“I have given a name to my pain and call it “dog.” It is just as faithful, just as obtrusive and shameless, just as entertaining, just as clever as any other dog–and I can scold it and vent my bad mood on it, as others do with their dogs, servants, and wives.” -Nietzsche, The Gay Science.
I first heard this Nietzsche quote while I was sewing–yes, I like to sew and listen to philosophy books as well as novels! It was a quote that caused me to stop my electronic reader and sew quietly for a while. Then I read it and reread it with more and more attention and finally, a poem popped out! Although it needed another month or two of embellishments and revisions, it felt complete, like it was destined to be a thing, from the very beginning.
The poem “A Pain Named Dog” is one of the few I’ve written that I keep coming back to, and it seems to keep resonating. I usually tell people that I stole the central conceit from Nietzsche, and I hope that sometimes it gets people to read The Gay Science, but who knows? It’s a book of aphorisms, so spending quality time with one of the aphorisms is perhaps as good as flipping through them all.
I presented the poem last summer at the School for Poetic Computation as a part of my lecture I called “Nietzsche in a nutshell.” It resonated with the students who were reading works on writing disability, including Nussbaum’s great book Frontiers of Justice, which I write about more in Exploding Stigma.
Written after a period of illness, The Gay Science illustrates what Nussbaum has to say about the generality of humans entering into and out of disability/dependence throughout their lives. Nietzsche makes embodiment a central tenet of his philosophy, and pain an unavoidable component of that embodiment. His relationship to pain, namely treating his pain as if it were a dog to be trained and disciplined, turns pain from a thing that he submits to into a thing that submits to him–at least in theory.
Perhaps then it makes sense that “A Pain Named Dog” turned out to be the first poem I read out loud in public since I’d lost the ability to read normal print around the age of fifteen. For decades I was ashamed of my inability to read with my eyes, and embarrassed that I could no longer read out loud. I had been really good when I was a kid.
Finally I hit upon using my little electronic reader’s earbud as a Cyrano, whispering my own words into my ear. That tiny fix made it possible for me to enter fully into a writerly life, and it was not new technology but a kind of paradigm shift in my mind about what reading was. Though I’d been listening to electronic books for decades, I somehow did not make the leap of understanding it to make possible my own presentation of words.
A Pain Named Dog
I have given a name to my pain
And call it dog.
I can tell it to sit, lie down,
Roll over, play dead.
I scold it and shame it
And pretend it’s my bitch,
And though it worries my carcass
And growls and shits,
It gives me a leg up. On profundity.
I have given a name to my beauty
And call it snake.
I observe it wind my hand,
Delicate as flowers, ferocious as fangs.
I tell it: “Pulse danger!
Swallow blind mice!”
And though its little murders do not ripple
The still-water universe,
It’s all about ego. Feeling groovy.
I have given a name to my anger
And call it cockroach.
I fatten it with booze and candy,
It waxes petty and spiteful.
I chase it to squash it,
Curse its very existence.
But because it incites war
In the bowels of men,
It does me some good. Keeps them in check.
I have given a name to my disease
And call it Devil.
Sad devil, mean-spirited,
Jealous, and cruel.
I know the Fiend called Devil
Is the Blindness called life,
Still I shout: “Huzzah!”
With the rest.
It appeases. Why not?
I have given a name to my sadness
And call it God.
I tell it: “You are dead!
Long live you?”
I command: “Sit, stay, roll over,
At least fucking play dead!”
And though it is just as obtrusive and entertaining,
Shameless as any other god,
There are others. I pray.