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Written on the Body.

Written on the Body, Jeannette Winterson's fifth novel, recently came out in paper (it was first published in Britain in 1992, and in America in 1993). The new paperback edition attests to Winterson's growing popularity, but her prose also has garnered much-deserved critical acclaim. Her language is idiomatic, forceful and agile, casually acrobatic in its movement from punchy slang to poetry, from extended metaphor to flat self-mockery. She writes short yet breathless passages, focusing less on the conversations between her characters than on their interior monologues and her narrative asides; she has, to borrow a phrase from Elizabeth Bishop, a "priceless set of vocabularies." Winterson's technique emerges in her fragmentary narratives: personal recollections, rhetorical questions, and droll observations meet in a unique and controlled style, held together by puns and confidence.

This novel marks a switchback in her career. Its unabashed romanticism echoes much of her earlier work, but it breaks away from the "magical realist-historical fantasy" genre--if such a clumsily-named genre can be said to exist--in which she wrote two earlier books, The Passion (1987) and Sexing the Cherry (1989). The Passion engages power, chance, and obsession in the age of Napoleon, through the eyes of one of the Emperor's chefs and of the web-footed Venetian, Villanelle; Sexing the Cherry brings a nameless 17th-century giantess, the Dog-Woman, to life as a transhistorical figure. This book, by contrast, is surprisingly traditional. Winterson offers a classic tale of true love beset by obstacles of infidelity, renunciation, and redemption, recounted by an anonymous protagonist of undisclosed gender (given the context of Winterson's other writings, I assumed her narrator to be female, and use a feminine pronoun here).

Written on the Body is broken loosely into three parts. The second section, entitled "The Cells, Tissues, Systems and Cavities of the Body," appeared separately in Granta 39 (Spring 1992); it is at once the most moving and the most experimental part of the novel. In this segment, the narrator, a professional translator, meditates on her lover's leukemia, and rewrites sterile, medical language as something transcendently personal.


The naked eye. How many times have I enjoyed you with my lascivious naked eye. I have seen you unclothed, bent to wash, the curve of your back, the concurve of your belly. I have had you beneath me for examination, seen the scars between your thighs where you fell on barbed wire. You look as if an animal has clawed you, run its steel nails through your skin, leaving harsh marks of ownership.

My eyes are brown, they have fluttered across your body like butterflies. I have flown the distance of your body from side to side of your ivory coast. I know the forests where I can rest and feed. I have mapped you with my naked eye and stored you out of sight. The millions of cells that make up your tissues are plotted on my retina. Night flying I know exactly where I am. Your body is my landing strip. (117)

In Written on the Body, Winterson revisits the themes which pervade her work: passion and sexual freedom, the social construction of gender roles, individual liberty, and tale-telling itself, in a subtly postmodernist manner. This book, however, employs the love story (complete with a villainous, despised husband) to explore the relationship between language, knowledge, and the body.

Winterson revels in materiality; with wit and humanity, she continually deflates empty abstraction, and fuses it with the concrete. Her notion of language's vital energy, liberated from centuries of accreted and stale meaning, echoes the rhetoric of modernists before her, and complements the philosophies of contemporary post-structuralists. One of the characters in Sexing the Cherry, Jordan, quite literally confronts the "canopy of words":

...The people who throng the streets shout at each other, their voices rising from the mass of heads and floating upwards towards the church spires and the great copper bells that clang the end of the day. Their words, rising up, form a thick cloud over the city, which every so often must be thoroughly cleansed of too much language. Men and women in balloons fly up from the main square and, armed with mops and scrubbing brushes, do battle with the canopy of words trapped under the sun.

The words resist erasure. The oldest and most stubborn form a thick crust of chattering rage. Cleaners have been bitten by words still quarrelling, and in one famous lawsuit a woman whose mop had been eaten and whose hand was badly mauled by a vicious row sought to bring the original antagonists to court. The men responsible made their defense on the grounds that the words no longer belonged to them. Years had passed....

That night two lovers whispering under the lead canopy of the church were killed by their own passion. Their effusion of words, unable to escape through the Saturnian discipline of lead, so filled the spaces of the loft that the air was all driven away. The lovers suffocated, but when the sacristan opened the tiny door the words tumbled him over in their desire to be free, and were seen flying across the city in the shape of doves.(1)

The vitality of language and its "performative" capability typically concern this writer. How does language suffer, if words convey and enact promises that are routinely broken? Do people interact with language as agents, or as victims? In Written on the Body, marriage (an act of verbal ritual) and infidelity serve as the ground for interrogation. Is infidelity primarily a result of a character flaw, or a misuse of language? The narrator, herself a sometime Casanova, finds absolution as a literalist:

But I didn't walk down the aisle, queue up at the Registry Office and swear to be faithful unto death.... How can you say that to one person and gladly luck another? Shouldn't you take that vow and break it the way you made it, in the open air?

Odd that marriage, a public display and free to all, gives way to that most secret of liaisons, an adulterous affair. (16)

Microscopically focused on the marriage bond, the book examines language itself: can it, indeed, be redeemed from its tenuous relation to reality, and be forced into meaning, into materiality, into wholeness through the body?

In 1921, T. S. Eliot's essay on the metaphysical poets theorized that the 17th-century mind could synthesize whole realms of now-disparate experience, and one suspects that Winterson might read Eliot's nostalgia with some sympathy here. Eliot asserted that the metaphysicals could "feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose."(2) Winterson's novel is full of such wistful holistic suggestions; of her lover, Louise, the narrator tells us that "her mind, her heart, her soul and her body could only be present as two sets of twins. She would not be divided from herself' (68). And the novel's desire for epistemological certainty tries to ground language and knowledge outside consciousness, "lodged in the body more than held in the mind" (82). The physical body becomes the only text not compromised by a slippery relation of language to reality. Accretions here only make better reading. Not contributing to the decrepit canopy of language that needs to be "made new," the body offers secret knowledge, interpreted through the senses: "Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights; the accumulations of a lifetime gather there. In places the palimpsest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like braille" (89).

Winterson takes seriously the kind of lesson that Eliot drew from Racine and Donne, who, as he put it, "looked into a good deal more than the heart. One must look into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system, and the digestive tracts" (Eliot, SE, 200). As Winterson writes: "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. I would have her plasma, her spleen, her synovial fluid. I would recognize her even when her body had long since fallen away" (111). Physicality and truth continually mesh for her, and not always in the poetry of the body. Gail Right, an amorous and repulsive employer and unlikely oracle, insistently reveals the nature of the narrator's imagined heroics--all while drunkenly vomiting half-digested seafood on her clothes. And the true story of the narrator's repudiated lover (the apparently docile, uninspiring Jacqueline) finally gets told in the wreckage of the bathroom they shared, in the word "shit" smeared in feces, "the word and the matter," as Winterson's speaker blandly observes (70).

Written on the Body's obsession with the reunification of "the word" and "the matter" reveals a concern not only with the misuse of language but also with the potential of language to colonize, to shape an oppressive reality. Sexual passion flirts with, but ultimately slips past, the colonizing impulse:

Louise, your nakedness was too complete for me, who had not learned the extent of your fingers. How could I cover this land? Did Columbus feel like this on sighting the Americas? I had no dreams to possess you but I wanted you to possess me. (52)

But this utopian surrender fades into another, more sinister reverie. Remembering looking into people's windows at night with a previous girl-friend, the narrator admires her own power with words: "since as their lips move with goldfish bowl pouts, I am the scriptwriter and I can put words in their mouths" (59). This struggle reaches its crisis at the close of the novel. Unable to locate Louise, the narrator wonders if she's invented her lover, "like a character in a book." Once again Gail comes through: "She wasn't yours for the making" (189). The story really begins, we discover, where it gloriously ends:

The world is bundled up in this room. Beyond the door, where the river is, where the roads are, we shall be. We can take the world with us when we go and sling the sun under your arm. Hurry now, it's getting late. I don't know if this is a happy ending but here we are let loose in open fields. (190)

1. Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry (New York: Vintage International, 1991), pp. 11, 13.

2. T. S. Eliot, "The Metaphysical Poets," in Selected Essays of T. S. Eliot, New Edition (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1950), p. 247.
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Author:Reed-Morrisson, Laura
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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