The Body/Language of Love
Postmodernist writers utilize language within their narratives in a very unique way. It is a literary theory best described by Peter Barry in his book Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory when he says,
The idea is that the way we have understood the foundations for our language have shifted and along with this, the very terms by which we imagine our relationship to the real world have shifted. What was faith became skepticism and has now become a non-issue, to the detriment of our ability to engage critically with the world. (84)
These writers make us question reality, and the objective truths that we believe exist, by construing it through their texts. For example, they construct settings that are truly signifiers of meaning rather than merely objective spaces (Barry, 78-90). They also make clear that language can be vague, misleading, or questionable; in essence, language is subjective (Barry, 78-90). Both of these aspects of postmodern narrative structure are utilized by the narrator in Jeanette Winterson’s novel Written on the Body. Thus, through an analysis of the narrator’s use of both these aspects this essay will argue that the narrator believes love cannot be expressed through language because language is subjective whereas the body, utilized as an objective setting, signifies the true expression of love.
The narrator addresses language as a subjective art form almost immediately. On page nine of the novel the narrator claims,
“‘I love you.’ Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to one another is still the thing we long to hear? ‘I love you’ is always a quotation. You did not say it first neither did I, yet when you say it and when I say it we speak like savages who have found three words and worship them.” (Winterson)
In terms of the expression of love, saying I love you is something we yearn to hear but language that is purely subjective. People use the words in different ways and different forms, undermining what the narrator believes is its true powerful essence. To clarify this, consider when the narrator claims,
“I am desperately looking the other way so that love won’t see me. I want the diluted version, the sloppy language…the saggy armchair of clichés…the springs are well worn, the fabric smelly and familiar.” (Winterson, 10)
To claim the narrator is desperately looking away so love will not find him or her and then claiming he or she wants the diluted version of it is to say that true love is something far greater. This love the narrator does not want to be seen by has nothing to do with the version that is engulfed in “sloppy language” and riddled with “clichés” that all seem too familiar. Thus, it seems the expression of love through language is indeed not the expression of love but the diluted subjective version that is spoken candidly because people yearn to hear it. Therefore, we see how the narrator has confirmed how misleading language can be in the expression of love.
Yet, the words “I love you” and all the familiar subjective language that follows has always seemed like the objective way of expressing love within reality. If language is misleading then reality is changed and we are left asking what is the true expression of love? The narrator claims love is, “…the recognition of another person that is deeper than consciousness, lodged in the body more than held in the mind” (Winterson, 82). Although one does not see the word language explicitly used in this passage it is implied through the narrator’s use of the word “mind.” For example, thoughts of love are merely thoughts until they are expressed through language moving them from the mind to the tangible world; in essence, all language is a product of thoughts and all thoughts are expressed through language. With that clarified, we now see the narrator is claiming love is truly expressed through the body rather than language. To solidify this point, consider the use of the words “lodged” and “held.” When something is lodged, that means it is securely placed and unmoving whereas when something is held, that means it is placed comfortably yet privy to change or movement. These words can be seen as signifiers for the objective and subjective; the objective is secured and cemented while the subjective is privy to change. Consider also, on page 178, when the narrator says,
“Your beloved has gone down to a foreign land. You call but your beloved does not hear. You call in the fields and in the valleys but your beloved does not answer…Your beloved is waiting on the hills. Be patient and go with nimble feet dropping your body like a scroll.” (Winterson).
The narrator is trying to say calling out to your beloved and using language is useless in connecting with them. You must physically move towards them with your body to connect with theirs; your body is the scroll that will express your love, not language. Thus, with both these examples in mind, the narrator has made a clear distinction between the true objective expression of love that is lodged in the body like a scroll to be read rather than the subjective expression of love that is held by language and can easily go unanswered.
To claim love is expressed through the body is meaningless without explaining or supporting how this is possible. This is where the narrator utilizes the postmodern aspect of setting as signifier of meaning; the meaning here being the expression of love. On page eighty-two the narrator says,
“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. What other places are there in the world than those discovered on a lover’s body.” (Winterson)
This mapping of the lover’s body is done throughout the novel but most noticeably from pages 115-141 which are broken up into sections such as “The Cells, Tissues, Systems and Cavities of the Body,” “The Skin,” “The Skeleton,” and “The Special Senses;” each section including a detailed description by the narrator of his or her love’s body. Everything from the eyes, lips, skin, and curvatures are assessed and met by metaphors or similes by the narrator. Therefore, we realize the body is a setting, it is the where and when that affects the mood the narrator is in. Furthermore, it is not subjective as language is, the body is an objective setting; the normal human body is composed of all the sections these pages are broken up into and described by the narrator. Thus, through the metaphors and similes these objective traits of the normal human body become signifiers to express true love. To clarify, on page seventy-eight the narrator states,
“What would you do? Pass the body into the hands of strangers? The body that has lain beside you in sickness and in health. The body your arms still long for dead or not. You were intimate with every muscle, privy to the eyelids moving in sleep. This is the body where your name is written…”(Winterson)
It is the body that you love, the body where your name is written. You long to feel this body no matter what because it is the objective expression of love. Every muscle, organ, scar and movement makes this person the person the narrator loves; the tangible and true embodiment of love not affected by subjectivity as language is.
Thus, in Winterson’s Written on the Body the narrator utilizes two aspects of postmodern narrative structure. He or she constructs a setting that is truly a signifier of objective meaning rather than merely objective spaces and also makes clear that language can be vague, misleading, or questionable; in essence, language is subjective. By using the latter concept in analyzing the expression of love through language we find such words as “I love you” are merely diluted subjective versions of the true expression of love. That being said, the narrator makes clear love is found within the setting of the body that signifies its true objective expression.
Winterson, Jeanette. Written on the Body. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1992. Print
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory.
Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002. Print
What do you think? Leave a comment.
I found Written on the Body extremely difficult to follow. Winterson deliberately tries to disrupt readers’ assumptions about the main character’s gender, but I believe that her attempts to do so did not come from a place of understanding trans and nonbinary people’s experiences of gender.
Written on the Body is definitely right up there with A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham.
I’ve revisited Beginning Theory again and again during my Masters, and it’s now an invaluable addition to my study shelf.
I liked the post-modernist framing of the article. I haven’t read these works but have read other books and short stories of this type. It can be difficult to follow until you get used to it.
Very interesting topic you’ve taken on and once that delves into the realm of literary studies and theory. I enjoyed Winterson’s ambiguous attempt at avoiding the actual spoken language of love, by focusing upon the body in a formulaic manner. Also, your use of the terms “signifier,” “signified,” and “object,” are reminiscent of Saussure’s concept of language. Very interesting article!!
There are few authors whose words stir me the way Jeanette Winterson’s do. I was first introduced to her works in a postmodern college class, and at the time I was appalled by her blunt, hard, truthful, enlightening and powerful words. Nowadays, I spend time tracking down great articles like this analysing her work.
I’m a great fan of Winterson, of the extraordinary sentences she crafts, and of her harsh, uncompromising storytelling.
Captivating lyric novel.
Written on the Body doesn’t have much to hang on to except Winterson’s prose, her brilliant imagery. It’s like sinking into a warm bath of words, because she really does know how to use them.
Interesting article. I’m considering this as a possible text to use in an introductory theory class I’m teaching.
Winterson is a wonderful author… Her writing really sticks with you…
This is an excellent introduction to literary theory.
Reading this was like discovering the cipher to a code that I was already supposed to know.
This was a very provocative read for me.
I read Winterson’s work in college for a class on contemporary fiction. I have to admit, I was blown away by her writing style, it is so unique.
I read this book for the first time when I was just about to come out to my family. It is one of those books which will always be close to my heart. It somehow gave me the required courage to do what I did. I don’t know how, but it did and at that time, it mattered the world to me. It made me want to go up to Ms. Winterson and let her know how much I loved her book and how grateful I was to her for writing it. Books do that. Any art form does. Anything that can manage to touch you to that extent.
Winterson’s ability to make general commentaries on love is amazing.
I feel like Jeanette Winterson is someone I’m supposed to like, but in reality, I find her work to be frustratingly uneven and myopic.
Maybe I’m not highbrow enough for her stuff, or maybe it’s just too naval-gazing!
I find Winterson’s actual life more fascinating then her works
I know the point of theory is that there is no bottom line but it would have been extremely helpful to have one for those of us who don’t care for theory that much and just need a basic understanding.
Winterson’s writing is beautiful, plain and simple. Although I’m not sure why I didn’t like it as much as I liked “The Passion.” Maybe I just wasn’t in the mindset for a book all about the intense love for one particular person.
The sense I get of the book in question is that it is highly sentimental, and worse yet, occupied with drawing attention to its own sentimentality, but without humour or authentic metatextual insight. The idea you refer to from Barry’s book, namely “that language can be vague, misleading, or questionable,” surely refers particularly to poor writing, clouded as it often is with sentimental inexactitudes. I question your argument that such writing shows language to be “merely subjective;” I think the opposite is true, that vague, misleading, dubious language in fact fails to accomplish genuine subjectivity. That is, it misses the opportunity to convey the experience of the subject in question.
I’m so happy there are books like this out there, books written from the soul, books that speak in raw emotion.
Against Winterson, many philosophers of language argue that language, literally the expressions we use when speaking and thinking, is objective–but that the senses of said expressions are subjective; in other words, we all process language differently. So, even if we concede that the expression “I love you” is vague, I don’t see how the act of having sex, where two bodies are literally lodged together, is any clearer. Here, the act of coitus is objective, but there still remains the further distinction between one simply having sex or making love. The meaning between these two distinctions diverge wildly. Therefore, it seems Winterson mades a reductive binary between the body (objective) and language (subjective). The body can be just as vague, if not more than, language.
Or else such acts as sex have objective meaning but our subjective stamp confuses things.
Great article! I am blown away by the sensibility of Winterson and how she constructed the words, and this article does a good job in making me crave for her writing.
Love is an irrational emotion that escapes our senses. Being an emotion, it escapes both language and the body. We can see today how the body is a highly lusted entity, rather than a beautiful setting of discovery. It’s interesting to see the tensions between lust and love, in parallel to the tensions between body and soul. How can one translate intrinsic feeling into expressible gestures, and how can those gestures be translated to the truth of senses and emotions..
Very interesting read!
While reading this article, my mind ran back to a recent postmodern novel I have just finished called The Sitters, by Alex Miller. In the book, the author too comments on the limits of language, and offers art as an alternate and better way to express one’s thoughts. That is, Miller believes that words cannot adequately capture our thoughts and that often silence speaks louder. Applying this logic to what you have written, saying “I love you” is more of a customary expected comment, rather than a sincere, heartfelt statement.