Engaged with a desire to understand whether the absence of pain is possible, Eula Biss develops the topic of the subjectivity of the pain scale and, in this way, tries to cope with her pain. The description of the chronic pain experience presented in The Pain Scale is very poetic and exciting. It is difficult to understand chronic pain without experiencing it, and therefore the author needed to use so many intertwining topics – scales, mathematics, literature, religion, personal stories, and other directions. Section 0 ‘No Pain’ emphasizes Biss’s message that any judgment is vague because the starting points they rely on, as zero in the pain scale, are themselves uncertain. I find it interesting that despite the author’s concern about the concept of Zero, other sections do not discuss it directly but gradually return to it.
Section 0 is remarkable for several reasons and has a few differences from the rest of the chapters. Biss managed to achieve the goal other authors are striving for – to cause a desire to continue reading. In particular, for me, contradictory statements served as exciting ‘hooks’: “absolutely no pain is not possible,” “Zero is not a number,” and “Zero is a number in the way that Christ was a man” (Biss 66). I became interested in evidence the author could give in favor of her claims. As already noted, the section’s distinctive feature is that it is directed to discuss the contradiction in the concept of Zero, and the rest chapters serve as evidence to which the author comes. Moreover, unlike other sections, only 0 and 10 are highlighted because they have titles. ‘No Pain’ stands out as it asks questions of concern and begins the reflection.
Despite the differences in the sections, the line of thinking and the form the author gave to her arguments are similar throughout the work. Chapters begin with introductory sentences and then in short paragraphs, where contrasting topics are intertwined – from mathematics to Dante’s Inferno, Biss gives her arguments. They show the displeasure that the author experiences due to the contradictions and subjectivity of the meaning that people can put into one idea.
I noted some anxiety that accompanies the text – Biss doubts everything and is unsure of her assessments of events happening around, as she seeks perfect objectivity. At the same time, the author knows that ideal is impossible since “Even the absolute is not absolute” (Biss 67). These patterns – to question everything and search for contradictions – begin in section 0. The chapter presents unexpected connections and comparisons: the association of pain experience and ways to measure aspects of human life for understanding it, and a comparison of the idea of zero and Christ. Such an unusual style of narrative is characteristic of the whole piece.
Not all readers will find something interesting for themselves in The Pain Scale, as the author conveys the experience of chronic pain in an unusual form and discusses the contradictions of the concept. However, for me, Biss’s emotions that she is experiencing while trying to assess her feelings are familiar. Not necessarily pain, but I can question other impressions – whether I liked the book, whether I really need rest at the moment, and similar subjects, as they are not always unambiguous. Comparisons are unusual for me – concepts of Zero and Christ, various scales of measurement, presence, and absence of pain, and similar contrasts. They may be incomprehensible while first reading, but comparisons inherently combine the author’s thoughts when adequately considered. This trait gives uniqueness to the piece and makes the audience reread it to find new ideas.
Biss expands readers’ understanding of the experience of pain and its understanding. My ideas about pain are more tied to health issues, especially in considering the physical side. However, thinking about emotional pain and suffering can also lead to reflections on justice in the world and even searching for the meaning of life. Understanding pain experiences largely depends on the culture and personal traits. A person with strong religious beliefs may accept pain as a way of purification, and another one may consider its misfortune. Although the author’s ideas open a new perspective for assessing pain, they do not complicate my views, partially correlating with them. On the practical side, Biss can complicate people’s assessments and judgments. However, with proper confidence in their own opinion and openness to the new, readers will only expand their abilities for critical analysis through Biss’s ideas.
The Pain Scale presents the author’s reflections on the experience of chronic pain and attempts to understand it. She discusses many contradictions and ambiguities, establishes unusual connections, and questions everything. I see an extreme degree of criticism and skepticism in Biss’s considerations that carry no practical value in these features. Nevertheless, feeling alone in pain and expressing feelings on the pages of The Pain Scale, the author becomes a support for people with a similar problem and thereby helps overcome this loneliness. The application of her arguments is not necessary but can expand the understanding of pain, subjectivity, making judgments, and other issues.
Biss, Eula. “The Pain Scale.” Creative Nonfiction, no. 32, 2005, pp. 65–84.