Beautiful Work

A Meditation on Pain

Beautiful Work

Book Pages: 128 Illustrations: Published: June 2000

Author: Sharon Cameron

Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Theory, Religious Studies

The stories one tells about pain are profound ones. Nothing is more legible than these stories. But something is left out of them. If there were no stories, there might be a moment of innocence. A moment before the burden of the stories and their perceived causes and consequences. For Anna, the narrator of Beautiful Work, there were moments when it was not accurate to say in relation to pain "because of this‚" or "leading to that." They were lucid moments. And so she began to hunger for storylessness.
In order to understand the nature of pain, Anna undertakes a meditation practice. We tend to think of pain as self-absorbing and exclusively our own ("my pain," "I am in pain"). In distinction, Sharon Cameron’s Anna comes to explore pain as common property, and as the basis for a radically reconceived selfhood. Resisting the limitations of memoir, Beautiful Work speaks from experience and simultaneously releases it from the closed shell of personal ownership. Outside of the not quite inevitable stories we tell about it, experience is less protected, less compromised, and more vivid than could be supposed.
Beautiful Work brings to bear the same interest in consciousness and intersubjectivity that characterizes Cameron’s other work.


“[A] lyrical and absorbing quest to understand pain as an entity in and of itself, devoid of ownership and separate from suffering.” — Publishers Weekly

“[F]or those who are able to draw on their own experience . . . Cameron’s Beautiful Work may succeed in evoking Anna in all her humanness and, more important, in clearing the ground for meditation.” — Vivian Heller , Literature and Medicine

“[F]ull of thoughtful and thought-provoking cleverness for all its renunciation of the ravishing world; it is a book full of sadness, masterful prose rhythms, and soulful resonance. . . . [I]t is itself a beautiful work that effervesces once you put it down.” — Paul Baerman , Duke Magazine

“[S]pare, refreshing, exquisitely written. . . . [T]he restraint of Cameron’s style highlights the urgency of the questions she raises.” — The New Yorker

“The narrator hungers for conditions of absence, of emptiness—for storylessness and conceptlessness, for an expunging of the ‘self’a s we know and treasure it in the Western world.” — Nina Baym , American Literature

“This slim volume is indeed a ‘beautiful work.’ In examining the origin and nature of pain, Cameron weaves an unconventional narrative from dream accounts, memories and conversations with acquaintances, living and dead. And while there is a complexity to the several layers of discourse, it is Cameron’s direct and honest delivery that makes the book so accessible and poignant.” — Andrea McQuillin , Shambhala Sun

“With great effort, discipline, and an absence of sentimentality, Cameron explores pain while on three retreats. . . . Cameron’s authenticity and willingness to explore the pain within pain is ennobling. This is not an easy book to read, but like meditation, it’s definitely worth the effort.” — Ronna Kabatznick , Inquiring Mind

Beautiful Work employs the strategies of twentieth century modernism to satisfy its ‘hunger for storylessness,’ but is a work of dazzling contemporanaeity. Poetry, fiction, autobiography, philosophy, and theology comfortably coexist and seamlessly merge in this delicate but fearless probing of the unanswerable questions that are the source of all serious writing. Cameron is a wonderful addition to the small choir of low, clear voices dedicated to the performance of the difficult and strange.” — Janet Malcolm

Beautiful Work is a remarkable book. It is the key that fits the lock—this is the possibility of living without pain turning into suffering, of freeing the body to heal in the heart.” — Stephen Levine

“In Beautiful Work Sharon Cameron tries to locate the origin of pain, tries to free it from narrative, so that it can be known as something in itself. It is an obsessive yet disciplined search. Cameron’s prose is lyrical, even incantatory, and its descriptive acuity carries the reader to the far reaches of consciousness, to a place where language both embodies sensation and moves beyond it, creating a delirium of awareness, a place where the presence of nothing (disembodied yet whole) and death are agents of illumination. Beautiful Work in itself is a beautiful work, a profound and original one.” — Mark Strand


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Price: $34.95

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Sharon Cameron is Kenan Professor of English at The Johns Hopkins University. Her previous books include Choosing Not Choosing: Emily Dickinson’s Fascicles; Writing Nature: Henry Thoreau’s Journal, and Thinking in Henry James.

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Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2508-6
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