good way of talking about food in general, of talking about ‘how much’ I need to eat or how I go about conceptualizing what it is I eat. My doubts about ‘the calorie’ are born of my wholesale rejection of what goes under the header of ‘food science.’ In order to reach this conclusion, I have been helped, in much different quarters and by much different routes, by the work of Michael Pollan and George Taubes.

But if the food I put in my mouth, the food that passes into my belly and through my body is not reducible to a quantifiable number of calories, what is it I am eating, and how do I know whether I have had ‘enough,’ ‘too much,’ or ‘too little.’?

This question invites me to draw a distinction between a mathematized conception of quantity and a qualitative understanding of quantity. I am taking my cue from Sajay Samuel who, in an interview with Dougald Hine, states:

I find a potent argument in Plato, for instance, where he says, look here–I adapt this–the distinction, quality and quantity, not be that between irrationality, emotion, etc., and rationality, thought and so on. Rather there are two kinds of quantity–numerical, which we can call arithmetic, and then, ‘too much’ and ‘too little.’ By definition, ‘too much’ and ‘too little’ are quantities, but they’re not numerically measurable. What we have done in the modern world is to privilege 1, 2, 3… as the only quantity. But I can relativize, I can put under epistemic brackets, that kind of quantity by insisting on the superiority–and showing the superiority–of the second kind of qualitative understanding, ‘too much’ and ‘too little.’ For example, we can ask: have you gone too far, by measuring love in terms of numbers? A perfectly legitimate, perfectly sensible question, I’m sure you would agree. Number cannot provide an answer to the question of ‘too far.’ The measure of going too far by measuring love in terms of numbers is six… is self-evidently asinine. (“Rehoming Society: A Conversation with Sajay Samuel,” Dark Mountain: Issue 3, p. 103)

A qualitative understanding of quantity compels me to turn my attention toward the ‘feeling’ of my body, my body’s empirical way of knowing: what it feels like to put ‘this much’ in my body now and after I eat? At this time, under these conditions, what kind of food will raise my powers of acting, of strength, will enhance my overall sense of sober joy, and how much do I need to put on my tongue and chew with my teeth and savor so that I am left feeling more powerful now than I was before?

This is a spiritual exercise (ascesis) in proper attention (prosoche) to the ‘claims’ my body is making on me.