Fleshing the Text

/, Gallery, Blesok no. 21/Fleshing the Text

Fleshing the Text

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.11F
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)12F – 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.13F 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.14F 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.15F 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.


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.”

AuthorPaula Willoquet-Maricondi
2018-08-21T17:23:44+00:00 June 1st, 2001|Categories: Reviews, Gallery, Blesok no. 21|0 Comments