Falling Apart: A Meditation on Love and the Work of Baldwin, Winterson, and Morrison

by Zeffie Gaines

I. Though We Really Did Try to Make It

There’s something wrong here, there can be no denying.

— Carole King

It’s 1999 and I’m living in California; I’ve just started a new, serious relationship and I’m about to finish my PhD in English. There is a lot going on — on the one hand, I’ve discovered that my relationship with my mother is not just personally tragic, but systematically dysfunctional. I’ve also got two new friends, a couple, we’ll call them Martha and Franklin (not their names), and I sit in open admiration of their relationship, which seems to me to be wonderful.

They live about an hour from where I do, in a very cute little house in Pomona. They have planted the small little patch out back with vegetables. Martha is an artist, and spends most of her days making large, painted canvases. Franklin is a writer; they both have square jobs to pay the rent. They hold elaborate parties where vegetarian food is served and where people are asked to put their handprint on the wall in paint or make improvisational music on any of the instruments they have just lying around. They are both incredibly good-looking people, stylish and sophisticated.

For several months, I spent almost all of my free time with them.

But then something happened. One day, while we are all at some Southern California street fair, we meet a young man (whose name I forget). He seems cool; he quickly becomes part of our social group. In the flash of an eye, he and Martha have an affair and the experience nearly rips Martha and Franklin apart. I watch from afar while my two friends, who I saw as so perfect for each other, begin to unravel. Somehow, they manage to stay together but Martha is never the same after that — the mischievous spark in her eye is gone; her skin goes gray and she seems perpetually guilty and tragic, as if she has discovered a horrible secret about herself that was hiding there all along. Franklin stops writing and becomes loopy; on one visit to my house, he arrives at the door and informs me he’s soiled himself in the car because he was unable to hold his bladder and didn’t know where to go to use the bathroom. When I tell him he could have gone to any McDonald’s, he just shrugs.

I was fascinated by Martha and Franklin during this time — in part because they seemed to be doing what I saw so little of in others: holding it together in art, in love, and in life.

Eventually, they have a child — and despite the child’s beauty and light, they remain locked in separate territories of pain, anger, abandonment, and blame. The lively, artistic, and humorous people I once knew have literally fallen apart, no longer whole, just fragments of their former selves. Martha moves to the East Coast and volunteers at an organic farm, making line drawings, which she sells sporadically on the internet. Franklin raises their daughter, in California, with the aid of his family and never falls in love again. (At least not as of this writing.)

I was fascinated by Martha and Franklin during this time — in part because they seemed to be doing what I saw so little of in others: holding it together in art, in love, and in life. Later I was horrifically fascinated by their decline; I couldn’t understand how this could happen — what where the invisible stress fractures in the foundation of their relationship that could make it go so horribly, so irrevocably wrong? Their downfall was not just the end of a relationship, it was the end of who they were, as people. At the same time that this drama was unfolding between Martha and Franklin, I was reading Another Country by James Baldwin. This book captivated me in the same way that the decline of Martha and Franklin had; it forced me to ask a fundamental question — why do things fall apart? Why do people end up in such life-threatening places, all over that thing we call “love?”

I wrote about Another Country and this led to my first major academic publication and eventually became the first chapter of my first book — but my interest in Baldwin’s work wasn’t really so much about the politics of it — its blackness, its queerness — it was more about the complicated process of the human condition, about the way people undo themselves. This is what happens to Rufus, who was undoubtedly interesting to me because he commits suicide but also because he is an optimistic boundary crosser like myself. He’s bisexual and bi-cultural, a kind of “cultural mulatto,” who traverses Greenwich Village and Harlem with equal ease. He is equally at home with his best friend Vivaldo and his sister Ida. He walks between the black and white world with little friction, that is until he falls in love with Leona.

…my interest in Baldwin’s work wasn’t really so much about the politics of it — its blackness, its queerness — it was more about the complicated process of the human condition, about the way people undo themselves.

And is it really love? For Rufus Leona is a white, naive Southerner and her appeal is mostly that she seems willing to be brutalized — to be fucked, mercilessly and hard — and to stick around this nonchalant guy the day after because in her loneliness, his rough touch is a better reminder that she is no longer alone than a soft one would be. For Rufus, this white woman who clings to him becomes evidence of his worth and validity in a society that reduces him to his cock and his ability to blow a horn. It’s not really a good start to a relationship — but what does a good start look like? And during all those parties, and dinners, and drinks after work — did anyone ask Rufus or Leona, “So what were you thinking when you got together? What was your psychological landscape?”

Well if they had, Rufus probably would have belted them. But people probably just looked at them, their friends anyway, as a young couple in love. Strangers looked at them with judgment because Leona was white and Rufus black; this very fact drove Rufus crazy. The idea that society didn’t see their relationship as legitimate tore Rufus up inside — but the truly crazy thing is that despite the presumption of onlookers and the insinuated judgment of friends, Rufus’ relationship with Leona wasn’t on the level, wasn’t on the up and up, wasn’t an act of pure love, passion, and mutual need. From the beginning the relationship is about her whiteness and his blackness and it is the inability to transcend those labels that tear Rufus, and ultimately, Leona apart.

The impetus for so much of what puts many of us on an inevitable path to falling apart is captured by Baldwin not so much when he ruminates about soul-killing racism, but when he writes about loneliness.

I couldn’t help but note at the time how like Rufus and Leona my friends Martha and Franklin were, without the racial and sexual dynamics. Despite their normativities, their racial “same-ness,” and their heterosexual appropriateness, they fell apart as much as Rufus and Leona did, with one of them metaphorically committing suicide if not literally, and the other living as a hollow shell of his former self. The life they once had disappeared and withered as surely as old salad in the fridge, the evidence of their gay and creative season now little more than a ghost that haunts me and, for all I know, haunts them too.

I wanted to explore Another Country because it captured something about people, and about relationships, that is so unspeakable and so hard to understand until you’ve seen it in action. And the impetus for so much of what puts many of us on an inevitable path to falling apart is captured by Baldwin not so much when he ruminates about soul-killing racism, but when he writes about loneliness:

He had often thought of his loneliness, for example, as a condition which testified to his superiority. But people who were not superior were, nevertheless, extremely lonely — and unable to break out of their solitude precisely because they had no equipment with which to enter it. His own loneliness, magnified so many million times, made the night air colder. He remembered to what excesses, into what traps and nightmares, his loneliness had driven him; and he wondered where such a violent emptiness might drive an entire city. (Baldwin 60)

This loneliness is so acute that it contours and shapes everything that follows in its wake; it is the motivating factor in most relationships and yet it also plays a role in the downfall of those same relationships — the cheating partner, the cruel partner, is a harbinger of a loneliness that has never been banished but only gone into remission. Fleeing loneliness Rufus and Leona cling to one another; furious at abiding loneliness, they tear each other apart.

Rufus asks Vivaldo, “What do two people want from each other…when they get together? Do you know?”

It is an existential question, not a pragmatic one — and any examination of it inexorably leads one to the conclusion that typically what one wants from the other cannot be provided. To stay that loneliness is an impossible task for one small person or even for two (one’s self and one’s lover) is perhaps an understatement, and yet we try, we try, and we try again to make what we call love the answer.

But there are rings and degrees of awareness of this loneliness — as Baldwin narrates above — some people are unable to break out of their loneliness because they cannot enter it; or, to put it another way, some people are scarcely aware that the loneliness they feel cannot be cured by another person, hence the isolation, alienation, and tragedy which can so often attend the romantic involvement, long or short term, is not the sign of a failing relationship, but the sign of a failing idea about relationships in general.

Like a detective I was looking for the model of the ideal relationship because I needed to believe that one’s loneliness could be solved by the experience of a safe and enduring love.

Like a child who wants her parents to stay together, I wanted Martha and Franklin to work it out; I wanted to imagine a scenario where Rufus would live and he and Leona would learn how to be together without ripping each other to shreds. Like a detective I was looking for the model of the ideal relationship because I needed to believe that one’s loneliness could be solved by the experience of a safe and enduring love.

II. I Kind of Always Knew I’d End Up Your Ex-girlfriend

You say you’re gonna burn before you mellow,
I will be the one to burn you.
Why’d you have to go and pick me?
When you knew that we were different, completely?

— No Doubt
Though I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, I was most like Cass from Baldwin’s novel — a woman who had stayed way past closing time in a relationship. Cass is a smart, but timid character who has settled into predictable respectability with a taciturn bore, who despite all his assholery remains somewhat sympathetic — at least to Cass — because she alone can see his vulnerabilities. The 11th hour, for my long term relationship which eventually became a marriage, had come and gone but I’d closed my eyes to it, precisely because the burden of loneliness and the sense of failure a break-up engendered seemed a worse fate than living my life with someone with whom I was not compatible and who, with few resources to do otherwise, would turn on me in times of stress. Being in a new relationship myself at the time that my friends were unraveling, I clung to my partner tightly, hoping that we could accumulate years of time together as a testament to security and the possibility of anti-loneliness. I remember telling Franklin, on one of our long walks where we talked about relationships, that I thought relationships needed to be like Tupperware — able to be banged around a lot but still bounce back. He thought this was funny, but it didn’t keep him from losing his mind.

I remember telling Franklin, on one of our long walks where we talked about relationships, that I thought relationships needed to be like Tupperware — able to be banged around a lot but still bounce back.

Unlike Cass, I never agreed to the typical monogamous marriage, but the official “open-ness” of my marriage really didn’t mean anything when after 12 years together I fell in love with someone else. Though, technically, I was allowed to love other people, he still reacted as if he’d been stung. Like the tragic scene where Richard confronts Cass, I felt the difficulty of explaining to anyone what led to the moment when I was being yelled at and called names while my child slept, unaware, in another part of the house. My partner’s words could have come straight from Richard, straight from the pages of Baldwin’s novel:

Suddenly, for no reason, just when it begins to seem that things are really going to work out for us — all of a sudden — you begin to make me feel that I’m something that stinks, that I ought to be out of doors. I didn’t know what had happened, I didn’t know where you’d gone — all of a sudden. (Baldwin 375)

For no reason. All of a sudden. This is how it feels to the other, as if everything that they thought they could count on has suddenly become unstable, for reasons they cannot fathom. They think that you are bored, that you are getting revenge for things they did wrong, or that you’re crazy. Yet in the stranglehold of propriety, sometimes the only way out is to blow the building. It is not enough to say — and I know, because I tried — I want out, I am unhappy. There is the inevitable “why,” as if one can explain, quickly and cogently, the terrifying and stunning revelation that this relationship, meant to ward off an infinite and universal loneliness, can never do that. And if the relationship is dysfunctional in any way, it only serves as a daily reminder of how alone one actually is; it fails at even providing the fiction of absolute togetherness.

Why, then? Did you get bored with me? Does he make love to you better than I; does he know tricks I don’t know? Is that it? Is that it? Answer me! (Baldwin 375)

The “whys” are myriad and crushingly identifiable. The mundane cruelty that so many people call “normal marriage” is the biggest why. I conceal the details of those “whys” in poetic language because even now, because I don’t want to harm you.

Plus there is always the chance that my “whys” won’t count in the eyes others. Are my “whys” grounds for relationship termination in most people’s eyes? Maybe not. But having sex with someone else is, and in some cases, it might be the only way to end what is killing you, before, like Rufus, like my father, you end up killing yourself. And while it is true that some people endure these “whys” and even more, and remain married, respectful, stable — I can only imagine that they are able to do so because they have, either through practice or unintentionally, failed to develop the equipment to know their own loneliness.

III. I Want Your Bad Romance

J’veux ton amour,
Et je veux ta revanche.
J’veux ton amour,
I don’t wanna be friends!

— Lady GaGa

Once again, we find ourselves in some uncomfortable territory, especially when it becomes clear that while as readers we understand the complexity of the affair and of love, as real life people we don’t get down with that shit. We read Baldwin and we don’t judge Cass, or Eric her lover, we see it as a consequence of the narrative tension and societal failings that Baldwin so adroitly highlights — but that is not how we engage these things when they happen to us. Textually, it’s cutting edge. It provides an excellent opportunity for liberal posturing at high brow dinner parties, where wine flows and people debate passionately about Zizek’s take on Kung Fu Panda. But in real life, when we are cheated on, we are all Richard (minus the physical violence) — victimized, traumatized, jilted. And all cheaters are Cass, irresponsible and inexplicably cruel.

It stuns me that people love authors such a Jeanette Winterson, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison so much — but essentially dismiss any of the wisdom in those works when their own lives take a rather literary turn. In Sula, Morrison has her heroine, and the novel’s namesake, fuck her best friend’s husband, and Nel (the best friend) catches them together naked. We are invited, of course, to see Sula as a revolutionary, as someone who cannot live inside the box, a free thinker and a free feeler, a spirit too transcendent to be claimed by the petty rules of proprietary society. We think Morrison is a genius of the word and of human nature; and yet, what she writes about is not fiction — it happens every day, but our appreciation for the text is disingenuous given our outrage for the ways in which life is just like a book. I’d love to hear a devoted reader or academic say that they don’t like Morrison because her works subvert discourses of monogamy. Such a comment would seem almost tenderfoot at best and philistine at worst; yet it is a more accurate picture of most people’s psychological landscape around the very issues that these authors, and many others, represent with startling frequency.

When I first read Winterson’s Written On The Body, I was struck by its nameless protagonist since it parallels, in my mind, textual conceits used by both Ralph Ellison and Samuel Delany — but the serial home wrecker protagonist hardly garnered any actual attention from me; at the time I’d yet to commit my own similar transgressions but never thought that they were actually transgressions. I didn’t realize how seriously my society would take such transgressions until I’d crossed that line — but after I crossed that line, I became intensely interested in the novel because, I thought, that protagonist could be me.

I didn’t realize how seriously my society would take such transgressions until I’d crossed that line — but after I crossed that line, I became intensely interested in the novel because, I thought, that protagonist could be me.

The gender of the main character of Jeanette Winterson’s novel Written On the Body is not the only aspect of the “unsaid” that operates within this careful and provocative text. Anyone who has taught this book knows that a central point of discussion among students is the intentional omission of the gender identity of the protagonist. Like textual detectives, I have often witnessed students use the unreliable magnifying lens of “gender clues” to attempt to “figure out” if the protagonist is male or female. Like the deranged characters in SNL’s 90’s skit “Pat,” they often obsessively claim one or another gendered identity for the protagonist of Winterson’s tome on love. Scholarship on the book has also been particularly concerned with this genderless character and what the implications of this omission might mean, and what revolutionary possibilities such non-naming enables. But whether or not the protagonist identifies as male or female is not the only empty category of identity in Winterson’s text. I’d like to make the perhaps startling claim that the reader also doesn’t know what race the protagonist is.

If we were to mimic the treasure hunt for identity I have often witnessed in my classes when teaching Written On the Body, then we could perform the same compulsive search for racial or ethnic markers since, like the protagonist’s gender, the racial identity of the first person character is never revealed. On the very first page of the text, the protagonist references Caliban, casting his/her identity as a “savage:” “You did not say it [I love you] first and neither did I, yet when you say it and when I say it we speak like savages who have found three words and worship them. I did worship them but now I am alone on a rock hewn out of my own body.” Winterson then alludes to end of the Tempest when Caliban watches, as Prospero and Miranda sail back to Italy. Like Caliban, our protagonist is alone and loveless, caught in the angst of linguistic ennui and wondering how to negotiate the ambivalent loneliness of the colonized.

But whether or not the protagonist identifies as male or female is not the only empty category of identity in Winterson’s text.

It seems brusque and perhaps intellectually dull to suggest that this early reference to one of English literature’s most famous “others” is indicative of the protagonist’s racial identity — but it does raise an interesting question, which is namely this: why is it that the protagonist’s racial identity is taken for granted in a way that her/his gendered identity is not? The protagonist’s racial identity is also unnamed and cloaked in obscurity; yet I have never actually heard anyone ask the question — what race is she/he? Furthermore, if the textual sleuthing that occurs around the question of the protagonist’s gender is a worthy intellectual pursuit, surely we could stop to consider that perhaps the protagonist isn’t white, because that is really the crux of the assumption. The relatively invisible and seamless way in which the presumed whiteness of the protagonist remains unquestioned illuminates all sorts of already sufficiently theorized conflicts between critical race theory, queer theory, and feminist theory.

The protagonist’s racial identity is also unnamed and cloaked in obscurity; yet I have never actually heard anyone ask the question — what race is she/he?

Like the gender ambiguity of the protagonist, considering the question of race tells us more about our own analytical methods and biases than it does about the text itself. And here the difficulty of “the author is dead” post-structuralism makes itself plain: perhaps we assume that the protagonist is both female and white, in large part because Jeanette Winterson herself is understood to be both female and white. But if we put aside that almost instinctual desire to align protagonist and author — indeed ignore whatever “real life” information we think we have to support such a reading — then the text changes dramatically. If we consider that not only might this be a text about two women in love with one another — which in the context of Winterson’s oeuvre would hardly be breaking new ground — but also about an interracial love affair, then the suppression of the protagonist’s name takes on a somewhat new light.

I am not suggesting that doing such would make the text “more radical,” because clearly the point — or at least part of the point of Written On the Body — is to consider love without also considering the restraints of gender and race. To the contrary — there is nothing new about either same sex or interracial love (implied or “real”) as the early allusion to Caliban makes clear. The English were thinking about it quite a lot going all the way back to Shakespeare who imagined interracial desire in both Othello and Caliban. It would be thrilling, however, if we were to see this early reference to Caliban as Winterson’s trick on her readership, as a way to expose the racialized dimensions of how we imagine gender contestations occurring. In other words, the very fact that the racial identity of the protagonist is never brought up, never questioned, never considered to be in question though it is never stated, demonstrates the extent to which whiteness still functions very much as an invisible and unnamed identity which is assumed to be the basic cultural position of a racially unmarked character. I would like to chip away at that a little bit by simply pointing out the protagonist could be any race. In other words, my intention isn’t to substitute an assumption of whiteness for an assumption of blackness or any other racialized identity; my point is to show how this open question in the text is not understood to be open when it fact, it is. The only reason we wouldn’t wonder about the protagonist’s race is that we assume that if it is not indicated, it must mean that the protagonist is white. If we were to transpose that to the gendered argument, we’d have to argue that lack of naming of gender automatically makes the protagonist male; and any cursory review of the scholarship on this novel will reveal tremendous reluctance at assigning a masculine identity to the protagonist of Written on the Body.

The only reason we wouldn’t wonder about the protagonist’s race is that we assume that if it is not indicated, it must mean that the protagonist is white.

There is perhaps equal reluctance in assigning the protagonist a non-white identity. It certainly isn’t about the text because if the text ever gives a wink towards gender, it certainly gives several winks towards race as well. When Winterson writes, “We shall cross one another’s boundaries and make ourselves one nation,” it is very easy to read this merely as a metaphor of individual difference and not at all of racialized difference — but if we knew for a fact that the protagonist were not white, this statement would make us groan under the weight of its racial sentimentality; it would simply fit too well. Indeed, the trope of the nation as a metaphor for interracial love is plentiful and as well known as Baldwin’s Another Country. My goal here, however, is not really to determine the protagonist’s race. The point, actually, is to ask why no one has ever tried to and what that interrogative failure reveals about the desires of its readers. If we could be so bold as to imagine that the protagonist of Written On the Body were a black woman (or man, for that matter), how would that disquiet and tease out all the various assumptions operating as we read this text? Furthermore, does the seeming counter-intuitiveness of such a move illustrate the problem of silence diagnosed so aptly by Evelyn Hammonds and others so long ago?

My goal in making this point is to demonstrate that the question of both gender and race can be understood as open in Winterson’s text and this openness makes way for love. J. Krishnamurti argues that where there is ambition, there can be no love. It seems to me that the point of the exclusions, of both gender and race, in Winterson’s novel operate to evacuate ambition from the narrative so that we can actually contemplate the real subject here, which is not identity, but is, indeed, love.

And what ambition do I speak of here? If Winterson had included biographical information regarding the race and gender of her protagonist, the novel would necessarily become political; would automatically have an aim, a goal. Regardless of where we locate ourselves on the political spectrum, which in the case of this writer would be to cast an identificatory eye upon an interracial, same sex romance, the ambition of the politically motivated narrative immediately obscures a narrative about love, making it less about what happens between two individuals and more about what happens between two individuals as a symbol of a larger cultural and historical context. I am well aware that many readers of this would argue that love can never be separated from a cultural and historical context; but I’d like to make the radical claim that Winterson’s novel asks us to give it a try, as one (though not the only) avenue for understanding love. This is a controversial claim to make from the theoretical position and point of view of cultural studies, post-structuralism and the like, where one’s identity is always already the defining aspect of experience which can never be transcended.

By making it “not there,” in the text, Winterson is able to highlight what she is really interested in — which is love and the ways in which the protagonist is colonized by it, while at the same time, using the device of absence to illuminate how we, as readers, respond to all representations of love.

I hope to avoid the implication that talking about race and gender is obscuring, or that representing them is; rather, I am attempting to show that circumvention of such considerations leaves love bare and hence produces a different set of textual outcomes. I am not at all suggesting that Winterson’s text transcends gendered or racial aspects of identity by simply omitting them; I am arguing instead that the absence of what we know must be there — which is not a particular identity, but there is some identity — does two things at once. By making it “not there,” in the text, Winterson is able to highlight what she is really interested in — which is love and the ways in which the protagonist is colonized by it, while at the same time, using the device of absence to illuminate how we, as readers, respond to all representations of love.

This is an important question, I think, because it asks us if our desire is structured by identity, is it really love? We can also turn that question around and ask do we love identity to the extent that we cannot imagine love without it? Isn’t this precisely, to some extent, what destroys the possibility of any real connection between Rufus and Leona and between Richard and Cass? Operating as they do within the constructs of identity, the experience of self-ness without the social constructions attached to it becomes an impossibility, returning us, once again, to loneliness. For if what we are doing is engaging our set of constructions with another person’s set of constructions, can we ever really get to the person at all? And if the answer is yes, doesn’t this return us to essentialism, for who exactly is the person if not those social constructions? So again we find ourselves at loneliness. As I write this I am utterly aware that writing about love — as a process which transcends identity — may seem to some to be theoretically milquetoast; but I think this is exactly the question Written On the Body seriously considers.

And what we can conclude, based on the way people talk about and respond to this text, reading it obsessively through a lens of identity politics, is that we impose upon narratives of love a set of predictable readings, even when the author attempts to circumvent such readings by figuring identity as an absence. I am quite guilty of this myself. But whether we believe that the representation of love as a project to defy the conservative and normative values of our society is a worthy goal (which it often is) or whether we think that there is a “liberal agenda” (an oft heard accusation from students of conservative ilk) behind any representation of love, the fact remains, we end up not talking about love at all and instead, we are once again talking about the things that have historically separated us, which seems to be the opposite of love. It isn’t that it is “wrong” to think the protagonist is any specific race or gender; rather, it is simply that the protagonist is every race and every gender. This means that the central couple in Written On the Body is at once interracial, heterosexual, same sex, and same raced. It opens itself to all identifications and every reading; its ambiguity subversively uses over-determination, through the conceit of non-naming, in order to destabilize any one particular reading. Hence it is subject to every political and cultural reading of desire and coupling and also subject to none. The unique power of this text is its ambiguity and the multiple readings it allows along these political lines. This, to me, reads as an act of love.

This means that the central couple in Written On the Body is at once interracial, heterosexual, same sex, and same raced.

But Written on the Body performs love not as a coming together, but as a falling apart. I used to loathe the section of Written On the Body titled “The Cells, Tissues, Systems and Cavities of the Body.” It was really more than I ever wanted to know about Louise, or of any of my lovers, or even frankly, of myself. With its poetic, anatomical details and slow, painstaking emphasis on each aspect of the body I found it not only slightly repulsive, but also boring. I realized eventually, however, that what I was pulling away from wasn’t really the representation of the surgical details of the body, of the associative breaking down of Louise into her constituent parts — but rather I was turned off by the deliberate exercise of love entailed in treasuring even the goriest parts of the lover’s body.

We are thankful for skin, and cherish it, precisely because it hides the skull and all thirteen bones of the face: “Your face gores me. I am run through. Into the holes I pack splinters of hope but hope does not heal me. Should I pad my eyes with forgetfulness, eyes grown thin through looking? Frontal bone, palatine bones, nasal bones, lacrimal bones, cheek bones, maxilla, vomer, inferior conchae, mandible.”

To pull back the thin skin of the face, to lift out a sharp cheek bone, and to ram it through one’s eye — this is the kind of love that made Van Gogh cut off his ear and is of the sort that is almost unimaginable; it is what Sula imagines doing to Jude, digging for loam beneath the lacework of skin and muscle. Under skin deep is where all the inner workings, in their wet, red, wiggly, striated, plastic ligament and rocky bone are, safely tucked away till surgery or death. And if one could experience their lover’s innards, what would race and gender have to do with that? The collarbone has no name, the cartilage of ear and nose are orphaned from identity when considered from within. Have you ever loved someone so much that you’d kiss their pulpy intestines should they have the tremendous misfortune of being disemboweled?

And if one could experience their lover’s innards, what would race and gender have to do with that? The collarbone has no name, the cartilage of ear and nose are orphaned from identity when considered from within.

I did. I sat in my shrink’s office and said this very thing — that I’d even kiss her intestines if I had to — that no part of her, inside or out, was disgusting to me. And though thankfully this was never tested, the fact that I had to choose to love her, against all odds, and that it cost me so much to do so — I was, metaphorically anyway, kissing the guts of our beingness because while it came with transcendent pleasure and fun, it also entailed social exclusion, domestic upheaval, and a complete but expected impermanence. It was a love with no ambition; from itself, there was nothing to gain besides the experience. It was outside of social structure, propriety, or even the usual narrative of love, which presumes that such feeling goes hand in hand with contracts, ownership, and child-rearing. Like the characters in Winterson’s book, we entered outlaw territory with no plan. Things fell apart, at multiple sites; we became undone, broken down as we were by the experience of love, by the identification of ourselves as lonely on the same wavelength, into heart muscle and nostril cilia, mandible and kneecap.

This changed how I read and understood this section in Winterson’s book and upon re-reading the section, Winterson’s dissection of her lover’s body changed how I felt about any scenario where I’d be caressing a lover’s chitterlings. For Winterson this is a meditation on the body, and though it is prompted by Louise’s body, it is not a special body in the sense that her anatomical approach in this section is about the human body, largely writ. Particular details — like Louise’s scars, for example — add specificity to the universality of the interior human body that Winterson explores, but the body described for the most part is the human body. Though the protagonist says that she becomes obsessed with anatomy as a way to “go on knowing her,” the effect of taking Louise apart is to undo her. But this undoing is perhaps the only way to really know what it means to love anyone, or rather, to attempt love.

What we have here is a complicated negotiation from the outside to the inside of the body in this particular section. As the protagonist dissects and “goes inside” the human body, s/he moves further away from the particularities of Louise’s identity, which are known to the reader. In this way, the protagonist and Louise come closer together, metaphorically speaking, as Louise becomes known not simply as the red-headed, white, female lover of the protagonist, but as basically human — made up of blood, bone, cartilage, and muscle — which is essentially the only knowledge we have of the protagonist. So by the end they are both “stripped” down of socially constructed markers, reduced (or elevated, depending on your perspective) to being simply human creatures, organisms with identical processes and inner workings. This consideration, I argue, clears the space for a prismatic love experience that at once invokes and excludes every way we might approach the irresistible and uncontainable phenomenon known as love.

I use the world “attempt” in the previous paragraph because what is it we love when we love “someone?” Where is this someone we love, where is she located? Is she “the lining of [her] mouth,” or “aqueous halls of womb, gut, and brain?” Winterson puts it another way a page later when she asks, “Womb, gut, and brain, neatly labeled and returned. Is that how to know another human being?” How do we know another human being, especially if there is no essence, nothing that endures when the body is gone — what then is the element we love if not a collection of parts? These questions will be much easier to answer if you believe in an essence, or if you believe in a soul, in which case it is that which you love, though of course it is something you can never touch, or hold, or kiss. (You have a better chance of keeping your lover’s actual lips after death than keeping their soul.) I am reminded of a comment Michael Cobb made recently while guest lecturing in my graduate seminar when he pointed out that marriage vows have changed from “til death do us part” to “forever and ever.” Contemporary love rhetoric suggests then that marriage is not only for this life, but every life (or the afterlife) after this one as well — giving the spouse possession not only of the body, but also of a soul, implied in the term “forever and ever.” But of course, without the body, you cannot experience anyone’s soul or essence — so we are back to the body, back to the cells, the tissues, systems and cavities of the body.

Once I embraced Winterson’s painstaking catalogue of the human body, I was struck by its textual similarity to sutras from the Pali canon, in which Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha, uses the body as a tool to help monks become enlightened. If considerations of love are complicated by the inability to precisely locate its transcendent possibility and appeal, then it bears a striking ideological relationship to enlightenment discourses, which also needed to account for the body in an attempt to mediate the inside/outside experience of transcendence. One of the meditative contemplations that the Buddha instructs his monks to consider is that of the body. In the Satipattana Sutta, the Buddha guides his monks to consider “the repulsiveness of the body:”

And further, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu reflects on just this body hemmed by the skin and full of manifold impurity from the soles up, and from the top of the hair down, thinking thus: ‘There are in this body hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, fibrous threads (veins, nerves, sinews, tendons), bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, contents of stomach, intestines, mesentery, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, solid fat, tars, fat dissolved, saliva, mucus, synovic fluid, urine.’

Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body, internally… and clings to naught in the world.”

This consideration of the body assaults the notion of the body as a unitary, enclosed whole and undermines any aesthetic value we might ascribe to it. This kind of meditation on the body also collapses the distinction between self and other, so that the human body is revealed not as a specific object of ownership, where a person by the name X is in possession of a particular set of intestines, internal organs, vital fluids and connective tissue, but rather illuminates the structural similarity between one body and another. The point of the meditation is to know, as the observing monk, that corpse is me, to the extent that the corpse represents a common human destiny.

This is destiny that the protagonist in Written On the Body considers through Louise’s body, for it is that common human destiny that awaits, sooner rather than later, Louise. The aim is for the monk is to “undo clinging,” and likewise, the protagonist goes into Louise’s body to investigate her attachment to it, in much the same way the Buddha instructs his monks to contemplate the body in order to banish attachment to it. One aspect of enlightenment, in the Buddhist tradition, is realizing this lack of distinction between one’s self and others; the body is a vehicle for realizing this, not an obstacle to it. In other words, while contemporary discourse about the body constructs its “difference” as a something to be understood and reclaimed, deconstructing the body — as Winterson and as the Buddha in the Satipattana Sutta do — actually reveals that through a full consideration of all the constituent parts of the body, distinction between human beings collapses. Though Buddhism seizes upon the repulsiveness of the body as an antidote to attachment to it, Winterson treasures the grotesque body as an act of love. Both approaches accomplish the same thing, in one sense, because in each case the person considering the body must give up the notion that their body is particular, separate, and special. As the protagonist dissects Louise, he finds only herself there. As the monk contemplates decaying bodies in the cemetery, he is instructed to understand that this too will be his fate; he must understand that he is not the opposite of the corpse, but rather he is just an unrealized corpse.

Though Buddhism seizes upon the repulsiveness of the body as an antidote to attachment to it, Winterson treasures the grotesque body as an act of love.

The protagonist’s contemplation of Louise is an erotic autopsy, which merges the living and the dead body. As Barthes notes, to gaze upon the body of the lover is to fetishize a corpse. Louise may be dying, but it is the protagonist that is the ghost of this text, that is an entity without a body. Hence Winterson pushes the limits of love and the body beyond the grave, by staging the ephemeral through her genderless, raceless protagonist. The protagonist’s dissection of the loved one’s body is not only an adoration of that body, but also a staging of the body’s precarious fragility. The deeper the protagonist goes into Louise’s imagined body, the less stable the boundary between the two of them is, between loved and lover. Winterson writes:

“I dropped into the mass of you and I cannot find the way out. Sometimes I think I’m free, coughed up like Jonah from the whale, but then I turn a corner and recognize myself again. Myself in your skin, myself lodged in your bones, myself floating in the cavities that decorate every surgeon’s wall. That is how I know you. You are what I know.”

The lover then, is always a memory, experienced in the moment yet understood after the fact. The protagonist only truly comes to “know” Louise after she has fled and when there is no actual body for her to touch. When she wants to touch Louise, she must touch herself: “To remember you it’s my own body I touch. Thus she was, here and here.” Which raises an important question: when the lover touches you, is it the lover you know, or is it yourself? Is it the lover’s hand you feel, or does the lover’s hand bring into relief the contours and sensations of your own body? If the answer to the former question is yes it might seem a horrible, egocentric truth to grant it. But in fact the opposite is true; the very separateness that romantic love itself tries to solve doesn’t really exist. Luce Irigaray implies this through her comparison of gendered love when she writes, “When you say I love you — staying right here, close to you, close to me — you’re saying I love myself.”

Which raises an important question: when the lover touches you, is it the lover you know, or is it yourself?

There is no pure way to experience the lover, the other, without actually having a body of your own. And your body is intelligible to another only because of the similarity of one human body to another, without respect to any differences we socially construct. Hence to know and adore a lover’s body is to implicitly know and adore your own. It is through Louise’s absence that the protagonist learns this and realizes that “it was a game, fitting bone to bone. I thought difference was rated to be the largest part of sexual attraction but there are so many things about us that are the same. Bone of my bone. Flesh of my flesh.”

A startling revelation arises from the protagonist’s musings on love, namely that to reject another’s body is always already to reject your own. This is evident in the protagonist’s relationship with Gail, who arouses revulsion in him/her. After spending the night with Gail, the protagonist vomits after watching the zaftig Gail eat a bacon sandwich. But as she vomits, it is not Gail or her soft, voluminous body he is thinking of — it is of her desertion of Louise. Gail’s excessive body actually stands in for Louise’s cancerous one which, as the author notes in the beginning of the section I discuss above, “In the secret places of her thymus gland Louise is making too much of herself.” The protagonist’s rejection of Gail parallels his criticism and disgust with herself, for leaving Louise, for hiding out in a small town, and for teasing Gail “whose only fault is to like you and whose only quality is to be larger than life.” Gail facilitates Louise’s return, because she articulates what the protagonist already knows, namely that it was a mistake to leave Louise, regardless of the reason. In the case of both Louise and Gail, the two women mirror the protagonist’s state of mind in relation to his/herself.

A startling revelation arises from the protagonist’s musings on love, namely that to reject another’s body is always already to reject your own

The undoing of Louise in “The Cells, Tissues, Systems and Cavities of the Body” section parallels the deconstruction of the subject that is present from the beginning of the novel in relation to the protagonist. During the first half of the novel, it is Louise who is known, who is described, who has a specific cultural, racial, and class history, who is a socially constructed body. It is the protagonist who exists primarily as an unspecified body, about which all we know is he/she has a proclivity for getting involved with married women and that she/he is a translator of texts. Without the typically supplied details, those larger aspects of identity that bracket all else about a person, the reader is compelled to notice the work that knowing a subject’s race and gender does in relation to how we understand ourselves and others. In this sense there is gross unevenness between Louise and the protagonist, as Louise exists in all the ways we understand “being,” and the protagonist exists only through a series of events, as a body acting in time and space, as it where. By the end of the novel, however, Louise too has been deconstructed and pulled apart, she has been undone as the protagonist invades and colonizes every single system of her body, albeit symbolically.

What is there to see, on the body, if not all those external markers that determine so much of how we experience the world? Seeing on the body, though, is the smallest aspect of insight. As Winterson notes in the chapter on skin, it is what we “know best” about others, and yet it is also dead, unlike what the skin keeps us from experiencing: blood, heart, muscle, bone. It is the body that separates Louise and the protagonist, literally and figuratively. At the very outset of the novel, the protagonist has no intelligible body to speak of, deconstructed as it were through lack of naming. As the novel progresses, Louise’s body also gets deconstructed, but in a different way. Both deconstructions have the same effect, which is that they foreground the idea of love, which has no body and also has every (body). Or rather, love is a repetition of bodies — an endlessly repeating body of blood, of mucus, of gut, of brain. Louise and the protagonist reunite in the end, equally undone and unarticulated, “let loose in open fields.” By peeling back the superficial layer of skin, and probing deep into the crevices and cavities of the body, the protagonist closes the gap between Louise and herself.

Take a thigh, any thigh. Scale back the skin and see the layer of fat; then, see the muscle beneath. And now fondle the bone and all the connective ligaments. And if you can bear to look without averting your eyes, if you can feel the warmth of the body’s interior without flinching, there you will find yourself. It is through this operation of probing deeply, of bravely confronting the mucus, pus, and cartilage of the human body, of investigation, that the protagonist ultimately comes to know, and hence to love, Louise.

III. A Mean Sleep

What can we scrap together from our love-worn emotions?

How could clouds tease us into thinking it might rain? How could the need deceive us into thinking things might change?

I am lost to the longing, I am molded by the memory. Had to shut down half my mind just to fill the space you left behind. ’Cause I am moving cobwebs, and I’m folding into myself. Who will find me under this mean sleep?

— Lenny Kravitz

As it began, our love ended in blood and fire. Ultimately it all came to lies: she couldn’t say what the “why,” was — but the “why” was quite simply, I don’t want you anymore, and it was as simple as that. Realizing I could never be other than myself, I cast her out. She may have wanted to play it out to an even bloodier and tragic end (nobody likes to be quitter), but I could see, because it had once been me on the other side; I could see that whatever road we had walked together, had come to a fork and we were going in different directions.

I am in my apartment, alone, my daughter is at my ex-spouse’s house, the house I used to live in too, and I can think of nothing to do to excise this pain except cut myself — so I take a lime green knife and make a long red line across my thigh, a shallow river of tiny crimson beads, bubbling up slowly. It is an old habit, abandoned since adolescence, but I’ve never felt so utterly alone, never so aware of my singularity. I was undone, I’d fallen apart, but somehow my skin kept living the lie of cohesiveness, as if I was one thing, one thing that could be seen to begin here, and to end there. Now I understood — I understood the hollowness of Franklin’s gaze; I understood Martha’s retreat to plants and another coast; I understood Rufus’ inability to live another day; I understood Leona’s decay; I understood Cass’ transgression, I understood Richard’s anger.

Then I realized that I’d fallen apart because I’d always been trying to fall together. I was not broken, as I thought I was, I was me. Like Morrison’s Nel, who comes back from a humiliating trip down South to discover herself, I began to see that all the ideas I’d had, about my loneliness, about love, about what I wanted, were not me and it was those things which were always falling apart.

“I’m me,” she whispered. “Me.” Nel didn’t know quite what she meant, but on the other hand she knew exactly what she meant. “I’m me. I’m not their daughter. I’m not Nel. I’m me. Me.” Each time she said the word me there was a gathering in her like power, like joy, like fear. Back in bed with her discovery, she stared out the window at the dark leaves of the horse chestnut. “Me,” she murmured. And then, sinking deeper into the quilts, “I want..I want to be..wonderful. Oh, Jesus, make me wonderful.”

Nel’s prayer is a wish that she be wonderful for herself, not for her mother. In that space of daughter, Nel would always be lacking; in the space of me, Nel is always perfect. So I gathered myself up, cleaned my self-inflicted wounds, and I sat on my porch and watched the world turn orange as the sun set. I thought of Julie Dash, of Daughters of the Dust. I thought of Yellow Mary’s declaration:

I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am the barren one and many are my daughters. I am the silence you cannot understand. I am the utterance of my name.

This line in the movie is taken from a Gnostic text, the Nag Hammadi, and is a declaration of a powerful and uniquely feminine force. It uses the idea of opposites, of the paradox, to represent an experience of wholeness in a way that doesn’t reify the notion of subjectivity which has gotten us into so much trouble, which intensifies loneliness, which makes it harder for us to see and understand where we really are and what we are really doing. So instead of pulling my insides out, I let everything that was undone float around me in its own chaotic harmony and I waited. I waited for the events to recede into history. I waited for the pain to run its course and cease. Turns out the anecdote for loneliness is alone-ness. And then, one day, like the scar on my leg, the suffering, and the loneliness, was quite simply gone.

It seems like there should be more to say about the vanishing of loneliness, a method, a technique, some intense therapy — but the fascinating thing is that while the loneliness and the suffering is intense, complicated, and there is much fictional recourse for the pain; the release of all that is quieter, simpler, brief. Like Sula’s death, the cessation of suffering is a whisper, not a shout:

Then she realized, or rather she sensed, that there was not going to be any pain. She was not breathing because she didn’t have to. Her body didn’t need oxygen. She was dead. Sula felt her face smiling. “Well I’ll be damned,” she thought, “It didn’t even hurt. Wait’ll I tell Nel.”

So as Sula tells Nel, I tell you: all of you seeking a cure in the broken circle of another’s arms, you are the answer. You, as someone tells Sethe, are your own best thing.

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