Fleshing the Text

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

Fleshing the Text

30. The introduction of the character of Jerome is of great significance, both to Nagiko’s life and to my argument. It is after meeting Jerome that Nagiko takes up the pen and trades her position as a writing surface to become the writing instrument, or as Greenaway puts it, she becomes the pen and not the paper. The significance of Jerome to the present argument is that it is through him that the issue of oral languages is explicitly introduced into the film, which has up until now dealt with language mostly as writing and image. Although Greenaway goes to great lengths to draw our attention to the spoken word – to its rhythms and cadences – by leaving much of the spoken dialogue untranslated, and by introducing multiple languages and dialects, he also dramatizes the death of oral languages by drawing our attention to those languages that only exist today in written form.
31. When we first meet Jerome, we learn that he speaks four languages, including Yiddish. Later in the sequence, Nagiko asks Jerome to write on her breast, in Yiddish. She asks, “What’s Yiddish for breast?” Jerome then proceeds to write BRUSTEN, the Yiddish for breast, in capital roman letters just above her breast. The significance of this episode is four-fold.
32. First, the episode immediately follows a sequence in which Nagiko had been written on with invisible ink by a young calligrapher. In response to Nagiko’s dismay at not being able to read the writing on her body, the calligrapher points out that “some cultures permit no images, perhaps some cultures ought to permit no visible text” (57). This commentary is further emphasized in the filmscript by the fact that the calligrapher is said to be pointing to a television showing a documentary on Islamic calligraphy, as he makes this remark. There are other indications in the film that Greenaway is aware of the implications, the effects, perhaps even the dangers, of the rise and predominance of written language. The film goes to great lengths, for instance, to dramatize the fact that none of the writing is permanent – that is, until the very last scene, when we are briefly shown that a permanent tattoo now covers Nagiko’s entire chest area. In fact, up until that point, the writing on bodies is shown to be water-soluble: the rain, a bath, or even the lick of a tongue dissolves it. In this context, it is interesting to note that the script calls for a scene which was shot but not included in the commercially released film. In the script, the calligrapher hands Nakigo’s maid an onion before he leaves. Surmising that perhaps the onion juice will reveal the invisible writing on Nagiko’s body, the maid rubs the onion over the body of the young model. Although the juice from the onion fails to reveal the writing on the body, it causes Nagiko to shed tears which, as they splash on her body, magically expose the letters. Once again, the body itself – its fluids – is shown to be the agent of language. The agents of language here are tears, however. Thus, the emergence of written language is associated with the shedding of tears – with grief, pain, and loss.
33. Since the release of The Pillow Book, Greenaway has often emphasized in discussions and interviews that the writing on bodies is non-permanent: “We have been at pains in the film,” he explains, “to insist on writing in a non-abusive, non penetrative way with brush and ink, infinitely washable, as is made evident several times in the plot of the film” (“Body and Text”). One of Nagiko’s lovers, an “elderly talkative calligrapher,” says the script (54, my emphasis), is shown to be an advocate for the impermanence of writing by arguing that “you should be allowed to rub out and start again, it means that you are human. The purists are tedious, they tell you a mistake is like an enduring black mark. Nonsense – better to be human than some infernal machine never going wrong” (54). As if further to assure us of the impermanence of script, Nagiko walks out onto the verandah, after the calligrapher is finished with his task, and allows the rain to wash away the writing, “whilst the elderly calligrapher watches his literary efforts trickle away down her body. He shakes his head in acceptance, all the while taking gulps of cold green tea” (54). Another way to put this notion across is simply to say, as Greenaway did in relation to The Belly of An Architect, that “man-made art is denied the immortality status” (qtd. in Woods 253).
34. Second, BRUSTEN is significant also because it is the first non-oriental word inscribed on Nagiko’s body, and thus signals a break with oriental calligraphy. The significance of this shift can be better understood if we remember that oriental calligraphy is not only a form of writing which fuses the pictorial and the linguistic, but is one of the few scripts that, albeit abstracted and stylized, still retains some ties to the phenomenal world. Greenaway’s use of oriental ideograms in this film is an expression of his ongoing efforts to find a suitable union of image and text in his elaboration of a non-narrative cinema. The ideogram embodies this fusion, for, as Greenaway explains, “when you read text, you see image, when you view the image you read text. Would not this be an exciting module, a template, a basis on which to reconsider some cinema practice?” (“Body and Text”).
35. By dramatizing this shift from an ideographic to an alphabetic – and, thus, completely abstract system of writing – and simultaneously calling our attention to the body, could Greenaway be urging us to reconsider something more than our cinematic practices? In effect, might he not be suggesting that we reconsider all of our representational practices, and, more specifically, our own use of language to represent ourselves and the world? Might he not be inviting us to rediscover the roots of our language in the organic world and in our bodies? Such a notion is certainly echoed by the “talkative calligrapher” discussed above, for he also insists that the word’s relation to the thing it names not be arbitrary, but mimetic: “The word for smoke should look like smoke – the word for rain should look like rain” (54). As Abram and others have argued, the oriental ideographic script retains some ties to the phenomenal world of sensory perception. The Chinese ideograph for “red,” for instance, is composed of abbreviated forms of the pictographs for things that are red – a rose, a cherry, or rust, for example (111).
36. The progressive movement from a pictographic model of writing to the ideogram, and later to the rebus, to the Semitic alephbeth, and finally to the Greek alphabet, carries with it an analogous movement toward abstraction and distancing, and, as articulated by Saussurian linguistics, toward arbitrariness. Drawing on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s theories of perception as participatory, and of human language as carnal and rooted in sensorial experience, Abram goes on to show how the linguistic model adopted by the West encourages, even promotes, “a massive distrust of sensorial experience while valorizing an abstract realm of ideas hidden behind or beyond the sensory appearances” (72). With these shifts in what might be called “technologies of expression” come shifts in consciousness. It is precisely this technologically produced consciousness which, I believe, Greenaway’s film invites us to investigate. Greenaway’s interest in other forms of technologically produced expressions and representations – the Internet, CD-ROM, electronically produced layering of images – seems a natural extension of his fascination with the effects of writing on being and on the body.
37. In Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman argues that any new technology does not simply add or subtract something from the culture, but changes everything. Technologies – and Postman sees written language as one of our most fundamental technologies – contain their particular ideological bias and, thus, have an effect on the structure of our interests, on the character of our symbols, and on the nature of our communities. That is, technologies alter what we think about, what we think with, and the environment in which our thinking takes place. In other words, technologies alter the ways we perceive and construct reality (13-22). Abram contends that “today we are simply unable to discern with any clarity the manner in which our own perceptions and thoughts are being shifted by our sensory involvement with electronic technologies, since any thinking that seeks to discern such a shift is itself subject to the very effect that it strive to thematize” (115). I would agree with both positions insofar as we maintain our commitment to an ideological predisposition against questioning what we regard as the fundamental capacity that distinguishes the human from the non-human animal – language. As Postman notes, language appears to us to be a natural expression emanating from within us so “we believe it to be a direct, unedited, unbiased, apolitical expression of how the world really is.” He further adds that a sentence functions much like a machine, in so far as it “re-creates the world in its own image” (125).
38. The radical distinction between humans and non-humans on the basis of the former’s unique capacity for language is challenged by current research on the linguistic capacity of chimpanzees, for instance. Under experimental conditions, chimpanzees have been shown to have more linguistic capacities than they actually use in the wild. The effects that such findings will have on the way we think about ourselves, on our uses of language, and therefore, on how we imagine and live out our relationship to the world and to other beings is, however, uncertain.21F Abram’s intention is to propose an alternative to seeing language as a mere code, as having an arbitrary connection to the world – and, thus, as being truly separable from it – and as being detached from the act of speaking, that is, from the body. To think of human language in that way, argues Abram, is to justify our seeing humans as significantly different from other beings. This, he argues, has in turn justified “the increasing manipulation and exploitation of nonhuman nature by, and for, (civilized) humankind” (77). I believe Greenaway is thinking along analogous lines:
Darwin’s evolutionary theories have dramatically obliged us to look at our animal origins and our physical selves with new eyes. Our ideas of corporeality and sexuality have to be adjusted with new sympathies […] In the light of this fact, we have been obliged to re-examine notions of the greatest sensitivity, to reconsider such dearly-held concepts as conscience, spirit and the soul, concepts which we pride ourselves on possessing to make us a superior animal, capable of communicating with even greater forms of intelligence, mortal or immortal […] By the final use of his thinking, Darwin was sure that despite any heartfelt wish for the contrary, man was not the sum and end of the evolutionary process, and that, in every likelihood, homo sapiens was, in evolutionary terms, no more than a link that would continue after him, and probably without relationship to him, since evolutionary progress had seen so many dead ends, cul de sacs, and abortive developments, especially in the highly developed species. (qtd. in Woods 64)
39. Like Darwin before him, Greenaway applies thought to the critical investigation of thinking. Greenaway is also deploying multiple representational means to ask critical and crucial questions about representationality itself. Above all, he invites “new sympathies” with the non-human world by recasting man’s position in that world. He reconnects language to the body by showing that oral and written expression emanate from the body. Finally, Greenaway reveals the dangers to the body of substituting an abstracted and arbitrary body of language for the expressive sensorial body.
40. A third way in which the word BRUSTEN contributes to our understanding of Greenaway’s meditations on language and representationality is that, as Greenaway has pointed out in a personal conversation, Yiddish was mostly an oral language. When first committed to paper, it was written in Hebrew. The speakers of Yiddish were also, apparently, forbidden to use the language to describe body parts. Jerome subverts these interdictions associated with spoken Yiddish by writing the name of a body part on a body part, and by using the phonetic alphabet. Like Prospero at the beginning of Prospero’s Books, Jerome commits to writing a word which was meant to be spoken, and thus helps establish a gap, or disconnection, between language and the body. This disjuncture is further intensified with the advent of mechanical writing, which puts the body at one further remove from the written word by introducing the keyboard as mediating device between the gesture of the hand and the word on the page (and on the screen). Until print, even alphabetic writing, after all, retains a vestigial connection to the body by literally leaving visible traces of the body’s presence. As Abram notes, “we may be sure that the shapes of our consciousness are shifting in tandem with the technologies that engage our senses – much as we can now begin to discern, in retrospect, how the distinctive shape of Western philosophy was born of the meeting between the human senses and the alphabet in ancient Greece” (115). This is precisely Postman’s point that “language is pure ideology” (123).
41. Lastly, BRUSTEN also suggests breath, for it is the word for the part of the body that houses the human breath – the very breath that animates both the body and the spoken word. The Semitic text, before the introduction of vowel indicators in the 7th century A.D., had to be read aloud, the reader’s breath being necessary to animate the written text. Vowels are but sounded breath, and the Hebrew interdiction against the representation of vowels has been explained by the fact that the ancient Semites regarded breath as sacred and mysterious, and thus inseparable from the holy breath. Abram suggests that Hebrew scribes may have avoided creating letters to represent the sounded breath so as not to make a visible representation of an invisible and sacred force (241).
42. Greenaway has compressed the evolution of language from its spoken origins to its alphabetical form in this one word, BRUSTEN. He has also traced the development of language as something emanating from, or produced by, the body to something which now produces the body, scripts it, and envelops it as a second layer of skin. Brody Neuenschwander, Greenaway’s calligrapher for Prospero’s Books and The Pillow Book, explains that the particular script style chosen for the writing on the bodies in The Pillow Book was gridded and typographic in quality, so as to contrast more dramatically with “the irregular curves of the body, becoming like a second layer over the skin” (quoted in Owen 29). As Jerome’s fate ultimately demonstrates, however, this superimposition of text over body introduced into the film with Nagiko’s birthday rituals becomes a fatal substitution of text for body – as the black ink Jerome drinks in a quasi-suicidal gesture is substituted for his own blood. Here, pharmakon, in the form of ink, works quite literally as the poison that kills Jerome.
43. Each linguistic development – from the early ideograms, to rebuses, to the Semitic aleph-beth, to the Greek alphabet – introduces a new level of abstraction and separation, or distance, between language and the body, and between human culture and the rest of nature. Our understanding of and engagement with the world has been radically altered as we have displaced our sensory participation in its three-dimentionality with a two-dimensional surface – a wall, a clay tablet, a sheet of paper, a computer screen, or a movie screen. Our semiotic system, which was once intimately linked to our bodies and to the more-than-human-life-world, is now a mere abstract code, having an arbitrary connection to the world, and is, therefore, detachable from both the act of speaking and the geographical location which once gave rise to the stories our ancestors told. For primal cultures, storytelling serves to wed the human community to the land, which itself works as a mnemonic trigger. Before the invention of writing, says Abram, language was quite literally not only rooted in the body of the speaker, but in a particular soil: “in the absence of any written analogue to speech, the sensible, natural environment remains the primary visual counterpart of spoken utterance, the visible accompaniment of all spoken meaning” (139-40). Writing for us has replaced the land as referent and as the visual counterpart of speech. Whereas the landscape operates as a mnemonic trigger for oral peoples and weds them to the land, the written text makes possible the preservation of cultural stories independently of the land. Abram talks about the written stories of the Hebrew tribes as a kind of “portable homeland for the Hebrew people” (195), who found themselves in the difficult position of trying to preserve their stories while being cut off from the land for many generations. It is thus understandable that one of the central motifs of the Hebrew Bible is exile or displacement. It is also understandable that what makes Judeo-Christian religions so universalizable is their transportability in the form of a book.
44. Moreover, once a written tradition becomes established, the reasons for remaining bound to a particular place are weakened. The devastating effects this has had on the land and on our relationship to the land is a topic of great concern for us today, and one that needs to be explored more fully in relation to Greenaway, I believe. It is no accident that The Pillow Book makes more explicit references to ecological questions than any other film by Greenaway, and that it links these references to writing. Although a fuller development of ecological themes in Greenaway is the focus of another, longer project, a few examples of its connection to writing in The Pillow Book can be offered here.
45. Nagiko is often linked to natural elements, such as gardens, water, and even whales. These elements are often depicted as constrained, framed, or enclosed. Gardens, but particularly the Japanese garden, are obvious examples of a manicured, molded nature – a nature shaped by human hands, according to a “model-in-thought,” to use Merleau-Ponty’s expression (169). Water, when not contained in the form of pools or lakes, flows freely from the sky as rain, and, as we have noted, is often associated by the film with cleansing rituals – such as baths – and with the washing away of writing. Nagiko is also associated with whales by means of the two sculptures of the tail flukes of whales that adorn her and her husband’s home. In one of the publicity stills for the film, reprinted in the script, these flukes are clearly linked to imprisonment and death: the room is lit in such a way as to cast multiple horizontal shadows against the back wall, suggesting prison bars. Superimposed on these shadows are the shadows of Nagiko’s husband’s phallic arrows (he has pretensions to archery), which are reminiscent of harpoons – particularly when juxtaposed with the image of the whales.
46. Another reference to whales – and to their real and symbolic importance in the film and to environmental activism – appears in the dialogue. The “talkative” calligrapher, advocate for the impermanence of writing, explains that his brother works for the forestry commission and would like to make green ink “a standard colour for all forestry business” (54). He then goes on to link writing, vision, and whales through the following remark: “I asked him what colour ink he would use if he gave up eating whale meat and worked for a whaling company. He said whales were colour blind” (54). However ironical and playful the reference, its political weight cannot be denied – the Japanese whaling industry and Greenpeace would, without a doubt, be sensitive to it, but for different reasons, naturally.22F Shortly after this scene, Nagiko is kidnapped by a gang of nihilist youth clad in black (they are described as “anti-Japanese, anti-American, anti-Ecology,” in the script, 61), while she is at home having breakfast with Bara, one of her lover-calligraphers and an advocate of “clean living ecological purity” (59) who writes ecological slogans on her body.
47. Since she was a young child, Nagiko herself has been linked to writing in multiple and opposed ways. As an adult, she is linked to both its production and its destruction. At one point in the film, she attempts to drown her typewriter; twice, her writings are destroyed by fire, the second time through her own action. In his films, Greenaway has subjected books to every conceivable form of destruction: by water, earth, wind, fire, and ingestion. The Pillow Book also connects Nagiko’s destruction of her own writings with the destruction of forests: the fire that consumes her books also burns down the wooden columns in her house, columns that are deliberately made to look like tree trunks. At other points in the film, the print industry itself, represented by Nagiko’s father’s publisher, is associated with deforestation and ecological holocaust.
48. The ending of The Pillow Book suggests that language is now fully rooted in books, and that its connection to the body is, at best, superficial, skin deep. It also suggest that the body has been fully scripted by our civilization’s narrative, an Oedipal narrative, as demonstrated by the permanent tattoo we see on Nagiko’s chest as she breast-feeds her child. This is disconcerting, given that the film has gone to great lengths to convince us that the writing on bodies is impermanent and soluble. Moreover, the human body, as represented by Jerome’s body, and the body of nature, as represented by the Bonsai tree adorning Nagiko’s living room, have been thoroughly bound – Jerome’s into a book, and the tree into a root-bound potted plant. That these two bodies have succumbed to the same fate, that both have been texted, is indicated by Nagiko’s placing – burying – of Jerome’s Pillow Book in the soil of the Bonsai tree. Having broken the connection between language and the body, says Greenaway, “we have set up for ourselves a bundle of trouble. It intimates a yet further denial of the physical self to the conveniences of the non-corporeal world, and even greater reliance on the machine “ (“Body and Text”).
49. That the film ends with the flowering of the Bonsai tree, and that this flowering takes place outside the diegesis of the film, may be taken, allegorically, as a reminder that human expression remains linked to, and dependent on, the human and more-than-human body of the world and its eternal cycles of death and rebirth. While the flowering of the tree takes place outside the narrative proper of the film, some ambiguity remains as to the fate of the tree, since, as the tree begins to flower, the credits begin to roll. Interestingly, the credits seem to “make room” for the tree, at least for awhile, by being pushed to the margins of the image, the edges of the frame.
50. If there is a hopeful message at the end of this film, it lies in our recognition that, to quote Greenaway once again, “the body must be up there earnestly and vigorously rooting for its supremacy, text or no text.” As the Thirteenth Book, “the book to end all books” (The Pillow Book 112), inscribed on the body of the sumo-wrestler sent to kill the publisher, says: “’I am old,’ said the book. ‘I am older,’ said the body” (The Pillow Book 112).
The book to end all books.
The final book.
After this, there is no more writing
no more publishing.
The publisher should retire
The eyes grow weak, the light dims.
The eyes squint. They blink.
The world is prey to a failing of focus.
The ink grows fainter but the print grows larger.
In the end, the pages only whisper in deference.
Desire lessens.
Although dreams of love still linger,
The hopes of consummation grow less,
What could be the end of all these hopes and desires?
Here comes the end.

(“The Thirteenth Book,” The Pillow Book 112)

Works Cited:

Abram, David. The Spell Of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e) Inc., 1983.
Bennington, Geoffrey and Jacques Derrida. Jacques Derrida. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1991.
Dalle Vacche, Angela. Cinema and Painting: How Art is Used In Film. Austin: U of Texas P, 1996.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. 1967. Baltimore, London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.
Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. 1972. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981.
Elliott, Bridget, and Anthony Purdy. “Artificial Eye/Artificial You: Getting Greenaway or Mything the Point?” Literature and the Body. Ed. Anthony Purdy. Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1992. 178-211.
Elliott, Bridget, and Anthony Purdy. Peter Greenaway: Architecture and Allegory. London: Academy Editions, 1997.
Ehrenfeld, David. The Arrogance of Humanism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1978.
Fromm, Erich. The Forgotten Language. New York: Rinehart & Co., 1951.
Greenaway, Peter. The Pillow Book. Paris: Dis Voir, 1996.
Greenaway, Peter. “Peter Greenaway on The Pillow Book.” Sight and Sound (Nov. 1996): 14-17.
Greenaway, Peter. The Stairs/Geneva: Location. London: Merrell Holberton, 1994.
Greenaway, Peter. The Belly Of An Architect. London: Faber and Faber, 1988.
Greenaway, Peter. A Zed & Two Noughts. London: Faber and Faber, 1986.
Lawrence, Amy. The Films of Peter Greenaway. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.
Lowen, Alexander. Fear of Life. New York: Collier Books, 1980.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Primacy of Perception And Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History and Politics. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1964.
Neumann, Erich. The Origin and History of Consciousness. New York: Pantheon Books, 1954.
Nollman, Jim. The Charged Border: Where Whales and Humans Meet. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., forthcoming April 1999.
Nollman, Jim. “The Secret Language of the Wild: What Animals Could Tell Us if We’d Only Listen.” Utne Reader 86 (March-April 1998): 40-45, 100.
Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy. The Technologizing of the Word. London, New York: Routledge, 1996 [1982].
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Pascoe, David. Peter Greenaway: Museums and Moving Images. London: Reaktion Books, 1997.
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Willoquet-Maricondi, Paula. “Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest and Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books as Ecological Rereadings and Rewritings of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.” Reading the Earth: New Directions in the Study of Literature and the Environment. Ed. Michael P. Branch et al. Moscow, ID: U of Idaho P, 1998., 247-69.
Willoquet-Maricondi, Paula. “God, Art, and the Gospel: The Construction of the Heterosexual Couple According to Godard.” Film/Literature Quarterly. Forthcoming.
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Woods, Alan. Being Naked, Playing Dead: The Art of Peter Greenaway. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1996.

21. Jim Nollman, director of Interspecies Communication, Inc., and author of The Charged Border: Where Whales and Humans Meet, argues that “interspecies communication is far more common in nature than biology warrants. Whether it occurs at any given moment has less to do with intelligence than with timing and sensitivity. It depends on how willing we are, as individuals and as a culture, to seek out the unknown, push beyond the quantifiable, and adopt new, ethically based ways for studying the possibilities. Orthodox scientists say this view of interspecies communication reeks of anthropomorphism. But perhaps this criticism is handy obfuscation that serves to uphold the dogma that keeps humans above and separate from the rest of nature” (“Secret Language” 100).
22. David Ehrenfeld notes that quick profits from the commercial exploitation of whales, to the point of extinction can be turned into greater profits than if the whales were captured at a rate commensurate with their ability to survive as a species (202). Ehrenfeld also recounts a conversation he had with a fellow scientist who was deeply concerned about the survival of a species of great whale he was studying. Ehrenfeld asked this scientist why, if he was so concerned with protecting this whale population from whalers, he was publishing maps and descriptions of its exact location. The man replied that “he couldn’t withhold scientific truth, even if it meant that the whales could suffer for it” (248). This seems to me another instance of prioritizing the map over the territory, the representation of life in the form of scientific “knowledge” about life, over life itself.

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