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Posts Tagged ‘pain’

Nothing Is Alien: An Interview with Leslie Jamison

April 7, 2014 | by

leslie_jamison

When Leslie Jamison and I met outside the Glass Shop, an airy café in Crown Heights, I noticed her left arm was sporting a wide, wordy tattoo. It was in Latin, and she spared the embarrassment of translating it—“I am human; nothing is alien to me.”

Too often, Leslie says, people treat tattoos as an invitation to intimacy. Strangers on the subway ask her to relay the story of her tattoo without a second thought, much as they would, in offering a seat to a pregnant woman, ask for the details of what’s growing inside of her. But in Leslie’s case the tattoo does point to an intimate story—or rather, to a whole constellation of intimate stories that Leslie offers in her essay collection The Empathy Exams.

“I am human; nothing is alien to me” is the epigraph to the collection. It is a quote that has been casually misattributed to Montaigne, John Donne, Karl Marx, and Maya Angelou, but it actually comes from The Self-Tormentor, a play written by Terence, the ancient Roman slave turned playwright. It is the thread that connects such different yet equally luminous works as “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” “Pain Tours,” and “The Devil’s Bait”—meditations on how to feel pain, both physical and psychic in nature, and how to regard the pain of others in a way that respects their humanity. Having read The Empathy Exams, I can begin to appreciate why Leslie has made the small, if painful, jump from writing about the body to writing on the body.

Leslie and I circled this conversation so many times at the Glass Shop that we decided to revisit it one morning in late October at my apartment in Brooklyn, and later that day, on the Metro-North to Yale University, where we are both finishing Ph.D.s in English literature. Most of the time, the tape recorder was on, but sometimes I switched it off so we could gossip idly, and forgot to switch it back on until Leslie was already halfway into a thought on feminism I wanted to preserve. But if this interview reads like the midpoint of a conversation that’s been taking place for some time now, that shouldn’t prevent you—the reader—from making sense of it. After all, you are human. This will not be alien to you.

The most ungenerous criticism of the collection that I could imagine is, Oh, she keeps putting herself in these positions to experience pain or woundedness so she can have something to write about. How narcissistic. I can see people thinking as they’re reading, She’s a real glutton for pain.

I guess that’s why it felt right to put “Grand Unified Theory” at the end of the collection. That idea of being drawn to pain is starting to emerge as a pattern in the essays themselves, and the final essay speaks to that directly. What position of pride do I have in relationship to these experiences?

There’s a basic and important distinction to draw between positions I inhabit as somebody who has experienced some kind of trauma and somebody who’s seeking out pain. Going to the Morgellons conference is a choice in a way that getting hit in the street isn’t. But the collection chooses to bring all of those experiences together in a certain way—what kind of appetite is being spoken to there? In certain ways, as a writer, you do profit off your own experiences of pain, and there’s a way of seeing that profit that’s wholly inspirational—in terms of turning pain into beauty—and a way of seeing it that’s wholly cynical—in terms of being a “wound dweller” in a corrosive or self-pitying way. The honest answer—to me—dwells somewhere between those views. Read More »

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Dispatch from Stockholm: Bad Fiction

December 10, 2010 | by

Mario Vargas Llosa photographed earlier this year.

The world press surrounds him, chases him, wears him down. And by now, Mario Vargas Llosa has begun to feel the secondary effects of this immense happiness—a happiness for which even he has been unable to find an appropriate adjective. The celebration has been defined by an overwhelmingly busy schedule, the most emotional plaudits, the harsh Swedish winter, and the vertigo of being in the public eye minute by minute in the Twitter age. Vargas Llosa is mostly silent, careful not to strain his voice, and hopeful that the pain he’s felt in his leg for the past forty-eight hours will soon pass.

This morning, I found him eating cereal for breakfast at Stockholm’s Grand Hôtel, and he told his daughter Morgana that the pain hadn’t yet gone away. The novelist had even asked the Nobel organizers to let him stop by a clinic on the way to the opening of an exhibit about his life and work at the Cervantes Institute. What had happened?

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Staff Picks: Sleepless in a Sleeper, Murdered Beavers

October 1, 2010 | by

I have been reading Richard Holmes’s Footsteps. If you're ever sleepless on a sleeper train at two o’clock in the morning crossing southern Illinois (or shunning breakfast conversation in the diner six hours later), I recommend it. —Lorin Stein

George Saunders’s masterful short story “Commcomm” in The New Yorker. An acidic workplace satire that somehow free-falls into a Christian redemption myth. Plus, it features one of fiction’s most memorable headlines: MURDERED BEAVERS SPEAK OF AIR FORCE CRUELTY. —Kate Waldman

I reread Mrs. Dalloway last Sunday. Kept coming back to parts of it all week, underlying here, circling there. This line sticks out to me today: “For in marriage a little license, a little independence there must be between people living together day in day out in the same house ...” —Thessaly La Force

After seeing a selection of Stones, the late-fifties lithographic collaboration between Larry Rivers and Frank O’Hara, in a sneak preview of MoMA’s new “Abstract Expressionist New York” exhibition, I’ve been perusing my much-thumbed copy of O’Hara’s Collected Poems and the wonderful In Memory of My Feelings, a collection of poem-paintings (originally created in 1967) that pairs O’Hara’s verse with works of art by more than two dozen of his contemporaries. O’Hara worked as a staff member and curator at the Museum of Modern Art during much of the fifties and early sixties, when many of the works in this show were being created. It’s perfect that his art is there among them. —Nicole Rudick

In lower moments, I have also been relishing David Rakoff’s essay collection Half Empty. Tough, suave, dry, and very funny. —L. S.

This week, two articles have been helping me think through the dreary and troubling sameness at the core of today’s “diverse,” “multicultural” literary community: Tim Parks’s cogent piece in The New York Review of Books and Evert Cilliers’s flawed but stimulating polemic at 3quarksdaily. —Mark de Silva

I revisited Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, which explores the repercussions of pain's inexpressibility. It dredged up memories of emergency-room visits past, when the doctor entreats you to describe your pain on a scale of one to ten. “A three?” I would say, unconvincingly. As Scarry points out, pain (sadly) can only be expressed by its agents— the hammer, the burning flame, the wrenching wrench. —Alexandra Zukerman

My friend gave me When You Reach Me because the main character and I have the same first name, but that's by no means the only reason to read this excellent novel. Sure, it's a children’s book, but its themes—the fumbling processes by which we attempt to assert independence; the challenges of expressing affection; that moment when you begin to understand how things work—remain resonant. Bonus: It's also about time travel, and the chapters are very short—perfect for brief subway rides and five-minute waits. —Miranda Popkey

Hurry! The Naipauls are coming to dinner. —David Wallace-Wells

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