Written on the Body
Written on the body tries to deconstruct the specific ideas expressed in love stories to their a priori statements about love. In doing so, the novel maintains internal integrity: it does not bring up ideas of love through narrative, it simply states them from the first sentence on, “Why is the measure of love loss?” it does not deal with these issues through the actions of characters, it instead ruminates on them almost ethereally, mining clichés and textbooks rather than human interactions; and it does not balance its language between narration, exposition, and artistry, it fully drives at the artistic: If Martin Amis’s sentences pump iron, Jeannette Winterson’s sentences pick flowers: they are always grabbing at metaphors, similes, and detailed descriptions, even if they do not arise from the material. Through the inner-workings of these three deconstructions, the novel supports its ideas of literature, but by the very merit of that literature it is a weak novel because of those three deconstructions.
It is very clear that there is an artistic vision behind the novel. Brian Finney may have observed it best in his essay, “Bonded by Language,” in which he says, “In Written on the Body, Winterson shows us the power of language to create both subjectivity and sexuality.” Through her cliché and ambiguous language, Winterson is trying to get at the ideas of love, sex, and sexual love, with the thinnest drawn characters and simplest plot-line. But she fails to do so because while the language draws us into the sea of these questions, it fails to attach itself to any tangible reality, however textual that might be. The book does not begin with a narrative or a character, it begins with a rumination on a lot of questions and the clichés that have been invented to answer them, and winds down into a vague description of a woman, “Louise in a bed, between the garish sheets,” after that, the rest of the description is based from the “I” point-of-view, with the lover as subject to the narrator’s object. While this works internally, it has no affect externally. It leaves the reader swimming through the broad questions of love with no clearly defined lines by which to follow them.
One motto of post-modern visual art is: if the best thing about a room is the red couch in it, why not just paint the couch, and if the best thing about the red couch is its redness, why not just paint the canvas red. In a way, Jeannette Winterson has applied this motto to fiction in Written on the Body. In interview, she said she writes about love because it is the most important thing in life. She surely maintains this idea of art here, where love is the only thing she is talking about: love in the abstract sense, not the individual human context from which it has grown, nor the broader situational context against which it has had to fight. Winterson deals with those facets of the story the non-red couch elements in the room. There are no worldly debates about lesbian love affairs in this book, there is no reaction as such from Elgin, there is no moralizing about affairs, no character offers any such thing, and there are no parallels to the one idea of love given in this book, and thus nothing to compare it to in order to judge workability. And so through the small section of action – in the book in the first part of the book – there is no tightness – the language still remains ethereal, ruminating about the ways of love limitlessly, only incorporating details of the narrative as they arise therein. This carries on the ideas of the opening several pages which did not even have a narrator, showing that the same ideas about love may arise in any particular relationship. She has taken the narrative away from the love story, which supports the theory of the first section, but pulls the novel even further away from a course that could reveal human truths through a literary lens.
This is the state in which the reader enters the middle section of the book, the medical examination of body parts. In this section, Winterson contrasts the standard of the biological Everyone, to the particular feelings the narrator has for the anatomy of her lover. By studying the woman of a text-book, the narrator depersonalizes her lover: the narrator is in love with the body of her lover just as she was in love with love in the first section, where her explications of love always began with the physical, even the so crudely physical as Louise’s measurements. Even in the first section of the novel, Louise was not given many personalizing figures, she was described as beautiful, she was described as red-haired and fiery, and she was described as a Raphaelite-woman, while Raphael painted thousands of women, all very different from each other. This all came out in the narrative, while that was still going on; In section two, with the narration stopped altogether, character is wholly deconstructed as well, so that story and individual have been stripped from the ideas of love, leaving Winterson free to give us her ideas of love beyond the story and beyond the character, below the physical, in the metaphysical. But as we will see, the reader still goes into that section without the moorings to give her theories any literary weight, and when Winterson has to return to narrative devices to deliver an ending, that ending lacks for what has been deconstructed.
While living in her tranced state of love, the narrator is told, “The problem with you is that you want to be living in a novel.” This is the first overtly self-reflexive point in the text, and it frames the rest of the story, especially her decision to go after her lost love. She does go after her, but only to find that there is nothing to be found. She wonders if Louise ever existed, or if she invented her, quote, “Like a character in a book.” With this realization, starring at another undefined, unimportant character, she has a vision of Louise, and, importantly, feels her presence. Louise is there again, but Louise is not there. The narrator finally realizes what the novel has been showing the reader all along, that love is something made-up, created, attached to characters and stories and language, which can just as easily be attached to other characters and stories. This was clear from the moment we saw the narrator falling in love with Louise. It was a love just like many before it. In all of the narrator’s affairs, she was head over heels. She even wanted the man with two nipple rings to move in with her in London. This is the climax of the internal consistency of the novel, and it is a statement on both art and love, but because of its lack of literary tools it does not affect the reader with this point.
The narrator claims to be aware that it is impossible to talk about love without using clichés, but she falls into them at every turn, and she does so because of her isolation of love, her post-modern way of dealing with an abstract idea out of context. But as literature has taught us for hundreds of years, “God is in the details”…“The universal lies in the particular”…“The man of diamond to represent us all,” the lessons of literature are clear on this point. Only in particular context can love be talked about in any real, original, tangible, or meaningful way. Winterson does not offer us a particular context in Written on the Body. Instead, she, albeit purposefully, gives her story as little narrative and character description as possible. But in doing so she loses the story altogether, and leaves us swimming in a sea of hackneyed metaphors and similes and language in which it is far too easy to drown.
And that is the exact opposite of what writing about love should do. It should give readers bearings in the sea of clichés. Good writing does so. Winterson endlessly quotes Shakespeare in Written on the Body, but she misses the point of the passages she site. Shakespeare shows his readers love victories and love failures through very particular characters in very particular situations. By understanding the way these characters act in their situations, and seeing the outcomes, readers can learn about the nuances of love. When Winterson quotes, “Man has died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love,” she goes on to say that that is simply not true. However, she says so in the midst of an esoteric rant about love. In such a state, one could believe it to be untrue, but such a state does not compare in anagogic power to that particular state of Rosalind being courted by Orlando.
Winterson would probably frown on this comparison, but even when her tactics are compared to that of her self proclaimed literary foremother, Virginia Wolfe we see that her work comes up lacking. Even within the very experimental style of Virginia Wolfe’s novels, her lessons on love come through very particular characters in very particular situations. There are few characters in western literature as fully realized as Clarissa Dalloway, and even fewer well-rounded situations than we see Clarissa in on the day of her party. Because readers are plunged into the day and mind of Clarissa through Wolf’s stunning prose can, they understand her actions and learn from them. That is the power of Virginia Wolf. Winterson lacks this power. In her effort to further experiment with language, character, and narrative, she loses the power behind all three, and ends up going through an arduous process of defending her flower-picking sentences about love, without ever planting a seed in the reader that could grow to something greater.