Life Imitates Art

In Ruth Padel’s review of Anne Carson’s “Autobiography of Red,” Padel writes that “Carson is interested in Geryon’s survival through art” (“Seeing Red”). Survival through art is a constant theme throughout this novel, which follows its protagonist Geryon as he processes his life by constructing an unusual autobiography. Though Geryon’s autobiography is textually relayed through Carson’s poetry, within the story Geryon primarily uses photography and other visual mediums as forms of expression.  

Geryon begins to create his autobiography after being sexually abused by his brother, which occurs before he has learned to write. He turns to this autobiography as a means of processing trauma and relaying his story: “Inside is mine, he thought… In this work Geryon set down all inside things” (Carson 29). As the novel progresses, we see photography become a lifelong way for Geryon to capture memories and moments in time. He begins to see the world through his photographic lens even when his camera is not present; in one instance he “[memorizes] / the zebra so he could make / a photograph later. ‘Time Lapse’” (Carson 115). The use of the words “memorization” and “make” are unusual in the context of photography, since a photo is something that is taken, without need of being committed to memory beforehand (Carson 115). This unusual phrasing seems to suggest that Geryon views photography not just as literal snapshots of time, but also as a figurative method of creating and considering memories. He continues to take imaginary photos (as well as real photos) throughout the story, even attributing names to moments in time as if they are photographs. Through moments such as these, it becomes apparent that Geryon’s life and the medium he uses to process it have become almost interchangeable.  

This intersection of art and life comes to a head towards the end of the story. Chapter titles begin to be named after photos Geryon has taken, with each corresponding chapter detailing a specific moment in time that Geryon has captured through photography. These chapters reveal how inseparable Geryon’s life is from his art. While Geryon’s photography can be viewed as a form of memory, expression, and survival, he also casts it in a negative light by thinking “I am disappearing… / but the photographs were worth it” (Carson 135). Is he disappearing into the photographs, as his life becomes interchangeable with the autobiography he is crafting? Or is he losing himself to them for some other reason? While there doesn’t appear to be a clear answer, this complicates the already charged relationship between art, life, and survival that is presented in this novel.  

Taking Flight

“PohPoh bent her body forward and, as though doing a breast stroke, began to part the air with her arms. Each stroke took her higher until she no longer touched the ground…  She practiced making perfect, broad circles, like a frigate bird splayed out against the sky in an elegant V. Down below, her island was soon lost among others, all as shapeless as specks of dust adrift on a vast turquoise sea.” (Mootoo 186).  

 Throughout Shani Mootoo’s novel Cereus Blooms at Night, nature and escape are persistent themes working in conjunction with each other. Mala, the protagonist, is first abandoned by her mother and aunt, then by her community (which turns a blind eye to her abusive father), then her sister Asha, and finally, her lover Ambrose. With each instance of abandonment, Mala is left behind as the only source of protection for herself and those she loves. Despite constantly sacrificing her safety for the well-being of others, her support structure gradually erodes until she is eventually left entirely on her own. 

Mala’s relationship with nature traces the abandonment she experiences. As she becomes more isolated living with her abusive father, she increasingly turns to nature as a means of escape and protection. While each of her loved ones escaped by physically leaving, abandoning Mala in the process, Mala escapes by becoming engrossed in the natural world. This begins after her mother and Aunt Lavinia flee, then drastically progresses – Mala collects natural elements, saves animals and bugs, lets her yard become overgrown, and begins to speak entirely with bird sounds. The culmination of this intertwining relationship between escape and nature seemingly occurs within the above passage, when Mala imagines seeing a younger version of herself named PohPoh take flight. 

The act of flying is so commonly associated with escape that phrases such as “taking flight” are understood to mean fleeing a situation. While the imagery of PohPoh lifting off the ground and soaring through the sky certainly generates this association, it is the leisure of her actions that indicates her escape is a final, permanent state. She “practiced” flying in circles until they were “perfect,” which suggests freedom of time and a lack of pressure from outside sources (Mootoo 186). As she flies, she observes that Lantanacamara, the site of her entire life and all of her troubles, was “lost” like “specks of dust,” revealing how far removed – physically and mentally – she now is from her past life (Mootoo 186). Her home becomes rapidly inconsequential as she imagines her younger self flying away, escaping forever. 

This scene can be viewed as Mala freeing a younger version of herself, one who she wished had received protection during her actual lifetime, by releasing her into the natural world. By using a simile to compare PohPoh to a “frigate bird,” this passage emphasizes how Mala copes with traumatic situations by escaping into nature (Mootoo 186). The comparison of PohPoh to frigate birds is symbolic, as they are known for flying in tropical climates at high altitudes. This once again suggests that Mala has released a part of herself to be fully free and distanced from her past traumas. Additionally, it alludes to Mala’s extensive knowledge of the natural world and her final transformation into a part of this environment. By imagining herself as a frigate bird, Mala gives herself the protection she wishes she had received as a child.  

The Nature of Time

“Time that withers you will wither me. We will fall like ripe fruit and roll down the grass together. Dear friend, let me lie beside you watching the clouds until the earth covers us and we are gone,” (Winterson 90).  


In her novel Written on the Body, Juliet Winterson consistently uses natural imagery to develop a sense of time within an otherwise non-linear text. In passages such as the one above, the narrator describes their relationship with Louise in terms of natural processes that represent the changing of time while also challenging the reader’s understanding of normative temporality.  

In this passage, the narrator characterizes themself and Louise as fruit at the mercy of nature’s whims. This comparison to objects incapable of autonomy creates a sense of passivity that is compounded by the verbs “wither,” “fall,” “roll,” “lie,” “watching,” and “covers” (Winterson 90). Each of these verbs represent an action that is happening to the fruit, rather than ones the fruit perform. In the narrator’s phrasing “let me lie beside you,” they reveal that they are content with this passive existence. Simply spending time with their lover until the natural end of their time on Earth is enough for them (Winterson 90). 

This idea of a nonproductive – and nonreproductive – relationship challenges what Jack Halberstam refers to as “a middle-class logic of reproductive temporality” (Halberstam 4). Halberstam argues that most people organize their lives around what are perceived to be “natural and desirable” schedules, which follow a logic based in reproductive timetables and societal expectations (Halberstam 5). It is considered natural that one marries, works, reproduces, and, eventually, dies. Written on the Body confronts these “paradigmatic markers of life experience” by representing the narrator’s relationship with Louise through passive natural imagery, which makes room for “queer time” (Halberstam 2, 1). Queer time, which opposes heterosexual understandings of family and reproduction, is present in this novel’s nature imagery, non-linear timeline, and non-gendered narrator, each which “open up new life narratives and alternative relations to time” (Halberstam 2). The narrator’s relationship with Louise directly undermines heteronormative teleology by diverting her from the expected path of marriage and reproduction, and Louise’s decision to choose the narrator over her husband subverts typical expectations for safety and health. These “alternative temporalities” all draw from natural imagery within the book, which positions them as equally natural – or possibly even more so – than structured and normative understandings of time.  

Sunset Time of Year

“I am living in a red bubble made up of Louise’s hair. It’s the sunset time of year but it’s not the dropping disc of light that holds me in the shadows of the yard. It’s the colour I crave, floodings of you running down the edges of the sky on to the brown earth on to the grey stone. On to me,” (Winterson 138). 

 In this passage, natural imagery is used as a means of measuring time and constructing identity in regard to the narrator’s relationship with Louise. While Written on the Body follows a non-linear path, the narrator’s references to months, seasons, and natural processes acknowledge the passing of time and relationships. By referring to the “sunset time of year” which Louise herself personifies in this passage, the narrator suggests what they perceive to be the ending of their relationship. Notably, in this metaphor Louise is not the “dropping disc of light” that will return to the sky the next day; rather, she is the “colour” that floods everything, an ephemeral element that will never return in the same way twice. This generates an air of finality for their relationship, which the narrator struggles with due to both the mistakes they made and Louise’s cancer diagnosis.  

Though the narrator is devastated over the end of their relationship with Louise, there is a sense of the inevitability of nature and time within the sunset metaphor. Just as sunsets are bound to last only a short time each day, the narrator’s “circadian clock” supposedly ends their relationships once a short six months have passed (Winterson 79). Despite their efforts, the narrator’s exclusive relationship with Louise ended within this time frame, which casts doubt on whether they are capable of fully changing.  

The “circadian clock” also represents the process of reinvention the narrator goes through with each new relationship. As seen throughout this novel, the narrator has an unstable sense of self; though the narrator tries to break their circadian rhythm to stay with Louise, they still restructure their identity around their relationship with her. Louise’s influence, which is demonstrated through her red hair and colorful sunset, seemingly brings life to the narrator, who stands in “shadows” contrasted before her light. The “bubble” of Louise’s bright hair, which “holds” them in place and which they “crave,” suggests that her presence fully encompassed their life and identity. Since Louise’s hair is represented throughout this novel as something made of life and energy, its inclusion in this passage seems to suggest that Louise gives new life to the narrator. Additionally, the repeating idea of her light flooding “on to brown earth,” “grey stone,” and the narrator lumps these items into a category unified by their drab qualities and the color and life Louise brings to them.  

Overall, though the novel ends with the possibility of a second chance for the narrator and Louise, passages such as this call into question whether the narrator ever truly changes their nature for the better.