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#AuthorFail 8: Alexandra Chasin

Greetings, earth people, from the (pain) planet failure.

Here, the atmosphere is different. The stars are different.

The entire sense of the project-to-be, an examination by NYC writer (and my collaborator) Alexandra Chasin, requires more preliminary work into the nature of the question: and what of it, when the question is pain?

Here, the question itself, perhaps, gleams always far away.


An idea leads to a little research and a little research leads to a little more, and lines of inquiry extend and elaborate themselves fractally, and proliferate, beckoning a would-be writer in multiple directions, and two years later the representation of the medical condition of a character as originally conceived continues to elude her…hundreds of pages of quotations from articles, treatises, stunning 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-Century articulations of the matter, relevant documents, novelistic case histories, authorities, literary treatments, pamphlets, and more, and yet it still seems like a little more information might tie everything together so that the writing proper could begin.  And then it doesn’t.  

For example:

Virginia Woolf, The Waves:

But for pain words are lacking.  There should be cries, cracks, fissures, whiteness passing over chintz covers, interference with the sense of time, of space; the sense also of extreme fixity in passing objects; and sounds very remote and then very close; flesh being gashed and blood spurting, a joint suddenly twisted — beneath all of which appears something very important, yet remote, to be just held in solitude.


Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill:

…but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.


Emily Dickinson:

Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.

It has not future but itself
Its Infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.


Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain:

Though the total number of words may be meager…

McGill Pain Questionnaire:

What does your pain feel like?

Temporal:  flickering, quivering, pulsing, throbbing, beating, pounding
Spatial:  jumping, flashing, shooting
Punctuate Pressure:  pricking, boring, drilling, stabbing, lancinating
Incisive Pressure:  sharp, cutting, lacerating,
Constrictive Pressure:  pinching, pressing, gnawing, cramping, crushing
Traction Pressure:  tugging, pulling, wrenching
Thermal:  hot, boring, scalding, searing
Brightness:  tingling, itchy, smarting, stinging
Dullness:  sore,  hurting, aching, heavy
Sensory Miscellaneous:  tender, taut, rasping, splitting
Tension:  tiring, exhausting
Autonomic:  sickening, suffocating
Fear:  fearful, frightful, terrifying
Punishment: punishing, grueling, cruel. vicious, killing
Affective-Evaluative-Miscellaneous:  nagging, nauseating, agonizing, dreadful, torturing
Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain:

…though they may be hurled into the air unattached to any framing sentence…

McGill Pain Questionnaire:

How does your pain change with time?

continuous, steady, constant
rhythmic, periodic, intermittent
brief, momentary, transient

Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain:

…something can be learned from these verbal fragments not only about pain but about the human capacity for word-making.

Far-reaching implications.

Maybe I should just do a little more research.

Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, The Gift of Pain:

I first became aware of the power of the mind when I treated the soldier named Jake, the war hero with shattered legs who shrank in fear from a hypodermic needle full of penicillin.  Later I learned that Jake’s attitude at the front, strange as it seemed at the time, was a classic response to combat injury.  Dr. Henry K. Beecher of the Harvard Medical School coined the term “Anzio effect” to describe what he observed among 215 casualties from the Anzio beachhead in World War II.  Only one in four soldiers with serious injuries (fractures, amputations, penetrated chests or cerebrums) asked for morphine, though it was freely available.  They simply did not need help with the pain, and indeed many of them denied feeling pain at all.

Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain:

It will eventually become apparent that the particular perceptual confusion sponsored by the language of agency is the conflation of pain with power.

Political import.

Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, The Gift of Pain:

My study of the brain, especially in the dissection project in Cardiff, helped me understand why the mind played such an important role in pain. The structure of the brain requires it.  Only one-tenth of 1 percent of the fibers entering the cerebral cortex convey new sensory information, including pain messages; all the other nerve cells communicate one with another, reflecting, sifting through memory and emotion. Am I afraid?  Is the pain producing something of value?  Do I really want to recover?  Am I getting sympathy?

Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain:

Thus, for example, torture comes to be described – not only by regimes that torture but sometimes by people standing outside those regimes – as a form of information-gathering or (in its even more remarkable formulation) intelligence gathering and uncovering the perceptual processes that permit this misdescription will be the first step in the extended structural analysis of torture….

….Maybe I should do a little more research.

Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, The Gift of Pain:

…Ronald Melzack took Pavlov’s experiments a step further.  He raised Scottish terrier pups in individual, padded cages so they would encounter none of the normal  knocks and scrapes of growing up.  To his astonishment, dogs raised in this deprived environment failed to learn basic responses to pain.  Exposed to a flaming match, they repeatedly poked their noses into the flame and sniffed at it.  Even when flesh burned, they showed no sign of distress.  They also failed to react when he pricked their paws with a pin.  In contrast their littermates, raised normally, yelped and fled after just one confrontation with the  match or pin.  Melzack was forced to conclude that much of what we call pain, including the “emotional” response, is learned, not instinctive.

Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain:

…given that the deconstruction of creation is present in the structure of one event which is widely recognized as close to being an absolute of immorality (torture), and given that the deconstruction of creation is again present in the structure of a second event regarded as morally problematic by everyone and as radically immoral by some (war), is it not peculiar that the very thing being deconstructed – creation – does not in its intact form have a moral claim on us that is as high as the others’ is low, that the action of creating is not, for example, held to be bound up with justice in the way that those other events are bound up with injustice, that it (the mental, verbal, or material process of making the world) is not held to be centrally entailed in pain’s infliction?

Maybe I should do some more research….


Alexandra Chasin is the author of Kissed By and other fictions.  She teaches writing at Lang College, The New School, in New York.

Last Week’s #AuthorFail 7: Robin Becker

Next Week’s #AuthorFail 9: Richard Thomas

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2 thoughts on “#AuthorFail 8: Alexandra Chasin

  1. That’s some nice research, Alexandra.

    Perhaps another one for your file — by Oulipian Jean Lescure:

    “People noticed that they were language from head to toe. And that when they thought they had a stomachache, it was in fact a language-ache. That all of that was more or less indiscernible. That medicine was fine and dandy, but if we were suffering in our language, medicine wasn’t enough, although it itself is language.”
    (from “Brief History of the Oulipo”)


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