From Flesh to Word: Female Disembodiment in Literature

I’ve been thinking a lot about disembodiment lately, probably because I spend hours holding court in Zoom’s kingdom of floating heads. As I discuss literature about illness with my students, I savor the irony: we’re discussing texts obsessed with the body even as we’re estranged from each other’s.

Literature glories in disembodiment. In fiction from around the world, limbs disappear. Whole bodies fade. Human flesh is lost in fabric or spirited away to spectral form. Sometimes, these happenings serve as political allegories or erotic fantasies. In other cases, they dissect notions of identity, memory, gender norms, racism, or cultures of violence.

Inspired by our current predicament, I decided to anatomize the literary body of works about female disembodiment through fiction and nonfiction by Yoko Ogawa, Yasunari Kawabata, Carmen Maria Machado, Gaurav Monga, Anne Boyer, Murasaki Shikibu, and Toni Morrison.

Dismemberment and Memory
In its early pages, Yoko Ogawa’s recent novel, The Memory Police, maintains the eerie beauty of a dark fairy tale. Things on a small island are being disappeared, one by one, from the citizens’ consciousness, although the motives of those responsible, the all-powerful Memory Police, are never revealed. The first losses are of precious but non-essential items like perfume or roses, which are whisked away in a gorgeous tide of petals: “The surface of the river was covered with tiny fragments of . . .something . . .in an indescribable array of hues—reds, pinks, and whites—so thick that not a space was visible between them.” Ogawa’s conceit is that once these items are out of sight, almost all of the citizens soon find them impossible to recall or even conceptualize; given the opaqueness of the process, it may also work the other way around. Over the course of the book, the stakes rise. By the end, the narrator—a female novelist—is watching her body slip away, starting with a leg.

The proceedings unfold with an elegiac sadness, as Ogawa’s narrative mixes the Japanese aesthetic of mono no aware—a delicious sadness over ephemeral beauty—with the matter-of-fact resignation captured in the common Japanese expression, Shou ga nai (“It can’t be helped.”) Her placid prose almost placates the reader, making it easy to forget what a disturbing story it is. Or rather, it might be easy were it not for the chilling story-within-a-story, written by the novel’s narrator, about a woman locked in a room by her typing teacher, who steals her voice and then her life. This framed story twists a motif familiar from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” but also reminds us that dangers, too, can be disembodied. Authoritarian officials like the Memory Police are less legible villains than the depredatory typing teacher, but just as fatal. This timely allegory incarnates the consequences of a society’s collective neglect of existential threats like fascism and climate disaster. If we forget about them, Ogawa suggests, we might find ourselves beset by even worse things than loss of limbs.

Yasunari Kawabata, an earlier Japanese writer and Nobel Prize winner, also fleshes out a tale of female dismemberment in 1964’s “One Arm,” a fantastical short story. In it, a virginal young woman gifts the male narrator her arm for the night, commanding her own body part like a puppy: “You’re his, but just for the night.” The arm is sentient, shifting moods from shy to cheeky, even seeming to smile. As in many examples of Japanese magic realism, the strangeness is sexualized, yet there’s an oddly maternal cast to the young woman’s sacrifice. She comes off less as a martyr or a sex object than as a caretaker of a lost man drifting through a night of deep fog. Like a conductor with a wand, the arm summons the music of the past: memories of other women, other moments. (The 2019 animated French film, I Lost My Body, would make a fine companion piece to this story; in the film, a sentient arm struggles to get back to its body, and music and memories play a leading role.)

In his early career, Kawabata was a proponent of the Shinkankaku-ha school of Japanese literature, which was interested in exploring new sensations and subjectivities in literature. In a similar vein, the male narrator in this story wants to explore the arm in different environments and, when he eventually exchanges his arm for the woman’s later that evening, to experience bodily sensations from a female point of view. In “One Arm,” dismemberment could be read as a form of grace—a woman’s generosity toward one who would know what she sees and feels in her skin.

Fashioned Bodies
Both Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties and Gaurav Monga’s Costumes of the Living question what traces we leave in clothes, and what traces they leave on us. If Machado’s work can be categorized as horror, Monga’s is romance with a touch of mystery—fashion-ghost stories, if you will. A collection of prose poems or scrapbook-like vignettes, Costumes of the Living queries the boundaries between what we wear and who we are, and between living bodies and the dead: “The children who drowned in the lake that day left all their clothes piled up on a grassy patch.”

Monga implies that our most secret, desired selves might be hidden inside a sleeve or beneath a dress train. In a passage that speaks to the fantasies of a world costumed in masks and gloves due to COVID-19, Monga writes,

She would spend most of her days unemployed, idle, and would worry about falling sick again. As a result, she started ironing her clothes obsessively, believing somewhere that there may well arrive a time when our clothes will replace our bodies, a time when by merely ironing out a crease on a blouse, one would be able to cure cancer of the breasts, or by a simple fold inhibit bacteria and other illness from spreading.

These reveries have a wistful and hopeful quality to them, as the people dreaming of such uses for clothes search for more expansive ways to live and identify themselves. Just as clothes can be turned inside out, so too, the vignettes suggest, might our roles in life.

By contrast, Machado’s work tucks terrifying secrets about women’s violation into its seams. In “Real Woman Have Bodies,” a short story from Her Body and Other Parties, a strange epidemic afflicts some women, causing them to slowly dematerialize; as with COVID-19, authorities rush to blame someone for it, accusing sexually transmitted diseases, the fashion industry, and millennials, among others. The stricken women exist like flickering holograms, “see-through and glowing faintly, like afterthoughts.” They are robbed of their voices in the process, like the typist in The Memory Police.

The story’s narrator, a salesgirl in a dress shop, discovers that the bodiless women have somehow been sewn into prom dresses, at their request. By sealing women within garments that teeter between tacky and tedious, Machado comments on the banal sexualisation of young girls. Scholar Jessica Campbell points out that she also invokes several fairy tale tropes, including Cinderella’s enchanted dress and the swan maiden or selkie, who is trapped in human form when a man steals her feathers or animal skin. In the skin-changing tales, the woman’s freedom pivots on her bestial dress, and she often reclaims it and flies or swims away at the end. In Machado’s story, the prom dress subsumes the female body, an ambiguous symbol of entrapment, preservation, and otherness.

The Body Dissolved in Words
No stranger to thinking about sexualisation and body sovereignty, Anne Boyer’s work assesses these themes in more philosophical, less phantasmagoric narratives than Machado’s. The prose poems in Boyer’s Garments Against Women, from 2015, muse on the ways in which capitalism—underpinning everything we do like the pattern for a dress that can never be made—changes the contours of, or even negates, women’s bodies and experiences. She deconstructs, in a section called “Sewing,” the tortured logic of woman’s labor, which is never fully compensated. Boyer conjures a garment that contains not disembodied women, as in Machado’s fiction, but the “hours of women’s and children’s lives” consumed in its production.

In another part of the book, Boyer wonders if a beauty product can transform her from subject to object:

The accountant and the air-conditioning repair man then said “Look at that sexy mouth. Look at those sexy legs” as if erased from the page of the body they were reading was that only hours before (before the Frost & Glow) that mouth and those legs were part of a story that read exactly as it was, told in the throes.

Here, as elsewhere, Boyer employs the middle voice—neither active nor passive—to devastating effect: “a story that read exactly as it was” is everyone’s and no one’s reading at all. Sometimes, too, she uses an expletive construction—when “there is/are” take the place of a more substantive subject—to vanish from sentences: “There are a lot of sleepless nights over seam finishes.” In this way, her body recedes into her prose to resist being recoded as information, to be sold to someone else.
In-Bodiment
In both Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji and Toni Morrion’s Beloved—novels completed one thousand years and half a world apart—bodies cross between reality and the spiritual plane, triggered by rage. The Tale of Genji, written by a court lady of Heian Japan around 1000 A.D. and considered by many scholars to be the world’s first novel, paints a world of hyper-controlled aesthetics threatened by supernatural forces. Early in the long chronicle, the eponymous Genji, a privileged prince who toys with women of all ages and classes, enjoys an affair with an elegant woman named Lady Rokujo, then ignores her. When Genji’s primary wife falls ill, exorcists are called in to drive away the evil spirits, and a familiar voice speaks through her mouth. Genji recognizes her as Rokujo; her jealousy has become a corporeal entity that she cannot control.

The lady herself only realizes her transformation after the fact:

She continued to feel weird, as though she were not herself, and her robes reeked of the smell of the poppy seeds that exorcists burn to drive out a lingering spirit. Strangely, the smell would not dissipate, but continued to permeate her body no matter how often she tried washing her hair or changing her robes. She was disgusted with herself and worried what others might say or think.

In this realm of meticulous surfaces, where the pattern on a robe must accord with the flowers currently in bloom, emotions refuse containment, slipping beyond the individual’s physical body to inhabit another’s.
Morrison’s Beloved tells a heartbreaking story with a similar movement. In her Gothic tale, an incorporeal spirit also moves into a living body. Morrison was inspired by the life events of Margaret Garner, a Black slave who, after fleeing a Kentucky plantation in the 1850s, killed her child to prevent her from being enslaved again. In the novel, that slain daughter, who calls herself Beloved after the sole word written on her tombstone, comes back to life and feeds on her mother, Sethe.

Babies are not so much embodied as in-bodied, finding shelter and nourishment in the womb, and Beloved enacts a baby’s drain on her mother’s body even from outside it. What begins as a house-haunting—before Beloved becomes flesh and blood, she troubles Sethe’s home for years, breaking objects and making handprints in cakes—ends as a hoarding of Sethe’s whole being. While ignoring her other daughter, Sethe starves and exhausts herself trying to appease her reincorporated child: “She took the best of everything—first. The best chair, the biggest piece, the prettiest plate, the brightest ribbon for her hair, and the more she took, the more Sethe began to talk, explain, describe how much she had suffered . . . None of which made the impression it was supposed to.”

While Sethe shrinks inside her skin, Beloved’s belly swells, as if pregnant. The daughter’s bottomless fury at being murdered by her mother can never be slaked, just as the tens of millions of people abused, raped, tortured, and killed by the institution of slavery can never be atoned for. If The Tale of Genji uses in-bodied spirits as reminders that emotions and desire can’t be ordered like a 31-syllable tanka poem, Beloved resurrects Sethe’s daughter to scream and storm for all the human bodies that suffered in silence. In the end, it is unclear whether Beloved is beaten back by exorcists’ prayers, like Rokujo’s spirit, or by her own inability to forgive history.

I find all of these texts fascinating right now, even oddly consoling. We have perhaps never been more aware than we are now that having a body is often fraught and dangerous, all the more so when it is enveloped by non-white skin.

Reading reminds us of the positive side of disembodiment. Under lockdown, reading has consoled many of us for the loss of wilder freedoms. While under the sway of books, we leave our bodies and inhabit someone else’s—filled with greater wisdom, to hold and to share, when we return to ourselves.


Copyright © Cynthia Gralla, 2021