The idea of writing about Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book haunts me from the moment I saw it because, beyond the dazzle unleashed by its beauty, the film itself, through its plot and its production, is an invitation to write.
The fact that I have not had the opportunity to see it more than once was one of the hurdles I faced before I decided to write about it. But not the only one. I was also hindered by the memory of something I had read by an admirable author. In one of the papers that conform the collection Language and Silence, George Steiner says: “When he looks back the critic sees a eunuch’s shadow. Who would be a critic if he could be a writer? Who would hammer out the subtlest insight into Dostoievski if he could weld an inch of the Karamazov, or argue the poise of Lawrence if he could free the gust in The Rainbow?”
The judgement is sharp and frightening… but isn’t Steiner’s own work the best rebuttal of this judgement? Maybe between the language and the silence it becomes necessary to find new ways of saying. Maybe we are moving in two different dimensions. Work and criticism do not overlap nor do they cancel each other out; the critic, commentator, or however you wish to call him, creates with his writing something else that does not have to be compared with the work itself. It is not a meta-language but a different way of saying, to say something different, through different means.
And if this were not enough to stay the impulse to write. I remembered another sentence, this time by Jacques Derrida, in The Purveyor of Truth, that leaves us hesitating. When the psychoanalytical approach is applied to Edgar A. Poe’s tale “The Purloined Letter”, Derrida wonders: What happens when what is interpreted says a lot more than the interpretation it is given? Criticism, valid in reductive readings, always runs the risk of becoming a constraint imposed on the word. It always says more, it always says less. No reading can pretend to be totalizing. The only safeguard is to give up the illusion of totality, and to define on the margins of an eternally unfinished analysis, an analysis that is always incomplete, only a part of what it speaks of.
The Vanishing IdentityHaving laid the reasons for this hesitation on the table, one issue remains to be cleared up before I begin commenting this film. I am not a film critic, I am a psychoanalyst, but I dare to do this out of my love of movies.
To begin with, I will skip the synopsis and all comments regarding the formal aspects of Greenaway’s film: the handling of simultaneous times, the splitting of the screen and the shifts between black and white and color, which have been both sufficiently and thoroughly addressed by the experts. However I am aware that by doing this the difficulties for those who have not yet seen the movie will be greatly increased.
My reading centers on the problems of writing and on the many levels in which this graphical and grammatical event is implicit in the film.
From the start the title itself confronts us with a film called “Book”. This inscribes its production, from the beginning, in the field of writing and leads us to uncover the platitude that every film, regardless of its title, is a writing in images that answers to a book, a script or a scenario.
The fact that the father writes on the girl’s face, could lead us to the most trivial, but nonetheless valid, ædipical interpretation. But we would lose all of its richness if we were not to stop and underscore the shades and the shapes in which it is said. The symbolic writing must be wrapped in its imaginary clothing.
When the mirror is tinted over upon a black and white background, it gives back to Nagiko the image she has of the father’s loving gaze. That mirror shows how we acquire an image through the eyes of the other, which are also own. Only from the other can the image return to us to provide us with a, our, always vanishing identity.
The text itself says it: “If God approved of his creation, he brought each model to life by signing his own name”. It is all about the signature. The writing that signals God’s, the father’s, approval is what makes life possible for each one.
Perhaps it is here that the mystery of the Name of the Father is unraveled, because this name that we consider our own is as foreign as the image, the name of the father is the one we assume as ours in the absence of God. From there on each will have to be responsible for what he does with this legacy, with this gift that may as well be a curse, for without this original alienation, both in name and image, there would be no one who could take charge of each tiny “personal” story.
The usage of Japanese calligraphy as one of the central subjects of the film makes it clear that the letter is an image and that the image is also a form of writing. Text and image do not substitute each other, but rather the film shows the intricate relationship in which both coexist and reinforce each other in the cinematographic writing.
We are confronted here with a different way of conceiving writing than the one we naively encounter in the West. Speech and writing are not the same nor are they different; the one and the other are implied in an absolute sense in each act of language. It is a beautiful speech without rhetorics or magisterial intents, that in fact places us at the core of modernity.
However, if we have mentioned the writing in the calligraphic traces made by the father and the writing on the mirror image, we can not fail to mention another kind of writing present in the story: the aunt reads to Nagiko. Each night she reads her a fragment of the original Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon, written by this famous courtesan a thousand years ago. Is this the original book? or it may be that by repeating the story Greenaway turns it into an original. Because origins are never originating and can only be reached retroactively through repetition. Saying that a story, the one told by the aunt, is also a writing might lead to our being accused of an excessive laxity. But this is not so. What kind of writing is more permanent than the reiterative telling of those children’s stories that constitutes our memory? And if the memory were undeserving of the dignity of a writing, what in this world could claim it with more vigour?
The spoken word and the written word make destiny. In Atonement Day the Jews make a wish: that a good year be written to you, and signed.
Nagiko seeks lovers who know how to write on her body. Because the writing is what awakens her body to erotism, to smells, to tastes, to the pressures of desire. But isn’t the whole body, in as much as it is a human body, the place for a writing? From the first caresses and the first gazes, each body is the space for an invisible tattoo that the hands of love will know, or will not, how to awaken. Nagiko needs to be written on, without metaphors, she is the metaphor of those writings. She will reject the husband who remains ignorant of this absolute writing and will replace one lover with another in an endless flight.
Nagiko’s GhostIt is through Jerome that Nagiko discovers that, besides from being written on, she can write. She can be brush or paper, skin and phallus, everything is ready for us to complete, with these materials, any legendary library. Romeo and Juliet is only one of so many implied allusions in this book.
Nagiko, who has been written on, writes on Jerome and on the other men that will come. Here the story opens a gap that unleashes a mise en abîme. Nagiko writes on Jerome, and we, the audience, are written on by Greenaway’s masterly calligraphy. The writing, a metaphor of life and death and of a sexuality that includes both of them, envelops us in every page.
The blank page, the absence of writing, is a myth. We are always already written on, by the desires of the other, by the dreams we dreamt that made us who we are and that offer us this life we call our own, for lack of a better term. The palimpsest returns us always to a previous writing and this is what enables every other writing. There is no beginning, there areonly continuations.
But there are other books implicit in this movie. The book the editor makes out of Jerome’s skin after his death, the one that Nagiko tries desperately to recover. By generalizing the metaphor of writing we have doubtlessly lost much of what was specific to this story, something we were probably bound to lose amidst the shifts of so many translations, not only of the different languages mentioned here, but also because of the absolute limit that our ignorance of the Japanese language represents for us. Here too will we always be faced with the irreparable loss of an original that probably never was.
But our psychoanalytical background does not allow us to abandon the subject without approaching another aspect that might not fit too well with what we have set as our focus. It is the story of the father who is sexually humiliated by the editor and who is at the core of Nagiko’s vindications. A vindication that can only end with the editor’s death. One question is left unanswered in this atmosphere plethoric with hints. The humiliated father, is he not a fundamental ghost of Nagiko herself? As witnessess to a sexual exchange within a power relationship, we may also ask how does Nagiko build her own version from that point? Because saving the impotent father is one of the recurring fantasies of hysterics who keep for themselves the role of the avenging phallus.
Whatever the value of these comments, we witness a writing that is filmic, dermic, grammatical, historical, historicizing, transgressive to the level of crime, and it has not left us immune or indifferent. We thank Greenaway for knowing how to touch us, how to engrave us with his writing.
Frida Saal, December 1997