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Tylim, I. (1998). Body As Text, Text as Body: The Pillow Book. Psychoanal. Rev., 85(3):449-453.

(1998). Psychoanalytic Review, 85(3):449-453

Film Notes

Body As Text, Text as Body: The Pillow Book

Isaac Tylim, Psy.D.

Reading and writing are activities that imply wounds and losses, victory over loss, or a work of mourning. Unlike speech, which is rooted in presence, writing is rooted in absence (Green, 1986). Attempts to ward off intimations of mortality are enacted in the act of writing, where the illusion of permanence and immortality crystallizes in a text that may never be erased. Tattoos, body piercing, and other excursions on the surface of the body seem to be at the service of this illusion. Inscriptions on the skin are quasisymbolic barriers against the decay of the flesh. Engraving on skin creates the equivalent of the ultimate text, the memorial to the absent or lost object.

Based on a tenth-century Japanese text by a courtesan named Sei Shonogan, Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book explores the perverse manifestations that sustain the denial of limitations and the longing for imperishable objects. Within the dialectic of body and mind, flesh and poetry, carnal knowledge and literature, a complex nonlinear narrative is used to tell a most intriguing and alluring story.

The film may be analyzed as a complex dream. As in all dreams, symbolization, condensation, and displacement prevail. The product is a bizarre and strange composition of images that leave the audience bedazzled and confused. Body and language are concretely juxtaposed. Words are written on the body as if in the confluence of body and text the truth may emerge. The repeated references to smell, touch, and sound suggest the unmediated, preverbal, relationship to the body of the mother, the “skin self” (Anzieu, 1985). The words painted on the skin appear as references to the paternal order, the realm of words—buffer to the alluring and dangerous realm of the primary object. In the background of the film the soundtrack oscillates between pop music and solemn chanting, contrasting the power of the word—that is, verbal language—with that of sounds, rhythm, and beat, life inside mother, intrauterine space where one body serves for two (McDougall, 1995).


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