Control is an illusion. One day you are privy to rivulets of water trickling down a granite rock in the mountains and the sun is on your back and the world feels warm and perfect and the next day you’re in a hospital bed with an IV drip running into your wrist and a young woman taking your pulse. “The heart asks pleasure first,” said Emily, “and then, excuse from pain; and then, those little anodynes that deaden suffering.”
Let me tell you about those little anodynes. They’re fantastic. But you can’t get a prescription for them, and you can’t find them on a shelf at the drugstore.
It’s not they’re rare. The anodynes I have in mind are the things you hear, things people say, or write, things that you mentally digest, so that when the meaning comes clear, relief comes with it.
That is to say, life can be so sad at times. It is necessary to invent things. And sure, yes, absolutely, this is where rare comes in. It’s rare to invent something as liberating as an anodyne.
It comes from the Greek, anodyne: anodynos, “free from pain.”
Morphine, valium, xanax, heroin, ibuprofen, St. John’s Wort, skullcap and wild cherry bark are all forms of anodyne available as pharmaceuticals and herbal medications in the material world. Some are habit forming. Some are not. Some are effective, some are not. Morphine works. Skullcap does not.
The best anodynes are the ones that occur naturally in the spirit world. The world of the intellect. The world of dreams and affections, vowels and consonants. Whether there is actual division between the external world and world of idea and emotion is questionable. There does seem to be division of some sort, because when I choose to be warm on a cold day I tend to remain cold. Willpower alone does not make me warm. I must put on a coat. It might be argued that the willpower to put on a coat is an indirect action of my will upon the environment, but the environment itself remains unchanged. The breath coming out of my mouth is vapor. I am changed in my relation with the environment when I put on a coat, so that it is the coat that becomes the anodyne, and my willpower which is the expeditor of the coat as anodyne.
The coat is a material with a material effect on my relations with external reality. But the machinations to bring that event about are internal in origin, and are therefore the eyes of an inner vision looking into the subterranean chambers of my being.
My neighbors leaving for the day is an anodyne. Albeit an uncertain anodyne, because I don’t know for sure how long they’ll be gone. But for the duration that they are gone, I won’t hear their scrapes and crashes and thuds on the floor, or B sloshing around in the bathtub, adjusting the faucets, squeak slosh splatter splutter splash. I’ve never heard such an array of sounds emanate from a bathroom. I wasn’t aware that a combination of pipe and water could produce such a variety of sound. It is not pleasant. At first it’s a bit curious, then it becomes annoying and worrisome. Because it sounds as if water may come leaking through the ceiling at any minute. It sounds like our neighbor is giving a walrus a scrub bath. And the pipes groan and hiss and howl like they’re expressing all the maledictions of metal. Like they’re hydraulic odes of bathtub anguish. Pathologies of insatiable hygiene. Gantries for the stellar winds of madness.
The cat purring on my lap is an anodyne. Until he decides to get aggressively playful and bite me.
The sloshing of the dishwasher is pleasing, though I’m not sure it’s an anodyne, as there is always a measure of worry with mechanical things, worry that they may break down, flood, go berserk, eat your house, eat your children and pets, destroy the neighborhood, bring lawsuits.
Meditation: anodyne. Mushin: anodyne. Chocolate Chip Cookie: anodyne.
There are times when pain has value and it’s valuable to experience pain. Not sciatica, certainly, not that kind of dumb, meaningless and chronic pain, but the sting of rejection. Here, in order to soothe the psychological pain, you must inject yourself with the heroin of your own self-knowledge. Who you really are. Hand and eye. Seeing into nothingness.
I would go further, and say that pain may contain its own message of healing. Pain itself can be an anodyne. It is a wonderful paradox. A heightened awareness of a pain can alter our response to the pain and transmute the pain itself from a leaden weight to a golden illumination. This is putting a very positive spin on it, I know, but I can see where it might have some reality, and have, in fact, experienced such transmutation, at least a little. Enough to think it might be real. Enough to call pain an anodyne, and revel in the paradox.
But ultimately, I agree with Emily. Deadening pain is the best solution. Feeling its power not as a malevolence but as a genius, a prodigy awakening us to the brighter kerosene of our personal wick, requires tremendous personal commitment and hours of determined self-possession. An almost preternatural focus, which may cause us greater pain by the failure of our efforts and the chimera of the quest. It is noble, yes, but it may also be deluded, and there must come at some point a surrender, which bears its own essence of sweetness. And really, what is that feeling after the codeine or vicodin have diffused in our blood stream? It is the feeling of detachment, it is when that formal feeling comes, as Emily expresses it, “and the Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs.” The state to attain, the recommended psychological stance, is one of death in life.
Emily doesn’t mention morphine or laudanum. Morphine was first isolated in 1804 by Friedrich Sertürner and commercialized by Merck in 1827. The hypodermic needle was invented in 1857. Means were available at the time Emily composed her poetry to alleviate pain. But she is referring to another way to experience pain, in which the pain is respected, felt to its fullest, until it becomes a numbness akin to freezing, “First - chill - then Stupor - then the letting go - ”
Nor does Emily refer to meditation or eastern philosophy. She presents pain just as it is, bald, unadorned, “an Element of Blank” with no future but itself, or ability to tell when it did not exist. She associates pain with eternity and spirituality and there is just a tint of Christian piety. She most broadly suggests that pain is synonymous with fullness of being.
And you can’t get around that central fact: pain is inevitable. Life hurts a lot more than death, said Morrison. “At the point of death, the pain is over. Yeah, I guess it is a friend.”