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
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