In 1992, Jeanette Winterson, one of the hottest young authors of the early 1990s, published Written on the Body. Critics loved it, but none of them seem to have picked up on what I thought the book was about: The question of whether reason in love is good for you.
It isn't meant as a universal treatement. It's one person's problem: The narrator keeps falling in love the same way, leading through the same patterns of behavior. Self-deception makes it exciting; the gradual dawning of self-awareness makes it intolerable yet doesn't help stop the cycle.
The book's main character is never named, and his/her gender never identified. (I'm going to use "ze, zer", from here on, because "him/her" just isn't working.) This seems like a pretentious trick at first, but it's part of the novel's purpose to strip love of its clichés, associations, and roles, and report its movements and actions accurately, like a war correspondent. The narrator sometimes speaks in third person, sometimes in second; and this also has a purpose which is revealed at the end. There's no way to do this without spoilers, so I'll go ahead and tell you that the narrator talks to zer final passionate love in third person when reporting what happened, and in second person when only imagining her there in zer final madness.
The narrator is an aging Lothario, a serial philanderer, who moves from one lover to another, married and unmarried, but usually married. It's married women who understand zer—they, like the narrator, have grown bored or desperate in their comfortable marriages whose flames have died down.
Her husband lies over her like a tarpaulin. He wades into her as though she were a bog. She loves him and he loves her. They're still married aren't they?
The only difference is that they can make it last 10 years, while for our narrator, passion seldom lasts past six months.
The narrator has carried on in this way long enough to realize what's happening, to recognize the same lame excuses and clichés trotted out at the opening and closing of every new relationship. This unwelcome self-awareness intrudes on zer script, making zer stumble and flub the lines. Finally recognizing that they are lines is what makes everything terribly hard that used to happen naturally and easily:
You had no choice, you were swept away. Forces took you and possessed you and you did it but now that's all in the past, you can't understand etc. etc. You want to start again etc. etc. Forgive me. In the late 20th century we still look to ancient daemons to explain our commonest action. Adultery is very common. It has no rarity value and yet at an individual level it is explained away again and again as a UFO. I can't lie to myself in quite that way anymore.
The intrusion of reason on love, the narrator seems to believe, is the source of zer confusion.
I went to look at my sunflowers, growing steadily, sure that the sun would be there for them, fulfilling themselves in the proper way at the proper time. Very few people ever manage what nature manages without effort and mostly without fail. We don't know who we are or how to function, much less how to bloom. Blind nature. Homo sapiens. Who's kidding whom?
I barged my way through a herd of cattle, hooves braceleted with mud. The cows reserved for me the incredulous look that animals give humans in the country. We seem so silly, not a part of nature at all.
The narrator is once again convinced that now it is time to settle down, and have a true and lasting love. Ze settles down with a woman named Jacqueline who does not incite passion, of whom ze says,
Jacqueline was an overcoat. She muffled my senses. With her I forgot about feeling and wallowed in contentment. Contentment is a feeling you say? Are you sure it's not an absence of feeling? I liken it to that particular numbness one gets after a visit to the dentist. Not in pain nor out of it, slightly drugged. Contentment is the positive side of resignation. It has its appeal but it's no good wearing an overcoat and furry slippers and heavy gloves when what the body really wants is to be naked.
The narrator, as always, meets another married woman, Louise, who seizes zer imagination. Ze knows exactly what is happening and where it will end, and tries to be reasonable—here ze has zer first genuine chance at "happiness", as people name it, with Jacqueline, and knows perfectly well that the passion ze now feels for Louise won't last, but can't reason zerself into feeling any differently.
I phoned a friend whose advice was to play the sailor and run a wife in every port. If I told Jacqueline and ruin everything and for what? If I told Jacqueline at her for beyond healing and did I have that right? Probably I had nothing more than dog fever for two weeks and I can get it out of my system and come home to my kennel.
Good sense. Common sense. Good dog.
What does it say in the tea leaves? Nothing but a capital L.
And ze dives in as always, following zer usual script:
"So you admit that I'm just a scalp on your bedpost?"
I was angry and bewildered. "Louise, I don't know what you are. I turned myself inside out to try and avoid what happened today. You affect me in ways I can't quantify or contain. All I can measures the effect, and the effect is that I'm out of control."
"So you try and regain control by telling me you love me. That's a territory you know isn't it? That's romance and courtship and whirlwind."
"I don't want control."
"I don't believe you."
No and you're right not to believe me. If in doubt be sincere. That's a pretty little trick of mine.
Ze breaks the news to Jacqueline:
"Are you seeing her?" Jacqueline's timid voice.
I mumbled something about yes as usual but things had changed. THINGS HAD CHANGED, what an arsehole comment, I'd changed things. Things don't change, they're not like the seasons moving on a diurnal round. People change things. There are victims of change but not victims of things. Why do I collude in this misuse of language? I can't make it easier for Jacqueline however I put it. I can make it a bit easier for me and I suppose that's what I'm doing.
"I'm not running around again, Jacqueline."
"What are you doing then?"
Good point. Would that I had the overseeing spirit to interpret my actions in plain English. I would like to come to you with all the confidence of a computer programmer, sure that we could find the answers if only we asked the proper questions. Why aren't I going according to plan? How stupid it sounds to say I don't know and shrug and behave like every other idiot who's fallen in love and can't explain it. I've had a lot of practice, I should be able to explain it. The only word I can think of is Louise.
And then the unthinkable happens: Ze has zer torrid affair with Louise, and then she departs from the script and the narrator realizes how deeply ze's been fooling zerself all zer life:
You said, "I'm going to leave."
I thought, yes, of course you are, you're going back to the shell. I'm an idiot. I've done it again and I said I'd never do it again.
You said, "I told him before we came away. I told him I won't change my mind even if you change yours."
This is the wrong script. This is the moment where I'm supposed to be self-righteous and angry. This is the moment where you're supposed to flood with tears and tell me how hard it is to say these things and what can you do and what can you do and will I hate you and yes you know I'll hate you and there are no question marks in this speech because it's a fait accompli.
But you are gazing at me the way God gazed at Adam and I am embarrassed by your look of love and possession and pride. I want to go now and cover myself with fig leaves. It's a sin this not being ready, this not being up to it.
Louise leaves her husband Elgin for the narrator.
I couldn't apologize to Elgin because I wasn't sorry. Not sorry but ashamed, does that sound strange?
And then the one unexpected thing happens that could break our narrator out of zer endless cycle of love and boredom. Louise gets terminal cancer. Her husband, a cancer specialist, convinces the narrator that he can make her well—if the narrator casts her out, and she comes back to him. Ze does. Months later, unable to stand the separation, ze confronts Elgin and demands to see Louise. But Elgin thought Louise had left him for zer again. No one knows where she is. No one knows whether she is alive or dead. Our narrator's relationship has been cut off in the passionate stage, with no closure possible. Yet another woman, Gail, appears, another comfortable woman, who understands there is no passion between them but tells zer to be reasonable and settle down by the fire. Our narrator is stuck on Louise, unable to move on, perhaps forever.
A friend of mine said before I left London, "At least your relationship with Louise didn't fail. It was the perfect romance."
Was it? Is that what perfection costs? Operatic heroics and a tragic end? What about a wasteful end? Most opera ends wastefully. The happy endings are compromises. Is that the choice?
And it seems, at the ending, that this is the choice, and only zer helpless, transfixed state can finally enable zer to "settle down" to zer compromise "happy ending" with Gail, having the comfortable woman to drink tea and share a bed with, and the passionate affair that can never die in zer memory.
"You still love her then?"
"With all my heart."
"What will you do?"
"What can I do? Louise once said, it's the clichés that cause the trouble. What do you want to say? That I'll get over it? That's right isn't it? Time is a great deadener."
This is where the story starts... 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.
The interesting question at the end is whether the narrator would've been better off without so much self-awareness, if ze had been able to continue the cycle of love and betrayal until death or wearing zerself out, never having more than animal awareness of the process. Winterson suspends judgement throughout the novel but comes down a little heavy-handed against reason on the final page, making it drive the narrator mad in the end. Free of reason, there would have been at least intervals of self-deluded happiness.
There's another interpretation. There is no hint that Winterson had this in mind, but the dilemma above is a bit of a cheat, as the narrator is someone who obviously could've benefited from polyamory. Zer loves never allowed that choice. Each of zer loves expected a love triangle to be unstable and eventually demanded a return to the "normality" of a single love, even if "love" was not quite the word for it. From this perspective, it is the tragedy of a person whose reason was never free, whose downfall was dictated by society's false clichés about love and marriage despite the impossibility of reconciling them with zer reality. The lesson is then that reason is best, and instinct will do, but something in-between, instinct plus a crippled reason that takes itself as seriously as if it were the real thing, leads to madness.