Written on the Body

Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body is one of my favorite books.  Winterson has an ability to mold language in a way that excites me and leaves me in awe.  It inspires in me an appreciation for language and writing that is deep beyond my ability to describe.  The word to describe how her words make me feel is ineffable – too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words.  I love the irony of that word – ineffable.  Written on the Body opens with an exploration of love.

Why is the measure of love loss? … 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 and 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. I did worship them but now I am alone on a rock hewn out of my own body. … Love demands expression. It will not stay still, stay silent, be good, be modest, be seen and not heard, no. It will break out in tongues of praise, the high note that smashes the glass and spills the liquid.  It is no conservationist love. It is a big game hunter and you are the game. A curse on this game. How can you stick at a game when the rules keep changing? I shall call myself Alice and play croquet with the flamingoes. In Wonderland everyone cheats and love is wonderland isn’t it? Love makes the world go round. Love is blind. All you need is love. Nobody ever died of a broken heart. You’ll get over it. It’ll be different when we’re married. Think of the children. Time’s a great healer. Still waiting for Mr Right? Miss Right? and maybe all the little Rights?

It’s the cliches that cause trouble. A precise emotion seeks a precise expression. If what I feel is not precise than should I call it love? It is so terrifying, love, that all I can do is shove it under a dump bin of pink cuddly toys and send myself a greetings card saying ‘Congratulations on your Engagement’. But I am not engaged I am deeply distracted. I am desperately looking the other way so that love won’t see me. I want the diluted version, the sloppy language, the insignificant gestures. The saggy armchair of cliches. It’s all right, millions of bottoms have sat here before me. The springs are well worn, the fabric smelly and familiar. I don’t have to be frightened, look, my grandma and grandad did it, he in a stiff collar and club tie, she in white muslin straining a little at the life beneath. They did it, my parents did it, now I will do it won’t I, arms outstretched, not to hold you, just to keep my balance, sleepwalking to that armchair. How happy we will be. how happy everyone will be. And they all lived happily ever after.

I enjoy the way Winterson captures the frustration of love, the way we all want to give up when love doesn’t work out or comes with more difficulty than we imagine.  Then the single phrase within the narrator’s attempt to choose the mundane and safe existence that subtly gives away the fact that the mundane is not what the narrator wants at all – “she in white muslin straining a little at the life beneath.”  The two things I love most about Winterson’s writing are her use of language and the multiple layers that are woven together in her storytelling.  She invokes brilliant images with her words, though this passage is not the best example of that – I’ll post something else later that illustrates her imagery better.  She masters paradox and contradiction in much of her writing, which I love because it’s such a good representation of what it’s really like to be human, and even when she writes of completely fantastical things, I can still connect with the humanity in it all.

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