Fleshing the Text

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

Fleshing the Text

21. Greenaway’s avowed disillusionment with cinema centers on what he identifies as the double tyranny of Text and Frame, and on the loss of corporeality and physicality.16F Increasingly, in all his artistic productions, Greenaway has tried to bring the human body to the foreground. Perhaps, more than we have imagined, the cinema is a perfect reflection of our own civilization’s demand that we abide by certain scripts, that we trim ourselves as needed to fit the frame, to paraphrase Alba Bewick in A Zed and Two Noughts.17F Like any other civilization, ours is shaped by our means of expressing and representing ourselves, by our myths and legends – in short, by our narratives, be they religious, as in Genesis; scientific, as in Darwin; or mythological as in Oedipus. The difference between our civilization and primal or tribal cultures is simply that by confusing – or rather, fusing – our narratives of the world with the textual word, we have come very close to fully replacing the world with its representation. By virute of being visible, only the written word, as opposed to the spoken word, could be mistaken for a body and/or a world.
22. Although it may be true that our sense of having access to, or making contact with, what might be called “reality” is dependent on our means of “representing” reality – whether in images, mathematical formulas, or words – and, although it may also be true that thinking itself is representational, quantum physics has taught even the natural sciences that representations are never a transparent disclosure of reality. Narrative, as an instance of representation, when temporally and locally contingent, has proven useful in helping societies cope with the unknowability of the world surrounding them. I am, thus, not suggesting that we do away with narrative once and for all – even if that were possible – but that we continue reminding ourselves that our narratives never fully align with our experience of the world, and that our experience of the world never fully aligns with the world. This simply means we must be careful which narratives we construct, and which narratives we allow to become the basis for our real actions in the world.18F
23. I would like to return to the Oedipus legend and to its manifestation in The Pillow Book to show that this myth has not only marked a shift in perception with the emergence of modern man and ego consciousness, as Erich Fromm, Alexander Lowen, and others have argued, but that this shift in consciousness is analogous to the one identified by Abram in his study of the evolution of alphabetic language. Lowen describes this shift as a move from the subjective to the objective position, when the human animal no longer sees itself as part of a greater whole, but as separate and thus able to view and control both inner and outer nature. Abram argues that alphabetic language made possible the development of a new sensibility which can operate in a more autonomous and isolated way – solipsistically, and independently from the body and the land. I believe all of Greenaway’s films investigate this same set of issues but that The Pillow Book, by showing the fusion of textual language and the body through the Oedipal structure, is Greenaway’s clearest but also most allegorical cinematic expression of humanity’s alienation from its own body and the body of the world. As Greenaway recently stated, “in an overall strategy which would also be a continuing characteristic of much of my cinema, I believe the body must be up there earnestly and vigorously rooting for its supremacy, text or no text” (“Body and Text”).19F
24. Erich Fromm, in The Forgotten Language, suggests that the Oedipus trilogy’s dramatization of the struggle against the paternal figure had its roots in a much older struggle between the patriarchal and the matriarchal systems – a struggle which was resolved in favor of patriarchy. Similarly, Erich Neumann, in The Origin of History and Consciousness, interprets the legend as being about the ego’s rise to power and its victory over the unconscious, represented by Oedipus’ victory over the Sphinx through his use of reason, analysis, and language. Neumann takes the Sphinx to be the original Earth Mother Goddess, imported from Egypt, the giver and taker of life. He also links the figure of the Sphinx with the unconscious, the body, the earth, and nature – with the feminine – while Oedipus is linked to consciousness, the ego, language, rationality, progress, and even salvation – with masculinity. For Neumann, then, patriarchy refers to “the predominantly masculine world of spirit, sun, consciousness,” and matriarchy to “a preconscious, prelogical, and preindividual way of thinking and feeling” (168).
25. Oedipus’ patricide and incest are not, according to this reading, his real crime. In fact, Alexander Lowen argues that the “crime” for which Oedipus must be punished by blinding himself is not the transgression against the patriarchal order, but the destruction of the Sphinx, that is, the destruction of the female goddess of the matriarchal order who rules over life and death. By solving the riddle, Lowen goes on to argue, Oedipus takes control over the mysteries of the processes of life and death on which the power of the Sphinx depended. His real crime, then, is the Promethean arrogance of knowledge and power (213).
26. Oedipus thus represents the values of language, power, knowledge, possession, and progress – the very patriarchal values by which we still live today, in the East and in the West. The implication here is that an escape from the Oedipal legacy necessitates not a simple reconsideration and reassignment of gender definitions and functions, but a devaluation of the dominant traits of our culture which are associated with masculinity – that is, linearity, action, progress, and the domination of nature. Thus, Nagiko’s taking up of writing should be regarded with some skepticism, as should Georgina’s taking up of the gun in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Pen and gun are intended to symbolize the phallus, and Greenaway explicitly links the writing instrument to the signifier of power by describing it as “a sensuous object inevitably likened to a penis” (The Pillow Book 15). The Cook and The Pillow Book seem to suggest that, if given the opportunity, women too can wield the phallus, but that mere role-reversal, in “real” life or in representational practices, contributes very little to any significant change in our civilization’s patterns of opposition and domination.
27. Let me now turn to Greenaway’s rendition of the Oedipus legend, for there is an important aspect of Nagiko’s birthday ritual which has not yet been accounted for: that is, the presence of Nagiko’s father’s publisher, the very same publisher whom Nagiko will seek when she herself, as an adult, becomes a writer like her father. On each of Nagiko’s birthdays, after the father has performed the ritual inscription on her body, he meets with his publisher for another ritual, a primal scene of sorts: the exchange of money and sex for the acceptance and publication of his latest manuscript. These sexual encounters, where the father is sodomized by the publisher, are, I believe, meant to be taken metaphorically, as an expression of the father’s acquiescence to a greater power, a power on which hinges his ability to support his family, to maintain intact the structure represented by the Oedipal trajectory. They also can be taken as a repetition of Oedipus’ real crime since they ritualize the exclusion of the mother/Mother. Allegorically, then, the publisher is the patriarchal function, as illustrated in the scene where the publisher himself takes up the brush to play God, and signs his own name on Nagiko’s neck, as her father used to do: “If God approved of His creation, he breathed the painted clay-model into life by signing His own name” (39). This occurs the year Nagiko’s father is sick and her mother is summoned to perform the birthday celebration in his place – her only action in the film – but is prevented from completing the ritual by the arrival of the publisher.
28. The first time we witness Nagiko’s birthday ritual is also the first time that Nagiko sees her father’s sexual ritual with the publisher – a primal scene of sorts which she witnesses through a sliding screen. This screen both reveals the action and hides its significance for the child. The film thus links Nagiko’s birthday celebration not only to language and specularity, but to sexuality and power. More importantly, the film also visually links all these elements to paper money by means of the superimposition of the images of the two men, a page from Sei Shonagon’s diary, and a bank note, the latter deliberately placed at the base of the image.
A further link between money and writing will be made, later, when Nagiko remembers enjoying the smell of paper as she enjoyed the smell of the banknote her father once gave her after a visit to the publisher’s.20F
29. On her sixth birthday, following the annual ritual, Nagiko is taught how to write and vows to become a writer like her father, and like Sei Shonagon. As an adult, she begins to keep her own diaries, or pillow books. After her marriage to the publisher’s nephew fails, she flees to Hong Kong, where she becomes a fashion model. She also begins to seek out lover-calligraphers, offering her body to them in exchange for their writing on it. Her body continues to serve as a page as she trades sex for text, until she meets Jerome, an English translator, who becomes her lover and who, we later learn, is also, like her father, the publisher’s lover.


16. In 1996, Greenaway staged an exhibition at the Gallery Fortlaan, in Belgium, entitled “The Tyranny of the Frame.” See also his The Stairs/Geneva: The Location.
17. “A fine epitaph: here lies a body cut down to fit the picture,” says Alba, after having her second leg amputated by Van Meegeren, the Zoo surgeon with aspirations to being a Dutch painter (A Zed and Two Noughts 107). Earlier in the film, after being fitted with a mechanical – fake – leg and asked to wear a replica of the dress – another fake – which appears in Vermeer’s “The Music-lesson,” Alba protests: “I’m an excuse for medical experiments and art history” (A Zed and Two Noughts 77). Greenaway has also produced a series of paintings, The Framed Life (1989), which feature “frames” as their primary content and organizing principle. The text accompanying the exhibition of some of these paintings at the SESC Vila Mariana in Sгo Paulo, Brazil (15 July – 17 August, 1998) suggests that life events and social roles – social narratives and myths like the Oedipus legend, for example – might be regarded as framing devices: “Since all pictorial art, all performance disciplines, and the moving images are restricted to the frame, we can say this is also the case with reality. The series The Framed Life was to do just that; squeeze a life into a frame. Conception, birth, childhood, puberty, sex, love, marriage, adultery, maturity, illness, senility, death – all held together in a fixed rectangle.” For reproductions of some of these paintings, see Peter Greenaway, Papers, Editions Dis Voir, 1990; Leon Steinmetz and Peter Greenaway, The World of Peter Greenaway, Journey Editions, 1995; and the 1998 catalogue to accompany the opera 100 Objects to Represent the World: A Prop-Opera (Sгo Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, August 6-9 and August 14-17).
18. Quantum physics has reminded us of something which, according to Catherine Wilson, microscopists in the early 17th century were forced to confront, even as they strove to find means of describing the subvisible world of nature. According to Wilson, these early scientists were disappointed with the contributions made by the microscope, for they had to recognize that the images that it revealed were fundamentally different from the reality under scrutiny.
19. All quotations from “Body and Text” refer to a lecture by Greenaway. I would like to thank Peter Greenaway for making the text of this lecture available to me.
20. The script reads: “Nagiko’s father takes out a bank-note (1,000 yen) and gives it to his daughter, who rubs it between her fingers and then looks at it closely. Bringing it up to her nose, she sniffs it. Her glance is absent for a few moments as she concentrates on catching the scent of the new bank-note. Its smell makes a strong impression on her” (38). Printed paper money is, of course, the universal proxy and the ultimate abstraction.

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