From the movies currently in the theatres – Insurgent, Chappie and Cinderella – to the bestselling books and most watched shows, the theme of love is always present.
I have been cynical about and uncomfortable with the kinds of everlasting romance presented in music, movies and even literature. It’s very possible that I have a manufacturing defect and the part of my heart that’s supposed to connect to these stories and to yearn for the same experiences in my life is broken. But there are authors that propose criticisms of the limited ways in which love can and has been expressed.
One of the authors who does this compellingly is Jeanette Winterson. Her novel Written on the Body embeds clichés and uses a conventional approach of telling a love story to reveal unconventional ways of looking at love. This novel doesn’t completely break away from the concept of all-consuming love at first sight, or introduce a new set of rules on how to write about it, but rather plays with existing perceptions.
“Love demands expression. It will not stay still, stay silent, be good, be modest, be seen and not heard, no. It will break out of tongues in praise, the high note that smashes the glass and spills the liquid.”
She leads readers through multiple relationships, heartaches and a vivid love story without revealing the gender or sexuality of the protagonist, thereby drifting away from any preconceived notions attached to these dynamics. She humanizes the characters and employs rhetoric to subvert the formulas of writing about this topic.
“Now that I have lost you I cannot allow you to develop, you must be a photograph not a poem.”
Winterson offers crucial dialogue on the nature of language by detailing the limited ways in which it can be used to express love.
She also speaks about its hidden powers, specifically its ability to be read in different ways.
“Love makes the world go round. Love is blind. All you need is love. Nobody ever died of a broken heart. You’ll get over it. It’ll be different when we’re married…”
In stringing together these clichés, Winterson asks readers to look at this text, and subsequently all texts as starting points that they should take issue with and examine further. The short sentences can be read as a rushed monologue and thus, come across as ironic. She inserts these lines as a way to proclaim that this love story acknowledges the existence of all those that came before it, so critical discussions can be had.
“You are a pool of clear water where light plays.”
Winterson portrays love as a tangible, fluid thing; a treasure, an overwhelming intoxication, an erupting volcano and an unbreakable bond. It is not merely something she is writing about, but something the readers are interacting with as they read her text.
“You have scored your name into my shoulders, referenced me with your mark. The pads of your fingers have become printing blocks, you tap a message on to my skin, tap meaning into my body.”
In order to fully expose the limitations of the language of love, she turns the body into a means of communication. She repeatedly mentions hands as vessels that hold love, that weigh it and feel its texture. The body is transformed into a language of its own that can be translated, has no limitations and allows for infinite interpretation.
Written on the Body, like Winterson’s view of love, is “palimpsestous.” It is an accumulation, an ongoing process that can be understood only when the many layers are peeled back. She scrapes the surface of what has been said about it only to make more poignant conclusions about human relationships and language. She makes those of us who find these stories unrealistic want to believe.