Fleshing the Text: Greenaway's Pillow Book and the Erasure of the Body
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Fleshing the Text:
Greenaway’s Pillow Book and the Erasure of the Body

Lifting a brush, a burin, a pen, or a stylus is like releasing a bite or lifting a claw.

—Gary Snyder

Striving to represent the world, we inevitably forfeit its direct presence.

—David Abram

Peter Greenaway’s incorporation of other art forms in his films has become a well-established trademark of the British artist. The terms “mixed-media” and “multi-media” have been used to describe, respectively, Greenaway’s use of different media within a work and across works and his increasing interest in “high tech” technologies, such as the Internet and CD-ROM.1 Most film critics and art historians, in commenting on Greenaway’s work, have focused on his exploration of the potentiality of painting for the cinematic, and on his pastiche renderings of paintings by famous artists. Bridget Elliott and Anthony Purdy, for instance, note how Greenaway manipulates historical structures and genres and imitates the style of individual artists, often reproducing their paintings in the mise-en-scène (see also David Pascoe’s work). Angela Dalle Vacche, on the other hand, in her study of films that redefine art history in their composition of the cinematic image, does not discuss Greenaway’s films at all, except to explain why she does not: the particular brand of intertextuality and quotations exhibited in Greenaway’s films, she explains, “is more preoccupied with defining itself than with redefining art history” (8, my emphasis). In other words, for Dalle Vacche, Greenaway’s references to the other arts are at the service of his own self reflections about cinema.2 Amy Lawrence, in her recent study of Greenaway’s feature films, shares this view of the British artist as a self-conscious “auteur” who makes art “out of ideas about art” (5).

I agree with Dalle Vacche’s and Lawrence’s assessments, but I would also contend that what Greenaway redefines through his “art-about-art” is, more broadly speaking, representationality itself. Greenaway’s references to art history are but particular manifestations of his comprehensive investigation of what it means to represent. Greenaway’s films explore the means through which humanity has sought to represent itself and the world—through images (paintings, drawings, photography, films), objects (architecture, sculpture), words (print, calligraphy), sounds (speech, music), and bodies (dance, sex, death).

I will discuss here only two of these representational means, the written word and the body, through an analysis of Greenaway’s most recent film, The Pillow Book (1996). The reading of the film I advance is one that is consonant with what I understand to be some of the fundamental preoccupations of the British artist. My reading will draw from personal conversations with Greenaway, as well as from a selection of theoretical works which I have found stimulating and useful in elucidating my approach to this film. One of the objectives of my reading is an exploration of the Oedipal resonances of the story. Drawing from David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous: Human Perception in a More-Than-Human World, I would also like to engage in a discussion of Greenaway’s portrayal of the written word, and of his references to ecology.

Abram applies phenomenology, most specifically the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, to an investigation of the impact of written language, particularly the phonetic alphabet, on our perception of and relation to our bodies and to the “body” of the world around us. In this study, Abram examines the origins of writing and describes writing’s subsequent gradual divorce from its natural referents—the human body and the land. What I would like to suggest in my analysis of The Pillow Book is that the split between language and body, which, Abram convincingly suggests, was brought about by alphabetic writing, is something analogous to the split, hypothesized by Lacanian theory, of the Subject from the totality of Being brought about by the Subject’s entry into the Symbolic. I further suggest that this split is the central motif of the Oedipus legend, and that this legend operates as a master narrative in our particular patriarchal civilization, a civilization that, in...