The Painful Self: Flesh and Body


            The soft palate at the back of my mouth collapses during sleep.  My breathing stops twenty times each night.  Since my oxygen supply drops, I wake up groggy, grumpy and un-refreshed.

            My body is mine yet it is inhabited by that which threatens me.  I was not aware that a faulty piece of design was responsible for my lack of rest and that I could be revitalized through a technological intervention.

            The body becomes flesh extreme moments where pleasure and pain collide.  These lived intensities make the nerves pulse in ways previously un-experienced.

            The throat surgeon tells me that the laser surgery will feel like having a bad case of strep throat.  It is the work “like” that puts me on edge.  The pain I am now experiencing is unlike anything I have ever felt.  The laser pulses with a light that vaporizes flesh.  I smell the back of my throat burning.  Smoke comes out of my mouth; wisps of charred remains.

            The freezing spray hit the back of my uvula and makes me gag.  The liquid is sprayed into my nostrils to calm the membranes, but the recoil makes me choke.  The anesthetic delivered through the needle point numbs the roof of my mouth.  Tears flow without effort my cheeks.  It is too late to get up and leave.

            In addition to my uvula being “trimmed” by a laser, I have three plastic tubes resembling small Greek columns implanted into my soft palate.  These columns will cause the palate to harden, thus eliminating the collapse that causes sleep apnea.  The brochure states, “most people resume normal activity and diet the same day.”  I am not sure who those super humans are.  The brochure does not say anything about excessive mucous that makes swallowing an act filled with dread.  To deal with the pain I am given the typical dose of Percocet and codeine.  I take the pills and wait.  Nothing happens.  I begin to do some breathing exercises learned from my martial arts training, but the Tao is on the dark side of the moon and is indifferent today.

            The experience of pain allows for the discovery of our vulnerability.  It does not allow for distraction.  It forces you to face yourself at your weakest point without having the option of retreat.  I try to distract myself from the pain that pulses in my throat.  I paint, I write, I attempt to sleep. I want to leave my body, but the pain stays with me as the drugged body stores its memory of trauma for later re-call.  Pain does not allow for forgetfulness.  Every cough and swallow is a reminder that I am embodied.

            When I am in pain, I do not feel that I have something called soul.  I am soul when I join with another.  I am body when alone.  Pain is a weight.  It weighs down.  Pain delivers us over to the passivity of the corpse pose.

            Living through the pain shows the absurdity of the analytic epistemologists.  They ask:  how do I know that anyone else suffers pain?  How do I know that anyone knows of my pain?  The pain of others is only doubted in scholarly journals.  Noah falls off his bike and scrapes himself.  To look upon the other who is in pain, is to have knowledge of what pain does.  Noah sees the pain I am experiencing. He takes me by the hand and shows me his favorite baby picture on the fridge.  He says the picture will make my heart feel better.  He teaches me the meaning of compassion.

            To capture this moment is to wipe the pain away, like rain thrown off a windshield during a storm.  Here I wonder if pain can teach us lessons in peace.  To be witness to pain is to share that pain with a compassion that can heal.  How hurt can be healed must no longer remain a medical question.  It must become an ethical and political question capable of providing real answers and active implementation rather than election sound bites.

            Holly runs through the water park without fear. She is not yet two. The water cascades off her little body. She squeals with delight as the spray soaks her hair. She emerges from the whale’s rib cage to be drenched by the bucket downpour. Along the way to the geyser, she slips and scrapes her knees, but this does not stop her from the baptism of the great gush.

            It is only when she stops to look at her knees, red and a little bloody that she crumbles and cries for me. I tell here that she is OK. Noah comes by and tells her that she is a rough and tumble hockey player.

            In the Ethics, Spinoza returns to the knowledge provided by the body.  He writes, “Man knows himself only through the affections of his body and their ideas.”   I think that Spinoza errs when he links pain to impotence.  He writes, “Pain is man’s transition from a state of greater perfection to a state of less perfection.”  Pain is the realization that one is human and animal.  Pain allows us to give an account of ourselves. In giving this account, I have come to realize that to be alive is to feel pain. Being has teeth. Life and its orifices give both pleasure and suffering. 

In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche argues that we become aware of ourselves after injuries we have inflicted.  We narrate to the other what has happened to us.  In opposition to Judith Butler, I believe that one can explain, “why I have emerged in this way.”  My emergence is not a mystery.  Pain makes me transparent.  It takes what I want to hide and makes it visible.  It can be read on my face, in my posture, in the way my body moves.  Following Adorno,Butler argues, “to be human seems to mean being in a predicament that one cannot solve.”  Pain solves all predicaments because it lays waste all previous definitions of what one thinks they are.  Pain is born by me.  It bears me towards myself so that I am brought to the other in my frailty and vulnerability.  Paul Celan writes: “ Die Welt is fort, ich muss dich tragen.” –Where the world disappears I must carry you.  It is within carrying and bearing, caring and burying that what we are reveals itself beyond the confines of mere flesh.


About Mark Zlomislic

Philosopher. Writer. Artist. My Studio/Gallery Inscape Fine Art is located in Cambridge, Ontario. Viewing by Appointment Only. Please email:
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