Giving Us Back to Ourselves: Jeanette Winterson on War

Our contemporary war metaphors strive to make the war “easy on the eye”

One day while my friend Nancy was working around the house, her six-year old daughter was trying, unsuccessfully, to get her attention. “Mom, look at me,” Nancy’s daughter said. “What do you need?” Nancy said, not looking up, continuing her project. “No, look at me,” her daughter said. Nancy glanced at her, exasperated and distracted. “I am looking at you.” “No, mom,” the daughter said. “I want you to look at me with your real eyes.”

Nancy’s six year-old daughter captured what seems to be one of the central challenges of using language well: the need to see the world, to pay attention intensely and with our “real eyes”: seeing what is really in front of us, rather than what we think we see, what we expect to see, or what we’ve been told to see. Though Nancy’s literal eyes were turned in her daughter’s direction, her daughter could tell she was not being fully seen. Instead, she was being filtered through the expectations her mother already had about the (limited) value of what her daughter had to show her.

Too often we use language mechanically, as if meanings and words are literal and fixed, rather than figurative and mutable. We use words the way we’ve always used them, to mean what they’ve always seemed to mean, until we no longer think about or “see” them.

But then Art comes along and startles us out of our clichéd habits of speaking and thinking, so that we see things — things we’ve been looking at all along — newly. Or at least that’s one of art’s promises. In her novel Art & Lies Jeanette Winterson comments on this promise, writing in the voice of her character Picasso that when we forget how to look at “the unpainted beauty of everyday,” the artist can return to us “not the shock of the new, but the shock of the familiar suddenly seen.” Especially in our media and image-saturated culture, we don’t need the shock of the new to lift us out of ourselves because, as Winterson writes, “Isn’t it well known that nothing shocks us? That the photographs of wretchedness that thirty years ago would have made us protest in the streets, now flicker by our eyes and we hardly see them?”

I wanted to feel powerful emotions commensurate with the horror of the story behind the images. I wanted to feel bewildered, and to lament, but instead I felt numb.

These words of Winterson’s, published in 1994, seem prophetic in relation to world events occurring decades later, especially the 2004 Abu Gharib prison scandal in which photos of dehumanized, humiliated Iraqi prisoners became, for awhile, like wallpaper to our days. For months I assiduously avoided seeing these disturbing photos, not wanting my perception of the ethical and political issues to be distorted by intense, media-manipulated emotions. But then, from an unexpected source, the images appeared while I was looking, forcing me to confront them. And I was disturbed, but not in the way I expected. I was disturbed by how little they affected me, by how much they seemed unreal, mediated, and fake. I wanted to feel powerful emotions commensurate with the horror of the story behind the images. I wanted to feel bewildered, and to lament, but instead I felt numb.

Art, Winterson suggests, can return to us the feelings and the intensity of feeling we’ve lost by overuse — not overuse of feelings, but of the language used to describe and explain those feelings. “The world of everyday experience,” she writes, “is a world of redundant forms.” Because the forms with which we grow most familiar “pass for what we call actual life,” she continues, they are “…. coarsened, cheapened, made easy and comfortable, the hackneyed and clichéd.”

The classic comment on this issue comes to us from the Russian Formalists, especially Victor Shklovsky’s 1917 essay “Art as Technique.” Elaborating on the concept of defamiliarization and the need to make “the familiar seem strange,” Shklovsky argues that “Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war…. And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stony stony.” I would like to think this function of art extends to extreme experiences, such as war: to make us feel the war as war.

Art, Winterson suggests, can return to us the feelings and the intensity of feeling we’ve lost by overuse — not overuse of feelings, but of the language used to describe and explain those feelings.

As my experience with the Abu Gharib photos suggests, when war is “devoured” and becomes part of our “world of everyday experiences,” the language in which our social discourse about the war proceeds threatens to dull our senses and obscure our experience of the war, rather than elucidate it. Can art recover the sensation of war as it is when that sensation has been dulled?

In her novel The Passion, Winterson writes about this very problem as embodied by the experiences of Henri, a young French soldier enlisted in the army during the Napoleonic Wars. Though Henri admits to having been starstruck by Napoleon at the time of his enlistment, by the time we meet him he is narrating in retrospect from a position some years beyond the war. From this position, Henri admits about the army, the wars, and Napoleon that “It was a mess.” “Nowadays,” he says, “people talk about the things he did as though they made sense…. Words like devastation, rape, slaughter, carnage, starvation are lock and key words to keep the pain at bay. Words about war that are easy on the eye.”

It could be argued that for soldiers in the midst of battle this abstracting of horrific experience through language is necessary for survival. As Henri admits, “You can’t make sense of your passion for life in the face of death, you can only give up your passion. Only then can you begin to survive.”

But what caused Napoleon’s soldiers to “give up” their passion, and how does language contribute to the mechanisms through which people end up as soldiers in battle to begin with? Might words be used not to clarify or illuminate, but to mask a harsh reality? Might words make us feel, for example, like we are but tourists to the war?

In “The Loss of the Creature,” Walker Percy describes the problem of experiencing the world like tourists. Say a man decides to visit the Grand Canyon, Percy explains. He plans his trip, looking at brochures and pamphlets, possibly remembering other people’s vacation photos of the Grand Canyon that he’s seen. But, Percy argues, once he actually gets to the Grand Canyon, it’s impossible for the man to really see it because the “thing as it is…has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has been formed in the sightseer’s mind.” This “symbolic complex” includes the postcards and coffee table books, but also, I would add, the language and metaphors that form our sense of what Percy calls “the approved circumstances” under which one can view the subject at hand, like the Grand Canyon or the war. The problem, in Winterson’s words, is that “what we think we see, we don’t see” because the “thing as it is” is filtered through the mechanisms of our perceptions, such as images and language.

Percy’s proposed solution to this problem — much like Winterson’s — is for us to “leave the beaten path.” Expressing a desire to do just that, it seems, Winterson’s Henri confesses that “not much touches us, but we long to be touched. We lie awake at night willing the darkness to part and show us a vision…. we can believe that tomorrow will show us angels in jars and that the well-known woods will suddenly reveal another path.” Looking back on his years in the war, Henri says “I longed for feeling though I could not have told you that. Words like passion and extasy, we learn them but they stay flat on the page. Sometimes we try and turn them over, find out what’s on the other side.”

In The Passion and Art and Lies it seems that Winterson, as an artist, is attempting to do this for us: to show us another path toward feeling and experiencing the world as it is, or to nudge us toward understanding how to make our own path and to turn over “delicate words exhausted through overuse.” It would be easier, it seems, to leave the words unturned. To “sequester [our] heart[s]” behind exhausted language in order to avoid being hurt by war, by Abu Gharib, by torture, by the mounting numbers of the dead. As Winterson reminds us, “the freedom of the individual is the freedom to die without ever being moved.”

Many of us, though, want to be moved. We long, like Henri, “to be touched,” to be pierced.

Disputing the oft-unquestioned acceptance of Descartes’ axiomatic “I think therefore I am,” Winterson amplifies the essence of being to include feeling and inventing. Under Descartes’ conceptual framework for being, we live, in Winterson’s words, “under the rim of consciousness, in the nylon shelter of [our] own thoughts, safe from beauty’s harm,” unmoved and unchallenged. “Only a seismic shock,” she claims, “can re-order the card index of habit, prejudice and other people’s thoughts that I call my own.”

By its nature, metaphor is designed to clarify, to help us make our experiences more palpable.

For Winterson art is, or at least has the potential to be, that “seismic shock.” Art, she writes, is “mouth to mouth resuscitation between the poet and the word,” especially exhausted words and “bawdy words made temperate by repetition.”

One of the primary tools by which Winterson delivers this seismic shock in her own art, especially in The Passion, is metaphor. By its nature, metaphor is designed to clarify, to help us make our experiences more palpable. Not to invent new subjects, but to see old, everyday ones more vividly. In The Passion, Winterson profoundly applies, tests, and amplifies the capacity of metaphor to draw us out of ourselves, lifting us until we come across ourselves unexpectedly. Told from two alternating points of view (Henry and Villanelle) and set during the Napoleonic wars, The Passion depicts hard, realistic images of war and its affects, as well as dreamlike, magical images of the way war and life feel to Henri and Villanelle, regardless of whether these feelings are “realistic.”

Terms like realism, fantasy, fairy tale, postmodern fiction, and magical realism can be applied in some way to The Passion, but none of the terms settles on the book and sticks, largely because its style, voice, and use of metaphor are refreshingly innovative. Though I’m tempted to think of the book as magical realism, it stays closer to realism than magical realism in one sense: most of the book’s magical elements are not completely surprising, not absolutely removed from our way of viewing and speaking of reality, because these magical elements are based in figurative language and images we already use. Whereas magical realism takes something ordinary and mundane and makes it extraordinary, many of Winterson’s “magical” elements are drawn from familiar metaphors. And yet, Winterson commandeers our non-literal ways of thinking and speaking about the world and transform them back into literal language so that the “magic” is still present but is not presented as magic.

Whereas magical realism takes something ordinary and mundane and makes it extraordinary, many of Winterson’s “magical” elements are drawn from familiar metaphors.

For example, in a passage where Henri says he has heard stories about the conditions the human body and the human mind can adapt to, the “tales” he relates sound outlandish, gruesome, unbelievable — but only just so. Saying that “the body [clinging] to life at any cost…eats itself” and “turns cannibal,” for example, sounds outrageous, as if the body has its own will apart from our minds. And yet — his explanation that “when there’s no food [the body]…devours its fat, then its muscle” is too literally true to be considered outrageous or magical. Henri (and Winterson) don’t stop there, however. The body, in their telling, pushes back past the grain of literal truth and heads for what I’ll call a “feeling” truth. Soldiers mad with hunger, Henri tells us, chop off their own limbs and cook them. “You could chop yourself down to the very end,” he says, “and leave the heart to beat in its ransacked palace.”

In a fully “realistic” mode, this evocative metaphor of the “ransacked palace” would be just that — a figurative way of expressing the literal. But in Winterson, the figurative pushes forward to claim a more intense level of literalness. The Passion and Winterson’s metaphors within it are examples of the wonderfully transformative power of language, of language’s ability not only to intensify or clarify reality, but also to construct and redeem it. At the same time, however, Winterson’s literary reification reads in some ways as a cautionary note against the reification of concepts such as “the enemy.”

As Henri is first setting off for war, a little neighbor girl asks him, “her eyebrows close together with worry” if he will kill people. “Not people,” he responds, “…just the enemy.” The little girl knows that “the enemy” is “people,” but Henri is already lost in the metaphors of war that make killing possible. Perhaps part of Winterson’s project is to create a world and a language in which we will recognize our metaphors for the real — whether for good or for ill — power they contain.

As Henri’s conversation with the little girl demonstrates, artists struggle not only with the dulling effects of everyday language, but also with the possibility that metaphors can be corrupted and become cliché, can obscure the named and dull our awareness rather than “lift” us out of ourselves. Complicating this possibility is the fact that metaphor is not only used by artists, but by everyone, not all of whom use these “figures” to the same ends. Art, we hope, uses metaphor to clarify and elucidate, but metaphor can also be used as propaganda and jargon, as a matter of economy rather than clarity. At least partly in this way, through media, politics, academia, and everyday social discourse, metaphor becomes not inventive but systematic, built into the structural frameworks through which we daily speak and think.

Henri’s list of war words constructed to be “easy on the eye” describes not only words used to talk about the war, but also conceptual frameworks for trying to understand war. In addition to being informed and constructed by metaphors, these frameworks are capable of influencing not just people’s impressions of war, but also people’s actions in response to war. In Henri’s case, he joined the army to fight what was being named as “the enemy,” as well as to don not only the soldier’s uniform, but also the persona — the concept — of a soldier. He thought being a soldier would make him free because “soldiers are welcome and respected and they know what will happen from one day to the next.” “I thought I was doing a service to the world,” Henri says, a service he later thinks of as “folly” and as “just a pile of dead birds,” since he ends up being a cook to the obsessive and wasteful Napoleon. “The dead are dead, whatever side they fight on,” he says, “…. Numbers win, not righteousness.”

Our contemporary war metaphors seem to function similarly — striving to make the war “easy on the eye,” at times obscuring rather than elucidating.

Nevertheless, soldiers in The Passion, for the sake of their own sanity and survival, comprehend their experiences through metaphors in which they are righteous: I’m not a killer; I’m a soldier, a “conqueror.” I’m not killing a person; I’m killing the enemy. “Could so many straightforward lives,” Henri asks, “suddenly become men to kill and women to rape?” They can when we don’t actually see those people, but see a metaphor for them instead, when we perceive them only or first through the obfuscating mask of metaphors such as “enemies,” or “monsters and devils.”

Our contemporary war metaphors seem to function similarly — striving to make the war “easy on the eye,” at times obscuring rather than elucidating. According to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, authors of Metaphors We Live By:

New metaphors have the power to create a new reality. This can begin to happen when we start to comprehend our experience in terms of a metaphor, and it becomes a deeper reality when we begin to act in terms of it. If a new metaphor enters the conceptual system that we base our actions on, it will alter that conceptual system and the perceptions and actions that the system gives rise to…. words alone don’t change reality. But changes in our conceptual system do change what is real for us and affect how we perceive the world and act upon those perceptions.”

Consequently, people struggle to gain control of the conceptual frameworks for understanding war. During the summer of 2005, for example, several media exchanges between high-level Bush Administration officials demonstrated this struggle in process. First, during a June 20, 2005 interview on CNN’s Larry King Live, Vice-President Dick Cheney commented that he thinks the insurgency is in its “last throes.” Though throes can be interpreted literally as “a painful struggle,” the phrase also evokes the accompanying metaphorical sense of being in spasms or pangs, as in death throes or throes of childbirth. When criticized for this comment, Cheney himself refuted a literal or fixed interpretation of his remarks, arguing in a June 23rd CNN interview that the meaning of “last throes” is mutable and undecided, that “it could mean a long, not short, violent period” (italics mine).

When questioned about Cheney’s remarks a few days later by Fox News, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld modified Cheney’s comments in a way intended, perhaps, to make them easier on our ears. “Last throes,” he said, could be “…a placid or calm last throe. Look it up in the dictionary.” Setting aside the argument that the dictionary does not actually support Rumsfeld’s claim that throes can be placid, what’s significant about Rumsfeld’s and Cheney’s remarks is their struggle to fix our conceptual understanding of the war using mutable, figurative language.

What’s significant about Rumsfeld’s and Cheney’s remarks is their struggle to fix our conceptual understanding of the war using mutable, figurative language.

This struggle to gain control of the metaphors by which we define the war can be seen in other official remarks, such as General John Abizaid’s June 26th, 2005 remarks that the war is “a marathon,” and we’re at about the twenty-first mile. This metaphor constructs the war as a relatively peaceful, possibly exhilarating if at times painful, endeavor that is embarked upon willingly. Senator Edward Kennedy, in contrast, proposed a bleaker metaphor, the war as “quagmire,” in other words a “soft miry land that shakes or yields underfoot.” And all of these comments stand in contrast to Cheney’s March 2003 claim that we wouldn’t encounter much resistance in Iraq because we would be “greeted as liberators.”

Recognizing the forces and metaphors competing for our understanding of the war, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Abizaid, Kennedy, and other officials struggled to gain control of our metaphorical language and, thus, our conceptual understanding of the war. As Lakoff and Johnson point out, many of our metaphors “are imposed upon us by people in power.”

In The Passion, as we’ve already seen, Henri is taught that England is “the enemy,” and he acts based on that understanding, though in retrospect he questions that conceptual framework. “I had been taught to look for monsters and devils,” he says, “and I found ordinary people.” By whom had he been taught? By Napoleon, who, according to Henri, persuaded people to enlist in the war and on his side of the “enemy” line by constructing a government that would “dazzle and amaze” with “Bread and circuses.” In other words, Napoleon’s wasn’t relying on the rightness of his cause or some objective or rational interpretation of the literal truth of France’s situation, but on providing people with the most convincing conceptual framework or metaphor, a conceptual framework functioning perhaps not unlike the United States government’s plan referred to as “Shock and Awe.”

In The Art of Fiction John Gardner describes the process by which metaphors affect us as one in which “we ingest metaphors.” Gardner is arguing for the value of metaphors to influence our behavior for the “good,” suggesting that by ingesting them we are “wordlessly learning to behave.” For Gardner, fiction at its best provides “trustworthy…models” for good ways to live and respond to the world.

Though Gardner may be right that metaphors can serve this function and act on people in this way, it also seems clear that not all metaphors urge us clearly in the direction Gardner suggests, nor do we always agree (with Gardner or with each other) about what, in fact, is good behavior. What happens, we might ask, when artists and others construct and then we “ingest” metaphors of “bad” behavior, metaphors that dehumanize, polarize, and vilify, for example? Metaphors that convince us to kill? As Henri reports, Napoleon’s soldiers believe and act on Napoleon’s metaphor that war was in their blood. They’re told that death in battle is glorious and that the Holy Grail of freedom “lay in [their] fighting arms.”

What happens, we might ask, when…we “ingest” metaphors of “bad” behavior, metaphors that dehumanize, polarize, and vilify?

As an artist Winterson’s use of metaphors seems constructed in part to counteract our tendency to ingest metaphors (toward good or bad behavior) the way Bonaparte’s soldiers did. Rather than working only with “borrowed language [and] bastard thoughts,” including borrowed metaphors that we may too easily swallow, Winterson invents metaphors that stretch the very notion of what metaphors are and how they can function.

When I say she “invents” metaphors, I am using the term according to Winterson’s own definition as suggested in Art & Lies. One of the novel’s main characters, Handel, remembers his childhood as one in which he wondered which world he should trust, “Actual life or imaginative life. The world he could inherit or the world he could invent?” To understand the question, he has to understand what it means to invent, but the meaning of the word, he says, has changed. Though now it’s usually used to mean “to devise or to contrive or fabricate,” Handel wants to return to the word’s Latin origins, in which the word means “to come upon…. to find that which exists.” According to Handel, “the world of everyday experience is a world of redundant forms,” within which we can include metaphor. And metaphor, like other potentially redundant forms, can be, in Handel’s words and reminiscent of Henri’s comment about the words of war, “coarsened, cheapened, made easy and comfortable, the hackneyed and clichéd, not what is found but what is lost.” “Invention,” he concludes, “…would return to us forms not killed through too much use. Art does it.”

So if metaphors of love and war are “made temperate” and “exhausted from overuse,” the artist invents them and invents with them, returning to us not only their forms, but also our feelings. Along the way, though, the artist has to remain aware of the potential for his or her emotions and metaphors to be cliché, to be, as Winterson writes, “not mine but everyone else’s.”

Though the setting of The Passion is war and the novel is in many ways about war and the language of war, it’s also about (as the title suggests) passion and even love, another worn out phrase that Winterson seems to be inventing with metaphors. At the beginning of another novel, Written on the Body, Winterson comments on the overuse of phrases like “I love you” and the meaninglessness that overuse can lead to. “‘I love you’ is always a quotation,” she writes. “You did not say it first and neither did I.” These words, I love you, she writes, are “worn out now…by strain,” the result of which is words behind which so many things can be hidden, such as murder weapons and sentimentality.

“‘I love you’ is always a quotation,” Winterson writes. “You did not say it first and neither did I.”

The same can be said for our metaphors of love: love is blind, better to have loved and lost then never loved at all, all’s fair in love and war, I love you with all my heart, and many more. This last one in particular Winterson picks up in The Passion and, finding it “flat on the page,” turns it over with her metaphors to see what’s on the other side. In both The Passion and Art & Lies, all kinds of things are being done to and said about the heart. The mother of Art & Lies’ Picasso accuses her of being heartless, but Picasso, knowing her family has already devoured her lungs, liver, and tongue, hides her heart and leaves home before they can kill it. Henri’s people, who he describes as lukewarm, long for passion, for something to pierce their hearts, which is why they’re willing to follow Napoleon: because “he made sense of the dullness.” In order to not feel the pain and cold so much, to be able to look on death and not tremble, Napoleon’s soldiers make a pyre of their hearts and “put them aside forever.”

In The Passion scenes, images, and metaphors involving the heart — “hopeless heart that thrives on paradox” — especially broken and stolen hearts — transcend their figurative boundaries and “walk past our objections.” What young person, for example, has not — in the vernacular of love — had his or her heart “stolen” by the beloved, as Villanelle has done to her by “The Queen of Spades,” a married woman with whom she shares just a few nights? After Villanelle and Henry meet and escape the war together to Venice, Villanelle tells Henri that her heart has been stolen, a common enough idea that we’ve all heard. Like Henry, we assume we know what she means.

When the Heart is Young, John William Godward (1902)

But then, she rows him to a house and says to Henri that her heart is in that house, and he must break in and get it back for her. “Was she mad?” Henri thinks. “We had been talking figuratively.” He feels for her heart, at her request, and discovers that she indeed does not — literally — have a heart in her body, after which he proceeds to sneak into the house, find the heart beating in the bottom of a closet, and retrieve it for her.

Not only does Henri, who says he’s in love with Villanelle but questions what that means, steal back her heart, though; he also kills for her. This boy, who lasted eight years in Bonaparte’s army without killing anyone, stabs Villanelle’s husband, the cook, in the belly. Not only that, but he cuts the cook’s heart out of his body and offers “the blue bloody thing” to Villanelle, who shakes her head and cries, something Henri has never seen her do before, despite her experiences of the war, the dead, and her own humiliation. Why now does Villanelle cry, after all she’s been through?

Not only does Henri, who says he’s in love with Villanelle but questions what that means, steal back her heart, though; he also kills for her.

I think because this is no metaphor. Henri kills a man and cuts out his heart, literally. Consequently, Henri goes mad and is arrested and institutionalized for the rest of his life. These are the consequences of killing.

As a young man, Henri had believed in what he thought was Napoleon’s vision and goal: “No more coalitions, no more marches. Hot bread and the fields of France.” But like a “circus dog,” Napoleon’s audience was getting used to his tricks. They began realizing the “consequences of burning the villages” as killing the villagers “without every firing a shot.”

Art, Winterson’s work suggests, shows us another path. By the end of the novel Henri — after soldiering and murdering and going insane — discovers another path for himself: being able to love in the way he comes to understand love through his own experiences. Though Villanelle can never love him back, he loves her and regards this love as the kind of freedom he’d been seeking all along. “I think now,” he writes from the asylum, “that being free is not being powerful or rich or well regarded or without obligations but being able to love. To love someone else enough to forget about yourself even for one moment is to be free.”

Ultimately, I think, The Passion and its metaphors urge us toward learning what love is, how to value love, and how art can return us to love when our sense of it has dulled. “[W]ithout love,” Winterson writes, “we grope the tunnels of our lives and never see the sun.” If I can learn better how to love, perhaps I can look at the photos and hear the words of our war and feel something powerful emerge from out of that love. Perhaps I can weep. Perhaps if I — perhaps if we — have the courage to love, as Winterson writes, “we would not so value the acts of war.”

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