Blesok no. 21, June-July, 2001
Fleshing the Text
Greenaway's Pillow Book and the Erasure of the Body
11. I suggest, then, that neither logos nor grammatos ought to be privileged, for any such privileging relies on the notion of universalizable truths. Quite likely, non-scriptural cultures understand (consciously, unconsciously, or experientially) meaning and truth as only temporally and locally relevant and adequate. By separating “knowledge” from the body of the “knower” and from place, writing makes possible the abstraction of knowledge, its transportability in time and space, and consequently its universalization and permanence.
12. Moreover, alphabetic writing defined the knower as human, and the non-human world was relegated to silence and thought to be incapable of “speech.” Abram, who agrees with Derrida that there is no self-identical author legislating meaning, argues, however, that “Derrida's critique has bite only if one maintains that the other who writes is an exclusively human Other, only if one assumes that the written text is borne by an exclusively human subjectivity” (282). Abram posits a homology between the act of reading a text and the reading of animal tracks by our indigenous ancestors, that is, a homology between our markings – writing – and those of other animals. “I am suggesting,” says Abram, “that that which lurks behind all the texts that we read is not a human subject but another animal, another shape of awareness (ultimately the otherness of animal nature itself)” (282). Derrida himself has acknowledged that our Western sense of what writing is, is rather limited and limiting. He argues, for instance, that we do not recognize as writing the actions of people who describe their acts of writing as “scratching,” “scraping,” or “drawing lines”: “To say that a people do not know how to write because one can translate the word which they use to designate the act of inscribing as 'drawing lines,' is that not as if one should refuse them 'speech' by translating the equivalent word by 'to cry,' 'to sing,' 'to sigh'?” (Of Grammatology 123). Interestingly, in support of his own argument, Derrida goes on to cite a passage from J. Gernet's “La Chine, aspects et fonctions psychologiques de l'écriture,” in which Gernet elucidates the multiple meanings of the Chinese word for writing, wen. Not only is wen not limited to designating writing in the narrow sense, as discussed by Derrida, but wen is also used to refer to non-human forms of inscription. Gernet's observation that wen “applies to the veins in stones and wood, to constellations,” as well as “to the tracks of birds and quadrupeds on the ground,” and “to tattoo and even, for example, to the designs that decorated the turtle's shell,” supports both Derrida's and Abram's positions (qtd. By Derrida in Of Grammatology 123). Genet even suggests that, according to Chinese tradition, the observation of these very markings produced by non-human animals is what might have suggested the invention of writing – pictographic and ideographic writing.
13. Before resuming my discussion of The Pillow Book, it is also worth noting that Nagiko's father's birthday greeting is a kind of gift – the gift of writing, or pharmakon. In his illuminating discussion of Plato's Phaedrus, in which the Egyptian king Thamus refuses the gift of writing by the god Thoth (or Theuth) on the basis that it will cause people to become forgetful and threaten truth, Derrida argues that the antithetical meanings of pharmakon – poison and cure – must not be resolved in favor of one or the other. “All translations into language that are the heirs and depositaries of Western metaphysics,” explains Derrida, “thus produce on the pharmakon an effect of analysis that violently destroys it, reduces it to one of its simple elements by interpreting it, paradoxically enough, in the light of the ulterior developments it itself has made possible. Such an interpretative translation is thus as violent as it is impotent: it destroys the pharmakon but at the same time forbids itself access to it, leaving it untouched in its reserve” (Dissemination 99). While resolving the ambiguity of a word or text may reduce its richness, its plurivocality, and while I agree that it could be argued that Greenaway's text, The Pillow Book, manages to retain a certain degree of ambiguity as to the ultimate meaning of this pharmakon, I find that there is enough evidence in the film proper and the intertexts – since, “il n'y a pas de hors-text” (Of Grammatology 158) – to support the contention that writing operates here mostly as poison. Of course, Derrida himself concedes that “there is no such thing as a harmless remedy” (Dissemination 99): what may be the cure in one case is the poison in another; what may be the cure in small dosages is the poison in large dosages – this is the principle of homeopathy. Whether pharmakon is cure or poison in any particular case, and I do not mean here simply in any particular textual case, since writing is the basis for much action in the world – thus depends on the use which is made of writing as pharmakon and on how one perceives its effects. How one perceives these effects is, of course, subjectively motivated.
14. My argument here is that, in The Pillow Book, the living body is literally, not simply metaphorically, sacrificed in the name of the written word. The film allegorizes the process, described by Jean Baudrillard, of “substituting signs of the real for the real itself” (4). If an analogy is drawn between the human body and the body of the world, and between text-making and map-making, Greenaway's film can be taken as an allegory of the process through which the map comes to replace the territory – through which, in the film, Jerome's skin is literally fashioned into a book. Jerome's flesh is removed, separated from the skin, and discarded as garbage. What de Certeau has said about the establishment and imposition of a national language is equally applicable here: the written language, particularly one which has been imported, “implies a distancing of the living body (both traditional and individual) and thus also of everything which remains, among the people, linked to the earth, to the place, to orality or to non-verbal tasks” (138-39). The Pillow Book can thus be taken to support Abram's contention that written language, particularly the phonetic alphabet, has permitted a timeless and disembodied kind of “knowledge” that estranges us and alienates us from the living, sensuous world, and that ultimately becomes fatal to us and to the world. Abram uses the term “storied” (109) knowledge to refer to a way of understanding that differs from our current abstracted way of knowing, an understanding that is not dependent on a textual practice and that reflects the complex ways in which we relate to the living sensuous world around us. I will conclude this study by examining the ending of The Pillow Book and the extent to which Greenaway might be offering us some insight into this “storied” type of understanding.
15. Greenaway's The Pillow Book is inspired by the classic 10th-century Japanese text, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, a diary written by a lady-in-waiting at the court of the Heian empress, Sadako. In this diary, Sei Shonagon recounts her amorous adventures, offers aesthetic observations, and indulges in one of Greenaway's own favorite activities: list-making. What also drew Greenaway to Sei Shonagon's text was the Japanese author's enthusiasm for literature and the natural world, an enthusiasm which Greenaway clearly shares.
16. Greenaway's heroine, Nagiko Kiohara, was herself, as a child, inspired by Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book, which her aunt read to her as part of a yearly ritual that took place on her birthday and lasted until Nagiko was 17 years old and engaged to be married. The film opens with this birthday ritual. We see Nagiko's father gently painting a birthday greeting on her forehead, cheeks, lips, and neck, while a gramophone plays a record popular at the time Nagiko's parents met. Nagiko's mother, grandmother, and aunt are present as well, but mostly as witnesses (audience, readers). The father's action is described in the filmscript as ritualized and affectionate, but also as odd and disturbing: “the child is no more, for a moment, than something to write on. And the father's signing is a little too Godlike” (The Pillow Book 31). The father's drawing of the letters on the girl's face is accompanied by his recitation of an oral incantation, a spell of sorts, which works to establish the child's identity and role within a filial narrative, one she is destined to pass on to her own child. Indeed, following her father's tradition – therefore, the patriarchal tradition – Nagiko writes a birthday greeting on her one-year old daughter's face at the end of the film, thus bringing the story “full circle” (The Pillow Book 101).
17. My use of the word “spell” is deliberate and intended to evoke the word's multiple meanings: to spell a word is, in a sense, to cast a magical spell. David Abram notes that the meanings of “spell” were not always as distinct as they are today for, he explains, “to assemble the letters that make up the name of a thing, in the correct order, was precisely to effect a magic, to establish a new kind of influence over that entity, to summon it forth” (133). This is precisely what Walter Ong means, I believe, when he suggests that words are events, and that they have magical powers. So, when Nagiko's father writes on her face, he literally casts a spell on her:
When God made the first clay model of a human being, he painted the eyes, the lips, and the sex.
And then He painted in each person's name lest the person should ever forget it.
If God approved of His creation, he breathed the painted clay-model into life by signing His own name.
(The Pillow Book 31)
18. It is here, in a scene that suggests an Oedipal situation, that Nagiko is initiated into language, the Symbolic, the Law of the Father – and, consequently, into ego consciousness. Her Oedipal trajectory is linked to language in two ways: first, through her father's writing on her face, and then, through her aunt's reading of Sei Shonagon's diary. From this point on, Nagiko's life-story, the narrative of her life, will be controlled by the text which her father has written on her face. The father, as we will see, is only an intermediary, however; he is simply a messenger for the real and higher authority which is the text. As Lawrence notes in her discussion of Prospero's Books, not only is the text a higher authority, but it will outlast the teller or writer, and even render him/her superfluous (143).
19. Subjectivity and narrative are further linked when Nagiko sees her own written-upon reflection in a mirror. Her specular experience thus takes place from within the Symbolic realm, through language. Kaja Silverman has argued that the Lacanian mirror stage, which I believe this scene is also designed to evoke, “is always mediated through language, and can only be understood in terms of organized cultural representations” (85). To dramatize the importance of this moment of self-recognition, of Nagiko's own recognition and acceptance of herself as a Self, as an Other, as an authored subjectivity, the image reflected in the mirror is colorized, while the rest of the frame remains in black and white. Greenaway has suggested that the mixing of black and white with color photography plays with the notion that the truth is in black and white while fantasy is in color. One implication of this is that the colored reflection of Nagiko in the mirror is a fantasy of egocentric subjectivity which will become the reality of modern man's and woman's emergence into the Symbolic.
20. Nagiko is initiated into a particular role: to live out her destiny as a Subject of language and patriarchy. Furthermore, she will fulfill her role as model for other women – a “clay model” says the incantation – by becoming a fashion-model in Hong Kong, a city which is a paradigmatic symbol – a model – of modernity and progress, but also of death, as suggested by the mirroring of the city-scape in the cemetery where Jerome's body is buried.
Nagiko is also duly marked by the Name of the Father, who breathes the model into being by signing His name. Through this ritual, Nagiko is constituted as a cultural Subject by means of two representational systems: the word and the image. According to Jacques Lacan's formulation, self-recognition through representationality amounts to mis-recognition, for Subject and Being become radically split, as split as the body becomes from language with the advent of alphabetic writing. Nagiko is also quite literally framed by and within her own reflection. This framing amounts to a form of imprisonment, as the Subject is trapped in a culturally constructed image, entangled in the links of a signifying chain, perhaps the very linguistic chains that open the film and accompany the credits.
21. Greenaway's avowed disillusionment with cinema centers on what he identifies as the double tyranny of Text and Frame, and on the loss of corporeality and physicality. Increasingly, in all his artistic productions, Greenaway has tried to bring the human body to the foreground. Perhaps, more than we have imagined, the cinema is a perfect reflection of our own civilization's demand that we abide by certain scripts, that we trim ourselves as needed to fit the frame, to paraphrase Alba Bewick in A Zed and Two Noughts. Like any other civilization, ours is shaped by our means of expressing and representing ourselves, by our myths and legends – in short, by our narratives, be they religious, as in Genesis; scientific, as in Darwin; or mythological as in Oedipus. The difference between our civilization and primal or tribal cultures is simply that by confusing – or rather, fusing – our narratives of the world with the textual word, we have come very close to fully replacing the world with its representation. By virute of being visible, only the written word, as opposed to the spoken word, could be mistaken for a body and/or a world.
22. Although it may be true that our sense of having access to, or making contact with, what might be called “reality” is dependent on our means of “representing” reality – whether in images, mathematical formulas, or words – and, although it may also be true that thinking itself is representational, quantum physics has taught even the natural sciences that representations are never a transparent disclosure of reality. Narrative, as an instance of representation, when temporally and locally contingent, has proven useful in helping societies cope with the unknowability of the world surrounding them. I am, thus, not suggesting that we do away with narrative once and for all – even if that were possible – but that we continue reminding ourselves that our narratives never fully align with our experience of the world, and that our experience of the world never fully aligns with the world. This simply means we must be careful which narratives we construct, and which narratives we allow to become the basis for our real actions in the world.
23. I would like to return to the Oedipus legend and to its manifestation in The Pillow Book to show that this myth has not only marked a shift in perception with the emergence of modern man and ego consciousness, as Erich Fromm, Alexander Lowen, and others have argued, but that this shift in consciousness is analogous to the one identified by Abram in his study of the evolution of alphabetic language. Lowen describes this shift as a move from the subjective to the objective position, when the human animal no longer sees itself as part of a greater whole, but as separate and thus able to view and control both inner and outer nature. Abram argues that alphabetic language made possible the development of a new sensibility which can operate in a more autonomous and isolated way – solipsistically, and independently from the body and the land. I believe all of Greenaway's films investigate this same set of issues but that The Pillow Book, by showing the fusion of textual language and the body through the Oedipal structure, is Greenaway's clearest but also most allegorical cinematic expression of humanity's alienation from its own body and the body of the world. As Greenaway recently stated, “in an overall strategy which would also be a continuing characteristic of much of my cinema, I believe the body must be up there earnestly and vigorously rooting for its supremacy, text or no text” (“Body and Text”).
24. Erich Fromm, in The Forgotten Language, suggests that the Oedipus trilogy's dramatization of the struggle against the paternal figure had its roots in a much older struggle between the patriarchal and the matriarchal systems – a struggle which was resolved in favor of patriarchy. Similarly, Erich Neumann, in The Origin of History and Consciousness, interprets the legend as being about the ego's rise to power and its victory over the unconscious, represented by Oedipus' victory over the Sphinx through his use of reason, analysis, and language. Neumann takes the Sphinx to be the original Earth Mother Goddess, imported from Egypt, the giver and taker of life. He also links the figure of the Sphinx with the unconscious, the body, the earth, and nature – with the feminine – while Oedipus is linked to consciousness, the ego, language, rationality, progress, and even salvation – with masculinity. For Neumann, then, patriarchy refers to “the predominantly masculine world of spirit, sun, consciousness,” and matriarchy to “a preconscious, prelogical, and preindividual way of thinking and feeling” (168).
25. Oedipus' patricide and incest are not, according to this reading, his real crime. In fact, Alexander Lowen argues that the “crime” for which Oedipus must be punished by blinding himself is not the transgression against the patriarchal order, but the destruction of the Sphinx, that is, the destruction of the female goddess of the matriarchal order who rules over life and death. By solving the riddle, Lowen goes on to argue, Oedipus takes control over the mysteries of the processes of life and death on which the power of the Sphinx depended. His real crime, then, is the Promethean arrogance of knowledge and power (213).
26. Oedipus thus represents the values of language, power, knowledge, possession, and progress – the very patriarchal values by which we still live today, in the East and in the West. The implication here is that an escape from the Oedipal legacy necessitates not a simple reconsideration and reassignment of gender definitions and functions, but a devaluation of the dominant traits of our culture which are associated with masculinity – that is, linearity, action, progress, and the domination of nature. Thus, Nagiko's taking up of writing should be regarded with some skepticism, as should Georgina's taking up of the gun in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Pen and gun are intended to symbolize the phallus, and Greenaway explicitly links the writing instrument to the signifier of power by describing it as “a sensuous object inevitably likened to a penis” (The Pillow Book 15). The Cook and The Pillow Book seem to suggest that, if given the opportunity, women too can wield the phallus, but that mere role-reversal, in “real” life or in representational practices, contributes very little to any significant change in our civilization's patterns of opposition and domination.
27. Let me now turn to Greenaway's rendition of the Oedipus legend, for there is an important aspect of Nagiko's birthday ritual which has not yet been accounted for: that is, the presence of Nagiko's father's publisher, the very same publisher whom Nagiko will seek when she herself, as an adult, becomes a writer like her father. On each of Nagiko's birthdays, after the father has performed the ritual inscription on her body, he meets with his publisher for another ritual, a primal scene of sorts: the exchange of money and sex for the acceptance and publication of his latest manuscript. These sexual encounters, where the father is sodomized by the publisher, are, I believe, meant to be taken metaphorically, as an expression of the father's acquiescence to a greater power, a power on which hinges his ability to support his family, to maintain intact the structure represented by the Oedipal trajectory. They also can be taken as a repetition of Oedipus' real crime since they ritualize the exclusion of the mother/Mother. Allegorically, then, the publisher is the patriarchal function, as illustrated in the scene where the publisher himself takes up the brush to play God, and signs his own name on Nagiko's neck, as her father used to do: “If God approved of His creation, he breathed the painted clay-model into life by signing His own name” (39). This occurs the year Nagiko's father is sick and her mother is summoned to perform the birthday celebration in his place – her only action in the film – but is prevented from completing the ritual by the arrival of the publisher.
28. The first time we witness Nagiko's birthday ritual is also the first time that Nagiko sees her father's sexual ritual with the publisher – a primal scene of sorts which she witnesses through a sliding screen. This screen both reveals the action and hides its significance for the child. The film thus links Nagiko's birthday celebration not only to language and specularity, but to sexuality and power. More importantly, the film also visually links all these elements to paper money by means of the superimposition of the images of the two men, a page from Sei Shonagon's diary, and a bank note, the latter deliberately placed at the base of the image.
A further link between money and writing will be made, later, when Nagiko remembers enjoying the smell of paper as she enjoyed the smell of the banknote her father once gave her after a visit to the publisher's.
29. On her sixth birthday, following the annual ritual, Nagiko is taught how to write and vows to become a writer like her father, and like Sei Shonagon. As an adult, she begins to keep her own diaries, or pillow books. After her marriage to the publisher's nephew fails, she flees to Hong Kong, where she becomes a fashion model. She also begins to seek out lover-calligraphers, offering her body to them in exchange for their writing on it. Her body continues to serve as a page as she trades sex for text, until she meets Jerome, an English translator, who becomes her lover and who, we later learn, is also, like her father, the publisher's lover.
30. The introduction of the character of Jerome is of great significance, both to Nagiko's life and to my argument. It is after meeting Jerome that Nagiko takes up the pen and trades her position as a writing surface to become the writing instrument, or as Greenaway puts it, she becomes the pen and not the paper. The significance of Jerome to the present argument is that it is through him that the issue of oral languages is explicitly introduced into the film, which has up until now dealt with language mostly as writing and image. Although Greenaway goes to great lengths to draw our attention to the spoken word – to its rhythms and cadences – by leaving much of the spoken dialogue untranslated, and by introducing multiple languages and dialects, he also dramatizes the death of oral languages by drawing our attention to those languages that only exist today in written form.
31. When we first meet Jerome, we learn that he speaks four languages, including Yiddish. Later in the sequence, Nagiko asks Jerome to write on her breast, in Yiddish. She asks, “What's Yiddish for breast?” Jerome then proceeds to write BRUSTEN, the Yiddish for breast, in capital roman letters just above her breast. The significance of this episode is four-fold.
32. First, the episode immediately follows a sequence in which Nagiko had been written on with invisible ink by a young calligrapher. In response to Nagiko's dismay at not being able to read the writing on her body, the calligrapher points out that “some cultures permit no images, perhaps some cultures ought to permit no visible text” (57). This commentary is further emphasized in the filmscript by the fact that the calligrapher is said to be pointing to a television showing a documentary on Islamic calligraphy, as he makes this remark. There are other indications in the film that Greenaway is aware of the implications, the effects, perhaps even the dangers, of the rise and predominance of written language. The film goes to great lengths, for instance, to dramatize the fact that none of the writing is permanent – that is, until the very last scene, when we are briefly shown that a permanent tattoo now covers Nagiko's entire chest area. In fact, up until that point, the writing on bodies is shown to be water-soluble: the rain, a bath, or even the lick of a tongue dissolves it. In this context, it is interesting to note that the script calls for a scene which was shot but not included in the commercially released film. In the script, the calligrapher hands Nakigo's maid an onion before he leaves. Surmising that perhaps the onion juice will reveal the invisible writing on Nagiko's body, the maid rubs the onion over the body of the young model. Although the juice from the onion fails to reveal the writing on the body, it causes Nagiko to shed tears which, as they splash on her body, magically expose the letters. Once again, the body itself – its fluids – is shown to be the agent of language. The agents of language here are tears, however. Thus, the emergence of written language is associated with the shedding of tears – with grief, pain, and loss.
33. Since the release of The Pillow Book, Greenaway has often emphasized in discussions and interviews that the writing on bodies is non-permanent: “We have been at pains in the film,” he explains, “to insist on writing in a non-abusive, non penetrative way with brush and ink, infinitely washable, as is made evident several times in the plot of the film” (“Body and Text”). One of Nagiko's lovers, an “elderly talkative calligrapher,” says the script (54, my emphasis), is shown to be an advocate for the impermanence of writing by arguing that “you should be allowed to rub out and start again, it means that you are human. The purists are tedious, they tell you a mistake is like an enduring black mark. Nonsense – better to be human than some infernal machine never going wrong” (54). As if further to assure us of the impermanence of script, Nagiko walks out onto the verandah, after the calligrapher is finished with his task, and allows the rain to wash away the writing, “whilst the elderly calligrapher watches his literary efforts trickle away down her body. He shakes his head in acceptance, all the while taking gulps of cold green tea” (54). Another way to put this notion across is simply to say, as Greenaway did in relation to The Belly of An Architect, that “man-made art is denied the immortality status” (qtd. in Woods 253).
34. Second, BRUSTEN is significant also because it is the first non-oriental word inscribed on Nagiko's body, and thus signals a break with oriental calligraphy. The significance of this shift can be better understood if we remember that oriental calligraphy is not only a form of writing which fuses the pictorial and the linguistic, but is one of the few scripts that, albeit abstracted and stylized, still retains some ties to the phenomenal world. Greenaway's use of oriental ideograms in this film is an expression of his ongoing efforts to find a suitable union of image and text in his elaboration of a non-narrative cinema. The ideogram embodies this fusion, for, as Greenaway explains, “when you read text, you see image, when you view the image you read text. Would not this be an exciting module, a template, a basis on which to reconsider some cinema practice?” (“Body and Text”).
35. By dramatizing this shift from an ideographic to an alphabetic – and, thus, completely abstract system of writing – and simultaneously calling our attention to the body, could Greenaway be urging us to reconsider something more than our cinematic practices? In effect, might he not be suggesting that we reconsider all of our representational practices, and, more specifically, our own use of language to represent ourselves and the world? Might he not be inviting us to rediscover the roots of our language in the organic world and in our bodies? Such a notion is certainly echoed by the “talkative calligrapher” discussed above, for he also insists that the word's relation to the thing it names not be arbitrary, but mimetic: “The word for smoke should look like smoke – the word for rain should look like rain” (54). As Abram and others have argued, the oriental ideographic script retains some ties to the phenomenal world of sensory perception. The Chinese ideograph for “red,” for instance, is composed of abbreviated forms of the pictographs for things that are red – a rose, a cherry, or rust, for example (111).
36. The progressive movement from a pictographic model of writing to the ideogram, and later to the rebus, to the Semitic alephbeth, and finally to the Greek alphabet, carries with it an analogous movement toward abstraction and distancing, and, as articulated by Saussurian linguistics, toward arbitrariness. Drawing on Maurice Merleau-Ponty's theories of perception as participatory, and of human language as carnal and rooted in sensorial experience, Abram goes on to show how the linguistic model adopted by the West encourages, even promotes, “a massive distrust of sensorial experience while valorizing an abstract realm of ideas hidden behind or beyond the sensory appearances” (72). With these shifts in what might be called “technologies of expression” come shifts in consciousness. It is precisely this technologically produced consciousness which, I believe, Greenaway's film invites us to investigate. Greenaway's interest in other forms of technologically produced expressions and representations – the Internet, CD-ROM, electronically produced layering of images – seems a natural extension of his fascination with the effects of writing on being and on the body.
37. In Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman argues that any new technology does not simply add or subtract something from the culture, but changes everything. Technologies – and Postman sees written language as one of our most fundamental technologies – contain their particular ideological bias and, thus, have an effect on the structure of our interests, on the character of our symbols, and on the nature of our communities. That is, technologies alter what we think about, what we think with, and the environment in which our thinking takes place. In other words, technologies alter the ways we perceive and construct reality (13-22). Abram contends that “today we are simply unable to discern with any clarity the manner in which our own perceptions and thoughts are being shifted by our sensory involvement with electronic technologies, since any thinking that seeks to discern such a shift is itself subject to the very effect that it strive to thematize” (115). I would agree with both positions insofar as we maintain our commitment to an ideological predisposition against questioning what we regard as the fundamental capacity that distinguishes the human from the non-human animal – language. As Postman notes, language appears to us to be a natural expression emanating from within us so “we believe it to be a direct, unedited, unbiased, apolitical expression of how the world really is.” He further adds that a sentence functions much like a machine, in so far as it “re-creates the world in its own image” (125).
38. The radical distinction between humans and non-humans on the basis of the former's unique capacity for language is challenged by current research on the linguistic capacity of chimpanzees, for instance. Under experimental conditions, chimpanzees have been shown to have more linguistic capacities than they actually use in the wild. The effects that such findings will have on the way we think about ourselves, on our uses of language, and therefore, on how we imagine and live out our relationship to the world and to other beings is, however, uncertain. Abram's intention is to propose an alternative to seeing language as a mere code, as having an arbitrary connection to the world – and, thus, as being truly separable from it – and as being detached from the act of speaking, that is, from the body. To think of human language in that way, argues Abram, is to justify our seeing humans as significantly different from other beings. This, he argues, has in turn justified “the increasing manipulation and exploitation of nonhuman nature by, and for, (civilized) humankind” (77). I believe Greenaway is thinking along analogous lines:
Darwin's evolutionary theories have dramatically obliged us to look at our animal origins and our physical selves with new eyes. Our ideas of corporeality and sexuality have to be adjusted with new sympathies […] In the light of this fact, we have been obliged to re-examine notions of the greatest sensitivity, to reconsider such dearly-held concepts as conscience, spirit and the soul, concepts which we pride ourselves on possessing to make us a superior animal, capable of communicating with even greater forms of intelligence, mortal or immortal […] By the final use of his thinking, Darwin was sure that despite any heartfelt wish for the contrary, man was not the sum and end of the evolutionary process, and that, in every likelihood, homo sapiens was, in evolutionary terms, no more than a link that would continue after him, and probably without relationship to him, since evolutionary progress had seen so many dead ends, cul de sacs, and abortive developments, especially in the highly developed species. (qtd. in Woods 64)
39. Like Darwin before him, Greenaway applies thought to the critical investigation of thinking. Greenaway is also deploying multiple representational means to ask critical and crucial questions about representationality itself. Above all, he invites “new sympathies” with the non-human world by recasting man's position in that world. He reconnects language to the body by showing that oral and written expression emanate from the body. Finally, Greenaway reveals the dangers to the body of substituting an abstracted and arbitrary body of language for the expressive sensorial body.
40. A third way in which the word BRUSTEN contributes to our understanding of Greenaway's meditations on language and representationality is that, as Greenaway has pointed out in a personal conversation, Yiddish was mostly an oral language. When first committed to paper, it was written in Hebrew. The speakers of Yiddish were also, apparently, forbidden to use the language to describe body parts. Jerome subverts these interdictions associated with spoken Yiddish by writing the name of a body part on a body part, and by using the phonetic alphabet. Like Prospero at the beginning of Prospero's Books, Jerome commits to writing a word which was meant to be spoken, and thus helps establish a gap, or disconnection, between language and the body. This disjuncture is further intensified with the advent of mechanical writing, which puts the body at one further remove from the written word by introducing the keyboard as mediating device between the gesture of the hand and the word on the page (and on the screen). Until print, even alphabetic writing, after all, retains a vestigial connection to the body by literally leaving visible traces of the body's presence. As Abram notes, “we may be sure that the shapes of our consciousness are shifting in tandem with the technologies that engage our senses – much as we can now begin to discern, in retrospect, how the distinctive shape of Western philosophy was born of the meeting between the human senses and the alphabet in ancient Greece” (115). This is precisely Postman's point that “language is pure ideology” (123).
41. Lastly, BRUSTEN also suggests breath, for it is the word for the part of the body that houses the human breath – the very breath that animates both the body and the spoken word. The Semitic text, before the introduction of vowel indicators in the 7th century A.D., had to be read aloud, the reader's breath being necessary to animate the written text. Vowels are but sounded breath, and the Hebrew interdiction against the representation of vowels has been explained by the fact that the ancient Semites regarded breath as sacred and mysterious, and thus inseparable from the holy breath. Abram suggests that Hebrew scribes may have avoided creating letters to represent the sounded breath so as not to make a visible representation of an invisible and sacred force (241).
42. Greenaway has compressed the evolution of language from its spoken origins to its alphabetical form in this one word, BRUSTEN. He has also traced the development of language as something emanating from, or produced by, the body to something which now produces the body, scripts it, and envelops it as a second layer of skin. Brody Neuenschwander, Greenaway's calligrapher for Prospero's Books and The Pillow Book, explains that the particular script style chosen for the writing on the bodies in The Pillow Book was gridded and typographic in quality, so as to contrast more dramatically with “the irregular curves of the body, becoming like a second layer over the skin” (quoted in Owen 29). As Jerome's fate ultimately demonstrates, however, this superimposition of text over body introduced into the film with Nagiko's birthday rituals becomes a fatal substitution of text for body – as the black ink Jerome drinks in a quasi-suicidal gesture is substituted for his own blood. Here, pharmakon, in the form of ink, works quite literally as the poison that kills Jerome.
43. Each linguistic development – from the early ideograms, to rebuses, to the Semitic aleph-beth, to the Greek alphabet – introduces a new level of abstraction and separation, or distance, between language and the body, and between human culture and the rest of nature. Our understanding of and engagement with the world has been radically altered as we have displaced our sensory participation in its three-dimentionality with a two-dimensional surface – a wall, a clay tablet, a sheet of paper, a computer screen, or a movie screen. Our semiotic system, which was once intimately linked to our bodies and to the more-than-human-life-world, is now a mere abstract code, having an arbitrary connection to the world, and is, therefore, detachable from both the act of speaking and the geographical location which once gave rise to the stories our ancestors told. For primal cultures, storytelling serves to wed the human community to the land, which itself works as a mnemonic trigger. Before the invention of writing, says Abram, language was quite literally not only rooted in the body of the speaker, but in a particular soil: “in the absence of any written analogue to speech, the sensible, natural environment remains the primary visual counterpart of spoken utterance, the visible accompaniment of all spoken meaning” (139-40). Writing for us has replaced the land as referent and as the visual counterpart of speech. Whereas the landscape operates as a mnemonic trigger for oral peoples and weds them to the land, the written text makes possible the preservation of cultural stories independently of the land. Abram talks about the written stories of the Hebrew tribes as a kind of “portable homeland for the Hebrew people” (195), who found themselves in the difficult position of trying to preserve their stories while being cut off from the land for many generations. It is thus understandable that one of the central motifs of the Hebrew Bible is exile or displacement. It is also understandable that what makes Judeo-Christian religions so universalizable is their transportability in the form of a book.
44. Moreover, once a written tradition becomes established, the reasons for remaining bound to a particular place are weakened. The devastating effects this has had on the land and on our relationship to the land is a topic of great concern for us today, and one that needs to be explored more fully in relation to Greenaway, I believe. It is no accident that The Pillow Book makes more explicit references to ecological questions than any other film by Greenaway, and that it links these references to writing. Although a fuller development of ecological themes in Greenaway is the focus of another, longer project, a few examples of its connection to writing in The Pillow Book can be offered here.
45. Nagiko is often linked to natural elements, such as gardens, water, and even whales. These elements are often depicted as constrained, framed, or enclosed. Gardens, but particularly the Japanese garden, are obvious examples of a manicured, molded nature – a nature shaped by human hands, according to a “model-in-thought,” to use Merleau-Ponty's expression (169). Water, when not contained in the form of pools or lakes, flows freely from the sky as rain, and, as we have noted, is often associated by the film with cleansing rituals – such as baths – and with the washing away of writing. Nagiko is also associated with whales by means of the two sculptures of the tail flukes of whales that adorn her and her husband's home. In one of the publicity stills for the film, reprinted in the script, these flukes are clearly linked to imprisonment and death: the room is lit in such a way as to cast multiple horizontal shadows against the back wall, suggesting prison bars. Superimposed on these shadows are the shadows of Nagiko's husband's phallic arrows (he has pretensions to archery), which are reminiscent of harpoons – particularly when juxtaposed with the image of the whales.
46. Another reference to whales – and to their real and symbolic importance in the film and to environmental activism – appears in the dialogue. The “talkative” calligrapher, advocate for the impermanence of writing, explains that his brother works for the forestry commission and would like to make green ink “a standard colour for all forestry business” (54). He then goes on to link writing, vision, and whales through the following remark: “I asked him what colour ink he would use if he gave up eating whale meat and worked for a whaling company. He said whales were colour blind” (54). However ironical and playful the reference, its political weight cannot be denied – the Japanese whaling industry and Greenpeace would, without a doubt, be sensitive to it, but for different reasons, naturally. Shortly after this scene, Nagiko is kidnapped by a gang of nihilist youth clad in black (they are described as “anti-Japanese, anti-American, anti-Ecology,” in the script, 61), while she is at home having breakfast with Bara, one of her lover-calligraphers and an advocate of “clean living ecological purity” (59) who writes ecological slogans on her body.
47. Since she was a young child, Nagiko herself has been linked to writing in multiple and opposed ways. As an adult, she is linked to both its production and its destruction. At one point in the film, she attempts to drown her typewriter; twice, her writings are destroyed by fire, the second time through her own action. In his films, Greenaway has subjected books to every conceivable form of destruction: by water, earth, wind, fire, and ingestion. The Pillow Book also connects Nagiko's destruction of her own writings with the destruction of forests: the fire that consumes her books also burns down the wooden columns in her house, columns that are deliberately made to look like tree trunks. At other points in the film, the print industry itself, represented by Nagiko's father's publisher, is associated with deforestation and ecological holocaust.
48. The ending of The Pillow Book suggests that language is now fully rooted in books, and that its connection to the body is, at best, superficial, skin deep. It also suggest that the body has been fully scripted by our civilization's narrative, an Oedipal narrative, as demonstrated by the permanent tattoo we see on Nagiko's chest as she breast-feeds her child. This is disconcerting, given that the film has gone to great lengths to convince us that the writing on bodies is impermanent and soluble. Moreover, the human body, as represented by Jerome's body, and the body of nature, as represented by the Bonsai tree adorning Nagiko's living room, have been thoroughly bound – Jerome's into a book, and the tree into a root-bound potted plant. That these two bodies have succumbed to the same fate, that both have been texted, is indicated by Nagiko's placing – burying – of Jerome's Pillow Book in the soil of the Bonsai tree. Having broken the connection between language and the body, says Greenaway, “we have set up for ourselves a bundle of trouble. It intimates a yet further denial of the physical self to the conveniences of the non-corporeal world, and even greater reliance on the machine “ (“Body and Text”).
49. That the film ends with the flowering of the Bonsai tree, and that this flowering takes place outside the diegesis of the film, may be taken, allegorically, as a reminder that human expression remains linked to, and dependent on, the human and more-than-human body of the world and its eternal cycles of death and rebirth. While the flowering of the tree takes place outside the narrative proper of the film, some ambiguity remains as to the fate of the tree, since, as the tree begins to flower, the credits begin to roll. Interestingly, the credits seem to “make room” for the tree, at least for awhile, by being pushed to the margins of the image, the edges of the frame.
50. If there is a hopeful message at the end of this film, it lies in our recognition that, to quote Greenaway once again, “the body must be up there earnestly and vigorously rooting for its supremacy, text or no text.” As the Thirteenth Book, “the book to end all books” (The Pillow Book 112), inscribed on the body of the sumo-wrestler sent to kill the publisher, says: “'I am old,' said the book. 'I am older,' said the body” (The Pillow Book 112).
The book to end all books.
The final book.
After this, there is no more writing
no more publishing.
The publisher should retire
The eyes grow weak, the light dims.
The eyes squint. They blink.
The world is prey to a failing of focus.
The ink grows fainter but the print grows larger.
In the end, the pages only whisper in deference.
Although dreams of love still linger,
The hopes of consummation grow less,
What could be the end of all these hopes and desires?
Here comes the end.
(“The Thirteenth Book,” The Pillow Book 112)
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Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. 1972. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981.
Elliott, Bridget, and Anthony Purdy. “Artificial Eye/Artificial You: Getting Greenaway or Mything the Point?” Literature and the Body. Ed. Anthony Purdy. Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1992. 178-211.
Elliott, Bridget, and Anthony Purdy. Peter Greenaway: Architecture and Allegory. London: Academy Editions, 1997.
Ehrenfeld, David. The Arrogance of Humanism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1978.
Fromm, Erich. The Forgotten Language. New York: Rinehart & Co., 1951.
Greenaway, Peter. The Pillow Book. Paris: Dis Voir, 1996.
Greenaway, Peter. “Peter Greenaway on The Pillow Book.” Sight and Sound (Nov. 1996): 14-17.
Greenaway, Peter. The Stairs/Geneva: Location. London: Merrell Holberton, 1994.
Greenaway, Peter. The Belly Of An Architect. London: Faber and Faber, 1988.
Greenaway, Peter. A Zed & Two Noughts. London: Faber and Faber, 1986.
Lawrence, Amy. The Films of Peter Greenaway. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.
Lowen, Alexander. Fear of Life. New York: Collier Books, 1980.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Primacy of Perception And Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History and Politics. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1964.
Neumann, Erich. The Origin and History of Consciousness. New York: Pantheon Books, 1954.
Nollman, Jim. The Charged Border: Where Whales and Humans Meet. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., forthcoming April 1999.
Nollman, Jim. “The Secret Language of the Wild: What Animals Could Tell Us if We'd Only Listen.” Utne Reader 86 (March-April 1998): 40-45, 100.
Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy. The Technologizing of the Word. London, New York: Routledge, 1996 .
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1. Peter Greenaway's incorporation of other art forms in his films has become a well-established trademark of the British artist. The terms “mixed-media” and “multi-media” have been used to describe, respectively, Greenaway's use of different media within a work and across works and his increasing interest in “high-tech” technologies, such as the Internet and CD-ROM. Most film critics and art historians, in commenting on Greenaway's work, have focused on his exploration of the potentiality of painting for the cinematic, and on his pastiche renderings of paintings by famous artists. Bridget Elliott and Anthony Purdy, for instance, note how Greenaway manipulates historical structures and genres and imitates the style of individual artists, often reproducing their paintings in the mise-en-scиne (see also David Pascoe's work). Angela Dalle Vacche, on the other hand, in her study of films that redefine art history in their composition of the cinematic image, does not discuss Greenaway's films at all, except to explain why she does not: the particular brand of intertextuality and quotations exhibited in Greenaway's films, she explains, “is more preoccupied with defining itself than with redefining art history” (8, my emphasis). In other words, for Dalle Vacche, Greenaway's references to the other arts are at the service of his own self reflections about cinema. Amy Lawrence, in her recent study of Greenaway's feature films, shares this view of the British artist as a self-conscious “auteur” who makes art “out of ideas about art” (5).
2. I agree with Dalle Vacche's and Lawrence's assessments, but I would also contend that what Greenaway redefines through his “art-about-art” is, more broadly speaking, representationality itself. Greenaway's references to art history are but particular manifestations of his comprehensive investigation of what it means to represent. Greenaway's films explore the means through which humanity has sought to represent itself and the world – through images (paintings, drawings, photography, films), objects (architecture, sculpture), words (print, calligraphy), sounds (speech, music), and bodies (dance, sex, death).
3. I will discuss here only two of these representational means, the written word and the body, through an analysis of Greenaway's most recent film, The Pillow Book (1996). The reading of the film I advance is one that is consonant with what I understand to be some of the fundamental preoccupations of the British artist. My reading will draw from personal conversations with Greenaway, as well as from a selection of theoretical works which I have found stimulating and useful in elucidating my approach to this film. One of the objectives of my reading is an exploration of the Oedipal resonances of the story. Drawing from David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous: Human Perception in a More-Than-Human
World, I would also like to engage in a discussion of Greenaway's portrayal of the written word, and of his references to ecology.
4. Abram applies phenomenology, most specifically the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, to an investigation of the impact of written language, particularly the phonetic alphabet, on our perception of and relation to our bodies and to the “body” of the world around us. In this study, Abram examines the origins of writing and describes writing's subsequent gradual divorce from its natural referents – the human body and the land. What I would like to suggest in my analysis of The Pillow Book is that the split between language and body, which, Abram convincingly suggests, was brought about by alphabetic writing, is something analogous to the split, hypothesized by Lacanian theory, of the Subject from the totality of Being brought about by the Subject's entry into the Symbolic. I further suggest that this split is the central motif of the Oedipus legend, and that this legend operates as a master narrative in our particular patriarchal civilization, a civilization that, in abandoning its roots in the living body of the Earth that nurtures it, has inscribed itself in a deadly narrative of biospheric proportions.
5. The Pillow Book brings the written word and the body together in what might be called a “deadly embrace,” as Nagiko's lover's body is fashioned into a book – a pillow book. This conjunction of body and text is certainly not new in Greenaway's cinematic corpus, and neither is its association with death. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover presents us with a rather graphic death by text as Michael, the lover, is made to swallow pages of his favorite book – on the French Revolution. The Belly of An Architect makes both explicit and implicit references to deaths by books as well. Stourley Kracklite, perhaps in an attempt to come to grips with his illness, thrusts the corner of a hard-bound copy of Vesalius' Anatomy into his stomach. The Anatomy is, of course, a book about the body – most particularly about the dead body. That this scene links the body, the book, and death – specifically Kracklite's impending death – is made clear by the fact that the Anatomy is opened at a page “showing a half-stripped-down male corpse with the various organs and features of the stomach much in evidence” (Belly 97). That the corpse is that of a male not only links death with Kracklite but also with masculinity in general, I would argue. It is no coincidence that most of Greenaway's male protagonists are dead at the end of the films, and this is an aspect of Greenaway's cinema that deserves to be explored more fully, but to which I can only briefly allude here.
6. The Pillow Book also links sex and text, again, not an unfamiliar coupling for Greenaway. In A Zed and Two Noughts, Greenaway introduces us to Venus de Milo, the prostitute/writer of erotic animal tales who, like Nagiko, trades sex for text. Sex and text are also, of course, linked to authoring and to taking possession, which in turn are linked to the figure of the male patriarch. Amy Lawrence notes that the centrality of the issue of possession in Prospero's Books is indicated by the title (143), which also functions to fuse the notions of possession, patriarchal authority, and authoring with books and language. The Pillow Book introduces an interesting twist to this linkage by associating sexuality and textuality not only with a male figure – Nagiko's father – but also with female figures – Sei Shonagon and Nagiko, herself.
7. I have argued elsewhere that Prospero's scriptural enterprise in Prospero's Books is, first, one of conquest and colonization, and then one of geographical and historical rewriting. Walter Ong speaks of the word as a form of action, an event or occurrence whose power to affect thinking processes might be termed magical (31-32), for it fosters abstraction and separation, alienating the knower from the known, and essentially creating these as distinct categories. Thus, as Lawrence argues, “writing makes possible the categorization of the world into encyclopedia, of people into races and types, of colonization and slavery, Ariel and Caliban” (142). Similarly, Michel de Certeau has called writing the “fundamental initiatory practice” (135), which posits the existence of a distinct and distant subject and a blank space, or page. Prospero takes the island in which he is exiled to be such a blank page waiting to be scripted by him. Through the written word, he orders the world into being in two senses: he summons it forth and imposes on it a specific structure, which he controls. Indeed, Prospero's Books opens with a scene that suggests the written word has replaced water as the source of life. “Like God,” remarks Lawrence, “Prospero creates the world not out of a drop of water, but with a word” (140). Prospero's world is thus a world constituted by language, not an organically evolved world. It is, then, an artifact of language and human subjectivity, and it is ruled by a consciousness. In the case of The Pillow Book, language – in the form of ink – will be substituted not only for water but also for human blood, for life itself.
8. This process of substitution is initiated when Nagiko's father ritually inscribes a birthday greeting on his daughter's face and neck. Greenaway calls this ritual an “incantation” (The Pillow Book 90). It is designed, I would argue, to mold the child in very specific ways, according to a familiar pre-existing script or narrative, one we have come to call the Oedipal narrative. Although the Oedipal resonances of this story are not lost on the viewers, I hope to show the full implications of reading this story as fundamentally Oedipal by linking the Oedipal legend itself to a shift in perception which, as Abrams argues, occurred when alphabetic writing became established and the spoken word began losing its connection to the human body and to the land in which both body and word are rooted.
9. This shift – from the organic connection between speech and body to a connection between speech and alphabetic writing – helped inaugurate what Jacques Derrida refers to as the subordination of writing to spoken language characteristic of Western metaphysics, where the written word is taken to be a mere “supplement to the spoken word” (Of Grammatology 7). While Derrida's intention is to deconstruct the basis for this subordination of writing to speech, and to return to writing its disruptive potential, my desire here is to suggest that something more fundamental is lost in this process whereby speech and alphabetic writing become linked. What is lost is the sense that a material, organic body is at the source of the production of both speech and writing – whether alphabetic, hieroglyphic, or ideographic. Moreover, what is also lost is the sense that all types of bodies, not just human bodies, are capable of what might be called “speech.”
10. The logic of Derrida's argument is that Western metaphysics privileges logos because of its proximity to the signified. Since the essence of the signified is presence, the privileging of logos amounts to a privileging of presence. This privileging of presence is, for Derrida, a privileging of univocal meaning and truth. While I agree with Derrida's project to deconstruct the notion of logos as the carrier of universal truth, I would like to suggest that the equating of logos with universal absolute truth could only have arisen with writing, most particularly with alphabetic writing. The privileging of “speech” by Western metaphysics would then be a retroactive privileging, made possible by the very existence of writing. This privileging amounts to an appropriation of speech by subjects constituted by writing. If speech comes to have the value of truth, it is only because writing has already made possible the dissociation between a “concept” and any particular, local manifestation of what is represented by the concept. Thus, Plato can speak of “virtue” or of “beauty” independently of any particular instance or experience of a “virtuous” or “beautiful” thing or action. There is, perhaps, in Western metaphysics, a fundamental misunderstanding of what speech might have been for pre-scriptural peoples.
11. This is not the same as to say that the world is a text. To attribute “writing” to non-human beings may also be an instance of anthropomorphic projection. It need not be an instance of anthropocentrism, however. Abram would content that this might, in fact, help break down the rigid boundaries between the human and the non-human worlds, and foster a more empathetic rapport with our fellow creatures. To a certain extent, however, the same caveat brought up above in relation to Derrida applies here.
12. I am playing with the plurivocality of the expression. In note 10 above I used the expression to suggest that if there is nothing outside text, then all is text. Here I am suggesting that the text which I am discussing, The Pillow Book, is not limited to the film in a narrow sense: it includes both the filmed and the printed versions of the story (and the film version would also include footage shot but not used in the final released version), as well as all the imaginable intertexts.
13. The subtexts for Greenaway's thematic treatment of the body as texted, as representation, and of death by text, are multiple: they range from Kafka's “In the Penal Colony,” where the penalty for disobedience takes the form of death by a machine, the “Harrow,” that writes on the body of the accused, slowly but eventually killing him, to Lewis Carroll, one of Greenaway's favorite writers along with Jorge Luis Borges. Of note are Carroll's stories Sylvie and Bruno Concluded and The Hunting of the Snark, both of which are allegories of the implications of substituting maps for territories, representations for organic “reality.” The former has to do with an astonishing map drawn up on a scale of one mile to the mile which covers the entire territory of a farm, thus shading the crops from the life-giving sun. The latter is a blank map, which, in covering the territory, erases its features and renders it blank, like an empty page. In both cases, the body of the land is rendered barren. A subtext for Greenaway's treatment of the flaying of Jerome's body might be Titian's The Flaying of Marsyas (c. 1570), depicting the Phrygian satyr Marsyas being flayed alive as a consequence of having lost a musical duel with the god Apollo. David Richard's reading of this painting is consonant with my reading of the transformation of Jerome's body into a textual representation: “the painting is paradigmatic of a recurrent 'crisis' of representation which lies deep in the platonic tradition of European art and interpretation. Western art is constructed upon this problem of representing that which it cannot, while effectively dismissing the actual body as an inconsequential means to the end of an impossible representation” (13).
14. “Oral peoples commonly think of names (one kind of words) as conveying power over things. […] First of all, names do give human beings power over what they name: without learning a vast store of names, one is simply powerless to understand, for example, chemistry and to practice chemical engineering. And so with all other intellectual knowledge. Secondly, chirographic and typographic folk tend to think of names as labels, written or printed tags imaginatively affixed to an object named. Oral folk have no sense of a name as a tag, for they have no idea of a name as something that can be seen. Written or printed representations of words can be labels; real, spoken words cannot be” (Ong 33).
15. Greenaway has made this point several times in lectures given while touring the U.S. to promote the film. For more on this point and for a discussion of other technical aspects of The Pillow Book, see William Owen, “Bodies, Text and Motion.”
16. In 1996, Greenaway staged an exhibition at the Gallery Fortlaan, in Belgium, entitled “The Tyranny of the Frame.” See also his The Stairs/Geneva: The Location.
17. “A fine epitaph: here lies a body cut down to fit the picture,” says Alba, after having her second leg amputated by Van Meegeren, the Zoo surgeon with aspirations to being a Dutch painter (A Zed and Two Noughts 107). Earlier in the film, after being fitted with a mechanical – fake – leg and asked to wear a replica of the dress – another fake – which appears in Vermeer's “The Music-lesson,” Alba protests: “I'm an excuse for medical experiments and art history” (A Zed and Two Noughts 77). Greenaway has also produced a series of paintings, The Framed Life (1989), which feature “frames” as their primary content and organizing principle. The text accompanying the exhibition of some of these paintings at the SESC Vila Mariana in Sгo Paulo, Brazil (15 July – 17 August, 1998) suggests that life events and social roles – social narratives and myths like the Oedipus legend, for example – might be regarded as framing devices: “Since all pictorial art, all performance disciplines, and the moving images are restricted to the frame, we can say this is also the case with reality. The series The Framed Life was to do just that; squeeze a life into a frame. Conception, birth, childhood, puberty, sex, love, marriage, adultery, maturity, illness, senility, death – all held together in a fixed rectangle.” For reproductions of some of these paintings, see Peter Greenaway, Papers, Editions Dis Voir, 1990; Leon Steinmetz and Peter Greenaway, The World of Peter Greenaway, Journey Editions, 1995; and the 1998 catalogue to accompany the opera 100 Objects to Represent the World: A Prop-Opera (Sгo Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, August 6-9 and August 14-17).
18. Quantum physics has reminded us of something which, according to Catherine Wilson, microscopists in the early 17th century were forced to confront, even as they strove to find means of describing the subvisible world of nature. According to Wilson, these early scientists were disappointed with the contributions made by the microscope, for they had to recognize that the images that it revealed were fundamentally different from the reality under scrutiny.
19. All quotations from “Body and Text” refer to a lecture by Greenaway. I would like to thank Peter Greenaway for making the text of this lecture available to me.
20. The script reads: “Nagiko's father takes out a bank-note (1,000 yen) and gives it to his daughter, who rubs it between her fingers and then looks at it closely. Bringing it up to her nose, she sniffs it. Her glance is absent for a few moments as she concentrates on catching the scent of the new bank-note. Its smell makes a strong impression on her” (38). Printed paper money is, of course, the universal proxy and the ultimate abstraction.
21. Jim Nollman, director of Interspecies Communication, Inc., and author of The Charged Border: Where Whales and Humans Meet, argues that “interspecies communication is far more common in nature than biology warrants. Whether it occurs at any given moment has less to do with intelligence than with timing and sensitivity. It depends on how willing we are, as individuals and as a culture, to seek out the unknown, push beyond the quantifiable, and adopt new, ethically based ways for studying the possibilities. Orthodox scientists say this view of interspecies communication reeks of anthropomorphism. But perhaps this criticism is handy obfuscation that serves to uphold the dogma that keeps humans above and separate from the rest of nature” (“Secret Language” 100).
22. David Ehrenfeld notes that quick profits from the commercial exploitation of whales, to the point of extinction can be turned into greater profits than if the whales were captured at a rate commensurate with their ability to survive as a species (202). Ehrenfeld also recounts a conversation he had with a fellow scientist who was deeply concerned about the survival of a species of great whale he was studying. Ehrenfeld asked this scientist why, if he was so concerned with protecting this whale population from whalers, he was publishing maps and descriptions of its exact location. The man replied that “he couldn't withhold scientific truth, even if it meant that the whales could suffer for it” (248). This seems to me another instance of prioritizing the map over the territory, the representation of life in the form of scientific “knowledge” about life, over life itself.
1. See, for instance, a call for papers for a 1998 MLA session on the roles of mixed and multi-media in Peter Greenaway's works. Greenaway has produced, so far, three mixed-media operas (Rosa: A Horse Drama, 100 Objects to Represent the World: A Prop-Opera, and Christopher Columbus) that make extensive use of cinematic projection. He is currently working on a mega-cinematic project, The Tulse Luper Suitcases, which will include an eight-hour long film, a television series, a CD-ROM component, and an Internet site to be updated daily. Unless otherwise specified, all comments by Greenaway and information regarding his future projects were obtained during conversations with the artist.
2. In keeping with this focus, Greenaway's new film, 8 1/2 Women, to be released at Cannes in 1999, proclaims itself to be an homage to both Federico Fellini and Jean-Luc Godard, and is about the making of a film (interview with the author, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, September 1998).
3. For a related treatment of this question, see my “God, Art, and the Gospel: The Construction of the Heterosexual Couple According to Godard,” forthcoming in Film/Literature Quarterly.
4. For an interesting discussion of books and bodies in Greenaway, see Bridget Elliott's and Anthony Purdy's “Artificial Eye/Artificial You: Getting Greenaway or Mything the Point?”
5. The most significant exception to this is Prospero. Although Prospero does not die, he does drown his books and relinquish control over the island and its inhabitants. In a conversation, Greenaway explained his attitude toward his male protagonists as follows: “And film after film after film, my distrust, I suppose, of the male hero, the macho behavior, the vulgarity, the philistinism… I suppose you could take these theories a lot further. Basically, I would support the notion of the female over the male; I always find females far more exciting and entertaining. Females are on the cusp now of the greatest revolution that is happening in the world; it's not political, it's not capitalistic, it has to do finally with some sense of emancipation of the female which has never been present before in our civilisation” (Interview with the author, Indianapolis, April 28, 1997). In light of this comment, we can only await with much anticipation Greenaway's treatment in his next film, 8 1/2 Women, of the protagonists' obsessions with the women in Fellini's and Godard's films.
6. See my “Aimé Césaire's A Tempest and Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books as Ecological Rereadings and Rewritings of Shakespeare's The Tempest,” forthcoming in Reading the Earth: New Directions in the Study of Literature and Environment.
7. Jacques Derrida too has referred to the word, to writing, as an “event,” rather than merely a “program” – although his conclusions regarding the impact of the word-as-event on Being are quite different from those of Ong. Geoffrey Bennington's “biography” of Derrida, like many of Derrida's own texts (Margins of Philosophy and Dissemination, for example) is meant to be an “event” that offers surprises, and remains indeterminate and unpredictable. In the running commentary by Derrida that parallels the progression of Bennington's text, Derrida writes: “ […] for it is true that if I succeed in surprising him [Bennington] and surprising his reader, this success, success itself, will be valid not only for the future but also for the past for by showing that every writing to come cannot be engendered, anticipated, preconstructed from this matrix, I would signify to him in return that something in the past might have been withdrawn, if not in its content at least in the sap of the idiom, from the effusion of the signature […]” (32).
8. Derrida, once again, would argue that the prison house of language, of writing, is the book, not writing itself. Derrida's challenge to the authority of the book is offered as a challenge to what he perceives to be Western metaphysics' prioritizing of speech over writing, of presence over absence. The book represents a totality of the signifier that relies on the notion that a “totality constituted by the signified preexists it, supervises its inscriptions and its signs and is independent of it in its ideality” (Of Grammatology 18). A Derridian reading of Greenaway's Prospero's Books, for instance, would see Prospero's books as quasi-living organisms, or as events – always in process, always multiple, unfixable, without origin, and without end. The encyclopedic nature of Prospero's books, as portrayed by Greenaway, would, from this perspective, serve to challenge this notion of the book as a fixed, unchanging, totality. While I am all in favor of challenging the notion of the book as a fixed totality, the Derridian reading of Prospero's Books which I am suggesting here poses a grave danger: it regards the island on which Prospero is exiled – the island which he remakes and populates with mythological figures out of his books – as the product of textual inscriptions, as itself a text, in effect. We are uncannily close here to a conception of the world as the product of discourse, and of consciousness. While this might be in keeping with the Judeo-Christian notion that “in the beginning was the Word,” the ethical and ecological implications of conceiving the world as the product of discourse, in effect, as a representation, are tremendous.
9. For “incantation,” hear also inkcantation. I have to thank Larry W. Riggs for pointing out this double-entendre following my reading aloud of an earlier version of this paper at the 1997 MLA Conference.
10. While Derrida is not suggesting that writing preceded speech in the evolution of language, he is making a case for a conception of writing as something that exceeds phonetic notations, that is, as “arche-writing.” “If writing is no longer understood in the narrow sense of linear and phonetic notation, it should be possible to say that all societies capable of producing, that is to say of obliterating, their proper names, and of bringing classificatory difference into play, practice writing in general. No reality or concept would therefore correspond to the expression 'society without writing'” (Of Grammatology 109). The notion of a “society without writing,” Derrida goes on to argue, arises out of an “ethnocentric, misconception of writing” (109). The point could also be made, however, that to expand the notion of writing so as to include all forms of classificatory differences is an instance of ethnocentric projection. According to this logic, there is nothing that is not a text (“il n'y a pas de hors-text,” see note 12). The danger of this kind of thinking, to my mind, is that it authorizes seeing the world as a text: “the Book of Nature” – as an authored, readable, rearrangeable construct, awaiting the intervention of a reading Subject who will give it life, so to speak. While, for Derrida, a text's meaning is not fixed nor univocal, text itself – and particularly the printed text, that is, one which no longer even evokes the presence of a body behind the script – appears to us as visible, tangible, fixed marks on a page. I cannot help but wonder what would be the most effective way of minimizing our civilization's destructive impact on the environment: whether to adopt Derrida's view of text as plurivocal – which I agree it is – and continue regarding the world as a text, or to dispense altogether with the analogy between text and world. This is an expanded version of a paper delivered at the Modern Language Association's 1997 Conference. I would like to thank PMC for expressing interest in having me expand the essay, and its anonymous readers for their suggestions.