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Thinking Sex: Written on the Body Forum

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Writing about Written on...
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-10-27 10:38:24
Link to this Comment: 7006

This week I invite you to post in the forum all your (pre-and post-class) thoughts about Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body: your initial reactions to the novel, and/or your later, more reflective ruminations about how and what this sort of romantic/imaginative/ philosophical text contributes to our thinking/talking/writing about sex.


Name: Sarah
Date: 2003-10-28 15:29:24
Link to this Comment: 7031

I wanted to follow up on our discussion in class today by highlighting a few other things I noticed about WOTB. There are several recurring scenes/phrases, including "It's the cliches that cause the trouble" (10, 71,189, maybe one or two other places) As Anne mentioned in class, Winterson is playing with the various cliches of the traditional love story--the narrator thinks she's trying to get beyond the cliches of comfortable, contented married life, but instead ends up falling into the cliche of the noble hero saving his lady by renouncing her. In the very beginning the narrator says, "It is so terrifying, love...I am desperately looking the other way so that love won't see me. I want the diluted version, the sloppy language, the insignificant gestures. The saggy armchair of cliches" (10). Is this what happens at the end--that the narrator avoids having to perform the truest and hardest act of love (supporting Louise and having to watch her die) and retreats (literally and figuratively) into the noble hero stereotype?

To be fair, I don't think the narrator realizes that this is what she's doing until seems to be an ingrained and subconscious response, and she does seem like she's trying to do the "right thing" (although what's right and for whom can be debated). I think the narrator is so caught up in representing her experiences of love and obsession (she's a translator by trade, and I feel like she's translating a physical and emotional experience into words here) that she somehow detaches from what she's actually trying to describe, or at least from the person to whom all those energies are supposedly dedicated.

This brings up the other recurring passage I was thinking about, which mentions how both Renoir and Henry Miller create their art with their penises (22, 60). The second one is an exchange between the narrator and a former girlfriend, Catherine. Catherine asks, "'Do you know why Henry Miller said "I write with my prick"'? 'Because he did. When he died they found nothing between his legs but a ball-point pen.' 'You're making it up,' she said. Am I?" (60) I find this passage interesting on several levels. First, the narrator's final question speaks to the playfulness of the text--we don't know what gender the narrator is or whether Louise is even real, and with questions like this Winterson is the teasing the reader with the uncertainty the text gives us. But this sort of passage also calls to mind Ro's comment about there being no penetration in the text (although I think all the descriptions of the inside of Louise's tissues are pretty invasive!)...figuratively speaking, the narrator has no penis with which to penetrate because she's so concerned with language, more so than with Louise's feelings and desires--she's connecting with her pen, not her genitals, and is more concerned with art than with life.

my love affair with language
Name: Heather
Date: 2003-10-30 00:09:58
Link to this Comment: 7050

First I wanted to comment on the discussion we were having in the beginning of the class on the gender of the narrator. I think I assumed that the narrator was a woman because I wanted to relate to the character. Not because I am a woman, but because I would find many of the things she did weird or unacceptable for a man to be doing. For instance, when the narrator was watching Louise from outside her window, and also the situation with them sleeping together in the house with her husband there. I think it would be much more unacceptable in both of those situations for a man to be doing those things. This makes me question, like Tia mentioned in class, the stereotypes I place on men and women and thier acceptable behaviour.
I also have been thinking about why this book struck me so strongly as beautiful. I was very surprised by other people's not so pleasant reactions in class. One of the main things I heard is that it concentrated too much on language and didn't "get to the point." Which is interesting, because I am much more frustrated with essays I read for my sociology class for example, where I find the language in excess because I have to struggle to find the main point. I found it very freeing to be able to read the language and concentrate on it for the sake of language itself.

second person
Date: 2003-10-30 09:13:02
Link to this Comment: 7059

Kate Stimpson presented her talk last night in second person (as an address to graduate students). It was very powerful--let's talk some more about the use of second-person address..

thoughts and questions
Name: Garron
Date: 2003-10-30 14:08:42
Link to this Comment: 7061

Here are my unrelated thoughts:

1) I really like Sarah's web posting. Her thoughts on the penis as a pen/brush helped me to better understand those passages. Also, I hadn't thought of the possible significance of the author's occupation. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

2) On Tuesday Anne mentioned that might have Winterson written this story in order to play with language, so maybe the questions we explore regarding ethics, love, betrayal, etc., really aren't important to the author. Maybe Winterson only cares about language and the plot doesn't matter very much to her. (Anne, please forgive me for poorly rephrasing your statement, I hope I relayed it what you said the way you meant it.) Anyway, this idea of the language being primary and the plot, or the point being incidental really disturbed me. Would I really want to read a book where the ideas aren't important, but the language is? Isn't one of the purposes of language to transmit ideas? Without meaning behind the words, just the craft of beautifully phrased words, is Winterson defeating a main purpose of words? If it is true that Winterson wrote without caring about the plot and only caring about the words, am I just witness to/victim of a writing exercise? What do you guys think? I know I'm not being very clear, but I hope you get my drift.

3) In class today I mentioned a couple lines from page 76: "I never used to think about my previous girlfriends until I took up with Jacqueline. I never had the time."

I'm still wondering about this passage. Throughout the book the protagonist talks about various former lovers. S/he writes scores of pages about Louise, a previous lover. Why is it that the main character doesn't think about her old girlfriends until Jacqueline comes into the picture? I think it has there's something more to it than she simply "never had the time." What is it about Jacqueline that makes the main character start this mental revisit to relationships and lovers of the past?

4) One of the protagonist's lovers is named Bathsheba. Is there a historical/literary person/character by that name? If so, who was she, and what did she do? What is the significance of that name?

Name: KB
Date: 2003-10-30 21:51:20
Link to this Comment: 7070

For some reason this book and our discussions of it have been making me feel angry and, I literally have been sitting in class playing mind games with myself about the intent of this book. Aside from feeling like I need to seek therapy, I'm beginning to wonder if in reading the book, we the readers become like the narrator in the sense that our conversations in class and the conversations in my head seem to be similar to the writing style used by the author(stream of consiousness). Just a thought...

On another note, to answer your question Garron, I have done an "Ask Jeeves" search on Bathsheba. It's taken me to a website that says that Bathsheba is a biblical figure in the Old Testament. It says that the name Bathsheba literally means "daughter of oath." Here is the rest of the description: "This is the story of the love between David, King of Israel, and Bathsheba. It is a love that is doomed from the start, because she is the wife of one of David's army captains, Uriah. David, uncharacteristically, wants Bathsheba at any cost. His is a passion that will not be denied. When she capitulates, it is to have great ramifications for all the parties involved. When their transgression and the lengths to which David went to secure Bathsheba for himself become known, it is Bathseheba who may pay the ultimate price in order to expiate their sin. The prophet Nathan calls David to judgment for his sin. "

So does anyone have an idea as to how Bathsheba's biblical nature relates to "Written on the Body?"

Name: Megan
Date: 2003-11-02 22:50:01
Link to this Comment: 7082

I wanted to thank Ro for being so honest about her opinions about this book. As everyone went around the circle on Tuesday telling how much they loved the book I found myself trying to think up something positive to say. I wish I could have been that honest. To tell the truth, I wasn't engaged by the characters or the story. Maybe it's like Anne's friend said, I'm too young to know about betrayal--I'm still dating my high school boyfriend. I did not relate to the characters because I haven't had any of the same experiences they have and because of that, I wasn't interested in their story. I didn't understand it and it didn't seem real to me. As a social scientist I think I crave what is real, what is tangible. I can read laws and I can read scientific accounts of human behavior and they make sense to me. The other readings we've done for this class fit that need. This story just didn't do it for me.

As I just wrote that, I couldn't help but question myself about what is so different from this story and the personal accounts of Dorothy Allison and Samual Delany. Does the book lack legitimacy for me because it's a story and not based on actual events? (Or, maybe I shouldn't have read the book over fall break in between soap operas....??)

written on... whose body?
Name: Jessie
Date: 2003-11-02 23:01:01
Link to this Comment: 7083

For whatever reason, when I first started reading the book, I assumed the body in question that was being written on was the narrator's. I assumed that the book would be a sort of translation into words of the narrator's physical experiences. However, in the anatomization section about halfway through the book, it became apparent that the narrator was reading Louise's body. At the same time, though, my initial hunch also seemed to be true on page 89, Louise is reading the narrator's body. This ambiguity in the title, I think, serves to unite the narrator's and Louise's bodies. Rather than the narrator possessing or controlling Louise's body, s/he actually becomes part of her body. "I dropped into the mass of you and I cannot find the way out... Myself in your skin, myself lodged in your bones..." (pg 120) The characters exchange agency throughout the story, as well the narrator is sometimes desiring and other times the desired; this too functions to merge the two characters together.

This mutuality of bodies is where this otherwise typical romance differs from a traditional love story. Their love for each other seems to grow out of an essential same-ness (rather than love-through-difference). Perhaps this could even lend itself to homoerotic interpretations, even though the narrator has no identified gender. In any case, the character's shared physicality and functions within the story, for me, are what pull it away from the troublesome cliched romance that the narrator (and author) have such an aversion toward.

"looking @ a fully clothed woman"
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-11-03 08:27:19
Link to this Comment: 7086

I'm responding to Garron's query, above:

"Would I really want to read a book where the ideas aren't important, but the language is? Isn't one of the purposes of language to transmit ideas? Without meaning behind the words, just the craft of beautifully phrased I just witness to/victim of a writing exercise?"

I myself am NOT interested in words for their beautiful shapes, but for what they tell me about the world. But there are other views on this subject. Last week I read you portions of Rachel Wright's thesis, playing w/ the differences between 1st, 2nd and 3rd person narration. When Rachel was in my course on Big Books of American Literature, she posted a comment referring to "something that James Joyce toys with in Finnegan's Wake":

"he suggests that in reading, we miss the point when we look for meaning behind the words. He says that it is like looking at a beautiful, fully clothed woman and trying to see only what's underneath. (how is that for a gendered image/simile?!?) If you are always trying to get under/around/beneath you miss the point because, he argues, the point is not in what is behind the words but in the act of arranging the words. So maybe its not about the body at all, because the body is a location for isolation and captivity and how we dress the body or the voice is what really matters?"

Name: Ro.
Date: 2003-11-03 09:06:52
Link to this Comment: 7089

I have the difficulty of feeling as though I have said all I've thought about this book, and that we have discussed it inside-out and outside-in as completely as the author has explored her real or imagined "Louise."

I believe that this is a case of altering (polluting) the experiment in the process of conducting have so carefully planned and executed this literary subterfuge says to me that we are reading something artificial, and therefore no so relevant as human experience, whatever the gender. Do I care if I know the gender of the narrator? No, because the narration feels forced and I am not engaged. Would I care otherwise,...who can tell?

I thought our discussion of ethics was beginning to get interesting as class ended last week. "Love trumps ethics? Really?" There are crimes of passions that some courts excuse, but I don't know of any acceptable crimes just because the perp is in "love." I think that ethics is murkier, because--most of the time anyway--a violation is not also against some law. Seems we agreed that the real violation was that Louise had no options that allowed for the continuation of the relationship. But how is that different from any situation in which one person is ready--for whatever reason!-- to opt out? The other is always without a takes two to tango.

I think that the question of ethics is more interesting when we ask it about the author's motives in manipulating her readers.

Another thing I pondered is that some people really do lead with their hearts, while others lead with their heads. Some are honestly more intent on maintaining harmony and relations, even if it means breaking some rigid rules. Others can't imagine acting unprincipled, and that means rules are followed, commitments adherred to... I think that each of us looks at situations such as the one in this story through one or the other of these two lenses.

In the end, I was troubled more by the issues of obsession (NOT the narrator's, the author's).

Name: ro
Date: 2003-11-03 09:18:20
Link to this Comment: 7090


..."he suggests that in reading, we miss the point when we look for meaning behind the words. ..If you are always trying to get under/around/beneath you miss the point because, he argues, the point is not in what is behind the words but in the act of arranging the words.

Then, who can experience the ACTof arranging the words other than the arranger? How can a reader hope to know? Or is this what we've been poking at ...trying to understand and form judgements about Winterson herself...her personality, her motives, etc? Is that what really interests us because--subliminally--we sense that the 'truth" of her story lies in her actions with her words and not the words themselves? (Don't look for meaning in my choice of verb :-)

Name: Catherine
Date: 2003-11-03 15:25:44
Link to this Comment: 7095

"Written on the Body" is one of the better readings I've been assigned in all of my classes this semester. I enjoyed it rather than seeing it as just another assigned reading.
The book made me feel comfortable; its witty comments and phrases made me empathize with the narrator, and the ambiguity with the character's gender made it more acceptable, although I did believe that the narrator seemed feminine, so I am unsure as to how men would respond to it.
The readings we have done before this one, though, have led me to feel even more comfortable with this book, I believe, because they really took me out of my comfort zone and I am not at the point where I started out in the beginning of the semester.

language versus meaning...
Name: Sarah
Date: 2003-11-03 16:55:40
Link to this Comment: 7096

I think there is room for all sorts of writing--the meaning of words is important (and usually is for any author, even Winterson, I would argue), but it seems like part of postmodernism is interrogating language itself--also important, in my view. I think literature is unique in that it can communicate a message or moral, but can also be art, just like a painting. We don't always insist that a painting have meaning...some paintings I like just because they appear "beautiful", whether I know what it means (if anything) or not. I guess ideally we'd like our art/literature to convey meaning AND be beautiful/well-crafted, but I don't think they're both always necessary. To weigh in on Winterson though, I personally think that she does achieve both ends.

Name: Grannis
Date: 2003-11-04 00:53:59
Link to this Comment: 7099

I'm sick, so sorry if this posting makes no sense whatsoever!!!
(there, that's my disclaimer...)

In response to Katie and Garron:

Regarding Bathsheba, the summary Katie found states:

"...It is a love that is doomed from the start, because she is the wife of one of David's army captains, Uriah. David, uncharacteristically, wants Bathsheba at any cost. His is a passion that will not be denied. When she capitulates, it is to have great ramifications for all the parties involved. When their transgression and the lengths to which David went to secure Bathsheba for himself become known, it is Bathseheba who may pay the ultimate price in order to expiate their sin...."

I find it interesting that Bathsheba, rather than David, was the one who wound up paying "the ultimate price" for redemption for a sin that was probably not nearly so much hers as David's. Perhaps this symbolizes what seems to be the narrator in WOTB's tendency to abandon his/her lovers before meeting Louise. Just a thought. Personally, I would intuit that the narrator's lovers felt far more pain at the "breaking-(up)" point than the narrator did... and maybe the pain they felt represents the price they paid for the narrator's selfish and unthinking act of leaving, and literally abandoning their relationship. Just a thought.

That brings me to another question: did Bathsheba reciprocate David's feelings? Did she choose to be the "sought" (i.e., be loved by King David? This makes me wonder if Louise ever reciprocated the narrator's feelings of love. Or was it love? Going back to what Ro said, there never was (in my opinion) any evidence of the mutual "penetration" that I consider to be so instrumental in a deep give/take relationship. I am not necessarily talking about physical penetration, however; I am thinking on a more figurative level. I never felt Louise and the narrator merge into one, emotionally- which in my mind, is what really defines sex: when two (or more) people become one, sharing energy on the most intimate level possible. (yes, I know this is a very disputable point :-) ).

So, did true love ever exist between Louise and the narrator? I do believe that the narrator felt a very strong SENSE of love toward her, but is that love itself? Can love really be one-sided? Was what the narrator felt toward Louise even love at all, or was it more like obsession? And on a radical note, since the narrator didn't obtain Louise's consent before he made her an object of such passionate obsession (and penetrated her private body and mind with invasive words), could this be considered rape?

Ah, so many questions. Perhaps that's the reason I love this book so much. Even after reading it three times, I still don't necessarily feel like I'm any closer to coming up with satisfying responses to any of these questions...:-)

response to Grannis
Name: Ali
Date: 2003-11-04 21:03:17
Link to this Comment: 7117

"So, did true love ever exist between Louise and the narrator? I do believe that the narrator felt a very strong SENSE of love toward her, but is that love itself?"

After reading Grannis' posting I was struck with the idea of pure or true love. I don't believe that anything exists objectively and essentially (i.e. the essence of love, love in itself, etc.). So I'm lead into considering love from an entirely subjective side, defining love in individual contexts. What I may consider TRUE love may be drastically different from what another imagines it as. If I, or anyone else, approaches love as if it were a subjective experience (not as something independent of our interpretation of it), then true/pure love can exist in an infinite number of ways (as many interpretations of it that are formulated). Part of me wants to be on the receiving end of the obsessive love that the narrator has for Louise, while part of me is disgusted by the harshly unequal power dynamic. But I am not prepared to make an Absolute judgment on the definitive characteristics that qualify LOVE. In what position are we (as readers of this story, as individuals listening to our friends love troubles, etc.) to judge another's interpretation of love? We can say what we don't want - what we don't consider love - but is anyone willing to claim that there is a version/interpretation of love that is universally pure/true for everyone?

subjective/subject/subjection... sitting down insi
Name: Laura
Date: 2003-11-10 03:14:48
Link to this Comment: 7172

Anne asked: "Why do we read novels?"
My response was automatically 'to stretch boundaries'. Reading introduces new concepts and challenges old ones. Reading is a stimulus. Through reading, we continually (re)construct our own intellectual agendas. Perhaps this might be the reason for the lack of stimulation Anne spoke of concerning J. Winterson's novels following Written on the Body. Although I've only read two of her novels, I can see similar themes/ideas running through Winterson's writing.

One of my favorite pastimes is pottery. Since I often make analogies concerning art/pottery to life and such, I thought I'd share a bit... A potter starts out throwing by working towards the attainment of mastery or perfection (not necessarily perfection as in one set model or method but rather the perfection one comes to in the familiarity of the clay with one's own hands... perfection is therefore subjective and unique to each individual potter). Once this personal degree of mastery is reached, the potter spends the rest of their life working in 'reverse'. Alteration and the ability to counter one's mastery or ability is paramount to one's perception of themselves as an artist. I sometimes think of pottery as the artistic form of a literary "reverse discourse". Humans (in the role of author and reader) do the same with language or words. We attempt to master words/language and the ideas that they create and then spend the rest of our lives challenging those ideas, altering language, reversing our discourse and thereby constructing individually unique intellectual agendas. This is why I believe humans write and read literature, converse and teach and learn. Although the idea of one's intelligence as being geared towards a "reverse discourse" may seem to be self-defeating, it is also simultaneously exhilarating and an ultimate challenge.

In one of my precious postings, I was mulling over Foucault's (or his interpretation of Nietzche) speculation that knowledge destroys. With this thought of language or intelligence as working in reverse, is this so bad? If language or literature is a slippage between intention and reception (which I argued in my last posting) than language/intention is really quite subjective. I am beginning to believe that everything is subjective lately, including experience and intellect. This is reflective of the theory of relativism. Literature only holds meaning for each of us in relation to ourselves. This is where the 'slippage' exists. Winterson grabs this slippage by the horns and tosses it down as a gauntlet to her readers. Her writing is all about the subjectivity of identity, gender, love, reality, etc.

Anne said that she is interested in words because of what they tell her about the world. The world in relation to herself... I would assume. She directed us to read a quote by Joyce that Rachel Wright posted: "we miss the point when we look for meaning behind the words... the point is not in what is behind the words but in the act of arranging the words." I was delighted to see that Ro latched onto the same quote and reflected: "Then, who can experience the ACT of arranging the words other than the arranger? How can a reader hope to know? Or is this what we've been poking at ...trying to understand and form judgements about Winterson herself...her personality, her motives, etc? Is that what really interests us because--subliminally--we sense that the 'truth" of her story lies in her actions with her words and not the words themselves?" I interpret Joyce's "what is behind the words" as being the author's intention. I do not believe that a reader is meant to experience the act of arranging the words in the same way that the author does. The reader is not the 'doer' but rather the recipient of the 'slippage' that the transmission of words creates.

"A quantum force is equivalent to a quantum of drive, will, effect-more, it is nothing other than precisely this very driving, willing, effecting, and only owing to the seduction of language(and of the fundamental errors of reason that are petrified in it) which conceives and misconceives all effects as conditioned by something that causes effects, by a "subject", can it appear otherwise... But there is no such substratum; there is no "being" behind doing, effecting, becoming; "the doer" is merely a fiction added to the deed-the deed is everything." (Nietzche, On the Genealogy of Morals)

In this sense the world (and literature) is constituted only by deeds. Neither the author nor the reader are necessarily important as the 'subject' or the 'doer'. Through the eradication of a subject, there only remains the 'doing' or the 'deed'. Language, as we know it, demands that there be a subject for the verb. But this is quite unnecessary. Literature can stand on its own. Literature is a slippage, it is an act through the perpetual arrangement of words. Our reception of those words as well as the author's intention is subjective. Therefore, I believe it is quite possible to experience the act of arranging the words. However, that experiencing/arranging is profoundly unique to each of us individually, including the author. Talk about active literature, huh?

Winterson's description of words is actually quite interesting: "I don't know how to answer. I know what I think, but words in the head are like voices under water. They are distorted. Hearing the words as they hit the surface is sensitive work... The words work. They do what they are supposed to do; comfort and discipline." (Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit) I actually kind of like the thought that we were throwing around class last week, that Winterson's writing is her love affair with language. This eradicates the need for a subject or a doer and leaves us with only the words as active agents in their own right. Winterson also say that "It is not one thing nor the other that leads to madness, but the space in between them." (OANTOF). Then is the slippage actually a vast void of madness that we possess? Sometimes I wonder.

I really do have a ton more to say, but I feel as though I should stop here. This is what happens when I have too much time to think before composing my posting. I suppose I love to dwell in the 'slippage'. I would love to continue this discussion with anyone who is interested. Till then, take care.

for me, best yet
Name: Tia
Date: 2003-11-11 20:28:56
Link to this Comment: 7215

so far for me this semester, "written on the body" has been my favorite thing we have read or done so far.
for one thing, i liked the fact that the narrator was genderless. by not giving him/her a gender, it makes us (or it made me, anyway) focus on experiences that we all have in love. for example, the narratior constantly says that they want to do the "right thing" especially by louisa. would the right thing be different for a man or a woman? or are there universal truths that cut across gender lines? for me, if the narrator would have had a gender, i think it would be harder for the author to express the narrator's feelings in ways that are not sterotypically linked to the was that specific sex expresses its feelings
i understand how some people might not like the way the book was written inthe sense that the other goes off on "stream of thought" tangents. however i thought the stream of thought was easy to follow. i also thought it showed how humans can link experiences, smells, color, with love and life, even if they are typically unrelated.
i feel that this book linked so many different "parts" or definitions of sex together. you have sex as gender, as the act, the feelings that come from it, homosexuality etc. this book did it for me!

Name: Anjali
Date: 2003-11-19 14:52:07
Link to this Comment: 7334

I want to agree with Megan and Ro that this novel didn't quite do it for me. I wasn't particularly interested in what the narrator had to say, until we looked at it in short snippets. When I approached the novel as a whole I found myself bored and uninterested in the many different thoughts flowing through the narrator's head.

However, in class, the individual parts we looked at seemed more coherent, when taken out of the book as a whole. Read out of context some seemed to provide greater meaning and more significance than they might have when I read the whole novel through. I think this is because I did a lot of skipping around from page to page since I wasn't captured by the story.

Even if I often wander in my thoughts, which I most certainly do, I, like Megan, am looking for something more tangible and more real. Perhaps this is because I am more familiar with social science readings and have an easier time understanding them. Moreover, I am sure it is due in part to my inability to stop analyzing text and looking for the "meaning" of what I am reading or the final thought or point. Perhaps even if I sometimes think I should have been an English major, I am more suited and happier being a Political Science major. Like they say, the grass is always greener....

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