Writing, Identity, & Queer Studies

In & Out, Either/Or, and Everything In Between

The laws of love

“Two hundred miles from the surface of the earth, there is no gravity. The laws of motion are suspended. You could turn somersaults slowly slowly, weight into weightlessness, nowhere to fall… You will break up bone by bone, fractured from who you are, you are drifting away now, the centre cannot hold” (100).

This passage from Written on the Body speaks volumes. The repetition of words related to science, physics, space, and motion (such as earth, gravity, laws of motion, weight, bone, etc.) is critical to understanding this moment in the novel. The laws of motion are considered by most to be absolute, unchangeable and fixed. However, just 200 miles from where we all stand on Earth, everything we think we know about physics is wrong. We are rooted to the earth through gravity, but in a moment, we can be lifted from normalcy and brought into weightlessness with nowhere to fall.

Much like a scientific fact, the narrator thought they knew everything about Louise and everything about their life together. Yet, because of just one sentence, everything crumbled to pieces. Not only was their life with Louise shattered, but even the narrator themself was “fractured from who [they] were, drifting away now” (100). When something as easily accepted and important as gravity, or in this case, true love, breaks, who you are breaks with it.

As another student mentioned in class, “the centre cannot hold” comes from a Yeats poem titled “The Second Coming”. In my opinion, both the poem and the novel’s passage refer to absolute chaos erupting from the seams of the world. Louise was the narrator’s world and imagining a life without her was like imagining life without the laws of motion- impossible.

What a lighthearted deflection of blame has to say about the narrator’s state of mind

“Perhaps I’m not meant to have any worldly goods. Perhaps they are blocking my spiritual progress and my lighter self continually chooses situations where I will be free of material burdens. It’s a comforting thought, slightly better than being a sucker…Judith’s bottom. I treasure it” (Winterson 76).

This quote comes just after the narrator had recounted the story of one of their ex-girlfriends, Judith, who once locked the narrator outside in the cold and then burned their clothes. The narrator has hypothesized that maybe the reason that they are often found caught in situations such as this one – facing ex-girlfriends who have turned hostile – is not a result of any fault of the narrator, but instead, anything but that. In this case, it’s that the universe has decided that the narrator is not meant to possess worldly goods, and their subconscious is what is creating these situations, ones in which it knows the narrator will end up losing something.

This way of thinking reoccurs quote frequently throughout the novel – not necessarily in terms of analyzing the reasons for which the narrator is losing their possessions, but in terms of the narrator placing the blame and searching for answers elsewhere. The narrator tries to look at the big picture, the “other” reason or explanation, when there may not even be one. Between the girlfriends (and girlfriends who are already married, specifically), the narrator is constantly waiting on heartbreak and is constantly waiting on change. It is the mark of an exhausted person who has grown tired of looking within themselves and has grown tired of trying to fix what drives them to always end up in situations that are prone to ending in disaster.

Much of the grappling for some external explanation is done in specific reference to love and time, which really lays bare some of the narrator’s inner demons; they are a hopeless romantic who still searches for hope, but they are afraid of commitment and are reluctant to show vulnerability, which is why they are always searching for another way of explaining their situation.

Love is constant in its demand of your entirety.

“When I say ‘I will be true to you’ I must mean it in spite of the formalities, instead of the formalities. If I commit adultery in my heart then I have lost you a little. The bright vision of your face will blur. I may not notice this once or twice, I may pride myself on having enjoyed those fleshy excursions in the most cerebral way. Yet I will have blunted that sharp flint that sparks between us, our desire for one another above all else” (Winterson 79).

I believe that through this passage the narrator tells us that loving another person, giving yourself to them and only them, is a conscious, continuous action. Love is constant in its demand of your entirety; at even the smallest provocation of infidelity, your love will have lost a part of you to another. When Winterson says “in spite of the formalities, instead of the formalities” she is referring to marriage and courtship (79). As both marriage and courtship unite the individuals in the relationship by binding them by societal ties of belonging, Winterson declares that these unions are separate from the commitment of love. A person might be bound to another by marriage or courtship but their love might not truly belong to their partner if they “commit adultery in [the] heart” (79). If your love, desire, is given to another even if only for a second, then you will have “blunted that sharp flint that sparks between us” (79).

At this point in the novel, we know that the narrator has had numerous prior relationships that have been adulterous. By fantasizing and dreaming of Louise, the narrator has actively estranged herself from Jacqueline. This passage is about that narrator letting go of their relationship with Jacqueline, all the possibilities of a life between them, and of Jacqueline herself. The narrator identifies that her adulterous thoughts and desires for Louise “blunted” her interest in Jacqueline (79). While recognizing this, the narrator simultaneously pledges a vow to Louise to constantly affirm their love for her: to banish all thoughts of past lovers and forever cherish her above all else.

knots

“For carpet makers and cloth weavers all over the world, the challenge of knots lies in the rules of its surprises. Knots can change but they must be well behaved. An informal knot is a messy knot. Louise and I were held by a single loop of love. The cord passing round our bodies had no sharp twists or sinister turns. Our wrists were not tied and there was no noose about our neck.” (pg 87.)

The narrator states that they and Louise are held together “by a single loop of love.” The idealistic version of being held together that is presented by the narrator is an indication that they are ready to change. Even by noting the word single, the narrator implies that this sense of love and well-being is not more constraining for one than another. It is a shared loop. Perhaps in an illusion to her restless past affairs, the narrator specifically addresses that their “wrists were not tied” and there is “no noose about our neck.” This relationship is mutually desired and one is not tying the other down. The narrator’s other relationships appear “informal” and messy in comparison to Louise. Many times, the narrator implied that they felt constrained by being in a relationship or that their affair of the moment was not fully prepared to give up what she had to completely be with the narrator—often her relationship with her husband. This relationship with Louise seems different—it is not informal and there are no “sinister turns.” Of course, this is ironic because the most “sinister turn” of all is tied up inside Louise. What seems so idyllic actually will become undone in dramatic form.

The narrator also seems to be using the descriptions of the knots as a metaphor for their own change that happens to them as they fall for Louise. They say that “knots can change but they must be well behaved.”  Knots—especially tangled ones—are incredibly complicated. Instead of tangling this new relationship with complications, the narrator will be “well behaved.”  They do not want a messy knot here. Every knot can be untangled. There is always a “rule” to organizing the “surprises.” It is just a matter of finding what rules undo the complications. In this case, the narrator is the knot who becomes untangled by Louise.

Visceral Gender

“I didn’t only want Louise’s flesh, I wanted her bones, her blood, her tissues, the sinews that bound her together. I would have held her to me through time had stripped away the tones and textures of her skin. I could have held her for a thousand years until the skeleton itself rubbed away to dust. What are you that makes me feel thus? Who are you for whom time has no meaning?

In the heat of her hands I thought, This is the campfire that mocks the sun. This place will warm me, feed me, and care for me. I will hold on to this pulse against other rhythms. The world will come and go in the tide of a day but here is her hand with my future in its palm.” (p. 51).

Time and magnitude play a big part in this passage. The sun is a universal constant; it has lasted and will last forever, and a human life or a day or a campfire is nothing when compared to it. Likewise, the age or bodily wear from time presents no issue or worry for the narrator in this passage, for how much they feel for Louise. This passage describes the magnitude of the feeling the narrator feels for her; it is all-consuming, only measurable in astronomical proportions, or in the immeasurable length of time. And is it love? The narrator is still entirely confused by the feeling and its intensity.

This passage reinforces the notion that this book is not only about kinds of love, but it is also about bodies. The narrator feels love viscerally and physically and only finds similarity in the astronomical, not-easily-grasped concepts of time or distance or scale. The narrator’s relationship with love, which is one of confusion and yet one that they are connected to intrinsically and completely, reflects the portrayal of bodies in the novel, and ultimately the narrator’s relationship with gender- and the concept of gender itself. The narrator’s gender is never truly revealed (and so, in our minds, neither is their body), and their love is never truly understood. I think the author is saying that a person’s relationship to their gender is connected to their relationship with bodies and that for the narrator, it’s as unknowable and complete as love.

What You Risk Reveals What You Value

The passage is about the effect love has on people, more specifically the effect Louise has on the narrator. This passage is also about risk, “who leaves the hearth for the open sea?” (81). Their love shouldn’t make sense, it started as an affair and turned into something beautiful despite being against all odds: “especially without a compass, especially in the winter, especially alone”(81).

The repetition of home and hearth is significant. The narrator finally found a love that feels like home, a place where they belong. This feeling served as an anchor in their life, “love it was that drove them forth. Love that brought them home again” (81). It allows exploration of each other and the world, and returns them to a place that feels familiar and comfortable. Love healed them. It made them feel invincible, “love hardened their hands against the oar”(81).

“What you risk reveals what you value”(81) is an anomaly. It seems contradicting because wouldn’t you want to protect what you value? This is about courage though, not protection. Have the courage to put it all on the line. Risk to discover something beautiful, something consuming. “In the presence of love, hearth and quest become one” (81) indicates this love is exciting and unknown but it’s also easy and natural. Hearth and quest are opposing words, but being in love wraps them into one.

In this passage, repetition of the sea is seen as it is throughout the novel. The sea mimics the phenomenon of love. It is strange, unknown, and breeds curiosity. The cluster of exploration words such as journey, quest, the open sea, and compass is significant in this passage and the novel in general. The narrator has “explored” many lovers with a wide variety of personalities to find this particular feeling expressed in the passage.

The Real Apple of Eve

“A long way round was a bright red flame. I knew it wasn’t Louise but I couldn’t take my eyes off the colour. It soothed me the way any bear will soothe a child not at home. It wasn’t mine but it was like mine. If I made my eyes into narrow slits the red took up the whole room. The dome was lit with red. I felt like a seed in a pomegranate. Some say that the pomegranate was the real apple of Eve, fruit of the womb, I would eat my way into perdition to taste you. ‘I love her what can I do?’” (91)

Just one day into the agreed upon three day intermission between Louise and the narrator causes a potent experience for our storyteller. The narrator’s passionate love for Louise is blended with the fear of her uncertain return. This combination intensifies the obsession that he/she has for her.

The “bright red flame” (91) that captures their attention could be any number of things. Whatever it is does not matter, but the color mirrors Louise’s hair. Even though it clearly isn’t Louise, the color is all it takes to pull the narrator into a blissful trance. The sight of this redness deeply comforts them. They compare this feeling of relaxation to the adoption and care of a lost child by wild animals. What sounds like a beautiful thing is actually quite the opposite. This rare phenomenon produces feral children that act in a manner that most would recognize as petrifying. Although, if one looks past the normal behaviors of modern society, and the disturbing thought of a wild child growling on all fours, then the idea of a human becoming one with nature surely is a soothing thing.

When the narrator claims that the flame “wasn’t mine but it was like mine” (91), they’re indicating Louise as part of them. They have absorbed Louise to the point where the color red electrifies their senses. To enhance the high, the narrator partially closes their eyes to fully absorb the view. By squinting the eyes, or making them into “narrow slits” (91), vision is given an arclike effect similar to a dome. This dome shaped viewing hole is enveloped in red. The sight is so captivating that it causes the narrator to feel as though he/she is a seed inside of a pomegranate. The redness of pomegranate seeds is both intense and alluring. Being one of some 600 seeds in a pomegranate would engulf the viewer in a deep sea of this rich red. A step is then taken away from the euphoria. As the narrator points out, it is not fully clear what fruit Adam and Eve bit into when they committed their ultimate sin, and it is true that “some say that the pomegranate was the real apple of Eve” (91). Their love runs so deep for Louise that they would willingly accept infinite damnation for a taste of her.

The quote at the end of the passage shows the narrator recognizing his/her obsession. He/she knows that his/her brain is blinded by love. Love has no boundaries, not even boundaries created by god. Real, unconditional love has the power to consume an individual, and the narrator knows that! What else can they do but let Louise swallow them whole?

 

 

Ironic Secrecy

“Never unfold too much, tell the whole story. I didn’t know that Louise would have reading hands. She has translated me into her own book” (89).

I believe the passage is about secrecy and the fear of secret thoughts becoming known. The first part of the passage indicates the narrator’s “rules” for thoughts to remain secret. The second part of the passage, specifically the words “I didn’t know” and “her own book”, depict the unexpected reality of their thoughts and self being discovered. When the narrator states, “never unfold too much, tell the whole story”, it indicates the fear of letting their loved one in, yet we (strangers) are able to read their whole story (89). Additionally, the second part of the passage indicates that Louise views the narrator how she wants to view them. As secretive as the narrative is with her thoughts, they are also made very public to the readers that can also be interpreted so differently. I was reading the novel as the narrator’s diary, filled with thoughts not wanting to be publicly known to those around her. It speaks to the level of comfort the narrator has with the reader, but not with those around her.

It’s a little ironic that the narrator implies the idea of secrecy and “never telling the whole story” because Written on the Body is essentially written by the third party of the affair (the cheater rather than the cheated on).  This perspective is different from most other stories as we are used to hearing or reading the perspective of someone who’s been cheated on, not the one who’s doing the cheating.

Who am I to define beauty? A Close Read on Defining Beauty in WOTB

Quote: “I don’t lack self-confidence but I’m not beautiful, that is a word reserved for few people, people such as Louise herself. I told her this”(85).

This passage caught my attention by its distinction of self-confidence and beauty. Often times people associate self-confidence with beauty, and by separating them, they are left in a state that makes one question what beauty is and how it is defined. The author narrows down the definition of  beautiful by saying that it is only a word “reserved for few people”(85). By doing this, the author made me feel a sense of intention behind the word. I felt as if when the word was used again in the text, there was deep meaning behind it.

The author also defines beauty to some extent by saying that beauty is not self-confidence. Reading this passage in the context of the book, I feel as if the word self-confidence is a blanket for the word boldness. I use the word bold to describe unthoughtful action. The speaker is bold in their decisions for who they sleep with and how they interact with the ones that they “love.” Time and time again throughout the novel the speaker lets down important people in their life by showing a pattern of attachment, cheating, and deserting relationships.

The word “beauty” is ambiguous. It can mean many different things to different people. By allowing the definition to be up for interpretation, allows for somebody to step in and out of feeling “beautiful.” Given the context of the book, and parts of the definition being already framed (as beauty being limited to a select few people and as being kind and thoughtful (the opposite of bold)), I think that the definition for beauty within this book digs deep into describing devoted love. Everything is confusing and clear, defined and undefined, wavering in emotion, but always grounded in intention. Louise embodies devoted love because from the start of her relationship with the speaker, her relationship with Elgin was clear in that they were not in love. I believe that in this stage of the book the speaker does not feel beautiful because they had just messily broken up with Jacqueline. They had many components that might have embodied characteristics of beauty, but they did not have grounded intention in the way that they treated Jacqueline. They acted with confidence, but not with beauty.

Reference:  Winterson, Jeanette. 1993. Written on the Body, 85. New York: 1st Vintage International (Random House).

Ship and the Sea

“Where am I? There is nothing here I recognize. This isn’t the world I know, the little ship I’ve trimmed and rigged.” (101)

When Elgin tells the narrator about Louise’s cancer everything they know is shaken, “Where am I? There is nothing here I recognize” (101). A couple lines before, “‘Louise tells me everything,’ I said coldly. ‘As I do her.’” (100), the narrator has this absolute certainty about their relationship with Louise, and to an extent a certainty about the world around them.

In this passage the narrator returns to the metaphor of a ship on the open seas. This is not the first time this metaphor of a ship on the seas is used “the journeys they made were beyond common sense; who leaves the hearth for the open sea? especially without a compass, especially in winter, especially alone” (81), but it is the first time it is used in a negative manner. For the narrator their relationship is an exploration of something new; Louise is the ocean and the narrator a ship. This metaphor is commonly used during sex, the first time the narrator begs Louise to let them “sail in you over the spirited waves” (80).

For the narrator Elgin took the map they had so carefully and painstakingly drawn and ripped it apart, “this isn’t the world I know, the little ship I’ve trimmed and rigged” (101).

This passage is about the narrator’s loss of balance and certainty in everything.  This relates to the whole of novel  because for the first we saw the narrator passionate and in love with someone just as passionately in love with them, the first person we know of that chose them, possibly the first time the narrator truly was loved by their partner as more than a dirty little secret. And now the narrator is faced with losing this, and not just to another person but to death.

« Older posts