June 11th, 2021

Dead to the World: On Bob Flanagan’s The Pain Journal


Bob Flanagan not only found pleasure in his pain but used his masochism to fuel his art. Adam Mitts revisits Bob’s final work of art, The Pain Journal, begun 408 days before his death in 1996, ending in tandem with Bob’s life.

photo by Sheree Rose

“I hate to be so monotonous but I’m still in awful pain,” Bob Flanagan writes on the evening of November 10, 1995. His partner is gone, his lungs and stomach are “killing” and “hurting” him—he is dying: “Sometimes I think they’re missing something and I’m going to die earlier than I have to before they catch it.” The uncertainty and risks of both medicine and temporality are magnified by how the body spends itself in its few remaining days: “I literally slept all day on the couch….The worst of it is the waste of time. Days like this filled with nothingness are horrible.” Dying isn't something that can be eased into, but rather is haunted at every turn by labor, as materialized in the journal: “I don’t want to write this crap but I’m forcing myself to.” This labor becomes “monotonous,” becomes “crap,” not because it is forced—after all, the libidinal desire to write comes as much from the contract as it does from mortality, the publishing contract which competes with the masochistic contract, itself a hovering, haunting presence throughout the text: “Sheree’s in Greenville….But she’s having fun and I’m glad I’m home….In bed. Suffering. Dying” (Flanagan 157). 

Bob Flanagan’s The Pain Journal, written while he was dying of cystic fibrosis at the age of 42, is many things, from a daily chronicle of the excruciating minutiae of chronic pain and terminal illness, to a bitter and often funny critique of end-of-life care, filled with subversive humor which disrupts the patient’s proscribed role as the one who patiently suffers. But what’s most interesting to me about Flanagan’s book is what it reveals about the relation of illness to labor, and the relation of the corpse to value—the valorization of the dying body. Flanagan’s is a dying which is relentlessly productive, in large part because the Journal’s form requires a daily writing habit, but also because of his financial needs and his work as an artist. But the value accruing in The Pain Journal as a commodity never arises from his labor alone. Flanagan is acutely aware that at least some of the value of his book springs from the inevitability of his death. As a result, Flanagan’s complaints about his bodily pain overlap with complaints about his writing, about its failure or impossibility under these conditions, the worsening conditions of a body suspended in a slow-motion animation of its own expiration, so that the pain of The Pain Journal is the pain of being in too much pain to articulate anything in language other than that: “I hate to be so monotonous but I’m still in awful pain” (157).

Pain used to be not only a source of pleasure for Flanagan, it was also the source of his livelihood, as someone who famously turned his masochism into performance art. However, it could be said that both his sexuality and his art had their source in his illness—Flanagan writes of dealing with the pain of childhood stomach aches by rubbing his penis on his sheets, for example, or how “when [he] was tied up as an infant in the hospital,” the mixture of his parents’ extra love and affection, and the painful medical treatments for his cystic fibrosis, made it so that “two contradictory feelings were fused together….the horrible things happening to me were made into something better; a sweetness is overlaid” (Supermasochist 12-13).

photo by Sheree Rose

One thing that Flanagan teaches us is that there are different levels of pain which are managed by different bodily techniques, and susceptible to variations in differing types of bodily energies. This is why, although his illness was arguably the psychological source of his masochism, none of his masochistic superpowers can hope to prepare him for the debilitating denouement of his illness. “I used to talk about using pain to reach an altered state: I’m high as a kite on a drug called pain,” Flanagan writes on September 19, 1995. “Well, this kite has had all the wind knocked of it” (Pain 122, italics original). At the time he wrote this journal entry, using drugs to reach an altered state was an abiding concern for Flanagan—in large part, because he felt doing so would improve the quality of his writing. His doctors, who Flanagan was convinced saw their terminally ill patient as some sort of junkie, refused to prescribe him a dosage which would dull his pain enough to allow him the psychic and energetic space necessary for aesthetic labor.

Two days later, he writes: “Missed a day of writing because I dropped off the edge of the world last night, exhausted” (123). Missing journal entries compound the sense of time running out, increasing in frequency as his illness intensifies. Meanwhile, Flanagan becomes increasingly distressed about the quality of what he has already produced. He stresses that he waits too long into the day to begin writing, when he only has energy to sleep or watch television (120). “So not try writing in the daylight hours, before I’m dead to the world?” Flanagan asks on July 23, 1995. “The question is, when am I not dead to the world?” (90). No matter when Flanagan tries writing, or how early in the day, pain and exhaustion block his creative faculties.

As Flanagan begins to question the aesthetic value of what he can produce under his current working conditions, he starts to question the project itself, “this stupid obligation to write this ‘pain’ article,” asking himself, “How come I’m still laboring over it?” (99). Flanagan’s reasons for continuing the project, in part, parody the publishing contract by making it replicate the masochistic one: “Discipline. The rules. Being a good boy. That’s why” (152). But more importantly, Flanagan pursues the project because he wants to do valuable creative work:

I need to be able to write great things again and be able to write them fast because, eventually, probably sooner than later, that’s all I’m going to have left is the writing and it damn well better be good (99-100).

As a result, Flanagan’s complaints about his pain and his writing begin to take on more radical dimensions. Bob Flanagan, self-proclaimed “disability poster-child from hell,” ends up arguing for the rights of people with disabilities to proper working conditions, but doing so in a characteristically perverse way. Refusing to be anesthetized into a passive “end of life,” Flanagan argues for quality of life, regardless of prognosis, and for access to conditions under which one can work when one is ill.

Much of the genius of The Pain Journal comes from how Flanagan exhausts the possibilities of the journal form. The daily, contractually obligated form of the journal replicates Flanagan’s lifelong themes of medicine and masochism in an aesthetically reinforced way, since the journal is also a serial, regular submission to a form of discomfort, one which eventually produces value the longer one patiently undergoes its temporal demands. However, the “monotonous complaint” also has a sense of urgency due to the temporal structure of the journal as a narrative form, since in The Pain Journal, the end of the book is already expected by the reader to be the death of the author.

Flanagan’s struggle with his doctors over painkillers isn’t only about drugs for Flanagan—it’s a struggle over working conditions and a conflict between two different regimes of value. In most instances where Flanagan mentions drugs, it’s so that he can “get some goddamn work done while I still have time to do it” (158). In making this argument, he frames his heavily medicalized life as a patient as a form of labor, and devalues longevity in favor of a pain treatment regimen which will capacitate aesthetic productivity:

Life is my full time job, and the pay stinks. I feel like a prisoner on the rock pile, pounding big rocks into small. Not only is there no pay, but I’m beginning to wonder what it’s all for, is it even worth it. Here’s where I think the advantages of IV pain meds at home would greatly outweigh the dangers. At the rate I’m going I’m at a much higher risk of saying fuck it all. I need some damitall spark to smooth out the rough edges so I can devote some time and energy to something else besides the constant bodily maintenance….[sic] (142)

To be clear, this “risk” which Flanagan figures as “Damitall,” a pun on the painkiller Demerol, is not expressing a preference for death over a painful life—rather, Flanagan is making a calculated decision to assume the risks of taking higher doses of opioids in the interests of decreasing his pain enough that he can perform aesthetic labor. Otherwise, what is the remuneration that Flanagan receives for the “full time job” of living with a terminal illness, where “nothing happens anymore but medical torture” (169)? What is the value produced by the medicalized torture of which Flanagan is “life tired” (122)? For the doctors, Flanagan’s longevity is valuable so long as he is a viable consumer; in contrast, Flanagan values his productivity, which means more control over the dosage and types of painkillers conducive to aesthetic labor.

Flanagan’s struggle with his doctors over painkillers isn’t only about access to drugs. It’s also about who gets to decide which forms of labor produce which forms of value from Flanagan’s dying body—whether he is profitable as a patient or an artist, and profitable to whom.

Bimbox zine cover, circa 1990s

What becomes truly life-sustaining for Bob Flanagan at the end of his life is not only the capacity to perform aesthetic work, but also the intrinsic provisionality and open-endedness to journal writing as a form of aesthetic labor. Much of the genius of The Pain Journal comes from how Flanagan exhausts the possibilities of the journal form. The journal is a form of aesthetic labor which makes practical sense for a person with a debilitating and painful illness. The “monotonous complaint,” as a literary device, uses repetition and seriality to produce a sense of the exhausting banality of chronic pain. Maurice Blanchot writes that creative work is

The exceptional moment when possibility becomes power, when the mind….becomes the certainty of a realized form, becomes this body which is form and this beautiful form which is a lovely body. The work is mind, and the mind is the passage, from the supreme indeterminacy to the determination of that extreme. This unique passage is real only in the work—in the work which is never real, never finished, since it is only the realization of that mind’s infiniteness (The Space of Literature, 88).

The provisionality of the journal, its openness to future entries and future revisions, is precisely this passage, this “lovely body” which Flanagan ingeniously collapses with his own through the temporal form of the journal as a narrative form and a form of labor—one entry a day, until there isn’t. While emotionally devastating for the reader, this provisionality was apparently life-sustaining for Flanagan. In the final entry of the journal, December 16, 1995, Flanagan writes about printing out the pages of The Pain Journal and reading them, and behind his usual self-deprecating anxiety over their contents, there is a legible sense of (albeit disavowed) pride at his handiwork:

I printed out the entire 1995 journal through October. 75 pages. There were some sparkling moments here and there—good writing I mean—but the latter months seem to have degenerated quite a bit. Too sick. Too distracted. But the journal was intended to be just a day to day record, a minimum of a paragraph a day, and never meant to be read unedited by anyone but me. It was a fluke that so many of the entries became exciting rants and observations that have lead to some good writing. I just hope I can sustain that voice to complete some sort of manuscript (italics mine). But in the meantime I’m going for a late night dip in the Dilaudid (172-173).

I would like to argue that this penultimate sentence, “I just hope I can sustain that voice to complete some sort of manuscript,” should be read in an expansive sense. This sentence makes legible an affective undercurrent of provisionality and open-endedness to the journal form, in particular, and aesthetic labor, in general, which sustains Flanagan through the project, and all his anxieties about its failure. This hope, of someday sustaining a voice he fears he doesn’t have, is what allows him to sustain the voice he has had all along.

Bob and Sheree’s wedding photo, 1995

Adam Mitts:

Adam Mitts is a poet from Michigan. They studied creative writing at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, and are currently a PhD candidate in poetics at the University at Buffalo.

David Kuhnlein:

David Kuhnlein lives in Michigan. His critical writing is featured at 3:AM, Full Stop, Entropy, DIAGRAM, and others. He's online @princessbl00d.

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