The highly codified expectations of the romance genre, the discursive limits of interpellations of the body,
as well as, the role of our citational legacy in the formation of embodied subjectivity, engage Winterson in
Written on the Body. By means of a highly theatrical performance that relies heavily on a deliberately
excessive use of citation for its effect, Winterson’s novel renders visible the role of language and narrative
in the construction of the desiring body. Freudian and Lacanian understandings of the relationship
between the desiring body and loss can assist our understanding of the ways in which the desiring body is
constituted in a melancholic narrative; this, in turn, enables a recognition of the necessity to repeat, and
the possibilities inherent in the compulsive repetition. Winterson’s narrative cannot fail but to repeat, but
in doing so, it also enacts a breakdown through its inscription of melancholic excess—an excess which
returns a difference. Hence, While Written on the Body installs a received and, hence, citational
thematic of seduction and loss, both the narrator and the text wish to escape the seductions of this legacy.
Winterson’s novel provides a moment of breakdown, a glimpse of a limited recovery, by revealing that the
real melancholia inscribed in narrative is not the romantic compulsion to repeat but that occasioned by our
desire to narrate ‘the same story every time.’ In Written on the Body, Winterson returns a repetition with a
difference and thereby signals provisional possibilities in the ongoing construction of the body of desire.
The red plague rid you for learning me your language 
Jeanette Winterson’s 1992 novel, Written on the Body, opens with the words, “Why is the
measure of love loss?” thus signaling a romance narrative. Moreover, within a few lines,
we read that “Love demands expression”(9). These two statements, so closely placed
upon the page, lead me to believe that perhaps, in fact, it is loss that demands expression;
it is loss that must be told. Some critics, such as David Lodge and Christy Burns (Lodge
25-6; Burns “Fantastic Language” passim) have remarked the salient romanticism in
Winterson’s novel. Lodge warns that while romance “deals with the unfamiliar,
transgresses known limits, and transports the reader into new imaginative territory,
[t]here is a certain stylistic price to be paid for this adventurousness, and a certain danger
to be faced” (Lodge 26). Lodge’s comments must be given due consideration as stylistic
danger (purposefully conflating his two concerns), is Winterson’s explicit interest in
Written on the Body. This romanticism, as Lodge and Burns see it, constellates around
the thematic investments of the novel—primarily, the seduction of the narrator and of
his/her object of desire, Louise. In her later,1994 text, Art and Lies, Winterson, as the title
suggests, draws our attention to the history of art as an ongoing compulsive repetition
embedded in the language and representations of desire; here, she speaks of “[t]he
seducing word . While Written on the Body does, indeed, incorporate the thematic of
seduction, it is my contention that the novel actually subverts the romantic investments of
and in the novel, by invoking and then refusing both reader identification and the poetics
of seduction. While the narrator protagonist of this novel mourns the loss of his/her love,
the narrative, itself, appears to mourn other losses: the loss of the other that language tries
ever and unsuccessfully to replace; the loss of the illusion of a coherent non-discursive
subjectivity. Whether we interpret the loss as the Lacanian object or as the ‘loss  of a
non-discursive reality, in Winterson’s text the mourning produced by this loss is the
result of the failure of language (of the symbolic) to inscribe and construct a trajectory
outside the logic of romantic seduction. At the same time, this mourning is the incitement to narrate—the cause of narrative desire. The narrative reiteration that attempts to “reverse
or suspend time” (Butler Psychic 174) is the gesture of the melancholic, however.
Mourning, Freud tells us, passes over into melancholia when the love object is not
replaced by another, when the subject does not effect a shift in libidinal investment and
turns the love (and hate) once directed at the object of desire back upon the self.
Narrative, then, may function as the way in which melancholia holds the lost object of
desire ever before us. Written on the Body clearly addresses the nature of the desiring
subject as a product of narrative—that is, of a melancholia that is continually inscribed on
Leslie Rabine argues that the romance plot undermines even the possibility of an
autonomous feminine and Rachel M. Brownstein concurs. For Brownstein, even when
the questing protagonist is female, she acts only as a metaphor and mirror for the
masculine integrated self. According to these critics, death and/or marriage (a ‘death’ of
the autonomous female self) are the inevitable outcomes of the romance plot (eg. Jane
Eyre). Significantly, Winterson’s novel, Written on the Body, with its poetic love story,
which details the separation and, arguably, the reunion of two lovers, certainly, at one
level, reproduces this conventional plot. However, as Hillis Miller has argued in Reading
Narrative, narrative serves both the function of reproducing cultural norms, sustaining
the status quo, while, at the same time, it may question hegemonic ideologies and the
ways in which these ideologies are inscribed on the body by linguistic means:
Each story and each repetition or variation of it leaves some uncertainty or
contains some loose ends unraveling its effect, according to an implacable
law that is not so much psychological or social as linguistic. This
necessary incompletion means that no story fulfills perfectly, once and for
all, its functions of ordering and confirming. (72)
Therefore, while narratives of romantic seduction reproduce and, thereby, construct
normative bodies, they may well, at the same time, contain the seeds of their own
contestation. Hence, while Written on the Body does install a rather conventional
thematic of seduction and loss, Winterson’s unnamed, ambiguously gendered, narrator
also questions the seductions of romance, both as a structural function (the subject of
romance) and, more directly, as the speaking persona. In fact, Winterson’s narrator
laments that genre reproduces “the same story every time” (13); both the narrator and the
text wish to escape what Butler calls the “citational legacy” (Butler, Bodies 225). As
Catherine Belsey points out, in different terms, this citational legacy haunts us as we
speak: “Lovers speak, and yet in doing so they are spoken by a language that precedes
them, that is not at their disposal, under their control: this language is at the same time
dispersed among banalities, poetry, the sacred, tragedy” (84). Language speaks us. Indeed,
the signature trope of the text can be read in the following lines: “Written on the body is a
secret code only visible in certain lights; the accumulations of a lifetime gather there. In
places the palimpsest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like braille” (89). The skill
resides, then, in our “reading hands” (89)—in being able to read the heavily inscribed
body, and, indeed, the body of literature, as it were, in order to lay bare the assumptions
therein. While superficially Winterson employs conventional romance tropes, her
narrative strategies provoke questions regarding the normative ideologies inscribed on the
body, particularly on the body which is interpellated by such a deadly plot; they also address the failure of the symbolic to offer alternatives to these deadly bodies and sadistic
plots . It is this failure of romance that occasions the narration in the novel, and it is the
compulsion for romance that produces the excesses of melancholia.
This self-reflexivity is a salient feature of the novel, as in lines such as “[t]his is
the wrong script” (18) and “I can tell by now that you are wondering whether I can be
trusted as a narrator” (24). Statements such as these draw our attention, not only to the
rather conventional device of the unreliable narrator, but also to the construction of
narrative truth as an effect of language, artifice and generic precedents, and also to the
reader’s participation in the maintenance of these precedents through acts of
identification, or refusal. That is, our incredulity is invoked and mocked at the same time,
as the narrator directs an interpellation to us: he/she can tell that our patience is being
tried. Winterson’s narrator also inscribes an excess of dead metaphors and explains that
“It is the clichés that cause the trouble”: “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” (10). This
reflexivity is further underscored by an abundance of intertextual echoes in this novel—
Shakespeare, Petrarch, Keats, Donne, Bogart and Bacall, to name a few—which
demonstrate the citationality of literature and thus mark the very limits of language, and
the limits of genre. These intertexts, like reader identification, invoke a sense of
familiarity by installing predictable literary precedents, such as Donne’s trope of the
room which is made an everywhere by love . These literary and generic precedents are
installed and undermined precisely by means of this reflexive structure, which mourns
the citationality of literature and language and the same time as it installs the citational
repetition to excess. “Why do I collude in this mis-use of language” (57) is the plaint of
the ostensible author 
; that is, why to we collude in the same story every time.
Despite this reflexivity and the abundance of ironic intertextual echoes,
Winterson’s novel has been accused of “unabashed romanticism” (Reed-Morrison 101).
Sarah Schulman remarks that the “plot hovers dangerously on the precipice of device”
(20) and Barbara Hoffert condemns the novel as “minimal and not altogether original”
(195). In fact, Laura Reed-Morrison calls the novel a “surprisingly traditional” and
“classic tale” (101); however, she does admit that Winterson’s novel “employs the love
story . . . to explore the relationship between language, knowledge and the body” (102).
Paulina Palmer also notes that Winterson’s style in this novel is “more obviously
derivative” (112) than is her other work. Interestingly, this perception, that the novel is a
classic—that is, heteronormative—derivative, and, hence, a somewhat banal romance, may
have contributed to the mixed reception of the novel. Marilyn Farwell tells us that
Winterson’s novel raised considerable controversy amongst the judges of the 1993
Lambda Award for Lesbian fiction, as they could not agree on whether the novel was or
was not lesbian. Is it sufficient that the novel was written by a self-proclaimed lesbian,
they asked, because the narrative refused to identify the gender of the protagonist and,
some argued, thereby refused a lesbian identification and politic. What is interesting in
context of this debate is the fact that this novel undermines these very identity categories
and the failure of these critics to acknowledge this marks a lacuna in some feminist
criticism—an apparent incapacity to recognize the contestatory power of the decidedly
queer politic that informs Winterson’s fiction. Interestingly, such a failure to see, what
Foucault has called, “the other of what was said,” is reminiscent of earlier lapses in feminist vision, such as the failure to remark the intersections of issues of race, class, and
ethnicity, with those of gender. Here, in Winterson, we see emerging a critique of certain
strains of feminist thought, in particular, those that perpetuate essentialist and normative
positions vis à vis the constitution and control of the lesbian body. The critics cited above
underestimate the subversive power of Winterson’s interrogation of citationality and fail
to note the contestatory power of this decidedly queer performance.
The Citational Legacy
One of the most controversial aspects of the novel, and one which has garnered
considerable attention, is this fact that the gender of the narrator-protagonist remains
undeclared. Winterson’s technique here has been criticized as performing a game of
‘undecidability’ that plays into traditional assumptions about gendered norms (Farwell).
However, while it may be play, it is serious play, primarily with the reader’s selfconceptualization—
a play that, thus, causes the reader to remark and examine his/her own
presuppositions about the centrality of gender as identity in any narrative. This is
important as these very presuppositions mark the citationality of gender and the
assumptions of a normative heterosexual body. In fact, Winterson’s ambiguous narrator
manages to displace the opposition between hetero and homo, a move that Doty identifies
as important to the queer project when he asks us to think about the social construction of
an inside/outside opposition, noting that “the articulation of non-heterosexuality bolsters
the centrality of heterosexuality itself” (201). Ki Namaste writes: “We cannot assert
ourselves to be entirely outside heterosexuality, nor entirely inside, because each of these
terms achieves its meaning in relation to the other. What we can do, queer theory
suggests, is negotiate these limits”. By refusing to assign a specific body and thereby
undermining the identification of gender and sexuality, Winterson helps to negotiate
these limits by displacing the inside/outside opposition.
In the initial section of the novel, the narrator recounts numerous doomed love
affairs, initially affairs with women, thus evoking a rather standard presumptively
heterosexual plot: male subject and female object of desire. The narrator also, however,
recounts affairs with men, thus suggesting potential bisexuality; then, again, the narrator
could be transexual or transgendered. In one particularly parodic scene, the narrator
awakes “sweating and chilled” (42) after dreaming of an ex-girlfriend, who kept a fake
snake in her letter box, poised at the exact point where, when a visitor reached for the bell,
the head of the snake would emerge with a “rat-trap in the jaw” (42), and snap at the
genitals of the unsuspecting caller. Initially, the narrator expresses what might be taken as
a fear of castration, if the reader is assigning a masculine gender to the narrator, but the
snake may also, of course, be read as a threat to “woman” as a snake is a rather standard
phallic symbol. Further tantalizing us with gender ambiguity, the girlfriend reassures the
narrator—“You’ve nothing to be frightened of” (42)—suggesting that the narrator’s body
is secure from loss, but, then again, the ambiguity here could be suggesting that the body
is secure from penetration, rather than castration. This scene comes to a climatic,
humorous close, when the girlfriend shoves a leek in the snake’s mouth: “there was a
terrible clatter and the bottom half of the leek fell limply on to the mat” (42). This
prompts the abrupt and, we note, terror-stricken awakening of the narrator. The parody in this scene, provoked by ambiguity, undermines any easy assumptions about the body of
the narrator, much less his/her gender and sexuality. What, then, is written on this body?-
– certainly not an identifiable gender, thus prompting the question: why need the body of
narrative be gendered? These circulating, ambiguous and, hence, multiple identity
categories in the subject suggest a radical challenge to identity categories such as man,
woman, heterosexual and homosexual.
Eventually, we learn of the narrator’s present love object, Louise, who is
described in decidedly conventional and seductive terms:
Her hair was down, warming her neck and shoulders, falling forward on
the table-cloth in wires of light. There was a dangerously electrical quality
about Louise. I worried that the steady flame she offered might be fed by a
current far more volatile. Superficially she seemed serene, but beneath her
control was a cracking power of the kind that makes me nervous when I
pass Pylons. She was more of a Victorian heroine than a modern woman.
A heroine from a Gothic novel, mistress of her house, yet capable of
setting fire to it and fleeing in the night. (49)
This highly conventional imagery, in the final line invoking the infamously ‘mad’ woman
in the attic, Bertha Rochester, not only parodies the traditional reification of the lover in
the heterosexual narrative, it also marks Louise as a textual echo, a citation of textual
precedents—a Victorian heroine or a Gothic mistress.  By refusing to identify the gender
or sexuality of the narrator, while, at the same time, installing well-worn and, some have
argued, sadistic conventions that reify the female as object of desire, Winterson forces a
recognition of the normative ideologies embedded in such representations of woman, but
she also, at the same time, demonstrates the rigidity of certain identity categories—that is
those which link gender and sexuality unproblematically. On the one hand, Winterson’s
novel evokes this conventional and normative ideology in the relationship between the
protagonist and the reified, romanticized representation of the figure of woman, Louise,
but then problematizes it in the figure of the narrator-protagonist whose citational legacy
is not so easily uncovered.
Farwell claims that the ambiguity of the narrator’s gender is secondary in this
novel to the reconfiguration of the female body in Western romances and the assertion of
“sameness rather than heterosexual romantic difference” (191); yet she admits that, had
Winterson “resolved the gender of the narrator/lover, her story and its linear narrative
tension could have been, as it has been already, called a rather ordinary romantic tale”
(187). Farwell is minimizing the fact that many readers spend a substantial amount of
time trying to pin down the gender of the narrator. In fact, Patricia Juliana Smith remarks
that lesbian readers may easily identify the narrator as lesbian due to a number of oblique
references to female genitalia in the text (185); however, as the ‘castration’ scene cited
above indicates, Smith’s assertion that these genital metaphors are unambiguous, may not
be sustained by all readers, lesbian or otherwise. In fact, while this energy to ascertain the
gender and sexuality of the narrative protagonist may well be wasted, in that a final
identification of the gender of the narrator eludes the reader, the energy, nonetheless,
underscores the very obsession that informs our understanding of the body and its
narratives. This activity on the part of the reader, provoked by Winterson’s technique
here, compels the reader’s recognition of the citationality of the narrative body and of his/her own presuppositions. This marks a significant breakdown in the realist effects of
mimetic illusionism and suspension of disbelief, as the reader’s own constitutive
positioning becomes an aspect of the text. In this sense, the boundary between self/other,
story/life, and artifice/reality is again transgressed. Susan Bordo would not be the first to
remark the indispensable function of the reader, but her remarks are particularly apt here:
“subversion does not happen in the text, or to the text. It takes place (or doesn’t) in the
‘reading’ of the text” (168).
In the figure of the protagonist/narrator, Winterson posits a contingent, partial and
unnamed identity: the narrator has a function, not a gender, nor a name. This absence also
necessarily raises the question of the narrator’s sexuality. One should note, however, that
the race and the ethnicity of the narrator are also not identified, yet these particular
omissions have not raised any questions whatsoever. This presumption of a sexually
oriented and gendered identity is, of course, also reflected in the argument, cited above,
regarding the identification of what is, or is not, lesbian literature . Moreover, the first
few paragraphs of the novel underscore the presuppositions of a normative and
heterosexual narrative by recollecting a received narrative that ends with the invocation
of a highly predictable closure: “they lived happily ever after”(9). It is the clichés, the
repetition and the citationality of love that make the trajectory of narrative
presuppositions possible and impossible at the same time. The writer/speaker is not
finally contained in the “armchair” of love and comfort that narrative leads him/her to
expect and, in fact, demand: rather, the narrator is alone on a rock “hewn out of [his/her]
own body” (10). The unoriginality of these citational revelries undermines any easy
identification of the novel’s structure as mimetic realism in its romance mode and,
instead, gestures towards the more intertextual and metafictive style typical of highly
Those critics, then, who lament the novel’s lack of originality seem to miss the
fact that unoriginality is the very point. “Why is it,” laments Winterson’s protagonist,
“that the most unoriginal thing we can say to one another is still the thing we long to
hear” (9). Moreover, if “‘I love you’ is always a quotation” (9), then what is not? What
Butler calls the “citational legacy” (Bodies 225) precedes and conditions subjectivity.
Indeed, what plot device could be considered more cliché, specifically in romantic plots,
than the sudden revelation of the beloved’s incurable illness. Additionally, in this novel,
the object of desire is constructed as an excess of the feminine, who is pathologized, in a
conventional, and, I would argue, parodic repetition of the trajectory of the romantic plot,
wherein the beloved is reified to death. In Art and Lies, Winterson again addresses the
theme of romance and its seductions:
Of course we have romance. Everyone can see how useful romance is.
Even the newspapers like romance. They should; they have helped to
create it, it is their daily doses of world malaise that poison the heart and
mind to such a degree that a strong antidote is required to save what
humanness is left in us. (13)
This statement would lead me to believe that Winterson has just as much trouble with the
presuppositions of romance, as do the critics who condemn her use of it. Indeed, I tend to
agree with Burns, who remarks that “Winterson takes stylistic and imaginative risks” that
“offer an alternative use of fantasy and eroticism that both addresses the postmodern crisis of narrative and offers a new turn in seductive and socially conscious art” (Burns
303). Hence, while this type of recurrent, indeed, banal plot device is expected in other
romance genres, such as the soap operas and melodramas that pervade popular culture, it
is singularly out of place in the work of a writer with Winterson’s reputation for groundbreaking,
political fictions. Clearly, its inclusion is meant to act as an “antidote” by
drawing our attention to the structures embedded in the romance drama, particularly
those structures which perform the reification and demise of the feminized love object.
“It is the power of this citation that gives the performative its binding or conferring power
(Butler, Bodies 225), not derived from the subject’s autonomous will, but rather from the
“‘priority’ of textual authority” (Butler 225). In this case, the love object, Louise, is quite
clearly a “citation” of a literary antecedent, interpellated—called into being—as in so many
romance plots; however, this time the reiteration of the romance narrative flounders as it
forgoes the “temporary totalization performed by identity categories” (Butler 230).
Tellingly, the narrator’s signature item of clothing is a pair of bicycle shorts emblazoned
with the word, “RECYCLE” (12), in capital letters, just in case we might miss this
parodic play. The novel, then, enables us to see the binding power of this citational
legacy, by invoking it in the language employed to represent Louise. This legacy
becomes all the more apparent as it is set in relief against the ambiguity of the language
which interpellates (or fails to interpellate) the narrator, whose only naming is as a
disaffected Lothario— a purportedly gendered naming, however one which is not
sustained fully throughout the text.
The Reiteration Compulsion
The theme of citationality is also central to the second section of the novel, which has,
deservedly, garnered the most critical attention. In Bodies that Matter, Butler reminds us
“that reiterations are never simply replicas of the same” (226)—repetition returns a
difference. In “The Cells, Tissues Systems and Cavities of the Body,” the narrator in
Written on the Body cites biomedical discourse in an attempt to reconfigure the
medicalized language of the body that constructs loss—disease and death—in order to
transform it into fulfilled desire. Winterson employs the language of an ostensible
medical text which reads, “For descriptive purposes the human body is separated into
cavities. The cranial cavity contains the brain. Its boundaries are formed by the bones of
the skull” (119); this passage inspires this richly citational poetic reiteration:
Let me penetrate you. I am the archaeologist of tombs. I would devote my
life to marking your passageways, the entrances and exits of the
impressive mausoleum, your body.... As I embalm you in my memory, the
first thing I shall do is to hookout your brain through your accommodating
orifices. Now that I have lost you I cannot allow you to develop, you must
be a photograph not a poem. You must be rid of life as I am rid of life.
This poetic reiteration of the scientific language typical of the medical text performs a
breakdown in the “boundaries [which] are formed by the bones of the skull” (119) and
the boundaries which ostensibly separate the poetic and the prosaic: each reiteration
returns a difference. While the narrative’s poetic utterance repeats the pathologized language of the diseased body in highly metaphorical terms, in an attempt to transform
the impersonality and limitations of scientific description, it too is limited and can only
signify because it is citational. “Could a performative succeed,” asks Derrida, “if its
formulation did not repeat a ‘coded’ or iterable utterance. . .if it were not identifiable in
some way as a ‘citation’?” (quoted in Butler, Bodies 226). In fact, this section of the
novel is a celebration of the capacity of linguistic art to transform biomedical language
“for descriptive purposes,” at the same time as it explicitly recognizes the tyranny of the
citation and the limits of discourse, whether biomedical or poetic. Farwell remarks that
“the images of bodily union in this section are constructed as poetic transformations of
medical facts... Winterson takes a predictable, in this case medical, vocabulary, and
refuses its terms. This transformation of both bodies and of the nature of love refuses and
yet uses the medical language” (191). It is not clear to me, however, that love and bodies
are transformed by this poetic reiteration because although the language certainly
reconfigures the medical discourse, the poetic metaphors are not able entirely to escape
the biomedical description of the body any more than the scientific discourse can escape
poetic and multivalent metaphors: cavities and boundaries. What Farwell’s statement
does make clear, however, is that while the poetic utterance wishes to refuse the
medicalization of the body—transforming the body through poetry— by using the
language of biomedical discourse, the citational legacy of the body is underscored. “This
not owning of one’s words is there from the start, however, since speaking is always in
some ways the speaking of a stranger through and as oneself, the melancholic reiteration
of a language that one never chose, that one does not find as an instrument to be used, but
that one is, as it were, used by” (Bodies 242), explains Bulter. However, it is clear that for
Winterson the citational legacy does not inscribe immobililty, stasis, or death: for the
narrator, to contain the body of the beloved in a poem would not suffice, as the poem
does not remain stationary, it develops, as does the language of narrative (cf. Hillis Miller,
The narrator, thus, borrows (cites) the trope of development from photography
and applies it, instead, to poetry, thereby underscoring the multiple valences of
representation and the possibilities, however limited, available even in repetition. While
on the one hand the narrator wants the beloved to be contained by a photograph, rather
than a poem, because the poem, in its reiteration, will continue to develop and thereby
will not stabilize the object of desire, on the other hand, she/he cannot resist the desire to
describe and objectify the body of Louise with his/her own narrative. And while the
versions of the body inscribed in medical language differ significantly from the versions
written in the poetry of desire, or, for that matter, from the narratives of romance, it is
language itself that constitutes identities. The narrator wants Louise to remain the same,
self-identical, but recognizes that language, while citational, can never return the same—
to do so would be to embalm in memory, to inscribe immobility, stasis, and death (much
as the discourse of romance is said to inscribe the death of the autonomous female
subject). In fact, according to Belsey, “Desire was probably always citational. . . . What is
specific to postmodern writing is that it foregrounds the citationality of desire, affirms it,
puts it on display. And in doing so, it both speaks desire and defers it, draws attention to
the loquacity [and] the excess of textuality (82). In fact, this contradiction—between the
desire to refuse representation, the development it entails, and the incapacity to stop narrating—suggests that the narrator has passed, from a stage of mourning, which would
entail a gradual release of the beloved, into a melancholic compulsion to repeat. Similarly,
the narrative engages in a compulsive repetition of the tropes of romance, which also
returns a difference.
The Repetition Compulsion
This compulsive repetition is constitutive of melancholia; it is an effect of language, of
narrative. According to Freud, we “never willingly abandon a libido-position” (126);
hence, the process of mourning is a struggle against the recognition of the loss of a
beloved, the eventual recognition that the loss is permanent and the subsequent detaching
of the libido from the lost object. Freud points out that mourning occurs as a reaction to
the loss of a loved one, but also as a response to the loss of abstractions and ideals, which
have taken the place, metonymically, of the loved one (125). He further conjectures:
Reality passes its verdict—that the object no longer exists—upon each
single one of the memories and hopes through which the libido was
attached to the lost object, and the ego, confronted as it were with the
decision whether it will share this fate, is persuaded by the sum of its
narcissistic satisfaction in being alive to sever its attachment to the nonexistent
Melancholia is similar to mourning in that it is a response to loss; however, it is
distinguished by the inability to sever this attachment and a subsequent internalization of
the lost other: “melancholia is in some way related to an unconscious loss of a loveobject,
in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing unconscious about the
loss” (127). In Butler’s reading of Freud’s essay, she notes that
Melancholia refuses to acknowledge loss, and in this sense ‘preserves’ its
lost objects as psychic effects….[T]he melancholic seeks not only to
reverse time, reinstating the imaginary past as the present, but to occupy
every position and thereby to preclude the loss of the addressee. The
melancholic would have said something, if he or she could, but did not,
and now believes in the sustaining power of the voice. (Psychic 183)
Melancholia, then, is an act of preservation through repetition. In Winterson’s novel, the
narrator initially abandons the beloved, in the belief that Louise’s husband, the oncologist,
can do more for her; tellingly, the narrator does not speak directly to Louise, but leaves
her a note announcing his/her departure. However, as the plot progresses, the narrator
cannot release Louise and returns to London to search for her; when she cannot be found,
the narrator turns to “the sustaining power of the voice,” to the reiteration of the story of
Louise, to an act of narration that inscribes melancholia. Winterson writes, “Love
demands expression. It will not stay still, stay silent, be good, be modest, be seen and not
heard, no” (9). Even the narrator’s expression entails the grammatical and syntactic
repetition of the verb, the copula, the negation. The narrator finally refuses to abandon
the beloved and, hence, he/she puts the body of the beloved into expression. Similarly,
the novel itself refuses to release all the unconscious others—the excess of desire—the
larger loss of an imaginary wholeness. In performing the symptoms of melancholia, the
novel engages in a citational reiteration that attempts to perform an act of restoration
through “the sustaining power of the voice”—that is, through the attempt to call into being the lost other. This melancholic narration of loss is constitutive of self, according to
Survival is a matter of avowing the trace of loss that inaugurates one’s
own emergence. To make of melancholia a simple “refusal” to grieve its
losses conjures a subject who might already be something without its
losses, that is, one who voluntarily extends and retracts his or her will. Yet
the subject who might grieve is implicated in a loss of autonomy that is
mandated by linguistic and social life; it can never produce itself
autonomously. From the start, this ego is other than itself; what
melancholia shows is that only by absorbing the other as oneself does one
become something at all. (Psychic 195)
If melancholia and its voicing are constitutive of the self, then, narrative is the enactment
of melancholia. However, while the narrator attempts to revive the lost object of desire,
Louise, the narrative itself attempts to revive something other.
Louise, we note, is celebrated precisely as excess throughout the novel in the
symbol of the capitalized ‘L’. As Farwell notes, “the ‘L’ which begins as part of the
lover’s early infatuation with Louise...finally...is written on the narrator’s body as an
internal tattoo...It does not take much intuitive grasp of literature to imagine that this ‘L’
is also written as Lesbian” (193). However, other possible meanings circulate around this
prolific ‘L’. One obvious citational echo, reverberating out of the literary history of
romance, is the resonance occasioned by Petrarch’s odes to Laura. However, for my
purposes here, much of the real mourning that takes place in the novel is not for the loss
of the Petrarchan love object, Laura or Louise, nor for the loss of love, but rather for the
loss of a non-citational, original literature; the loss of a referential language; in fact, as
repetition makes clear—love, language, literature, Louise—the “L” marks Loss itself. In
fact, this theme is announced in the very first sentence of the novel: “Why is the measure
of love loss?” This irrecoverable loss is figured most prominently in the ‘death’ of Louise,
but also in the failure of language to materialize the body of the beloved: for instance, the
failure of the poetic reconfiguration of biomedical discourse on the body, in the second
and most celebrated section of the novel, to materialize that lost body marks the limits of
both poesis and scientific facticity. Also, there is the failure of the text itself to reclaim
the loss and hence the need to repeat the story over and over again. Louise is a fiction, a
product of narrative and of mourning, and she cannot be recovered in any material sense,
just as, within the context of the novel itself, she cannot recover from her leukaemia. This
inevitably leaves us with the question posed by the novel’s enigmatic closure: does
Louise return to the arms of her lover as anything other than a melancholic reiteration of
desire; or is her appearance a restaging of the very language of desire employed to
reconstruct her, both in the reconfiguration of the medicalized narrative of the body, and,
indeed, in the ostensible autobiography that would wish to reconstruct her in the first
place? Autobiography, Brooks reminds us, is always an act of repetition. Thus, for the
textualized author/narrator, Louise becomes, “like a character in a book” (193) that
he/she is trying to recover (in many senses of the word); however, another character
informs the narrator that Louise “wasn’t yours for the making” (189). These ambiguities
leave the reader with a fully realized sense of the mourning for an object that cannot be fully recovered by language. In fact, the ‘L’ here, for some readers, may evoke yet
another name: Lacan.
Lacanian psychoanalysis, in fact, provides us with considerable insight into the
nature of this loss and its relationship to language. Despite Dean’s disagreement with
Butler’s theory of the performative and, more pointedly, her (mis)reading of Lacan, I
believe Dean helps us better understand both Butler and Lacan, by pointing out the
it is because Lacan’s conception of sexual difference explains it in terms
of neither nature nor culture that psychoanalysis offers ways of
conceptualizing gender and sexuality that remain irreducible to the nowsterile
essentialism-constructionsim debate….[L]ibido or desire finds
gender fundamentally irrelevant…but I would like to emphasize at this
point that the obliviousness of the unconscious to sexual difference should
not be taken as justification for completely disregarding sexual difference.
We live in a social world where there is more than one sex. (87)
I would like to add, for clarity’s sake, that we live in a world constituted by narratives
within which gender, among other things, has been constituted and reinforced in
citational terms. Dean expands on the concept of loss as the fundamental condition of
subjectification and desire in Lacan, and he explains desire as the effect of the limits of
language, that is, the limits of the symbolic. ix According to Lacan, the object x of
unconscious fantasy, “escapes the imaginary and the domain of the ego” (Dean 34): it is
that which escapes signification in the symbolic—the remainder—“that keeps desire in
motion” (Dean 31); it is this unconscious object, then, which motivates the signifying
body to keep narrative motion. Louise, and all she represents metaphorically and
metonymically, is the incitement for narrative, for language predicated on the desire to
replace loss. “The objects of desire that we in fact picture to ourselves, are not those of
the unconscious, but are always substitutes for what cannot be figured in language, in the
symbolic (Dean 58). The occasion of this narrative is, after all, the loss of Louise.
However, this narrative figures, on a grander scale, the way in which all language
attempts to negotiate, over and over again, the loss of the radical Other—the Real in
Lacanian terms— “because it is only in the imaginary that the Other can be an other—that
is an image of another person” (34); it is this loss, then, which constitutes desire.
Catherine Belsey assists our understanding of desire. Desire,” she writes,
is the location of the contradictory imperative that motivates the signifying
body which is a human being in love. Desire is in excess of the organism;
conversely, it is what remains unspoken in the utterance. In consequence
its objects are no more than a succession of substitutes for an imagined
originary presence, a half-remembered ‘oceanic’ pleasure in the lost real, a
completeness which is desire’s final, unattainable object. (5)
The novel’s central theme, then, cannot be reduced to over-simplified themes of
seduction and loss, the thematics typical of the romance genre. The end of the novel
directs us back to the beginning, as the end is “where the story starts” (190). Thus, we are
sent back to the opening sentence of the novel, which directly confronts us with the
question: “Why is the measure of love loss?” The next few paragraphs, however, locate
and contest both loss and love as constituted in and effects of language. Citing Shakespeare, the narrator, the ostensible writer of this autobiographical and, hence,
retrospective narrative, quotes Caliban:
You taught me language and my profit on’t is
I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language. (9)
This curse, addressed to Prospero in The Tempest, is here addressed to us. The curse is a
performative meant precisely to enact what it utters. The curse remarks the failure of
language to replace the lost other produced by entry into the symbolic. Language is, in
fact, the evidence of our loss (and thus constitutes our unconscious desire). Caliban’s
curse reproduces or repeats this tragic loss—the loss of an imaginary wholeness—which
never existed in the first place, except metonymically, in language, just as the novel
repeats the attempt to reconfigure the lost object through language. The end of the novel
directs us back to the beginning in a recursive move that reminds us that the need to
repeat marks the function of language predicated on its failure to replace the lost other.
The curse, then, is the symbol of language as performance and, at the same time, the
iteration of the limits of that performance—the curse, in short, provides a mise en abíme
for the novel as a whole, in that it, too, curses the incapacity of language to materialize
that body which does not exist materially, nor in the symbolic.
Conclusion: Silence is Death
For these reasons, I believe the reduction of Winterson’s novel to a simple romance
narrative, a particularly unoriginal one at that, does not do justice to the complexity of
this narrative performance:
Postmodern writing knows that metaphysics is not an option; it takes for granted
that the process of representation can never be the reconstitution of presence…it
variously celebrates or struggles with the opacity of the signifier. Postmodern
fiction precisely refuses to be silent in the face of what cannot be said…The
subject is what speaks, writes, reads, signifies, and it is no more than that. Silence
is death. Desire lives, then, in its inscription. (Belsey 77)
Importantly, that which the narrator seeks to name with writing is desire itself. As Dean
explains, “[t]he ill fit between language and the body introduces wrinkles and gaps that
generate desire. We might say that the unconscious and desire exist only as a
consequence of this disharmony between the structures of language and those of the
body” (59). Moreover, the field of writing, Winterson tells us in the final words of the
novel, is not closed, despite its citational legacy; rather it is bountiful and open-ended as
it returns both repetitions and differences:
This is where the story starts…I stretch out my hand and reach the corners of the
world. The world is bundled up in this room. Beyond the door, where the river is,
where the roads are, we shall be. We can take the world with us when we go and
sling the sun under your arm. Hurry now, it’s getting late. I don’t know if this is a
happy ending but here we are let loose in open fields. (190)
With these words the narrator and the reader are returned to the commencement of the
novel to begin, once more, with the omnipresence of the citation, to reiterate loss again
and again. Farwell is not wrong in attributing much of the imagery in this novel to John Donne’s metaphysical conceits. Again, in this closing passage, Winterson repeats an
earlier authority on loss and thus underscores, not just the limits, but the possibilities
inherent in repetition. Winterson, too, recreates a microcosm, the room which is made
“an everywhere” by love (Donne); moreover, she inscribes a “Petrarchan . . .
fragmentation” (Farwell 190) of the lover’s body and, most importantly, reiterates the
conventions of the romance novel in an attempt to recover desire. But the recovery is
forever postponed and loss is constantly mourned. Closure does not guarantee Louise’s
return, except as figuration in a melancholic narrative that refuses to release its object of
desire. We are, I think, misreading these final words if we suppose that suddenly open
fields suggests a liberation from the melancholia occasioned by repetition. The open
fields, into which we are let loose, after all, are predicated on either a return to the
beginning, “where the story starts,”—in effect, a repetition—or else remain, as indicated by
the blank space following on, deathly silent—reminding us that “the end of all stories,
even if the writer forebears to mention it, is death, which is where our time stops short”
(Carter 2). The alternative to death is repetition, with a vengeance: the melancholic
The highly codified expectations of the romance genre, the discursive limits of
interpellations of gender and sexuality, as well as, the role of our citational legacy in the
formation of subjectivity, engage Winterson in Written on the Body. By means of a
highly theatrical, some might say, hyperbolic performance that relies heavily on a
deliberately excessive use of citation for its effect, Winterson’s novel renders visible the
role of language and narrative in subject formation and thus implicates the reader by
demanding our acknowledgement of our own citational selves. This performance
undermines the seductions of romance narrative; to use Butler’s words, the novel “mimes
and renders hyperbolic the discursive convention that it also reverses” (Psychic 232).
That is, while her narrative cannot fail but to re-inscribe the authority of citation, it also
enacts a breakdown of this authority through a melancholic narrative of excess, which
returns a repetition with a difference. And breakdown, Donna Haraway reminds us,
should not be pathologized: “[b]reakdown is a word for those moments when
denaturalization occurs, when what is taken for granted can no longer be taken for
granted precisely because there is a glitch in the system…[b]reakdown provokes a space
of possibility precisely because things don’t work smoothly anymore” (Haraway, How
Like a Leaf 115). Winterson’s novel provides such a moment of breakdown, by revealing
that the real melancholia in this narrative is not the romantic compulsion to mourn Louise,
but the melancholia occasioned by our desire to narrate something other—something other
than ‘the same story every time’.
Dr. Jennifer Gustar is an Associate Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the
University of British Columbia Okanagan. You can reach her at
The author would like to thank Okanagan University College for a grant in aid of
research which assisted in the completion of this research. Further, the author would like
to thank her colleagues in the Faculty of Critical and Creative Studies, UBC, who
provided valuable feedback on an earlier draft of this essay.
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