Bonded by Language: Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body
What have I said in Written on the Body?
That it is possible to have done with the bricks and mortar of conventional narrative, not as monkey-business or magic, but by building a structure that is bonded by language.
(Art Objects 189-190)
Jeanette Winterson burst onto the literary scene with her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), a bildungsroman in which the female narrator is violently exorcised by the elders (including her mother) of the Pentecostal Church, where she is a young preacher, when at the age of fifteen she falls in love with another girl member of the Church. The book was almost universally acclaimed by British reviewers, awarded Britain's Whitbread Prize for a first novel, and adapted by Winterson as a widely seen and praised television drama series. The book was simultaneously embraced by the lesbian feminist movement as a novel that made a major new contribution to sexual politics. What was not so appreciated at the time of this first novel's appearance was the way that language plays a constitutive role in the construction of the narrator's sexual subjectivity. When her mother turns on the narrator, she affirms the Church's patriarchal belief that "the message belonged to the men" (133). By assuming to turn preacher, the girl narrator had "taken on a man's world," not just in a social but a sexual form (133-4). Her adoption of the male role of a preacher led in their opinion to her adoption of the equally "unnatural" role of a lesbian lover. The elders of the Church accordingly attempt to alter her sexual orientation by depriving her of the Word, forbidding her to preach. Her response is to employ her own words in Oranges Are the Only Fruit, a text in which she can reconstitute her sexual subjectivity through the signifying power of language.
Clearly modeled on her own childhood, this first novel led critics to expect her to continue in the same vein (note 1). Her exuberant mixtures of fantasy and history in her next three novels, Boating for Beginners (1985), The Passion (1987) and Sexing the Cherry (1989) were accepted as suitable substitutes and widely praised. But with Written on the Body (1992) the British reviewers with few exceptions turned against Winterson and her work, or rather against her work because she wrote it. Her declared lesbian orientation was a major factor in arousing the prejudices of the heterosexist British reviewers and, strangely enough, the reservations of lesbian critics alike. Yet Written on the Body, with its sexually indeterminate narrator, is a deliberate attempt to dispense with distinctions of gender and to meditate on the nature of love stripped of its specifically hetero- and homosexual features. It is my contention that Written on the Body, like Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, focuses on the power of language to create both subjectivity and sexuality, and that to concentrate exclusively on the politics of the lesbian subject blinds reviewer and critic alike to the preoccupations and very real distinction of this novel.
This essay will concentrate, then, on ways in which Winterson confronts the linguistic problems of narrating a romance, starting with her admission that the entire subject of love has been verbalized so extensively and repeatedly that it is almost impossible to write anything new about the experience. Her subject is less love than the problems associated with describing it in narrative or textual form. I will show how Winterson, facing the unavoidable necessity of falling back on the clichéd language of love, uses such language against itself. Her narrator alternates between moments of utter verbal banality and moments of critical detachment from and examination of such language. Just as the narrator defines love by its loss, so does the language of love derive much of its power from the breakdown of its expressive function. I will show how Winterson pursues this parallel between sexuality and textuality to imbue language with its own life, a life that can revivify the love the loss of which it is brooding on. Winterson will also be seen to employ a variety of specialist languages drawn from such discourses as those of the Bible, travelogues and anatomy, as well as employing such divergent narrative modes as dramatic dialogue and epistolary fiction, to overcome the over-worn status of romance fiction. This novel is less about desire than it is about the language of desire, and less about the phenomenon of love than about the problem of its fictional representation.
To get at Jeanette Winterson's writing it is necessary to clear away more than the usual amount of critical debris and readers' misprisions. The first task is to dispose of the mountains of biographical criticism that have accumulated especially in the British press and that serve as substitutes for serious evaluation of her work. The British literary establishment never got over her choosing one of her own novels when asked in 1993 to pick her Book of the Year for The Daily Telegraph. She also had the effrontery to make public her affair with her literary agent, Pat Kavannah, who happens to be Julian Barnes's wife. There were other provocations, including her claim to be the direct literary heir to Virginia Woolf.
Still only in her early 40s, Winterson invited some of this vituperation by her naiveté and inexperience with the media. But reviewers and critics have allowed this extraneous and sometimes misreported material to affect their assessment of her innovatory and distinctive work. Representative is James Wood, the Guardian's principal book reviewer, who attributed to her sixth novel, Art and Lies (1994), the failings that he found in Winterson's public personality: the book is "a walking self-advertisement" which "preache[s] the importance of itself" (T 11). In other words, Wood claims, the novel suffers from the egotism of it's author. Reviewing her next novel, Gut Symmetries (1997) for the Daily Telegraph, Anthony Quinn is even more blatant in his obfuscation of the difference between writer and writing: "Great writers understand that profound rumination is the more powerful for being handled with a little humility. Winterson is more interested in advancing the idea of herself as a stylist" (4).
Again and again critics and reviewers have asserted that since the publication of her fifth novel, Written on the Body, if not before, Winterson's work has shown a catastrophic decline from its earlier promise (note 2). This escalating chorus of criticism may reflect the fact that each of her books has become more meditative and less narrative, a trend of which she is fully conscious. In her only collection of essays to date, Art Objects (1995), she asserts, "I realised that [. . .] plot was meaningless to me. [. . .] I had to accept that my love-affair was with language, and only incidentally with narrative" (155).
Winterson's repeated portrayal of love between women is a major cause of distortion and prejudice among the reviewers of her books. On the one hand the British critics have tended to accuse her of male-bashing, and once again the source for the accusation proves to be pseudo-biographical rather than based on her fiction. Tellingly, it is mainly the male critics who focus on Winterson's supposed anti-male stance and read it back into her fiction. Peter Kemp, chief book reviewer for the Sunday Times, is representative. Reviewing Art and Lies he deplored Winterson's "propensity for scrawling the graffiti of gender-spite across her pages," her "sexist goings-on," and her "high-pitched rhapsodies [. . .] given voice in the novel's extensive interludes of lesbian lyricism" (2). Kemp and others seem to have forgotten Winterson's creation of such sympathetic male characters as Henri in The Passion and Jordan in Sexing the Cherry, Jordan who (like Winterson herself) records the journeys he "might have made, or perhaps did make in some other place or time" (2). Such critics equally forget Winterson's hilarious caricature of the successful female writer of romances, Bunny Mix, in Boating for Beginners, or of the preposterous, fundamentalist Mother in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Responding to a question concerning gender in The Paris Review, Winterson replied: "I see it as less important as I get older. I no longer care whether somebody's male or female. I just don't care" (Bilger 102).
It is ironic that Winterson's writing has also been badly misrepresented by some of her fellow lesbians, mainly female academics. In their case the origin of their misrepresentation is not founded on a judgment of her character, but is based on the success or failure of her work to conform to what they consider to be a correct representation of contemporary lesbian-feminist politics (note 3). They pursue this line despite Winterson's public insistence that she doesn't "want to be a political writer, or a writer whose concern is sexual politics" (Bilger 105). Even Winterson's first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which has been proclaimed one of "the few canonical texts which are central to the fledgling lesbian literary tradition" (Munt xx), is nevertheless criticized by another critic of lesbian literature for failing to live up to "the political agenda" of the lesbian writer (Doan 147). But it is Written on the Body with its narrator whose gender is withheld that seems to have aroused the most criticism from lesbian critics. Patricia Duncker is most explicit in giving her reasons for finding this novel a failure: "Written on the Body is a text full of lost opportunities. Winterson refuses to write an 'out' lesbian novel." In doing so, "she is losing more than she gains" (85). In the same collection of essays in which Duncker writes, Cath Stowers defends Winterson from this charge on the grounds that she conforms to Monique Wittig's definition of lesbianism as not just "a refusal of the role 'woman'," but "the refusal of the economic, ideological, and political power of a man" (13). Thus the lesbian school of criticism can only salvage Winterson's work by demonstrating how, despite appearances to the contrary, she actually conforms to lesbian politics and aesthetics. Ultimately, as Louise Horskjaer Humphries has suggested, in the case of most lesbian critics "the work is being judged by the writer (in particular her sexuality) [. . .] rather than the writer being judged by the work" (15). By a twist of irony British male reviewers and lesbian academic critics coming from opposite directions end up alike reading into the work what they think they discern in the author.
Winterson herself is very clear about where she stands on this issue. "When I read Adrienne Rich or Oscar Wilde [. . .] I am not reading their work to get at their private lives, I am reading their work because I need the depth-charge it carries" (Art Objects 109). As for herself, "I am a writer who happens to love women," she insists. "I am not a lesbian who happens to write" (104). What appears to be autobiographical in a good writer's work, she argues, is actually a rhetorical strategy: "It presents itself as a kind of diary when really it is an oration" (105). This is just as true of Written on the Body as it is of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Even if one disregards the critics' tendency to read Written on the Body as a roman à clef in which her past affair with Pat Kavannah and her concurrent one with Peggy Reynolds are waiting to be revealed by the critic skilled in literary gossip, this novel is still largely discussed in terms of Winterson's known sexual orientation. Katie Owen is representative of such a response when she asserts in her review of the novel for the Sunday Telegraph that "this is clearly a gay novel, with little sympathy for heterosexual relationships or men in general" (111). Joan Smith reviewing the novel for The Independent, Daniel Johnson reviewing it for The Times, and Anthony Curtis reviewing it for The Financial Times all make the same assumption. Winterson is in effect being charged with writing a gay novel that is being coy about its gayness. Yet, as Judith Butler observes, "being 'out' always depends to some extent on being 'in'" ("Imitation . . ." 16). Besides, do all gay novels have to offer an affirmation of gay love? Winterson herself insists that her use of an ungendered narrator is intended to burrow beneath the divisions of gender in order to excavate the essence of love:
I mean, for me a love story is a love story. I don't care what the genders are if it's powerful enough. And I don't think that love should be a gender-bound operation. It's probably one of the few things in life that rises above all those kinds of oppositions-black and white, male and female, homosexual and heterosexual. When people fall in love they experience the same kind of tremors, fears, a rush of blood to the head. [. . .] And fiction recognizes this. (Marvel 165)
Since Written on the Body is commonly held to mark the point in Winterson's writing when she supposedly lost her bearings, I want to focus on this novel which I believe is an exceptional achievement, arguably her best work to date. Considerable critical attention has been paid to this novel due to its use of an ungendered narrator. Clearly this highly original device allows Winterson to escape from the binary determinations of a heterosexual representation of human behavior, to examine sexuality in an ungendered fictional universe. Most critics (as opposed to reviewers) of the book cite Monique Wittig's The Lesbian Body (1973) and Judith Butler's Bodies That Matter (1993) in order to explore the ways in which the narrator evades what Butler has termed "the globalizing heterosexist episteme" (Gender Trouble 120) (note 4). Yet many critics, like the reviewers, choose to assume that the narrator is a thinly disguised lesbian lover. They promptly foreclose a text that Winterson has deliberately left open. What is undeniable is that her narrator is bisexual (not androgynous), having conducted affairs with both men and women. Winterson has said that she does not "think people's sexuality is really that fixed" (Bilger 107). Some critics have gone to enormous lengths to cite textual evidence for their assumption about the gender of the narrator. But their ingenious detective work is rendered pointless by Winterson's observation that it doesn't matter which sex the narrator is, because "the gender of the character is both, throughout the book, and changes; sometimes it's female, sometimes it's male" (Stewart 74). All such critics have done is to select those passages in the book where the narrator is (temporarily) female.
Although the use of an ungendered narrator is an innovative move that has significant implications for one's reading of the novel in its entirety, I want to turn to the wider concerns that Winterson uses this device to explore. The ungendered narrator is only one strategy she employs among many to see whether she cannot revivify the jaded language of love. First occurring on the second page of the novel, the phrase "It's the clichés that cause the trouble" is reiterated like a refrain five more times in the course of the book (10, 21, 26, 71, 155, 180). What the narrator is forced to face is that the clichés employed in the discourse of love, sexual desire and romance are unavoidable. Early in the book the narrator repeatedly ridicules the clichés attached to married love: "Settle down, feet under the table. She's a nice girl, he's a nice boy. It's the clichés that cause the trouble" (71). The narrator contemptuously dismisses the safe confines of marriage: "Marriage is the flimsiest weapon against desire. You may as well take a pop-gun to a python" (78). Yet this Lothario or Don Juan type of libertine simultaneously catches him/herself falling victim to the clichés associated with the sexually promiscuous lifestyle:
I suppose I couldn't admit that I was trapped in a cliché every bit as redundant as my parents' roses round the door. I was looking for the perfect coupling; the never-sleep non-stop mighty orgasm. Ecstasy without end. I was deep in the slop-bucket of romance. (21)
Winterson, then, embeds the inevitability of ending up in cliché in the fabric of the narrative even
before confronting this problematic inevitability in recounting the central love story.
The story of the narrator's and Louise's love for one another opens on the first page of the novel, although the reader is unaware that the unnamed "you" is Louise at this point. No sooner has the narrator recalled Louise saying "I love you," than s/he is forced to confront its lack of originality "'I love you' is always a quotation" (9). We can hear the phrase used every day of the year on television. Hardly a single romantic novel published by Harlequin is without it. The focus on "quotation" alerts the reader to the fact that the problem for the narrator of this love story is how to narrate such a powerful emotion without falling back on language already made over-familiar by past use. And what the narrator has to learn over the course of the book is that it is impossible to avoid the use of clichéd quotation altogether. To describe the experience of love necessarily plunges any narrator into a world of intertextuality, of language already long inhabited and become automatized. Winterson's answer to this quandary is to embrace the use of intertextuality and exploit it for all it is worth. In employing those three unavoidable words the narrator compares him/herself to some savage worshipping them only to later curse his/her acquisition of the language of love. There follows a famous quotation from The Tempest where Caliban curses Prospero for teaching him to speak. So even on the first page the narrator is citing another celebrated romance to foreground the Janus-faced nature of language in general and the language of love in particular. This book abounds in references to other books, especially ones concerned with love Madame Bovary, Jane Eyre, House of Fame, Anna Karenina, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Midsummer Night's Dream, Song of Solomon, not to mention writers like D. H. Lawrence and Mark Twain, paintings such as Burne-Jones' "Love and the Pilgrim," songs such as "Lady Sings the Blues," and movies such as Jules et Jim and King Kong. Even Louise's ploy for forcing herself on the narrator's attention is borrowed from the narrative of history: she turns up at the narrator's door soaking wet, just as Lady Hamilton had done so successfully at Nelson's door. Neither words nor actions can avoid being derivative in the field of love.
Many reviewers criticized the novel for its clichéd use of the traditional romance plot boy(?) meets girl; boy(?) loses girl; boy(?) reunites with girl. On the one hand Winterson deliberately appropriates this time worn plot for her own purposes, another instance of her flaunting the intertextual nature of her text. On the other hand the uncertain gender of the lover and the uncertain nature of the reunion breathes new life into this much repeated plot sequence. Carolyn Allen has pointed out a further break with tradition in that the "heroine" (Louise) is the initiator of the love affair (74). Winterson's strategy, then, is to deliberately evoke textual precedents only to establish a distance from them. Critics of lesbian literature (such as Allen) have remarked on how closely the plot and situation of this book resembles Wittig's The Lesbian Body and Djuna Barnes' Nightwood (1936), but also note significant differences in tone (less cruel than Wittig) and outcome (in Nightwood Nora drives Robin from her). That seems to be the effect Winterson is seeking the charge of the old, combined with the shock of various departures from it.
Clichés abound at every level in this novel, and almost without exception Winterson seizes on the cliché and turns it to her own purpose. Instance the adultery involved in the affair with Louise. Previously the narrator had made use of the conventional excuses of adulterers "You had no choice, you were swept away" (39). But this new love for Louise is differentiated from the others by an honesty that forces the narrator to face up to the pain that his/her actions are bound to cause to the third party (Jacqueline): "I know exactly what's happening and I know too that I am jumping out of this plane of my own free will. No, I don't have a parachute, but worse, neither does Jacqueline" (39). Winterson makes particularly heavy use of clichéd situation when describing the narrator's illicit sexual liaisons, such as that with an anonymous married woman:
These are the confines of our life together, this room, this bed. This is the voluptuous exile freely chosen. We daren't eat out, who knows whom we may meet? We must buy food in advance with the canniness of a Russian peasant. We must store it unto the day, chilled in the fridge, baked in the oven. Temperatures of hot and cold, fire and ice, the extremes under which we live. (72)
Yet the language and images she employs serve to undercut the clichéd situation, to place it within a wider moral frame that depends intertextually on references to, for instance, the extremities of ice and fire that afflict the damned in Dante's Inferno, and to Christ's sermon on the mount in which he counseled, "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" (Matt. 6.34). In this way the banality and sordidness of the typical adulterous tryst is reunited with spiritual profundities.
Winterson also evokes the different languages of a wide range of discourses meteorology, biology, anatomy, chronobiology, physics, astrophysics, zoology, not to mention the Bible and employs them to rejuvenate the jaded language of love. Here is just one example among many from marine biology: "She opens and shuts like a sea anemone. She's refilled each day with fresh tides of longing" (73). The sheer functionality of the female lover's sexual opening and closing here acquires the beauty of a delicate marine flower responding to overwhelming tidal flows of desire. She also reaches out to a number of literary genres to add to her armory. In a two-page scene from an imaginary melodramatic playscript, the married woman attempts to reconcile her divided loyalties with a series of clichéd excuses which are neatly undercut by the silence of the lover who ends up in the bathroom silently crying (14-15). In this case a Beckettian silence is employed to expose the emptiness of the married woman's language and emotional life. Later in the novel Winterson turns to the epistolary mode when the narrator writes Louise a letter explaining that s/he feels compelled to leave her to help save her life. The letter starts with an unacknowledged quotation from Twelfth Night (5. 1. 132-3): "I love you more than life itself," continues with even more commonplace expressions such as "I did not know this much happiness was possible," and draws to an end with a tautology: "The message is a simple one; my love for you" (105-6). In between come some highly original expressions of love. Is this mixture of the genuine and the secondhand meant to reflect the fact that the narrator genuinely believes that s/he is acting in Louise's best interests, but later discovers his/her action and sentiment to be derivative and presumptuous? Winterson's self-conscious use of different discourses throughout this book encourages the reader to expect such sophisticated, complex effects.
Winterson's negotiation between the unavoidable use of cliché and the breakthrough into a new language of love reflects an ambiguity lying at the center of the phenomenon of love itself. Michel Foucault has diagnosed a similar duality underlying the discourse of love in his three volumes of The History of Sexuality. For Foucault sexuality itself is a function of ideology:
It is the name that can be given to a historical construct: not a furtive reality that is difficult to grasp, but a great surface network in which the stimulation of bodies, the intensification of pleasures, the incitement to discourse, the formation of special knowledges, the strengthening of controls and resistances, are linked to one another, in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power. (105-6)
It is interesting that Foucault throws together "stimulation of bodies" and "the incitement to discourse," that is, sexuality and textuality (about sexuality). Whichever of the two is invoked, there appears to be an internal contradiction that resists any attempt to achieve stability of meaning or effect. Addressing what she terms "postmodern love," Catherine Belsey defines it from a poststructuralist perspective as similarly conflicted: "Love is [. . .] at once endlessly pursued and ceaselessly suspected. [. . .] It cannot speak, and yet it seems that it never ceases to speak in late twentieth-century Western culture" (685). According to Belsey, desire's citationality roots it not in nature but in fiction and the entertainment industry. The language of love consequently "is at the same time dispersed among banalities, poetry, the sacred, tragedy" (693).
Turning her attention to Written on the Body for half a page, Belsey claims without further elaboration that "[l]ove is very explicitly shown to be subject to the dialectic of Law and desire" (693). How? Where? The opening sentence of the novel (reiterated later) offers the key: "Why is the measure of love loss" (9)? Winterson's unusual word order ensures that love and loss are directly juxtaposed. Love, the novel implies, necessitates and is constituted by loss, just as desire, viewed from the poststructuralist psychoanalytic perspective of Jacques Lacan, is defined paradigmatically by a sense of lack. Talking of the subject, Lacan claims that "it is in so far as his desire is unknown, it is in this point of lack, that the desire of the subject is constituted" (218-9). Lacan proceeds to point out that the lack is located in both the subject and the object of the subject's desire. That dual lack is what produces desire. Similarly in Winterson's novel desire is consistently associated with a dual sense of lack, absence or unobtainability. No sooner does the narrator succeed in luring Louise away from her husband than s/he chooses to absent him/herself from the relationship. This has the immediate effect of raising the register of desire in both the narrator and Louise and sustaining it at a high level for the rest of the book. Winterson is careful to build this interdependency of love and lack into the texture of her narrative. For instance at one point the narrator is describing a moment of tenderness between Louise and him/herself:
I put my arms around her, not sure whether I was a lover or a child. I wanted her to hide me beneath her skirts against all menace. Sharp points of desire were still there but there was too a sleepy safe rest like being in a boat I had as a child. She rocked me against her, sea-calm, sea under a clear sky, a glass-bottomed boat and nothing to fear.
"The wind's getting up," she said. (80)
The paragraph associates "child" with "safety" with "boat" with "Louise." No sooner has s/he achieved this childish sense of safety, of being protected from the storms of nature rocked in Louise's maritime arms, than Louise warns him/her of impending danger. No sooner has it manifested itself than love paradoxically generates the condition for its survival - the immediate threat of loss.
Winterson continuously exploits the parallels between sexuality and textuality. She acknowledges the fact that the language of love is as beyond the writer's control as is love beyond the lover's control. Talking about language in general, she has said, "to release the power of words is to release a power which is sometimes in your gift but never in your control" (Barr 32). In Art Objects Winterson parallels art (literature) to love. Each "challenges the reality to which we lay claim." Part of the pleasure and terror of each is "the world turned upside down" (15). Sappho gives poetic expression to the same belief in Art and Lies: "Is language sex? Say my name and you say sex" (66). If "[a]rt is excess" (Art Objects 94), so is love: beneath Louise's control is "a crackling power of the kind that makes me nervous when I pass pylons" (49).
Language pursues a life of its own. Winterson not only describes humans as textual artifacts but also thinks of works of literature as if they were living beings: "A work of art is abundant, spills out, gets drunk, sits up with you all night and forgets to close the curtains, dries your eyes, is your friend, offers you a disguise, a difference, a pose" (Art Objects 65). Similarly Louise's declaration that she was leaving Elgin because her love for the narrator makes her married life seem like a sham is transformed by the narrator from a verbal offering into a precious object: "I've hidden those words in the lining of my coat. I take them out like a jewel thief when no-one's watching" (99). Obversely the first-person narrator/lover is constituted by language, the language of others. As Lucy Hallet pointed out in reviewing this novel, "The speaking subject is always grammatically androgynous: 'I' is an ungendered pronoun" (116). Gail Right reinforces this impression that character is a construction of language when she tells the narrator: "The trouble with you [. . .] is that you want to live in a novel" (160). Seen from the reader's vantage point, s/he does live in a novel which s/he also narrates. Both love and art offer us "freedom, outside of the tyranny of matter" (Art Objects 59). Like love, language, according to Winterson, offers us a form of religious experience. She thinks of language as "something sacred," (Art Objects 153), books as "talismans" or "sacred objects" (Bilger 76), and the writer's pursuit of perfection as a search for "a Holy Grail" which she knows she will never find (Art Objects 168-9). Still, language is necessarily a substitution for a deeper need or desire that inevitably eludes us in the attempt to give it linguistic life.
At her most intense Winterson will resort to the language of the Bible to express the inexpressible experience of love. Her use of the Song of Solomon in this novel (e. g. Written on the Body 20) has been much commented on. At the same time Winterson recognizes the tendency of lovers' language to topple unexpectedly into absurdity or self-deceit. She rarely loses her critical faculty and will subject her narrator's use of language even in his/her interchanges with Louise to scathing examination:
"Hello Louise. I was passing so I thought I might pop in."
Pop in. What a ridiculous phrase. What am I, a cuckoo clock?
We went down the hall together. Elgin shot his head out of the study door. "Hello there. Hello, hello, very nice." (30)
Not content with mocking the narrator's temporary aberration, Winterson extends her comic image to ridicule Elgin who pops out (rather than in) and sounds like the cuckoo in a cuckoo clock. Similarly the narrator is quick to catch him/herself excusing his/her new-found love for Louise to Jacqueline with the expression "things had changed," when it is s/he who had changed, asking, "Why do I collude in this mis-use of language" (56-7)? One has to be very alert to Winterson's use of language, because she makes it work for herself in complex ways. Describing the narrator's decision to settle for a safe, comfortable, loveless life with Jacqueline, she writes: "I became an apostle of ordinariness. I lectured my friends on the virtues of the humdrum, praised the gentle bands of my existence [. . .]" (27). The repeated use of oxymoron here betrays to the reader the contradictory, pointedly foolish (the Greek meaning of oxymoron) behavior of the narrator in trying to settle for second best where love is involved.
Winterson also uses tropes of travel and anatomy to pursue her textual exploration of the corporeality of love. She has said that she wrote The Passion with its Venetian locale before she ever visited Venice. "I do travel in my head" (Bilger 100). She goes on to point out that travel is a simple trope for conveying "an inner journey and an outer journey at the same time" (101). The lover's exploration of the total person constituting the loved one (not just her body) is given substance by analogy to earlier explorers of new-found lands:
Louise, in this single bed, between these garish sheets, I will find a map as likely as any treasure hunt. I will explore you and mine you and you will redraw me according to your will. We shall cross one another's boundaries and make ourselves one nation. (20)
Where the trope differs from the explorations of early travelers is in the lack of exploitation. This form of love is not conquest but mutual discovery. "I was lost in my own navigation," says the narrator (17). Winterson seems to want to differentiate this love from the stereotypical heterosexual version where penetration of the interior and possession of the gold mined there is the norm. The indirectness of these allusions to the lovers' bodies only adds to the erotic charge and demand on the reader's imagination: "Eyes closed I began a voyage down her spine, the cobbled road of hers that brought me to a cleft and a damp valley then a deep pit to drown in." The next sentence makes us realize that Winterson has used this trope to turn the little world of the lovers into an everywhere: "What other places are there in the world than those discovered on a lover's body" (82)? This is not the only occasion in the book when Winterson draws on Donne's comparison of love to territorial exploration, but with a difference. Where Donne turns the loved one into a conquest ("O my America, my new found land, / My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned" "Elegy 19"), Winterson celebrates reciprocity: "I had no dreams to possess you [. . .]" (52).
In the second section of the novel the narrator, nursing his/her pain, enters into an extended series of prose poems meditating on various parts of Louise's cancer-ridden body. Each section opens with a quotation from an anatomical textbook. The narrator's explorations of Louise's body at times combine anatomical definitions with tropes of travel: "I dropped into the mass of you and I cannot find the way out" (120). This entire section constitutes an extended conceit centering on the paradox that love is so frequently thought of as a disease lovesickness. The narrator, for whom love previously has usually lasted six months, cannot help seeing analogies between a vision of love by definition dependent for its power on its potential undoing and a terminal disease like cancer. Both love and cancer end in death (yes, death too in the sense that the Elizabethans loved to play on so exhaustively). Marianne Børch has succinctly summarized the extent of the parallels between love and cancer established in the text:
no one knows why love or cancer strikes or how to cure it (pp. 67/96); neither can be controlled, but only known from its effect (pp. 53/105); normal rules of existence are suspended (pp. 115/10); the sick body hurts easily, even as intense love-making leaves the heedlessly passionate lover bruised (pp. 39/124); even as the sick body enters a recession of deceptive health (p. 175), so seemingly healthy love may mark a withdrawal into narcissism; cancer invades the body, an intrusion similar to the lover's exploration (pp. 115/123); the cancerous body dances with itself, self intimate with self in the way of dancing lovers (pp. 175/73). (47)
Winterson uses these variations on an anatomical theme to give poetic expression to the underlying duality of love and of the language of love that is the obsessive theme of this narration. As the narrator acknowledges, Louise "opened up the dark places as well as the light" (174). Not just love but language, words, can "poison you" (Gut Symmetries 119). In one interview Winterson agreed that disease is "one of those useful metaphors that everyone understands." She continues: "Even the dimmest people can see that this is not only to do with their own bodies but a kind of metaphor for the state crumbling away" (Bilger 108). The narrator's failures in love can be seen as part of a wider failure in the narrator's society as a whole. Elgin, Gail Right and her pretentious wine bar, Louise's mother and her fear of what the neighbors think, even the degeneration of the local railway station--all indicate a criticism of contemporary Britain.
But if love has its death written into its genetic code, the process can be reversed, at least in the language of love. When the narrator returns home from the library with an anatomy book, s/he sets out to defy the quotidian world of decay and disease: "Within the clinical language, through the dispassionate view of the sucking, sweating, greedy, defecating self, I found a love-poem to Louise. I would go on knowing her, more intimately than the skin, hair and voice that I craved" (111). In writing a love poem about Louise, the narrator is substituting a textual for a sexual and physical evocation of her. So in the section dealing with the clavicle or collar bone, the narrator opens his/her meditation with: "I cannot think of the double curve lithe and flowing with movement as a bony ridge, I think of it as the musical instrument that bears the same root. Clavis. Key. Clavichord" (129). This inventive use of language converts the negative clinical view of Louise into the musical and poetic evocation of the lover the narrator remembers. These prose poems resuscitate the dying Louise with the magic of language, the signifiers of which indefinitely defer desire. Love is and has its own language. This love story is one written on the body, not of the body. "Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights; the accumulations of a lifetime gather there" (89). Only the lover and the artist can decipher this linguistic karma. With her reading hands Louise has "translated me [the narrator] into her own book" (89). Where once the Word was made flesh (John 1. 14), Winterson in godlike fashion seeks to turn flesh back into the word. "Let me leaf through you," Sappho says in "The Poetics of Sex," "before I read you out loud" (The World 46).
The clichéd plot of romance is subsumed within a prolonged meditation on the interdependence of love and language and on the essentially conflicted nature of both language and love. What controls this narrative is not plot but shape. Winterson says she is "a writer who does not use plot as an engine or foundation" (Art Objects 189). Shape is important to her as much as plot is irrelevant. What shape does this book take? There appears to be a movement from the predominantly flippant tone used early on in the narrative to a more impassioned and serious tone once the narrator learns of Louise's cancer. Winterson employs humor throughout. But the overall mood changes from near farce, when describing the narrator's earlier love life, to the lyric tone used for the central love affair, to a near tragic mode that takes over once the narrator has renounced Louise. (Winterson has learnt from Shakespeare, who "never bothered to think of a plot" [Art Objects 149], that tragedy is more effective if interlaced with moments of comedy hence the episodes with Gail Right and Louise's mother.)
Then there is a shape to the narrator's experience of love. What passed for love during the narrator's earlier six-month stands gives way to numbness with Jacqueline: "With her I forgot about feeling and wallowed in contentment" (76). Once the narrator discovers true love, s/he is quickly embroiled in its creative and then its destructive forces. These unavoidable destructive forces are what give love its special charge. "Why is the measure of love loss?" the narrator keeps asking (9, 39). The narrative offers a textual solution. Just as love destroys the libertine in the narrator, so the narration aims at destroying the clichés in the language of love. That process occurs most intensely during the long period in which the narrator mourns the loss of love.
There is also the suggestion of a mythic shape to this book. It opens at a time of drought. "It hasn't rained for three months. The trees are prospecting underground, sending reserves of roots into the dry ground" (9). How can one avoid recalling the opening lines of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land with its "dead land" and "dull roots"? In Art Objects Winterson has not only defended Eliot and his theory of the impersonality of the artist, but has also declared her indebtedness to modernists like Eliot and Virginia Woolf in general, calling them "the mainstream" (177). One might call Winterson a neomodernist rather than a postmodernist. The chronology of this novel seems to have been disrupted in order to suggest a mythic movement from aridity to fertility that parallels that of The Waste Land. The opening in fact anticipates the summer six months after the narrator has left Louise for Yorkshire. Late on in the book we return to this period of drought: "June. The driest June on record. [. . .] The sun that should have brought life was carrying death in every relentless morning" (150). The narrator is left with her own "broken images, where the sun beats" found in The Waste Land (l. 22). And like The Waste Land, the final section of the book offers "a damp gust / Bringing rain" (ll. 393-4). Trudging back to the cottage in the Yorkshire countryside, the narrator finds that the "rain on the dry land from a dry summer hadn't penetrated through the soil to the aquifers, only as far as the springs that fed them" (185). As in the poem, the end of the book appears to promise the possibility of renewal after dearth / loss.
Yet the ending resists any such redemptive interpretation. Just how are we to take the finale in which Louise reappears, whether in person or in the narrator's fantasy the critics cannot decide? There is another way of understanding it. The entire narrative is a confessional told in retrospect until we catch up with the dry September described on the opening page, which occurs approximately on page 161 out of 190 pages. Further the narrative is put in the hands of a narrator who is seen to be factually unreliable. "Have I got it wrong, this hesitant chronology?" asks the narrator early on (17). Twice someone alleges, "'You're making it up.'" "Am I?" the narrator asks the reader as much as the character (22, 60). On another occasion the narrator addresses the reader directly: "I can tell by now you are wondering whether I can be trusted as a narrator" (24). For Winterson art is in the business of "persuading us of the doubtfulness of the seeming-solid world" (Art Objects 135). She resists realist art, and considers that film and television are now satisfying people's need for "the narrative of fact." That "should free up words into something far more poetic, something about the inner life, the imaginative life" (Bilger 91).
Discernible in the ending is a structure that defies such progressive patterning as I have traced in Winterson's use of narrative shaping. The end is reminiscent of the Piranesi nightmare that the narrator is caught up in: "The logical paths the proper steps led nowhere" (92). In narrative terms this romance likewise leads nowhere. Consoled by a friend who says, "'At least your relationship with Louise didn't fail. It was the perfect romance,'" the narrator comments, "Was it? [. . .] The happy endings are compromises" (187). Next the narrator wonders, "Did I invent her?" (189). Finally in the penultimate paragraph Louise appears at the kitchen door, paler, thinner but warm. The effect on the narrator of this appearance is to turn her little room into an everywhere (pace Donne): "The world is bundled up in this room" (190). In the final sentence the narrator admits, "I don't know if this is a happy ending" (190). The clichéd conclusion of romance has been problematized. This is because the reader is not meant to see this ending in realist terms at all. As Jordan reflects in Sexing the Cherry, "very rarely is the beloved more than a shaping spirit for the lover's dreams. [. . .] To be a muse may be enough" (79-80). The conclusion of Written on the Body celebrates the transformative effects of art itself. It removes us from what Winterson calls "the nightmare of narrative" (Gut Symmetries 24). It is neither factual nor explainable simply as a character's fantasy. It celebrates the triumph of a purely textual and artistic recreation of a lover already dead ("I knew she would die," 154) but a love renewed by a renewed use of language. The structure that Winterson has bonded by language is one of love brought into focus through loss. It is also one of words whose symbolic meaning is reached only at the cost of lack of being hence the enigmatic status of the ending. Textual love necessarily sacrifices sexual love. We are left with the consolation of language.
1. For instance: "Peter Kemp refers to "her first and far-away best book, Oranges Are the Only Fruit." Peter Kemp, "Writing for a Fall," rev. of Art and Lies, by Jeanette Winterson, Sunday Times 26 June 1994: sec. 7: 1-2.
2. For instance: "Most critics would agree that she has not written a book worthy of her gifts since Written on the Body." Angela Lambert, "Jeanette: could anyone be as good as she thinks she is?" Independent 23 Jan. 1998: Features: 16. Cf. "for many years she has offered us work which is the product of only the rump of her genius." Carmen Callil, "Absent without leave Carmen Callil laments a lost talent," rev. of The World and Other Places, by Jeanette Winterson. Daily Telegraph June 27 1998: Books: 4.
3. See, for example: Patricia Duncker, "Jeanette Winterson and the Aftermath of Feminism." "I'm telling you stories": Jeanette Winterson and the Politics of Reading, ed. Helena Grice and Tim Woods (Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1998. 77-88). Leigh Gilmore, "An Anatomy of Absence." The Gay 90's, ed. Thomas Foster et al. (New York: New York UP, 1997. 224-51). Heather Nunn, "Written on the Body: An Anatomy of Horror, Melancholy and Love." (Women 70. 1996. 16-27). Christy R. Stevens, "Imagining Deregulated Desire." 27 July 2000 <http://www.ags.uci.edu/~clowegsa/evolutions/Stevens.htm>. Cath Stowers, "Journeying with Jeanette." (Hetero)sexual Politics, ed. Mary Maynard & June Purvis (London: Taylor & Francis, 1995. 139-58).
4. See Christy L. Burns, "Fantastic Language." Contemporary Literature 37 (1996): 278-306, and Patricia Duncker, Leigh Gilmore, Heather Nunn, Christy R. Stevens, and Cath Stowers (all in note 3).
I wish to thank Michael North for reading through an earlier draft and suggesting ways of revising this essay that helped to substantially improve it.
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Copyright 2000 Brian Finney