Turning Pain Into Art: How’d Frida Do It?

I went to see Frida more out of duty to the sisterhood than genuine curiosity, and found myself both smitten and inspired. Having never responded to the feminist cult of St. Frida, and being put off by the folkloric art and self-dramatizing imagery of the doom-laden Mexican spitfire with that accusing monobrow look, I expected a female version of Saint Sebastian, wallowing in the slings and arrows of medical martyrdom. Instead, I found in Julie Taymor’s film a funny, furious, sexy, moody, unstoppable woman and artist, determined to rise above both self-pity and pain by turning misfortune into macabre and darkly comic images. And then there was the personal angle: Having had my own experiences with abdominal pain, I wanted stoicism, not suffering, a “woman’s film” that turned the genre inside out.

And so I found myself shuddering with recognition, my insides lurching, during the very first scene. The artist, on the brink of death, is being rushed to the hospital as the cumulative injuries from childhood polio and then a trolley accident finally claim her body. The vehicle she’s traveling in hits a pothole. Eeaagh! The clenched teeth and seething eyebrows of Salma Hayek’s Frida let us know that what was already a “10” on the pain-ometer leaps off the chart. It’s one of the few times we are shown a glimpse of the physical agony Frida must have endured. In the rest of the film, the experience of pain is externalized and transmuted into art.

Eerily, five days later at midnight I was in an ambulance myself, with an intestinal obstruction and shrieking-out-loud cramps, on my way to New York Hospital clenching my teeth as we bounced over potholes that could give Mexico City a run for its money. I have the pain, I thought, but not the paints.

Acute pain, unlike chronic pain, has a way of sharpening the mind, distilling the moment into exact pinpricks of sensation, which is another way of stepping outside the agony by charting its course. Perhaps it’s all that adrenaline from the fight-or-flight response pumping into the system. The recent J.F.K. medical revelation was not that the President was in pain and on medications. The surprise was the sheer quantity of both that the man put up with and that he could still perform as well as he did. Likewise, F.D.R. downplayed the crippling effects of his polio. And Jed Bartlet, the President on The West Wing , got through years of the job without revealing his M.S. The first impulse on hearing of such medical cover-ups is fear, then outrage that anyone so disabled should remain as Commander in Chief. But we might wonder if the very act of having and transcending pain doesn’t concentrate the mind in productive ways.

In his fascinating 1991 study The Culture of Pain , an analysis of how different societies and eras read and interpret pain, David Morris (writer, English professor and former pain clinician), cites the example of Immanuel Kant. Up all night, “his toes glowing red from an excruciating attack of gout,” the great 18th-century philosopher would handle his affliction by choosing a subject-say, Cicero-and concentrating so fiercely, summoning up everything he knew of the orator, that the next morning he’d wonder if he hadn’t simply imagined the pain.

The emergency room offers plenty of time for cogitation between and during waves of pain, but my Latin is too rusty for Cicero to anesthetize my nerve endings. Mostly I eavesdropped on patients on either side of the curtain and waited. And waited and waited (18 hours as it turns out) to get into a room. Beds were tight. On that particular night, New York Hospital was harder to get into than an Upper East Side nursery. And then I missed the doctor who’d been waiting for us because my distraught husband signed me in, according to the name on our insurance card, as Mrs. S., while I was known to the doctor on call, and everyone else, only by my professional name.

I finally got into a room. I had nothing to eat or drink, but no pain. I’ll eventually have to have surgery, but I can only be grateful my condition is neither chronic nor terminal. Mercifully, I’ll forget the pain, and will be ready for another round. For now, I write in my journal, listen to books on tape, obsess over weird things, sleep only a few hours a night, watch television at odd hours.

In some African tribes, pain is interpreted as the work of demons. For medieval Christians, it was God’s judgment, a reassuring message from the Divine. There’s comfort in explanation, and we seek our own version of culpability: stress. I know it’s what triggered my pain. A trip in a small plane to the snowy north, appearing on two panels, having to hold my end up and perform, the new tension of the working woman: “I’m tied in knots” as the saying goes, only in my case literally. Morris, in his book, challenges the mind-body dualism that leads to the “Myth of Two Pains.” The numb trance-like state of a Marguerite Duras character, the “hysteria” of 19th-century women, the “Element of Blank” in Emily Dickinson are cries of pain in which physical and mental are intertwined, possibly indistinguishable. In the traditional woman’s film, whose contours Frida reflects and subverts, women are paralyzed by their powerlessness; dependent on men, unable to effect any change in the world at large, their lives are spent busily denying their own purposelessness. As a result, they seem to embrace misery, even sink into illness, “real suffering,” as a way of getting attention, wresting tears, a kind of Munchausen syndrome given romantic expression.

The irony of Frida is that the accident that condemned her to a lifetime of pain sprung her from conventional feminism. A tomboy to begin with, an incipient radical, she might still have ended up like her sister, a married member of the bourgeoisie. But flat on her back, looking into a mirror, she refused passivity and acted in the only way she could: She painted what she saw, X-rays of a mutilated body.

I’d actually have liked to know more about Frida’s pain, when it happened, how it felt. Did spinal injuries hurt more than Diego’s infidelities? Unlike slow-fading emotional insult, the thing about physical pain is the glorious feeling when it stops. Life rushes in, the world is sacred and born anew when the morphine drip works, when Imitrex intercepts the migraine. If the hospital strips you of your identity, it also strips you of pretense.

You can only laugh at this Purgatorial limbo where you shuffle around with tubes in every orifice, wearing a smock that barely covers your backside. I try to think of ways of converting misery and the ridiculous into something else without covering it up altogether, the writerly equivalent of Frida’s wild, grisly drawing of her miscarriage in an American hospital and the painting, now so rich with symbolism, where she gives birth to herself under the portrait of her mother.