The Art of Pain

Originally published in Georgia Review: Spring 2018. Reprinted with thanks.

“Pain,” Alta Ifland writes in her poem of the same name, “is the only thing that is entirely ours.” This may be so. Our own pain is the only subject on which we can instantly become the world’s best scholar. We know more about our own agonies and despondencies than anyone could bear to hear. This is why the old go on about their plights and gripes: it’s lonelier to be old than it is to be young, and pain is part of that. As pain takes up permanent residence in joints and backs and brains, it comes to seem the overwhelming thing; when the elderly are granted the rare treat of attention paid them by another soul, the subject often rushes to their lips.

“It is crystal clear,” Ifland’s poem goes on, “it hollows us out, dressing our bones in pale-green acid…” Later still the poet says of pain that

Its biggest pleasure is killing hope. It smashes it and tramples on it until not a crumb of hope is left. Then it enters us, slowly and deeply, as no lover ever did. It is the only thing that is entirely ours.

And yet I wonder about all this. I love the poem, find it beautiful, but don’t trust myself here. The images are eerie, almost lovely, and that may be what’s fooling me. Can a writer trained to make beautiful language, or a draftsman trained to lay down beautiful lines, communicate the visceral feeling of agony, or do both inevitably wind up ennobling it?

I’m also thinking here of the Colorado sculptor Katie Caron’s drawings on crumpled glassine: translucent sheets streaked with luminescent scribbles resembling scars; the sheets would be covered in cicatrices even without the paint: they’ve been crumpled and smoothed, etched, by force, with chance edges, messy topography. Taking them in, you know at once that an agony is being described, but you’re also absorbed by the luminosity of the work. We’re suspended between disgust and pleasure, or at least I was. But raw pain produces no pleasure, just dread on the part of the sufferer and exhaustion on the part of an audience.

If art generally works when it’s most ambiguous—when, as Keats famously put it, the artist is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason,” does this mean that art which depicts real horror, stripped of ambiguity, ceases to be art at all, and becomes instead a kind of propaganda? How many short stories end with the main character’s entry into a life of suffering? Almost none. When they do, we call them horror, and we place them on a different shelf.

And yet the drive to explain our suffering, to depict it, is among the most potent in our lives, and one of the greatest sources of psychological tension. We need to tell others how we feel, but it’s not polite, and it’s likely to be upsetting, so we just smile—stiff upper lip and all that. When a Bostonian’s legs are blown off by a bomb, he publishes a book called Stronger.

“Only the young are allowed to suffer / openly,” writes the space visitor in Craig Raine’s poem “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home.” This is a joke: the Martian is confused by the act of excretion, interprets it as agony. But the line itself is also true. Grownups shift for themselves, or they pay doctors, psychologists, or the sort of person I’ve just seen described on a business card as a “narrative therapist.” Everyone suffers, the thinking goes, so what’s so special about you? The thing to do is to “overcome” it. And if it’s the sort of pain that can’t be overcome, meditate (our latest version of “offer it up to God”) and, when lucky enough to find yourself in the society of others, shut up about it.

It’s painful for listeners to bear very much description; they usually they’ll turn away, discredit it. But what does this repression do to the sufferer’s insides? Simone Weil lived in thrall to crippling migraines. Once, after a particularly nasty prefrontal headache set in, she confided to her notebooks, “I had an intense longing to make another human being suffer by hitting him in exactly the same part of the forehead.” Cruelty, to her mind (she used the word force), is pain that has not been shared in the proper way. What is the proper way? Weil would have suggested self-abnegation—but that was her answer for most things.

“Whatever pain achieves,” Elaine Scarry writes in The Body in Pain, “it achieves in part through its unshareability.” We know nothing better than we know our own pain, but we can never know the pain of others, in part because they can’t properly communicate such a thing. As Scarry writes,

Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immense reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.

The body of pain—because when suffering acutely, you can feel as though pain is all you’re made of—cannot speak, cannot make art, can only howl. If this is true, must a well-articulated art of pain necessarily be an art of recovery, because any skill we may otherwise have departs us in the throes, only to return when we’ve started surfacing toward a more painless life?  


When I interviewed her for this essay in early 2017 Katie Caron talked of the trauma that nearly killed her. “Your mind doesn’t allow you to remember what past pain feels like, but you keep trying to reconstruct the memory over and over.” We sat at the edge of a playground in Littleton, Colorado, while Caron’s two small children played on the swings with their dad. Caron was relaxed on the walk to the park from her home, tanned from the summer and full of jokes. But when the subject turned to what happened at the Cranbrook Academy of Art outside Detroit, her mouth went grim. She didn’t like thinking about it.  

In June of 2009, Caron was setting up a classroom at Cranbrook. The room was divided into cubicles via three large gallery walls on wheels. Each wall weighed 300 pounds, and she had to push them together to open the space.

“I don’t remember them falling on me,” she said. “I just remember that all of a sudden I was hearing this screaming, and it terrified me. It was shrill, like an animal’s scream. I’d never felt more like an animal. It was the kind of sound you’d hear in a horror movie. I’d never imagined such a sound coming out of me.”

Caron’s pelvis was broken both horizontally and vertically in what’s called an H-fracture, and her sacrum was shattered, displacing her spine. When she first arrived at the ER, Caron heard one doctor say, “Wow—we haven’t had one of these since that girl got run over by the dump truck.” Other doctors later confessed to her, repeatedly, that it was a wonder she wasn’t paralyzed.

“You’ve had two children since then,” I asked her. “Can you compare the pain to that of childbirth?”

“Oh,” she said, rolling her eyes and shaking her head at the premise. “It’s not even comparable. When those walls were on top of me, all I wanted to do was make the pain stop. The fear of dying was nothing compared to it.”

A sculptor at first, by the time of the accident Caron had moved from working primarily in clay to new materials, to video art, to designing installations of increasing complexity—ceramics contoured to natural environments, and chest-high terrariums full of lights and moving parts. Then it all stopped.

“They put me on Dilaudid as soon as they finished the x-rays. Then they moved me onto OxyContin and eventually Vicodin. For weeks I just couldn’t think. I couldn’t make anything. I couldn’t read. I could only look at TV.”

Weeks later, once she was able to sit in a wheelchair, at least a month after the initial trauma, she started working with some glassine her friends brought on their visits. Resembling onionskin to the eye but not to touch, glassine is a fragile, semi-translucent tissue paper used to protect art during preservation. Alone with it at night in a strange Midwestern nursing home, Caron crushed the stuff in anger—an anger “almost inseparable from the pain.” After unfolding the pages, she’d trace each of the wrinkles that were left. At night, she switched on backlights and worked with a phosphorescent brush pen, meticulously obeying the creases that her anger had made—tracing them indelible, and visible even in the dark.

The resulting pages are jarring, ugly but radiant in a way that recalls drip paintings, or Cy Twombly’s vibrating flowers. The viewer is cognizant of violence, but somehow the motion of the lighter lines away from the site of the trauma creates a hopeful sense of fade, of a movement away from pain, of both the presence of pain and the presence of its absence.

Caron talked about how she couldn’t have done it without the painkillers, and of course she couldn’t have made the work at all if the pain had persisted at its original intensity—or increased, which she had feared. Later pages appear less violent, their colors gentler, their forms increasingly vaporous.

When she finally gathered the pieces together to show them, “I hung them in succession from low to high, to show my recovery from wheelchair height, to standing, to a stepladder in front of a large window.” The works were sewn together and hung from those threads. The show was called “Mending.”

Eventually, what had begun as an expression of fury translated into a sort of catharsis. Gradually, she grew able to concentrate on what she was doing. Early on, the process included not only the pain—she couldn’t avoid feeling it—but also attempting to get away from it, too. “The whole project was an act of escapism as much as anything else. I was high, I wanted to be anywhere other than that nursing home, I wanted to be outside of myself.” Through the work she was able to calm herself, And of course it helped that she was able to walk again. She could begin to move her thoughts away from her own body, to live somewhere other than within her wounds.

Caron achieved what so many sufferers have longed for, a real and durable sense of transcendence, of relief. Are the pieces involving to look at? Would you want to own one? You very well might. Do they accurately depict the horror of what happened in that instant in the classroom? Yes and no.

“I had a professor tell me once,” Caron reported as her kids grew bored with the playground and ran over to stop our talking, “that no matter what you do, you’ll never be able to escape making something beautiful.”


The subject of pain and making is relevant to me because I’m a maker myself— a director of plays, a writer of novels and essays—and I live with an affliction that prevents me from working, at least some of the time. For years I’ve had a relapsing-remitting ear condition somewhere in the family of Ménière’s disease. The symptoms include vertigo and a hearing loss that comes and goes, but gets worse over time. Preceding attacks, I sometimes feel an overwhelming sense of heartbreak. For years, my life has divided itself between sick days and less sick days, a spinning world or a still one. No cause for this condition is currently known, and no treatment proven. One day, maybe soon, I’ll suffer an unusually bad attack and lose the use of my ears entirely. When that happens, my balance centers are likely to go; I’ll walk with a cane, the world bobbing like in a hand-held camera.

Because I’m a writer, well-meaning friends often say, “At least if you go deaf you can read,” or “Maybe this whole thing is just something you need to write your way out of.” This advice is earnest and sweet, but it misunderstands the nature of what vertigo permits, and the pain that comes with it.

Caron, when I first became ill, was a great inspiration to me. If she could heal from nine hundred pounds of wall falling on her, surely I could get the better of what poet Larry Levis once called “the Ménière’s worm & its slow progress, day by day & week by week, into the canal of the ear & then, after that, into … into pain I can’t imagine.” His words show a poor grasp of the biology of Mèniére’s disease, but an eerily good grasp of the psychology that grows from it.

Last Sunday I’d planned to join my wife Elisa for a run out to the grocery store, then spend time revising an old collaboration project. In the evening, if I had the energy, I’d drink a glass of wine and do a little writing of my own.

I felt healthy enough – my hearing was good – until about noon, when Elisa and I pulled up in front of Sprouts. She stepped from the driver’s seat, and I opened the door beside me. Suddenly, the curb spun away from me. It felt physically impossible for me to make my way from the car to the store. A spirit of grief rose up in me, as though I were the only mourner at the whole world’s funeral. I remained in the car, barked Elisa away, and rummaged in the arm rest for the valium I’d stowed there.

The liquor store across the street, loud with signs for cheap beer; the place beside it where I pay to have my hair trimmed; the rush of busy traffic whirring past our own car, shaking it, and the sounds they made—Doppler growls, atonal chords of horns—all collected in the little machines behind my ears, where they were assigned new tones in the range my ears could process, amplified that way into my canals. My eardrums picked up this new vibration, conducting it to the tiny bones of my inner ears, which in turn caused a sympathetic vibration in the thinning hairs inside my cochlea, the ears’ snail coil.

No one knows what the situation is for those remaining hairs. Perhaps the flesh around them has reddened and swollen up at their base, irritated and aggressive. Or maybe the skin itself is still, and the hairs are suspended toward the coil’s center in a changing tide of endolymphatic fluid, the way marsh grass nearly vanishes at high tide. “We won’t know until you’re dead,” said a doctor from the Mayo clinic when I visited in 2014, “and we cut you open to find out.”

The eventuality of that fact-finding adventure doesn’t make for healthy fantasy: I’ll be dead and they’ll cut me open. Presumably then they’ll be able to tell what’s been happening inside. Then at least they can tell Elisa, maybe, and she …

That’s where the fantasy cuts off. She can what? Telephone me with the news? Or somehow use it to console herself? Equally impossible.

This doctor’s remark, this fantasy, and this disillusionment are things I’ve thought on so often they’re little more now themselves than the mental blare of a horn – quick, arresting, gone. I’ve wound them into a tight coil in my head, and I’m coiled up with them. I know how they feel from inside and am able to read my own words on a page, but I know I’ll never communicate what they’re like. And I also know I have no real reason to do so. There’s no art to be made there, only arm’s-length reportage.

Eventually we got home that day. The room was spinning and then it stopped. Briefly, I didn’t know up from down. Fighting to get my senses back, I looked around me at the still books on the counter: a friend’s new novel, a book about land art in the Southwest, a “biography” of Shakespeare. They looked like nothing to me. They looked like artifacts I don’t have the tools to puzzle out, or like a language I can’t translate.

Revising a manuscript of poems seemed like the most useless thing I could think of, as did everything else. Today I can write all of this down; yesterday I couldn’t. But because of the delayed transcription, I feel as though I’m only able to relate a shadow of what that experience was like—the dread of spinning, the motion, the ugliness of what was happening in my ears, the pinch of nausea. I don’t want to seem as though I’m soliciting pity, don’t want to bore or disgust. But there is a kind of aloneness that comes with not writing about it.

In Natsume Soseki’s 1906 novel of wayfaring, translated by Alan Turney as The Three Cornered World, the narrator floats down the Ooi River toward Yoshida and muses to himself:

If you stood on the approach to the Nihonbashi bridge in Tokyo, which hundreds of people cross every minute, and were able to elicit from each individual that went past what turmoil and confusion lay buried in his heart, you would find yourself bemused by the knowledge of what this world can do to a man, and life would become unbearable.

Transformed, despite all this, into art, I believe the misery of others is capable of coming to our aid. I read poetry, and it can seem to understand all the particulars of my suffering. There is one poet who writes of pain especially well, but because she has requested anonymity I’ll call her only “the poet”; ironically, writing poetry is now one of the many things she can no longer do. I’ve got something bad, yes. She’s got something worse.


At the moment, I’m fortunate in that communication, artful communication, is still an avenue I can travel. For others in more dire straits, any kind of making is impossible. Where, in those cases, does their pain go? It feeds back on itself.

I first came to understand that something was wrong with the poet when oddities would pop up on my Facebook feed. Among the cheery scroll of friends’ wedding photos and baby snaps appeared these agonized reports from the poet, using Facebook in a way it isn’t often used. She has an undiagnosed condition, one that’s rapidly stealing her life.

“I got to the point,” she writes, “where I needed a cane, then a walker, then a wheelchair. I was desperate and had no help from doctors.” She found the doctors arrogant— which they often are, particularly specialists. “I learned that if doctors don’t know something—which is most of the time—instead of acknowledging their ignorance, they will make the patient feel guilty.”

Doctors couldn’t endure the trials of medical school if they were under constant pain themselves. The burden of misunderstanding may be built-in. Because they’ve likely never felt life-altering pain, they don’t understand how it manifests in others. Should medical schools provide a course in the art of pain? And how could we get those doctors to appreciate uncritically the pain expressed there, to go to it not as diagnosticians but as the audience at a concert?

The poet spoke in envy, as others have before her, of the marvelous sisterhood of breast cancer survivors, of the way they support and encourage one another. No such tribal council exists for those experiencing chronic pain from an unknown cause:

Your friends disappear … and little by little you become a shadow long dead before death will claim you. And when that day comes some of them might give some touching speech—words! What are they good for if not for making us feel good about ourselves?

Of her own poems, it was often the darkest that spoke me to most comfortingly, by finding words for the dark things I felt. It was these poems that made me write to her, but her anonymity prevents my quoting them. If sufferers don’t want far-flung family to worry, then they must erase themselves, lose the real words they have left.

When I wrote to her, I discovered her illness was even worse than she’d publically disclosed. She told me she experiences a now-unceasing pain throughout her body and has recently lost the use of her legs. At this point I would like to die, if I could, but dying isn’t that easy either. I am terrified because my arms are getting similar symptoms now and even my back.”

She’s been dizzy—though not vertiginous—and has difficulty looking at computer screens for an extended time. Medical theories of what might be wrong have settled now on a) conditions we don’t yet know anything about and b) conditions we can only diagnose through autopsy.

She began writing a memoir, but abandoned the project because she hasn’t got the energy or the stamina to write, which is typical of chronic sufferers. Everyone undergoing long periods of convalescence has been told, at one time or another, “I envy you the time off.” But it isn’t time off, isn’t time to read or think or create. You’re busy all the while, busy being in pain.

“See, the others have no idea what you are going through when you are ill,” she writes, “and unless you walked in someone’s shoes it is impossible to imagine what they are going through.”

“Mending” gives us a window into Katie Caron’s pain, but is it a window we can crawl through?

Caron worked through healing, and with painkillers. I still have periods of remission (and I have valium), so I’m able to keep making work. But this is a privilege—a necessary outlet—denied to the poet and those like her. The art of pain often has no message aside from silence, a screaming no one else can hear.

And then there’s the problem of art itself. One doesn’t want to write a “simple” scream. Artaud’s Watchfiends and Rack Screams are not a simple howl; neither is Munch’s Der Schrei der Natur. In the sense that either work approaches this quality, neither is particularly good as art in that it lacks complexity, as well as those all-important ambiguities Keats mused about to his brothers. The best of what’s called “noise music” displays real texture, variation, and contrast. I don’t know if there are any people alive whose idea of a meaningful experience is listening to a rabbit’s death shriek over and over, but I know I wouldn’t want to meet them.

As Scarry writes, “What is meant by ‘seeing stars’ is that the contents of consciousness are, during those moments, obliterated, that the name of one’s child, the memory of a friend’s face, are all absent.”

Virginia Woolf, too, in her famous essay “On Being Ill,” précises the dilemma acutely. If all humanity were to take on the burden of perfect sympathy with those who suffer,

Buildings would cease to rise; roads would peter out into grassy tracks; there would be an end of music and of painting; one great sigh alone would rise to Heaven, and the only attitudes for men and women would be those of horror and despair.

Woolf credits language itself for a cunning impulse toward survival. She may be right, but if there’s anything about being human that surpasses language—perhaps there isn’t—then our inability to communicate the experience of pain while enduring that pain may be the thing. Pain is a room we can describe on the way in and on the way out; if we take long enough to make either journey, then it is a room we can depict in art. But you can’t describe the room from inside the room. You can only pound on the door.