Hustvedt’s Textual Skin
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter provides a close analysis of Didier Anzieu's concept of the ‘skin ego’ in order to rethink the relationship between the skin, the psyche and the literary text. Discussing Anzieu's account of the three primary functions of the skin as a ‘container’, an ‘interface’ and an ‘inscribing surface’, it examines the representation of the textual skin in Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved. Reading the numerous instances of ‘dermographism’ in Hustvedt's novel, alongside attempts by characters to generate a ‘second skin’, the chapter also considers the relationship between the surface of the body and aesthetic form, exploring the different ways that writing might perform literary contact. Interrogating Anzieu's description of a ‘skin of words’, it argues that a text, like a skin, is caught up in an endless process of destruction and renewal.
Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved is a novel of doublings and divisions: pairs meeting, touching each other’s lives, and parting. Hustvedt scrutinises contact points and moments of separation as she recounts both the closeness of friends and lovers, as well as the slowly unravelling relationships between them. The web of relations that makes up the narrative is emphasised through an exploration of touch and its relation to intimacy. In part 1 of this chapter, we explore this intimacy through an examination of the skin. By paying particular attention to the representation of the surface of the body in Hustvedt’s novel, we consider it as a site of communication and of division, as marking the possibility of contact and of rupture. Reading scars, spots, rashes and wrinkles, it soon becomes clear that Hustvedt’s exploration of the skin runs in parallel with her interrogation of the psyche. Thus, in part 2 we draw on Didier Anzieu’s theory of the skin ego in order to consider how the margins of the body converge with the skin of the mind. But Hustvedt’s novel is also a book about reading and writing, and the discussion turns to her representation of textual processes and encounters. Opening up the possibility of a textual skin, this chapter thus explores the co-implication of the limits of the body, the psyche and the text. Moving beyond the notion of the skin as a one-dimensional and static surface of the body, we read its passageways, folds and cracks in order to open up the contradictions, complications and complexities of the textual skin, and its capacity to be continually re-written and re-read.
The skin of the body
At the start of What I Loved Leo Hertzberg purchases a painting. The canvas depicts ‘a young woman lying on the floor in an empty room. She was propped up on one elbow, and she seemed to be looking at something (p.15) beyond the edge of the painting.’1 Noting the ambiguity of the title–Self-Portrait by William Wechsler–Leo observes the ‘thick stripes of black, gray, and white that may have been applied with a knife, and in those dense strokes of pigment I could see the marks left by a man’s thumb’ (p. 5). Purchasing the work, he takes it home to his wife, Erica. Here, examining the portrait again, he remarks on ‘a bruise just below her knee’. ‘I had seen it before,’ he admits to the reader,
but at that moment its purple cast, which was yellow-green at one edge, pulled my eyes toward it, as if this little wound were really the subject of the painting. I walked over, put my finger on the canvas, and traced the outline of the bruise. (p. 5)
Aroused by this gesture, he says, ‘I have often wondered why the image of a sore on a woman’s body should have been so erotic to me’:
Erica said that she thought my response had something to do with a desire to leave a mark on another person’s body. ‘Skin is soft,’ she said. ‘We’re easily cut and bruised. It’s not like she looks beaten or anything. It’s an ordinary little black-and-blue mark, but the way it’s painted makes it stick out. It’s like he loved doing it, like he wanted to make a little wound that would last forever.’ (p. 6)
Not long after buying the painting, Leo is introduced to Bill, the artist, and is invited to visit his studio, where he discovers six paintings of the same ‘dark-haired young woman’ (p. 10). This is Violet, later to become Bill’s second wife. Leo pauses by the third painting in the series, where he notices a pair of ‘red knee socks’ at the subject’s feet. What arrests him here is that ‘just below her knees were faint red lines left by the elastic of the socks’ (p. 11). Turning to Bill, he says that it reminds him of Jan Steen’s depiction of a woman at her morning toilet, taking off her sock. Bill replies, ‘“I saw that painting in Amsterdam when I was twenty-three, and it got me thinking about skin. I’m not interested in nudes. They’re too arty, but I’m really interested in skin”’ (p. 11). The two men start to talk about the representation of skin in art; they discuss the ‘beautiful red stigmata on the hand of Zurbarán’s Saint Francis’, ‘the skin color of Grünewald’s dead Christ’ and the ‘rosy skin of Boucher’s nudes’ (p. 11). And so it becomes clear that Leo and Bill’s friendship is one based on a shared interest in the surfaces of the body–its colours, its contours and its wounds.
From the start, Hustvedt explores the intimate links between the canvas and the skin, between painting and caressing, and between the brushstroke and the bruise. But this interest is by no means limited to (p.16) visual art, and Hustvedt repeatedly details the receptive surfaces of the body, its significance in our relations to the world and its ability to communicate aspects of our experience. Leo’s wife, Erica, for instance, is described as having ‘delicate skin’ (p. 103); Leo notes the ‘even pallor of her winter skin’ (p. 104) and also the way her recurring migraines ‘stole all the color from her face and turned the skin under her eyes nearly black’ (p. 111). After Matthew’s death, Erica leaves Leo. As she departs, Leo observes the ways ‘the lines around her eyes wrinkled’ and kisses ‘the mole over her lip’ (p. 150). It is as if the story of their relationship is mapped onto the complexion and contours of her body.
The gradual unfolding of surfaces in What I Loved demonstrates that its significance goes beyond skin deep. In particular, Hustvedt exposes the intimate connection between our internal psychological states and their translation onto the surfaces of the body. Finding it difficult to cope with Mark’s behaviour following the death of Bill, for instance, Violet’s grief is written all over her skin:
When I turned from the window and looked at Violet, she was so pale that her skin looked transparent, and I noticed a rash on her neck. Beneath her lowered eyes were faint purple shadows. I knew what I was seeing: dry grief, grief grown old and familiar. (p. 339)
Hustvedt thus reinforces the fact that our internal states of mind are bound up with the effects of the skin. This points to an intimate relationship between the margins of the body and the limits of the psyche. The skin, it seems, functions as a metonym not just for the body, but for the subject’s entire psychical makeup.
The contiguity between the skin and the psyche can be examined in light of Didier Anzieu’s theory of the skin ego. Following the literal trajectory of Sigmund Freud’s statement in ‘The Ego and the Id’ (1923) that ‘the ego is first and foremost a bodily ego; it is not merely a surface entity, but is itself the projection of a surface’, Anzieu conceives of the ego as a projection in the psyche of the body’s surface.2 He suggests that this projection responds to our need for a narcissistic envelope that ensures a continuous sense of self, and thus surmises, ‘we may say, then, that consciousness appears at the surface of the psychical apparatus; better still, it is that surface’.3 Looking to object relations theory, Anzieu outlines his theory of the ‘skin ego’–the impact of the skin on the mind, even the mind of the skin:
By Skin Ego, I mean a mental image of which the Ego of the child makes use during the early phases of its development to represent itself as an Ego containing psychical contents, on the basis of its experience of the surface of the (p.17) body. This corresponds to the moment at which the psychical Ego differentiates itself from the bodily Ego at the operative level while remaining confused with it at the figurative level.4
Anzieu thus maps the functions of the biological skin onto the psychological skin and proposes that the epidermis has three physical roles that are transferred onto the psychical development of the individual:
The primary function of the skin is as the sac which contains and retains […] Its second function is as the interface which marks the boundary with the outside and keeps that outside out […] Finally, the third function […] is as a site and a primary means of communicating with others, of establishing signifying relations; it is, moreover, an ‘inscribing surface’ for the marks left by those others.5
These three functions derive from Anzieu’s original 1974 article on the skin ego.6 Although he goes on to develop these in The Skin Ego to include the functions of maintaining, containing, protecting, individuating, intersensoriality, supporting sexual excitation, libidinal recharging, registering tactile sensory traces and a negative or anti-function, he insists that the list ‘remains open’.7 Steven Connor points out, moreover, that ‘the nine functions distinguished by Anzieu do not smoothly cooperate, or interconnect’.8 Instead, he suggests, they contribute to a ‘repertoire of different kinds of metaphorical enactment of skin function’.9 Taking the initial three functions as a starting point, and building on Connor’s reading of this metaphor, we now turn to Hustvedt’s representations of the skin as a container, an interface and an inscribing surface.
The skin as psyche
When Leo sits beside Bill’s brother at a Thanksgiving dinner, he observes, ‘Dan’s craziness wasn’t hidden. His fingernails were heavily rimmed with dirt, and his neck was thickly covered with ash-colored flakes of drying skin. His shirt had been buttoned wrong, giving his whole upper body a lopsided appearance’ (p. 63). It is clear that his disordered semblance and flaking skin correspond to the psychological fragmentation that he experiences. His sense of skin, it seems, does not sufficiently hold him together. But he is not alone. In fact, both Dan and Bill are described as having ‘emotions that weren’t easy to contain’ (p. 66), and Leo also grapples with a fear so overwhelming that ‘no single person could contain it’ (p. 344). This coincides with Anzieu’s primary function of the skin ego as a ‘sac which contains and retains’. (p.18) Set in motion by the maternal ‘handling’ and ‘holding’ environment experienced by the infant, Anzieu suggests that we gradually learn to project the idea of an imaginary skin to contain our dreams, phantasies and memories. The containing function of the skin thus allows us, he asserts, the ‘possibility of an originary psychical space’.10 However, as Mark’s behaviour and his own sense of self deteriorate, Leo exhibits what Anzieu would term a partial failure of the skin ego, and it becomes apparent that the trauma of losing Matthew has ruptured his sense of skin. As a result, he finds that ‘wind blew through me rather than over me, and I thought I could feel my skeleton rattle’ (p. 148).
When the containing function of the skin ego is damaged or has not been sufficiently established, the resulting anxiety, Anzieu says, may take two forms. On the one hand, ‘the individual seeks a substitute shell in physical pain or psychical activity: he wraps himself in suffering’; on the other hand, the container exists, but ‘its continuity is broken into by holes’.11 This situation leads to a ‘colander’ skin ego: ‘thoughts, and memories are only with difficulty retained; they leak away’.12 The skin ego as colander or sieve is played out quite explicitly in What I Loved via Violet’s intellectual preoccupation with physical and mental disorders. Reading her new book, Locked Bodies: An Exploration of Contemporary Body Images and Eating Disorders, Leo comes across the case of Raymond, ‘a hugely fat seven-year-old’, who ‘told his therapist that he thought his body was made of jelly and that if his skin was punctured, his insides would run out’ (p. 163). Raymond is afraid that the surface of his body will not sufficiently contain him and that he will leak out of the holes in his skin. Of relevance to this is the work of psychoanalyst, Esther Bick, who states in her 1968 article that if the primal skin function is not sufficiently established, the subject may attempt to reinforce his or her own sense of containment through the establishment of the ‘second skin’.13 This is true of her schizophrenic patient, Mary, whose skin ego ‘seemed in constant danger of spilling out its contents’.14 Mary’s ‘terror of falling to pieces, of liquefying’ is a return, Bick says, to the ‘catastrophic anxiety of falling-into-space’, and it is only by developing alternative means of containment that she is able to hold herself together in the face of overwhelming feelings.15 In order to safeguard herself against this all-consuming anxiety, Mary generates a ‘hunched, stiff-jointed’ physical muscularity, which acts as a ‘pseudo-independence’ or ‘second skin’.16 She thus creates a muscular carapace to compensate for the damage to her psychological skin.
Representations of the ‘second skin’ frequently feature in Hustvedt’s work through the recurring motif of bodily armour. Leo, for instance, (p.19) recalls how he coped after the death of Matthew: ‘At the time, I was like a man encased in a heavy suit of armor, and inside that corporeal fortress I lived with a single-minded wish: I will not be comforted’ (pp. 144–5). His efforts to hold himself together in the face of his grief take on a physical form. This metaphor returns in Hustvedt’s fourth novel, The Sorrows of an American, when the protagonist, a psychoanalyst named Erik, reflects on a patient’s ‘dread of “cracking up”’.17 After a troubling appointment, Erik observes that Ms W. ‘walked like a person in a suit of armor’ (p. 258). Yet more noteworthy, however, is the means by which Erik generates his own second skin. Rather than build up a physical carapace, Erik protects himself by reinforcing a rigid work ethic: ‘Work was my skeleton, my musculature. Without it, I felt like a jellyfish’ (p. 183). Steven Connor reminds us that while such second skins might create a stronger sense of psychological containment, they also anaesthetise us, and hence allow ‘no sensation through, sever[ing] that dual directionality characteristic of ordinary skin’.18 The second skin, then, represses feeling, expression and perception, even as it attempts to keep us in one piece.
In The Sorrows of an American, another of Erik’s patients, Ms L., reports her desperate need to police the body’s borders: ‘“Some days, it’s like I don’t have any skin”’, she tells Erik: ‘“I’m all raw and bleeding”’ (p. 155). Erik acknowledges that she has ‘no skin, no barrier, no protection’ and insists, ‘the borders are important’ (p. 155). This emphasis on preserving the boundaries of the body is reiterated in What I Loved through Violet’s research into eating disorders. Among a list of strategies designed to firm up the limits of the self, she includes ‘“diet centers, body-building, plastic surgery”’, all of which ‘“testify to an idea of the body as extremely vulnerable–one with failing thresholds, one that is under constant threat”’ (p. 162). She explains to Leo that ‘in an age that has absorbed nuclear threat, biological warfare, and AIDS, the perfect body has become armor–hard, shiny, and impenetrable’ (p. 162). Rather than being a porous surface, then, the ideal skin is an impermeable boundary that forbids anything from passing through. Violet’s ‘mission’, as Leo describes it, is to ‘uncover the afflictions she called “inverted hysterias.” “Nowadays girls make boundaries,” she said. “The hysterics wanted to explode them. Anorexics build them up”’ (p. 81). She tries to explain this shift in terms of the metaphor of ‘mixing’:
‘It started because I was looking for a way to talk about the threat anorexics feel from the outside. Those girls have overmixed, if you see what I mean. They find it hard to separate the needs and desires of other people from their own. After a while, they rebel by shutting down. They want to close up all their openings so nothing and nobody can get in.’ (pp. 88–9)
(p.20) She continues, ‘“But mixing is the way of the world. The world passes through us–food, books, pictures, other people”’ (p. 89). Mixing, she confirms, is a ‘“key term […] It explains what people rarely talk about, because we define ourselves as isolated, closed bodies who bump up against each other but stay shut”’ (p. 91). Here, she demonstrates Anzieu’s account of the second function of the skin ego as ‘the interface which marks the boundary with the outside and keeps that outside out’.19 Anzieu argues that it is through tactile experience that the child is able ‘progressively to differentiate a surface which has both an inner and an outer face, in other words an interface, permitting a distinction between inside and outside’.20 The skin ego thus distinguishes between internal and external realms of self-experience, and it is essential to primal unity–the establishment of firm boundaries clearly delimiting self from other. Throughout What I Loved, however, characters are unable to rely on the experiential borders of the body. Even the body of work left by Bill after his death seems to say to Leo, ‘When does one thing cease and another begin? Your borders are inventions, jokes, absurdities’ (p. 298). Everywhere, we are faced with the sense that, as Mark Taylor puts it, the very boundaries ‘that once seemed secure are becoming permeable membranes allowing inner to become outer and outer to become inner’.21
When Leo and Erica’s son, Matthew, turns four, he addresses his parents and asks how the number four gets ‘“inside his body”’ (p. 56). Leo explains to him that numbers don’t ‘magically lodge themselves inside us on birthdays’: ‘“The number doesn’t go inside you, Matt. People say you’re turning four, but nothing happens in your body”’ (p. 56). Leo reflects:
It wasn’t strange that he had stumbled over the phrase ‘to turn four.’ His body had miraculous properties, after all. It had an invisible inside and a smooth surface with openings and passageways. Food went into it. Urine and feces came out of it. When he cried, a salty liquid streamed from his eyes. How could he possibly know that ‘turning four’ didn’t signify yet another physical transformation, a kind of corporeal ‘open sesame’ that allowed a brand-new number four to take its place beside his heart or in his stomach or maybe find a home in his head? (pp. 56–7)
But the body, of course, isn’t simply a ‘smooth surface’: its openings and passageways mean that the inside has the capacity to turn outside and vice versa. This is evident in What I Loved through the motif of impregnation. Considering Bill’s paintings of Violet, for instance, Leo muses that ‘one of the fantasies between the viewer/painter and the female object had to be impregnation. After all, conception is (p.21) plurality–the two in the one–the male and the female’ (p. 26). For Imogen Tyler, pregnancy means that ‘the body’s skin surface no longer straightforwardly performs the function of separating self from not-self’.22 Pregnancy enacts the possibility of a skin inside a skin, thus challenging our conceptions of interiority and exteriority. It means that the outside of the unborn infant’s skin is enfolded in the inside of the mother, and that the mother’s inside is on the baby’s outside. Connor comes to similar conclusions, suggesting that the maternal body actually embodies the notion of the interface: ‘Her skin is a meeting place for the different possibilities or natures of the skin; as point of contact or exposure; as medium of transmission or permeation.’23 The ‘twin’ pregnancies of Erica and Lucille in What I Loved, then, offer us a double figure of the maternal skin. Seeing Erica and Lucille side by side, and thinking about the ways that the lives of these two families infiltrate each other, adds a further complication to our understanding of the boundaries between inside and outside, self and other.
Stretchmarks, birthmarks, wounds and wrinkles all form part of the story of the skin, and draw our attention to Anzieu’s account of the third function of the skin as a ‘site and a primary means of communicating with others, of establishing signifying relations […] and an “inscribing surface” for the marks left by those others’.24 The skin, he remarks, is a ‘sensitive surface, capable of registering traces and inscriptions’.25 It may come as no surprise, then, that What I Loved is composed of repeated references to writing on the skin. Mark’s friend Teenie, for instance, ‘looked damaged, as if her neuroses had written themselves onto her body’ (p. 190). This suggests that as well as communicating feelings of which we are aware, the skin has the capacity to remember what we might try to forget. Jay Prosser argues that the skin is ‘the body’s memory of our lives’, and is thus ‘saturated with the unconscious’.26 He goes on to state that ‘psychic disturbance can inscribe on the skin traumatic memories according to the hysterical symptomisations of the unconscious’; they are ‘fantasmatic returns of the repressed’.27 Through often unconscious processes, the body’s narratives become tools for communication, and as such, the skin serves as a text to be read.
Trying to discover more about Mark and his friends, and in particular the influence of the artist, Teddy Giles, on Bill’s son, Leo recruits Lazlo as a pseudo-private investigator. Lazlo explains that he has heard ‘peculiar reports about “branding”–some form of body marking unique to Giles’s inner circle’ (p. 241). Leo witnesses this first hand when he visits Teenie to discuss Mark’s behaviour, but learns something else about Mark–another sort of marking:
(p.22) Finally, she said, ‘It started out like a game. I was going to get a tattoo on my stomach that said “The Mark.” Teddy was joking around and said he’d do it for me, but then … ’ Teenie lifted up her shirt and I saw two small scars that formed an M and a W, one on top of the other, so the bottom of the M met the top of the W to form a single character. (pp. 277–8)
Teenie claims that Giles inflicted the wound and that Mark helped. When he is confronted, Giles insists, ‘“Teenie cuts herself. She has scars all over her arms”’ (p. 289), and Leo is left reflecting on the haunting ways that the letters M and W keep on returning: ‘I remembered the sign on her skin–the connected M’s, or the M attached to the W. M&M. Bill’s M’s–the boys, Matthew and Mark’ (p. 301). The uncanny repetition of ‘M’ in the novel, I suggest, points towards the textual ambiguity of the skin and the different ways of marking the body.
Anzieu’s theorisation of the skin as an inscribing surface is actualised in What I Loved through its portrayal of cases of dermographia. From derma, the Greek word for skin, and graphesis, meaning writing, dermographia is ‘writing on, or marking, the skin’.28 During an exhibition of Bill’s art, Leo and Erica notice a black-and-white photograph that depicts ‘a woman’s head and torso from behind. The word SATAN had been written in large letters on the skin between her shoulder blades’ (p. 71). Erica turns to Violet who confirms her suspicions: ‘“Dermagraphism”’ (p. 71).29 Referring to the kind of treatment hysterical patients received at the Salpêtrière hospital in the nineteenth century, Bill explains to Leo, ‘“Yes, they wrote on them […] The doctors traced their bodies with a blunt instrument and the words or pictures would appear on the skin. Then they took photographs of the writing”’ (p. 71). Leo and Erica discover further examples of dermographia in Bill’s work: ‘Written twice on her arm, once with red paint and once with black crayon, was T. BARTHÉLÉMY. The letters appeared to be bleeding’ (p. 72). Violet explains that Barthélémy was a French doctor ‘“who wrote his name on a woman, and then commanded her to bleed from the letters at four o’clock the same afternoon. She bled, and according to the report, the name remained visible for three months”’ (p. 71). Violet continues: ‘Doctors like Barthélémy signed women’s bodies as if they are works of art’ (p. 74). Admitting that the scene was ‘“pretty theatrical”’, Violet still insists that ‘“the dermagraphism was real”’, and even performs it herself:
She held out her forearm and traced the inside of it lightly with the index finger of her free hand. The name Violet Blom appeared on her skin as a pale inscription, which at first was the color of a pink rose and then deepened slightly. She closed her eyes, breathed again, and an instant later, she opened her eyes. ‘Magic,’ she said. ‘Real magic.’ (p. 74)
(p.23) Cases of dermographia were originally perceived to be symptoms of hysteria–the return of repressed desire, for instance, inscribed on the skin.30 Addressing ‘the interplay of hysteric discursivity and mechanisms of control’, Janet Beizer explains:
Women–especially hysterics–were said to be more impressionable than men; consequently they were thought to be more often subject to dermographism, the immune reaction that doctors appropriated as skin-writing or skin-drawing, and sometimes referred to as autography or lithography.31
These ‘textual poses’, Beizer writes, demonstrate the female body as ‘saying nothing, signifying all’.32 As always, skin inscription is bound up in politics of control and relations of power. This is not to suggest, however, that the skin is a blank slate awaiting inscription. As Ahmed and Stacey point out, ‘the skin matters as matter: it is a substantial, tactile covering that bears the weight of the body’.33 The skin, in other words, is always already written on, and the performance of identity is dependent on how we read and write ourselves–and each other.
Notwithstanding the gender politics at work, Hustvedt’s portrayal of dermographism in What I Loved points to the complex relationship between writing and the skin. For Ahmed and Stacey, dermographism not only refers to the medical process of writing on or marking the surface of the body, it also suggests that ‘skin is itself also an effect of such marking’.34 Rejecting the notion that ‘skin can be reduced to writing’, they insist that ‘the substance of the skin is itself dependent on regimes of writing that mark the skin in different ways or that produce the skin as marked. The skin is a writerly effect.’35 But in what ways, I ask, might this relationship be read in reverse? Might we consider not only the ways that the skin is written upon and read, but also the ways that the text, too, can function like a skin?
The skin of the text
In the final part of this chapter, we turn to the skin’s implication in the reading and writing processes, examining the text’s participation in the metaphorical repertoire of the skin. Reflecting on Anzieu’s three primary functions of the skin–the container, the interface and the inscribing surface–I discuss the ways that these functions might provide us with a model for rethinking aesthetic form. This means examining Hustvedt’s use of metafiction to see how it challenges the properties, functions and contradictions of its own limits. Indeed, like the skin, the text is (p.24) continually made and unmade. Signifying beyond its own limits, and involving processes of both writing and skinning, it is always re-written and re-read.
Early in The Skin Ego, Anzieu acknowledges the influence of Sigmund Freud’s 1925 contribution, ‘A Note Upon “The Mystic Writing-Pad”’, in the development of his own theory, suggesting that Freud’s reference to the ‘psychical apparatus’ in a letter to Fliess on 6 December 1896 ‘anticipates the concept of the Skin Ego’.36 He goes on to argue that Freud’s account of the writing-pad ‘completes the detailed description of the topographical structure of this outer envelope and implicitly confirms the supporting of the Ego on the skin’.37 Freud describes a ‘small contrivance’ which can be used in order to ‘supplement and guarantee’ our limited capacity to remember.38 It consists of a thin transparent sheet laid over a slab of wax or resin. The top sheet is itself divided into two layers made of celluloid and waxed paper and joined at each end. Scratching the pad with a stylus, writing appears on the celluloid, but by raising both top layers the waxed paper is cleared of writing and is ready to be reinscribed. However, the writing remains on the surface of the wax slab, and thus the mystic pad, Freud points out, ‘provides not only a receptive surface that can be used over and over again’, but also bears a ‘permanent trace of what has been written’.39 Appropriating the double-layered structure of the mystic writing-pad, Anzieu thus draws attention to the ‘palimpsestuous’ nature of the skin.40 At the same time, however, he unwittingly enacts Jacques Derrida’s 1966 statement that Freud’s metaphor of writing ‘haunts European discourse’.41
Although Anzieu conceptualises the skin ego in relation to Freud’s mystic writing-pad, he does not fully acknowledge the significance of this metaphor or the contiguity of a theory of writing to a theory of skin. The closest he comes is in his account of Fanchon, a teenage girl abandoned at birth.42 As the result of a troubled upbringing, Fanchon experiences severe problems during puberty, including eating disorders, self-mutilation, auditory hallucination and a ritual of compulsive washing: ‘She washed and rubbed herself till she tore off the skin and made it bleed.’43 Tearing the surface of her body in this way, Fanchon tries to escape her own skin. Anzieu recounts her various attempts to renegotiate the boundaries of her body in order to contain her emotional distress. This includes her application of what he calls ‘representational writing’, which offers Fanchon some relief:
Every morning on awakening, to keep up her struggle against madness and suicide, she put down on paper certain fixed sentences, relating to material facts concerning the present performance of her bodily functions […] along (p.25) with variable sentences, as in a private journal, containing judgements, interpretations, significations.44
This, Anzieu states, ‘could only be sustained and produced thanks to the skeleton provided by the immutable body of the text which gave order to space and time and marked out a frontier between Self and non-Self’.45 The body of the text, in effect, enables her to create a substitute for her own disordered body. As Fanchon herself explains, ‘“It is as if that writing enabled me to re-cover a skin”.’46 The text, this tells us, has the capacity to function like a skin. But while Fanchon’s remark highlights the relationship between writing and the body, Anzieu does not fully interrogate this notion, and nor does he address the textual implications of writing as skin. The text is thus a crucial but concealed metaphor in the psychoanalysis of the skin, one that keeps returning to the surface.
If Anzieu tries to prevent the metaphor of writing from fully emerging in The Skin Ego, Hustvedt cannot be accused of the same. All the central characters in What I Loved–Leo, Violet, Erica, Lucille, Bill, Dan and Lazlo–are engaged in recurring acts of textual production and consumption. Alongside her authorship of academic texts, for instance, Violet writes letters to Bill after he leaves her to return to his first wife: ‘We’ve written and drawn ourselves into each other. Hard. You know how hard’ (p. 58). Lucille writes too: she is a poet, remarking, ‘I am very particular when I write. I am always worrying about verbs’ (p. 16). An assistant professor of English, Leo’s wife Erica is another writer, one concerned with interrogating the very acts of writing. Pointing to the containing properties of the text, she remarks to Bill, ‘“So you agree, the novel is a bag that can hold anything”’ (p. 17). Bill’s schizophrenic brother, Dan, writes too, but his ‘plays and poems were mostly unfinished, the tattered products of a mind that ran in circles and could never leap out of itself’ (p. 66). Leo observes that ‘the scraps of paper and manuscript pages that lie scattered about his one-room apartment are covered with verse or bits of dialogue followed by ellipses’ (p. 357). The scattered, fragmented and interrupted quality to his text is indicative of the lack of containment he experiences, and is signalled by the ‘ash-colored flakes of drying skin’ on his body (p. 63). Despite his attempt to rewrite a skin, then, Dan is coming to pieces.
Like the other characters, Leo, mourning the loss of Matthew and his separation from Erica, also writes ‘long and hard’ (p. 152). Leo’s status as a writer, however, is a doubly heightened one, for not only does he write (academic papers, essays on art history and letters to Erica), but he is also the narrator of What I Loved, drawing attention to his own position as the novel’s presumed author. In the midst of writing a book about (p.26) Bill, for instance, he interrupts his endeavours to ‘write these pages’ (p. 362). He tells Lazlo that this is a project he must undertake alone:
He knows that I dusted off my old manual typewriter for the occasion and have been typing in a trance every day for hours. I chose my old Olympia because my fingers don’t lose their position on the keys as easily as on a computer. ‘You’re straining your eyes, Leo,’ he tells me. ‘You should let me help you with whatever it is.’ But he can’t help me with this story. (p. 362)
With failing eyesight, Leo writes. And it is the very act of writing blind for Leo that enables him to recover a skin. In the final pages of the novel, however, he notes that ‘every story we tell about ourselves can only be told in the past tense. It winds backward from where we now stand, no longer the actors in the story but its spectators who have chosen to speak’ (p. 364). Referring to the gaps we necessarily leave in all our narratives, he explains that ‘the story flies over the blanks, filling them in with the hypotaxis of an “and” or an “and then.” I’ve done it in these pages to stay on a path I know is interrupted by shallow pits and several deep holes’ (p. 365). Although his writing seeks to patch up the holes in his skin ego, then, his narrative necessarily points to its interruptions and intervals. For Leo, rather than simply weaving a smooth, solid and static surface, writing offers him a way to work through the cracks, passageways, folds and wounds that make up our skin. This is not to suggest that all skins are unable to contain us; rather, it points out that no skin is seamless.
Hustvedt dramatises the relationship between text and skin further still through her frequent references to letters and words inscribed on or pressed against the skin. In What I Loved, Violet gives Dan a ‘tiny canvas that Bill had done of the letter W’ (p. 258). Leo notes that ‘Dan put it under his shirt and hugged the little painting throughout the afternoon’, thus guaranteeing the contact between text and skin (p. 258). Leo claims he knows why Dan is holding the painting so close: ‘He wanted no separation between himself and the little painting, because somewhere in the wood and canvas and metal he imagined that he was touching his older brother’ (p. 258). Here, the body of the text works as a substitute for Bill’s absent body. Furthermore, this W simultaneously recalls Matt’s blue pyjamas and the ‘red felt S sewed onto the chest and a cape’ (p. 66), and prefigures the letters carved on Teenie’s skin and the associative texts that unfold: ‘I remembered the sign on her skin–the connected M’s, or the M attached to the W. M&M. Bill’s M’s–the boys, Matthew and Mark. No K tonight, huh, M&M?’ (p. 301). There are other examples. One afternoon, Leo picks up a doll fashioned by Bill: ‘The girl doll was on her knees with her arms raised (p.27) upward in a beseeching gesture. When I saw the C pinned to her chest, I thought of Saint Catherine’ (p. 126). And later, when ‘flayed, skewered, and dismembered’ cats are discovered around the city, Leo learns that these animals ‘had all been signed with the letters S.M.’ (p. 209). The inscription of letters on the skin not only points to the co-implication of the page and the body, but also raises questions regarding the place of language. Are words inside or outside us? Are the texts we read and write within or without? Could they be located at the very limits of the self–at the skin? And if so, what are the implications of this for writing on the skin?
In The Sorrows of an American, Hustvedt once again positions the text at the limits of the subject, disturbing the interface between the interior and the exterior. Hearing his father repeat his mother’s name without seeming to realise it, Erik remarks: ‘That is the strangeness of language: it crosses the boundaries of the body, is at once inside and outside, and it sometimes happens that we don’t notice the threshold has been crossed’ (pp. 16–17). This idea is reiterated by Erik’s sister, Inga, who reports a passion for the ‘stories of philosophers’:
She talked about Pascal’s carriage hanging over the water on the Pont de Neuilly, about his rescue, and the Memorial, written Monday November 23, 1654, when he recorded the words of his ecstasy, which he sewed into his coat to keep with him always. (p. 55)
Describing an intense religious experience that Pascal kept secret all his life, Inga is referring to the parchment stitched into the lining of his coat. The parchment bears two slightly different accounts of his experiences that night and, reputedly, was unpicked and resewn every time he changed his coat.47 Inga, like Dan, thus communicates an uncanny desire to keep the text as close as possible to the body, to rethink, perhaps, the possibility of a textual skin.
Inga’s account of Pascal recalls Hélène Cixous’s description of Stendhal in Rootprints: Memory and Life Writing. In a series of interviews, Mireille Calle-Gruber asks Cixous: ‘While we were speaking you wrote: what we write on. On what?’48 Cixous responds: ‘On the waistband of our trousers’, referring to Stendhal’s autobiography, The Life of Henry Brulard (1890).49 In the opening pages of this fragment of autobiography, Stendhal reflects, ‘I shall soon be fifty, it’s high time I got to know myself.’50 Thinking over his ‘unhappy love affairs’ and their ‘victories’, he informs us that as he mused, ‘I hurried back to the Palazzo Conti (Piazza Minerva), quite exhausted. I was wearing trousers made of white English stuff; I wrote inside the belt: “October 16th, 1832, I am going to be fifty,” thus abbreviated so as not to be understood: (p.28) “Imgo ingt obe5”.’51 In Rootprints, Cixous appeals to this Imgo ingt obe5 to refigure her own passage through the scene of writing. Like Stendhal, she writes on the edge, on the waistband of her trousers: ‘I wrote on the waistband, on the inside […] As if I were writing on the inside of myself.’52 ‘We write the book’, Cixous argues, ‘for the skin of our belly’; ‘it is as if I were writing on the inside of myself. It is as if the page were really inside. The least outside possible. As close as possible to the body. As if my body enveloped my own paper.’53 Moving beyond a simple comparison of skin and page, then, Cixous once again voices the relationship between writing and the skin, situating the text at the very limits and at the very heart of experience.
Very early in The Skin Ego, Anzieu describes the ‘poet searching for a “skin of words”’.54 He passes over this crucial remark almost without further comment. And while he discusses the representation of skin in literature and briefly testifies to the ways in which writing can help recover a sense of psychological containment in cases of pathology, he does not seek to fully unravel the unmistakable bond between text and skin. This relation is repeatedly played out in Siri Hustvedt’s fiction–a body of work that draws attention to rather than conceals the interrelatedness of writing and the body. However, the metaphor of writing returns in Anzieu’s text. At the very end of The Skin Ego he pauses. Referring to his own act of writing, he states, ‘the spoken word, and even more, the written word, has the power to function as a skin […] If I have written this book, it is to defend my own Skin Ego also by writing.’55 Here, he acknowledges what a study of Hustvedt’s fiction makes clear: the co-implication of writing and skin. Appearing at the very end of The Skin Ego, Anzieu’s comment also implies that this relationship is to be found at the text’s limits–at the text’s own skin. Finally, turning his text back on itself, he prompts us to consider our own textual skins. Thus, as Anzieu seems to suggest I might, and in the kind of reversal that Hustvedt repeatedly performs, I end this chapter by reflecting on the processes of its own construction. As I write this chapter–moreover, this book–how do I hold it together? Or in what ways might it be said to hold me together? Do I write it or does it write me? Is this text inside me or outside me? Perhaps, as Cixous suggests, I am always writing on the inside of myself, the least outside possible.
(p.29) (2.) Freud, ‘The Ego and the Id’, in The Ego and the Id and Other Works. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud [hereafter SE], vol. 19, pp. 3–66 (p. 26). All further quotations are taken from this edition.
The importance of the surface is reiterated in ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, first published in 1920, where Freud writes of the Perception-Consciousness: ‘It must lie on the borderline between outside and inside; it must be turned towards the external world and must envelop the other psychical systems.’ The ‘“seat” of consciousness’, he continues, is ‘the outermost, enveloping layer of the central organ. Cerebral anatomy has no need to consider why, speaking anatomically, consciousness should be lodged on the surface of the brain instead of being safely housed somewhere in its inmost interior’ (Freud, SE 18, pp. 1–64 (p. 24)).
(10.) Anzieu, The Skin Ego, p. 13. Anzieu draws on Wilfred Bion’s notion of alpha-functioning in containment, whereby the container, he says, forms ‘a passive receptacle where the baby may store its sensations/images/affects, which in this way are neutralized and preserved’ (Bion, Learning from Experience; Anzieu, The Skin Ego, p. 101). A ‘maternal reverie’ enables the alpha-function, which ‘transforms and restores to the child his sensations/images/affects in a representable form’ (p. 101). His theory also builds on Winnicott’s (1971) concept of the maternal ‘holding space’ in child development, which states that in order for healthy maturation to take place, the mother or other caregiver must offer a containing structure in which to ‘hold’ the infant physically and psychologically, until the child is able to internalise this for his- or herself (Winnicott, Playing and Reality; see Anzieu, The Skin Ego, p. 105).
(17.) Hustvedt, The Sorrows of an American, p. 258. Further page references to this edition appear parenthetically in the main body of the text. Hustvedt makes direct reference to the role of the container in this novel. Erik, for instance, muses over a session with Ms L.: ‘I wrote down Bion’s word “container,” the analyst as a vessel, a place to put your mess. Me, the urinal’ (p. 183).
(29.) Elsewhere spelled ‘dermographism’.
(30.) See Connor, The Book of Skin, pp. 131–4; Taşkapan and Harmanyeri, ‘Evaluation of Patients with Symptomatic Dermographism’, pp. 58–62; Montagu, Touching, pp. 147–8. Today, dermographic urticaria is most frequently understood as the breaking down of a membrane in the skin under physical pressure, causing an allergic-like reaction, and it is often treated with antihistamines. Connor points out that it reveals ‘an abnormal sensitivity of the skin which means that it reacts to the lightest pressure with swelling and weals. Words and images traced upon the skin of such patients may remain for 24 hours or longer.’ Connor, The Book of Skin, p. 131.
(33.) Ahmed and Stacey, ‘Introduction’, p. 15. Michel Foucault argues that the body is written on by historically and culturally specific discourses and technologies. See Discipline and Punish, where he addresses the disciplinary regime of criminals, arguing that the law is inscribed on the surface of the body. An often-cited literary example of this appears is Franz Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’, pp. 140–67; see Anzieu, The Skin Ego, p. 105. Judith Butler, however, refutes the notion of ‘cultural inscription as a “single drama” that acts on the body’. She refuses to accept ‘the body’ as a ‘blank page’ or a ‘medium’ that only emerges via the act of inscription. This suggests that the skin can never pre-exist its own marking; instead, it is inscribed by the trace of its own signifying matter (Butler, Gender Trouble, pp. 165–6). These debates have been discussed at length elsewhere, and rather than rehearse them here, I point the reader to Biddle, ‘Inscribing Identity’, pp. 177–9, and Mascia-Lees and Sharpe, Tattoo, Torture, Mutilation, and Adornment, in addition to the aforementioned texts.
(36.) Anzieu, The Skin Ego, p. 71. Freud, The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess 1887–1904. In this letter Freud discusses the ‘psychic periods of development and the sexual phases’ (p. 209):
I am working on the assumption that our psychic mechanism has come into being by a process of stratification: the material present in the form of memory traces being subjected from time to time to a rearrangement in accordance with fresh circumstances–to a retranscription. (p. 207)
He insists, ‘the fact that there are more psychic phases would fit very well with my assumption of still further translations and innovations of the psychic apparatus’ (pp. 211–12).
(39.) Freud, SE 19, p. 230. Freud compares this device to our ‘perceptual apparatus’ (originally outlined in Beyond the Pleasure Principle): ‘our mind consists of two layers, of an external protective shield against stimuli whose task it is to diminish the strength of excitations coming in, and of a surface behind it which receives the stimuli, namely the system Pcpt.-Cs’ (p. 230).
(40.) The palimpsest is the uncanny economy that enables a surface to be repeatedly reinscribed while at the same time preserving the trace of its history. Sarah Dillon is especially interested in the trace left by the ‘successful failure’ or imperfect erasure of the original text. She argues that the capacity for the ‘original’ writing to be temporarily effaced enables the parchment to be repeatedly re-used, while at the same time preserving the ghost of the original (Dillon, Palimpsest, p. 31).
(46.) Enriquez, Aux Carrefours, p. 213, cited in Anzieu, The Skin Ego, p. 231. This has interesting implications for Maggie Turp’s notion of the ‘narrative skin’–the web of words generated by the therapeutic dyad (Turp, Psychosomatic Health, p. 62).