Migraine Mind and Language’s Radical Malleability: A Review of Lisa Olstein’s ‘Pain Studies’

At the beginning of her luminous new book, Pain Studies (Bellevue Literary Press), Lisa Olstein is concerned with finding the language to discuss the migraine pain she’s been dealing with since 1997. She lists adjectives: “dull, sharp, throbbing, burning, aching, stabbing, concentrated, diffuse.” She suggests a metaphor: “I’ve never experienced anything close to drowning, but I imagine that, like pain, it has a way of flooding you with the present.” And she describes where and how her migraines hurt: “left brow like a pressed bruise, an overripe peach you accidentally stuck your fingers into; top of the head a china vase in a vise tightening, all angled echo clamor.” Instead of settling for the idea that her pain is indescribable, she lays down shimmering prose that subtly unhinges the reader, conveying what it’s like to see the world from a migraine’s point-of-view. Pain Studies is, as a result—and this is just for starters—a fascinating look at what can happen when you attempt to pour pain into language.

Part of the experience of reading Pain Studies is discovering how it works. It is composed of very short blocks of text: impressions, memories, observations, and insights juxtaposed with discussions of material from various sources. Olstein works by interweaving bits of her personal history with tangentially related objective content. She moves, for example, from a calculation of how many hours she has spent with a migraine to the trial of Joan of Arc, and from a conversation with her neurologist to Bob Seger lyrics, to the writings of pre-Socratic philosophers, Elaine Scarry, and Virginia Woolf. As you read her work, you become aware of how she uses public sources to puzzle through very personal questions: Why is her migraine pain so ineffable? How can it be expressed?

Early chapters in Pain Studies look at what we ask of language—what we will say, what we won’t, what we can say, what we can’t. Here Olstein leaps from a discussion of her specific burden (translating the experience of migraine mind) to an examination of a public event, the trial of Joan of Arc. “In the altered state that migraine imposes,” she writes, “I find myself acutely, at times even obsessively, interested in Joan—specifically in her trial. That is, in what she had to say.” To give us an idea of what Joan endured and achieved under duress, Olstein quotes passages of the trial transcript. A picture of Joan emerges: she is opaque and yet rawly honest. Olstein observes that Joan’s testimony is “[e]piphanic, resistant to standardization, full of lyric logic and lyric leaps.” Joan’s words are “swerving atoms, the collision-creations in an otherwise-sterile rain.” Olstein marvels at the way Joan’s language disrupts the procedure of the trial:

Constantly reasserting its own argument through persistent, plodding, painstakingly unoriginal form, procedure has a funny way of highlighting the very resistance it quashes. At least, within the confines of its dimly lit chambers, flashes of autonomy and originality seem to glimmer more brightly than just about anywhere else. Mapped out on body and mind, then, is the normal our procedural, a dull sky across which the abnormal flares? Such as inspiration? Such as pain?    

Her sentences beautifully capture a mind engaged with the idea that “pain is extralanguage.” Joan’s resistance to procedure, which Olstein later refers to as “genius-rage,” is “outside of the norms by which dominant modes of language typically order and mean.”

Another of Olstein’s aims throughout this book is finding an artifact, or several artifacts, that can elucidate perception. Why? Because we perceive pain. Because pain altars perception. Because perception is pain.

One of the most interesting artifacts Olstein ends up discussing is the art of Donald Judd. Seeking an alternative space to house his sculptures, Judd built a gallery of sorts inside two sheds, former airplane hangars, in rural Texas. His work, 100 untitled works in mill aluminum, is a display of identical boxes that play with the light that comes through the sheds’ windows. Olstein calls it “a masterpiece of strict repetition as a means to infinite variation.” The boxes “lay bare point of view, temporality, associative function, aesthetic pleasure, control and chance, shadow and light, source and reflection, the changeability inherent to each.” In short, the boxes reveal the mechanisms of perception. They physically manifest “the multiplicity of any knowable thing.” Olstein is enthralled by their prismatic variety, which reminds her of migraine mind. She writes, “If migraine’s prism could be painless, if migraine mind could be prismed through the lens of a hundred brushed aluminum boxes reflecting desert earth and sky, it would look like this.” Olstein clarifies what she means in one sprawling sentence:

What I mean is that like the sheds, migraine is a space you enter and are enveloped by and it is a different version of the world in there, where perception itself is an identifiable orchestration in full swing, and all the familiar and all the strange, the invented and the reflected and the revealed take up their parts and, like music, unfold in time, but a form of time contained by the architecture of certain stabilities so you can not quite rewind or repeat but continue playing or step back into the playing, which is always playing until you step back out of it and in some way it stops and in other ways it keeps going.

This sentence is as immediate and as intense as the experience it describes. And beyond revealing “the glory process of perception,” it lays bare in one burst Olstein’s powers as a writer.

Pain Studies also wrestles with ideas about causality and meaning. Olstein’s investigation of these ideas includes two conversations. In one conversation, she and her mother discuss hereditary predisposition (her mother has suffered from mild migraines). In a second conversation, they talk about something more distressing. Olstein writes, “Always I can hear my mother’s throat constricting when she answers my questions about the time I tumbled from a swing at the playground…and hit my head on something, a rock maybe, falling briefly unconscious.” Did the injury cause Olstein’s migraines? Olstein doesn’t seem to think so, but “every so often, probing for a deeper history, biased toward injury and convinced they’ll find some more satisfying causality lurking there, the story pricks the ears of some new doctor or body worker.” Olstein seems more swayed by the idea that her migraines are caused by a chance disturbance in the brain. The problem with chance, however, is that it is “cause stripped of meaning, an origin story or fated end without moral or lesson.” What we want, she suggests, is information that can teach us something.

Pain Studies is all the more powerful because its content is echoed by its form. It builds in fragments and bursts of prose. Its colors are vivid and brilliant. And if it’s difficult to sum up, that is because it faces in many different directions. Moreover, the book is acutely influenced by the pain Olstein writes through and around. “In any given moment,” she writes, “my relationship to language may be actively metabolizing migraine, and when migraine isn’t present, that relationship is still shaped, like anyone’s, by my accumulated experience—its form as much as content.” Olstein doesn’t suggest that her altered relationship to language is a gift, but she admits she’d be a different artist if she didn’t experience chronic pain. Perhaps if she lived pain-free her point-of-view wouldn’t be so prismatic. Perhaps she wouldn’t feel so at home with the lyric essay.

A profound, challenging work, Pain Studies works on the reader like poetry, revealing what Olstein calls radical malleability: language’s, ours. It is truly a dazzling addition to the literature on pain.


Adrienne Davich

Adrienne Davich’s work has appeared in VAN, a classical music magazine, PopMatters, The New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in St. Louis.

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