The Pain Organ, Moorer and Schwartz, 2014. Graphite on paper, mixed media, heme.
“for what is quite literally at stake in the body in pain is the making and unmaking of the world.” Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain.
This is one of several sketches I made during a particularly bad flare-up. Delirious with pain and exhaustion, I decided that there must be a pain organ somewhere making all of this pain. If I could just turn it off or find someone to remove it, the pain would end. But when I tried to picture it, to draw it and describe it, it got bigger and bigger until it exceeded the body.
the pain organ sits in the head
the pain organ is bigger than the head
blebs out (maybe it’s really a gland) of its casing
smothering over skinbodyparts
the pain organ is a greasy membrane that filters, throbs
an electric tantrum of skin, tissue, blood
In 2013 an article appeared in the medical journal PAIN detailing a breakthrough in neuroscience that finally describes the physiological mechanism behind fibromyalgia pain. The thing you’ll notice when you click through to these articles is the consistent assumption that what these women were feeling wasn’t real or ‘rational’ until neuroscientists ‘discovered’ the mechanism behind it using instruments. There is a long history of women’s pain and ailments being reduced to ‘psychosomatic’ (look up the history of ‘neurasthenia’ if you want to know more) or ‘all in her head.’ But now that doctors have discovered the mechanism, this particular kind of pain is ‘real.’
‘Pain isn’t real; it’s just an electrical signal sent from an injured part of the body to the brain.’ This is the mantra (or some variation of it) that self-help books tell us to repeat to remind ourselves that the terrible, mind-altering (literally, physically mind-altering) pain we are suffering is not really real pain (a cut, a broken bone, a burn), but only a message that we can choose to ignore.
But what if it is ‘real?’ And not just in the way that can be measured in blood? What if it is another sense like vision that ‘feels’ something out there or in here that we can’t sense in other ways? A sense for violence. A sense for things that break and cut, burn and penetrate. A sense for things that are breaking in a way we can’t sense otherwise. What would it feel like if the liver was trying to communicate that it was processing too much insulin and failing? That is why we can only talk about it in terms of itself. There is no language for pain outside of pain because the pain itself is a sense, a feeling that we don’t recognize like ‘seeing,’ which is only ever vision done in infinite ways. Instead of sensing light, or chemicals, or audio waves, pain is the sense for things that are breaking or being broken, of Too Much or Too Little, which is happening all of the time around us and to us, inside of us. So maybe we are feeling the pain of things breaking out there as well and instead of listening and changing or understanding, we ignore and control.
If pain is another sense, then there must be a pain organ that can be located. That organ seems to be the brain although sometimes I am sure that the pain organ is outside me, somewhere I can’t see. The pain organ is out there, sensing things I cannot, sending me overwhelming, terrible signals I can’t interpret or understand. The pain organ is also inside me making pain chemicals and hormones that are nothing like the opposite of pleasure chemicals.
The pain organ is probably the bodymind, which is everything in the world.