Pain Is a Battering Bastard … And More (Part 2)

Image by dren88 (CC BY‑SA 2.0)
To recap part 1 of this post:

(1) Chronic pain can make even a masochist feel trapped in her body.

(2) It’s just like the way my ex-dom and I felt locked in a miserable relationship.

I may even have gotten all of my mixed metaphors into this tweet:

Please let me be clear that despite all this talk of battering, that’s not what my husband was doing to me. We were being bad for each other.

My body, on the other hand, was most definitely whumping me. But then again, maybe that was mutual too. The body and soul can do awful non-consensual things to each other. They knew that even in the 17th century.

A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body

(Or see modernised rendering)

O who shall, from this dungeon, raise
A soul enslav’d so many ways?
With bolts of bones, that fetter’d stands
In feet, and manacled in hands;
Here blinded with an eye, and there
Deaf with the drumming of an ear;
A soul hung up, as ’twere, in chains
Of nerves, and arteries, and veins;
Tortur’d, besides each other part,
In a vain head, and double heart.

O who shall me deliver whole
From bonds of this tyrannic soul?
Which, stretch’d upright, impales me so
That mine own precipice I go;
And warms and moves this needless frame,
(A fever could but do the same)
And, wanting where its spite to try,
Has made me live to let me die.
A body that could never rest,
Since this ill spirit it possest.

What magic could me thus confine
Within another’s grief to pine?
Where whatsoever it complain,
I feel, that cannot feel, the pain;
And all my care itself employs;
That to preserve which me destroys;
Constrain’d not only to endure
Diseases, but, what’s worse, the cure;
And ready oft the port to gain,
Am shipwreck’d into health again.

But physic yet could never reach
The maladies thou me dost teach;
Whom first the cramp of hope does tear,
And then the palsy shakes of fear;
The pestilence of love does heat,
Or hatred’s hidden ulcer eat;
Joy’s cheerful madness does perplex,
Or sorrow’s other madness vex;
Which knowledge forces me to know,
And memory will not forego.
What but a soul could have the wit
To build me up for sin so fit?
So architects do square and hew
Green trees that in the forest grew.

Yep, that was me. My body’s best trick was making me physically unable to read half of my books for months. Gave me shooting pains in the wrists. And my depression retaliated by wrecking my tailbone and ribs and knees and feet. Before I knew it, I was just as depressed about the pain as the breakup, and the resulting positive feedback loop was … not positive.

I can tell you, I really wanted out of my body. Or my life.

But according to the visionary writer Ursula Le Guin, there is an alternative to walking away from the pain. You can simply go through.

“Suf­fer­ing is a mis­un­der­stand­ing …. It ex­ists. It’s real. I can call it a mis­un­der­stand­ing, but I can’t pre­tend that it doesn’t exist, or will ever cease to exist. Suf­fer­ing is the con­di­tion on which we live. And when it comes, you know it. You know it as the truth. Of course it’s right to cure dis­eases, to pre­vent hunger and in­jus­tice, as the so­cial or­gan­ism does. But no so­ci­ety can change the na­ture of ex­is­tence. We can’t pre­vent suf­fer­ing. This pain and that pain, yes, but not Pain. A so­ci­ety can only re­lieve so­cial suf­fer­ing, un­nec­es­sary suf­fer­ing. The rest re­mains. The root, the re­al­ity.

“All of us here are going to know grief; if we live fifty years, we’ll have known pain for fifty years. And in the end we’ll die. That’s the con­di­tion we’re born on. I’m afraid of life! There are times I — I am very fright­ened. Any hap­pi­ness seems triv­ial.

“And yet, I won­der if it isn’t all a mis­un­der­stand­ing — this grasp­ing after hap­pi­ness, this fear of pain …. If in­stead of fear­ing it and run­ning from it, one could … get through it, go be­yond it. There is some­thing be­yond it. It’s the self that suf­fers, and there’s a place where the self — ceases. I don’t know how to say it. But I be­lieve that the re­al­ity — the truth that I rec­og­nize in suf­fer­ing as I don’t in com­fort and hap­pi­ness — that the re­al­ity of pain is not pain. If you can get through it. If you can en­dure it all the way.”

My initial reaction to this was: Bullshit. Been sick, been well. Well is better. We don’t need pain.

Unless you want to believe in something higher, that is. According to my religious history professor, the greatest blow ever struck to religion was effective painkillers. Suddenly you didn’t need a reason for your suffering. You could leave that battering bastard behind.

But sometimes, of course, you don’t want to get away. As sadists and masochists, we know that pain can be delicious, thrilling, beguiling. And I have come to believe that every kink is rooted in some experience that feels good for vanillas too. So what is this about pain that can make us feel like we have touched the hand of God?

It turns out that Ursula Le Guin has the answer to that, too. It comes at the end of the same conversation I quoted above. They’re talking about a man dying from full-body burns.

“You couldn’t do any­thing for him. There was no aid to give. Maybe he knew we were there, I don’t know. It didn’t do him any good. You couldn’t do any­thing for him. Then I saw … you see … I saw that you can’t do any­thing for any­body. We can’t save each other. Or our­selves.”

“What have you left, then? Iso­la­tion and de­spair! You’re deny­ing broth­er­hood, Shevek!” the tall girl cried.

“No — no, I’m not. I’m try­ing to say what I think broth­er­hood re­ally is. It be­gins — it be­gins in shared pain.”

I think Ursula Le Guin is right, at least about me. My pain is getting better because of all the people helping me. Their professional knowledge of alternative medicine helps, but the moral support is what makes the difference between depression and progress. You could say my body and I are in marriage counselling.

And I think Ursula Le Guin is right about BDSM, too. She’s just described my price for offering up my body and soul as your plaything: that you make the journey with me. Your focus in exchange for my everything else. Know my pain carnally, as I know your pleasures.

That’s how we come to live in each other’s minds. That’s how pain turns into magic, holiness, love.

I wonder, can I turn this around and make it into my metric for when to get out of a relationship? God knows I need something. Because it is really, really hard to know your breaking point when you’re tuned to abject submission. For me it’s not just the body, not just the heart, not just the soul – all of me just wants to take it.

I do have a lot of ego and willpower. But none of that tells you when to stop. It just keeps everyone on the rack for longer.

So here’s what I will tell myself next time. The red flag is when the pain stops being shared – whatever kind it is. When the power exchange starts becoming a reservoir of misery, and before it becomes an oubliette of all feeling.

That’s when it’s time for the black hole to go wormhole.

See you on the other side? Perhaps we will find something to share.


Modernised rendering of
A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body

Oh, who will rescue from this dungeon
A soul enslaved in so many ways?
With bolts of bones, that stands fettered
In feet, and manacled in hands.
Here blinded by an eye, and there
Deafened by the drumming of an ear;
A soul hung up, as it were, in chains
Of nerves, and arteries, and veins;
Tortured, on top of every other body part,
With an empty head, and a double heart.

Oh, who will rescue and preserve me
From the bonds of this tyrannical soul?
It impales me, stretched upright
So that I fall headlong to my own doom;
It warms and moves this needless frame,
(Even a fever could do the same)
And wanting somewhere to try its spite,
Has made me live to let me die.
A body that has found no rest
Since this ill spirit took possession.

What magic could confine me thus
To pine within another’s grief?
Whatever it complains of here,
I feel the pain I cannot feel.
And it employs all my care
To preserve the thing that destroys me;
Forced not only to endure
Diseases, but even worse, the cure;
So often ready to come safe into port,
I am shipwrecked into health again.

But no medicine could ever reach
The sicknesses you teach to me;
You tear me first with the cramp of hope,
And then the palsy shakes of fear,
Heated by the pestilence of love,
Eaten by hatred’s hidden ulcer;
Joy’s cheerful madness perplexes,
And sorrow’s other madness vexes;
Your knowledge forces me to know,
And memory will not let it go.
What but a soul could have the wit
To build me up so fit for sin?
Just as architects square and smite
The forest trees that once grew green.

– Original poem by Andrew Marvell
– Modernised by Xiao Yingtai, with help

Click to return to original poem.

7 thoughts on “Pain Is a Battering Bastard … And More (Part 2)”

  1. Wow! “Your focus in exchange for my everything else”, so strongly resonates. I love Le Guin’s writing in general, I think I’ll read it differently now you’ve suggested that interpretation!

  2. I recommend Andrew Marvell’s “The Gallery”, if you don’t already know it. It’s about the ways he pictures (images and imagines) his lover, Clora.

    He sees her in various Dommelike guises, as a cruel Venus who devises pains and pleasures for him. But also as a gentle “milky-thighed” woman who consoles him.

    Some critics say that Marvell is parodying the masochistic vein that runs through a lot of love-poetry. Maybe. I think it’s more likely that he’s writing it more intensely because it’s what he feels.

    Anyway, the poem’s on-line in various places. It’s very much from a male point of view, and I suppose male-submissive, so I recommend it for the writing, and not necessarily because it expresses things that you feel. (I’m “outside” that poem too, as a non-masochist, and I still like it very much.)

    1. Thank you for the reference! It definitely doesn’t do anything for my kink, but it’s certainly clever. I actually don’t see it as masochistic at all, but perhaps that’s because I don’t know anybody who actually wants to be murdered or gutted. I guess I see it more as commenting on the love-hate extremes of the effects of lust (er, I mean, love)?

  3. Well, the vision of Clora as a creature who’s ripped him limb from limb is only one of a number of the images he has of her, and it’s a metaphor for her emotionally tearing him apart, not actually physically gutting him.

    And I do think there’s a human tendency to gain pleasure from emotional suffering: that whole turn up the torch songs, get drunk and howl along thing that people do, after they’ve been dumped or they think their lover is off with someone else.

    Some people enjoy that pleasure more and take it further than others. People who enjoy some kind of pleasure more and take it further than average get called kinky.

    So I think that image illustrates one kind of emotional masochism.

    I definitely wasn’t applying the poem to you, personally. That’d be stupid, as well as presumptuous and a bunch of other dumb and rude things.

    I meant it as something interesting that you might enjoy from “outside” the emotions he expresses, in the same way that it’s not a set of things that I’d be likely to feel or say about a woman, but I also appreciate the poem from “outside” the poet’s emotional world.

    That is, sexualised appreciation of a woman who gives both pain and pleasure is not my kink either, but I do think that kink is going on. In a terribly civilised way, of course.

What do you think?