Greenaway’s Pillow Book and the Erasure of the Body
Lifting a brush, a burin, a pen, or a stylus
is like releasing a bite or lifting a claw.
Striving to represent the world,
we inevitably forfeit its direct presence.
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.1F 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.2F 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.3F
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).4F 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.5F
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.6F 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.7F 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).8F 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).9F 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.10F
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.