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.

Loneliness and presentness

Yesterday, in the middle of a philosophical conversation about a conversation partner’s sense of loneliness, it occurred to me that loneliness just is the experience of not being present. Loneliness is the word we typically use to designate this nebulous feeling of lack: the other is not there, the past in which love was is now gone, and there is some other place I would rather be.

Contrariwise, to be there is to be genuinely attentive to what is around one. Attention requires focusing one’s concentration on the specific, significant features of some object. I pay attention to the particular way in which the white dove preens itself with a view to honoring its way of existing. In a second breath, reverence expands my vision from this white dove before me to the beautiful world in which this white dove fittingly exists.

Attention reveals itself within the rhythms of eternity, in the view from here, and loneliness has no time in eternity, no view but otherwise.

‘Are you done with that?’

We have nearly forgotten what it’s like to take our time. Coffee comes pierced by a talon, is pulled down by a waterfall, is ready in less than a minute. It tastes like a hot gulp of brown. Daily, we are faced with the prospects of drinking big gulps, of chugging, of downing, or of slamming. We spend our lunch breaks wolfing down and bolting, sometimes unwrapping first. On the subway, we eat things wrapped, the packaging, more than anything else, being what recommends these to us in the first place. The taste of food is ancillary. By dinnertime, we think nothing of ordering takeout, for it is as disposable as we are.

Eating is our way of making up for lost time. The rich have their food delivered to their stoops. The poor use microwaves. Regardless, everyone, exhausted from the first, holds nonchalantly onto a large cup of coffee which is best consumed while walking toward wherever they have to go.

Whatever we eat is already preserved; what we eats means to preserve us; who we are always eludes us. Who we are: beings behind and gropers ahead. The truth is that we are in a great hurry to be done with our lives which we then pay dearly to prolong.

On most days, being incapable of taking our time could doubtless be palatable were it not for the few times when we try to do otherwise. It is on these rare occasions that we are reminded, painfully and without delay, that we cannot. “Are you done with that?” is a question that puts the lie to the very notion of cuisine, the very essence of taking our time. The server who asks us this has ruined everything.

It is, nonetheless, not his fault, for he doesn’t know any better and nor, for that matter, do we. Table manners, however conventional they seem, however stodgy they may appear to us today, used to be taught to the young with the idea that they would signal something without having to say what that something was. Everyone knew. In its book on table manners, which first appears at midcentury, Tiffany’s advises that “when the course is finished…   The prongs of the fork should be down. The blade of the knife should face the fork. This is the ‘I am finished’ position.” When the knife and fork are arranged in any other fashion, it means “let us be as we are.” Or, simply, “Do not disturb.”

In place of table manners, we now have BlackBerries and officiousness. The BlackBerry is the instrument by which we imply that the now is not, the next thing du jour. The BlackBerry brushes off, sweeps clean, negates. The server, a busybody by training, is always around the corner to pour our wine before we’re through, there to ask after our food before we’ve taken the first bite, there to see to our dishes which are always anyway on the verge of being taken from us. The server is the face of our conversations: clumsy, trivial, efficient. These days, the best restaurants would those that exude the highest order of efficiency: seating us, feeding us, and being rid of us in a fantasy in which ingesting and digesting were one.

The greatest gustatory pleasure, therefore, would consist of being through with the senses for good. For most, after all, nothing much is lost in any of this: such is the way of the world. For most, the empty plate can do nothing but disgust, reminding them of the shame they feel always for their bodies. A plate of food is vomit on the inside. For the few, however, nearly everything is lost but our revulsion with the question. “Are you done with that?” smacks of everything that is wrong with the efficient world, of a world that lords measure over all. Lost is the meeting, the dwelling, the holding, the exhalations. Lost the essence of cuisine.

Food, like speech, is the glory of the tongue. Food and speech, which are revealed at their highest in the eternity of the present, are eros for the mouth, love of the body, honor of communion. The plates lying before us sing a bacchanalia song; the wine glasses, stained now by uneven lips, a paean of blood and love; the words, half-drowsy, asphasic, a coda. Food and speech and wine are the very skin of the night.

Amid anamnesis, we need no reminding to let things be.

End Note: A Word on Genre

I would be inclined to say that the genre of the post is that of the harangue. The persona is, in some but not all respects, unreliable, and the dominant tropes are the hyperbole and the maxim. The mood throughout is Adornian, reminiscent in spirit of the dark fragments Adorno pens during WWII on the decline of culture. If you’d like, we could discuss the aim and function of the genre in the Comments.

On cat days

When I dance, I dance; when I sleep, I sleep; and when I am walking alone in a beautiful orchard, if my thoughts are sometimes elsewhere, for most of the time I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me.

–Montaigne, Essays


Watch the tabby cat. She basks and when she’s not basking, she preens. Anon, she stretches her tummy toward the earth and sky. Maybe she takes a bite or two. Or maybe her paws need flexing, so she flexes them a few times. That’s enough. The shimmering blinds now catch her eyes. Not now, though. Later perhaps. She basks some more, then awakes. Ah, the blinds: they’re stirring still she sees. Like a dancer, she catches them off guard, mid-swat.

When she has a minute to herself, she consults her checklist: play, bask, sleep, eat, swat. Yes.


Do you know that, in the winter, I like to wake up before the sun? I like to sit and watch the sun come up from my window seat. In the spring, I wake up with the sun but in the winter before. In the winter, I sleep longer and move more slowly. I can’t help it. It’s OK.

At 9 o’clock, I pause and listen for a moment, sometimes two, to the church bells ringing nearby. Ah, still out of tune, still lovely. At noon, the same, also the same tune. At 6 o’clock, it is now dark, has already been dark since half past 4.

A few weeks ago, the churchmen threw me for a loop. They changed the tune on me. At first, I was sad, a little, a little sad, but after a while I grew to love the 6 o’clock song as much as I love the 9 and 12.

In winter, my body gets tired early. Reading is the first chapter of sleeping. But before going to bed, I like to lie on the floor and think about the day. I think about the people I help, and I wonder whether I’m helping. At all. Enough. Ever. Enough. Sometimes I’m sad because–I don’t know why–maybe it’s because I said the wrong words at the wrong time or maybe it’s because I misled her by accident. But, to be honest, most of the time I’m not sad. I think I’m doing good and I think they’re doing good. To me, the day was sweet.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Spiritual Exercise: On Giving Pleasures Their Due”