Decoding body and sex signs in literature

Abstract. Body is a kind of artistic signs in literary work. Body and sexuality become interests to many researchers. The body in behaviors of sexual intercourse has turn to artistic “codes,”which includes numerous layers of meanings. Existed as type of signs, the body and sexuality are not represented as sexual titillation or shocking images in its semiosphere networ. These signs create the meaning layers in depth. Basing on a comparison with historical and cultural codes, this article carries out to decode signs of the body and sexuality showed in some contemporary literary works.

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15 HNUE JOURNAL OF SCIENCE DOI: 10.18173/2354-1067.2018-0044 Social Sciences, 2018, Volume 63, Issue 7, pp. 15-21 This paper is available online at DECODING BODY AND SEX SIGNS IN LITERATURE Le Tra My Faculty of Philology, Hanoi National University of Education Abstract. Body is a kind of artistic signs in literary work. Body and sexuality become interests to many researchers. The body in behaviors of sexual intercourse has turn to artistic “codes,”which includes numerous layers of meanings. Existed as type of signs, the body and sexuality are not represented as sexual titillation or shocking images in its semiosphere networ. These signs create the meaning layers in depth. Basing on a comparison with historical and cultural codes, this article carries out to decode signs of the body and sexuality showed in some contemporary literary works. Keywords: the aesthetic sign, body, an artistic code. 1. Introduction Body is the base of life, feeling of the world, an origin of happiness and miseries of human beings. The body is the research object of linguistics, sociology, medicine, politics, religion, and aesthetics. Body is also an aesthetic symbol in literature. When discussing the values of literature from different aspects, the body sign has been noticed by many researchers in the world. The body issue in literature has examined in different relationships such as: body and sex, body and politics, body and morbidity, body and its represents in culture, body and violence, body and race, and body and language. From semiotic perspective, body is a kind of the sign in the signal systems of work, which has the function of depicting characters and identifying the concrete history and society in their cultural characteristics. Body studies is a new tendency in literary and cultural studies in Vietnamese literature. There are many research works on this subject in the world. From the limitation of explored materials, we realize that oversea researchers have addressed some issues which are related to the body issues such as body representation in the medieval literature, and body in the relationships with traumas, senescence, illnesses, race, sciences, sex, and deaths [3]. In China, researchers have also dealt with some issues such as body and discourse (Ma Thuc Trinh), body and narrative (Nam Pham), and body and culture (Ngo Thanh Cuong, Tan Dung). Meanwhile, there are few scattered works concerned body language in Vietnam. Therefore, this issue is still a “fertility land” arousing potential prospects. Body and sexuality are an issue that has been interested in many researchers. In many studies of sexual factors in literature, even they identified the body with sex, as speaking of the body means the thinking of sex. Sexual intercourse is one of the body’s activities. Even body in the sexual practice is not only a reflection of sex but becomes artistic “codes,” containing many layers of meaning. This article does not focus on exploiting sex as an “innovative,” “audacious” presentation of Received October 17, 2017. Accepted July 1, 2018. Contact Le Tra My, e-mail address: tramyle2311@gmail.com Le Tra My 16 human aspirations, or a way to “breakthrough” from taboo problems which is previously shown by many researchers. This article concentrates on a decipher of body and sex signs in many divergent perspectives such as gender relations, living attitudes, and the power of conflicting forces in different periods of the history, which a pivotal influence on body and sex point of views. Thus, sex is considered as an aspect of body language in the general sign “field” of its work and culture. 2. Content Sex is never satisfied within oneself but must be based on others, in cooperation with others, that is, this body has to be in concord with another body. So, there must be two sides: giving - receiving or possessing - being possessed. There are cases in which both sides have agreement and reception of the pleasure, whereas there are cases in which the body becomes a tool for pleasuring partner. Human sexual behavior will be suitable for moral standards only if both of sides volunteer making himself or herself as a pleasure tool for the counterpart. That time, this person’s delight becomes another’s purpose. In contrast, in case of unilateral sex abuses, there will be damaging physiological consequences. However, there is also masturbatory activity in which “counterpart” is replaced by sex toys or imagined by own self-abuser. Sex toys are also the presence of another body – a stylized body. In some prose works, consensual and non-consensual sex have their own “discourse/voice.” For example, in the short story Self (Y Ban) [1], the sex’s “discourse/voice” is a desire for love. Y Ban describes all modes and relationships of sex: with her husband when he is powerful and impotent, with sweethearts, and with sex toys as masturbation. However, Self does not set to titillate the readers. Through sex, people can see wife’s inconsolable sentiments who overwhelmingly loves her husband or the women’s expectation for eternal love. With the protagonist, love seems to be salvation for her soul even without sex. She can live happily with her husband's erectile dysfunction. So, when her husband left, her following love affairs was only a bitter embarrassment because it is destitute of love. Even when she tried to get sexual satisfaction by “adult” playthings, the feeling of torment and shame increased multiplicatively. Y Ban denotes women's desolation by depicting sexual scenes without love. Because of this, the writer has profoundly expressed women’s burning desires for love. Thus, the “discourse/voice” of human sexual practice is a thirst for love, including the aspirations in vain. Some people often consider sex without love as filthiness, but in this case, readers can realize and read the purest soul of women. There are sex scenes that are not only seen as an action on instinct but also allegories. The short story Unique fragrance (Dị hương, Suong Nguyet Minh) [7] expresses sexual intercourse between Nguyen Anh and Ngoc Binh. Based on historical accounts of Nguyen Anh (later King Gia Long) and Princess Ngoc Binh (the youngest daughter of King Le Hien Tong, daughter of Princess Ngoc Han, wife of King Canh Thinh, Tay Son dynasty, later Nguyen Anh's Royal third concubine), Suong Nguyet Minh wrote about the relationship between Nguyen Anh and Ngoc Binh in the period thatNguyen Anh defeated Tay Son reign, obtaining Phu Xuan. At this time, Nguyen Anh was in an impregnable position. He has a self-awareness of himself: “Why in Nam Viet only me is a great hero? This country will belong to me, from the grains of rice, potatoes to Tay Son dynasty’s beautiful women”. He was fascinated by the body-beauty and mysterious scent of Ngoc Binh, despite Ngoc Binh is his enemy's wife, despite the allusions that Ngoc Binh made love with a legendary serpent. Ngoc Binh was Quang Toan’s wife, but she is still a virgin, “never has a day made women true.” Since she was a small child, Ngoc Binh dreamed of getting married with heroes, either Nguyen Hue or Nguyen Anh. Thus, their sexual intercourse is the encounter of a hero and a nymph, and their sex creates superhuman strength. As for Nguyen Anh, this making love does not only show King’s supreme strength and power about conquesting and possessing Decoding body and sex signs in literature 17 the whole world but also indicates masculine power, the tremendous enthusiasm of a body steeled through numerous warfare. On the side of Ngoc Binh, this is the long-awaited sex and the satisfaction and thirst of a woman body. Therefore, their sexual practice makes heaven and earth shake, all things feel horny: “Upstream carps swim against the current. Bucks cling on to female’s tail, thrash wildly to copulate without waiting for rutting season. The whole section of Huong river has broken out in transparent mucus membranous beaded fish spawns along with pervasively copulative smell”, “Elephants, bears, tigers and wild boars in the adjacent forest perk up their ears and sniffle their noses, all of them are in a rut to eagerly seek their opposite-sex counterpart to copulate. The whole mountainous area bustles animal feet and calls for sex partners and makes a loud noise as the forest is shaking”. However, the physical contact of two heroic-houri bodies is also a collision between swords, blood, fragile beauty, illusory and mystery: “The foul smell of human blood and the burnt smell of weapons gather in deadly smell absorbing into Anh’s skin (...) The foul smell of blood and the burnt smell of weapons overwhelmed, tightened all cloacas and pores to prevent her unique fragrance from permeating. Thus, their coitus is also a mix and match of two opposing forces, which inevitably leads to the tragical ending. In Tran Huy San’s assessment, Anh is dubiously “evil odor,” tending to arbitrary power, while Ngoc Binh is “unique fragrance,” having both mundane and lofty, gentle and infatuated personalities. Ngoc Binh's death marks the overwhelming power of darkness. It is like a strict law of life. Fragile and mysterious beauties only exist through understanding and cherishing thoroughly. By contrast, achieving orgasm by an indecent assault fades away and kill/destroy these beauties. On the other hand, Ngoc Binh’s death also shows that blood and swords in power struggles have never stood side by side with purely human beauty, or vice versa, human beauty cannot negotiate and eradicate crime. The copulation of Ngoc Binh and Nguyen Anh becomes a historical metaphor according to Suong Nguyet Minh’s viewpoint. The sexual behavior of couple Philippe and Mui in The Mother Goddess in the Sacred Mountain (Mẫu Thượng Ngàn, Nguyen Xuan Khanh) [4] could be considered as a metaphor for power forms –the dominant power of imperialism and the implicit “power” of the colony. Philippe Messmer who participated in the Indochinese conquest of the French had a plantation in Co Dinh village, and Mui was a master Do’s daughter, a beautiful woman with exotic seductions. Philippe married Mui as a wife. However, Mui is a wife who makes him become a boss and have absolute power. Even he is also a boss on their bed - a “colonial house in bed.” Nevertheless, the appealing indigenous woman is not tamed under Philippe’s control. Even with her sexual attractions, she made Philippe become a sex slave who always lusts for satisfaction from sexual intercourse. And as a result, with the ambition to achieve orgasms, he was defeated by death. If the colonial discourse regards the French as the strong ones and a conqueror, and masculine discourse considers men as a governor, or a subjugator; the relationship between Philippe and Mui could be viewed as a dual rebellion. On the one hand, this rebellion resists colonial discourses circulated in the colonies from the beginning days when Vietnam was colonized by the French. On the other hand, this revolt also fights the masculine discourses in which women were considered passive persons, or subordinate, and conquered objects. Mui is a symbol for the purest feminity which impulses against the colonial and masculine powers. For the sexual misconduct, the rape victim and the rapist often represent different motivations such as interest conflicts, circumstance oppositions, selfishness, and cruelty. Sometimes it caused a situation that rape victims’ fate was changed, or they went beyond their physical sufferings as well as psychological traumas. In general, there are many profound implications which are beneath the sexual abuse stories. In contemporary Vietnamese literature, there are cases of forced sex containing many significant meanings. In the novel The Sorrow of War (Bao Ninh) [8], the female character Phuong was raped on the train, that took Kien to battle. Phuong followed Kien Le Tra My 18 (her lover) on the train to Southern Vietnam to catch his military unit. The train was bombed, fiercely fired, then it was tilted, and people rushed in the night. In that horrible night, Kien lost Phuong. However, when he found out her, Phuong had become a strange woman: pale cheeks, skinny shape, the shirt’s buttons at the breast were totally opened, ripped silk pants showed her thighs completely, blood was bleeding downward her knees, some scratches on her neck, bruised lips and emotionless eyes. Perhaps there was a collective rape, many men with a 17-year-old girl. Bao Ninh only emphasizes a decay of Phuong, who was ravished without paying attention to describing rapists. It is possible that through this sexual assault, the writer would like to point out another relationship beyond sexual relations between men and women. That is the relationship between the human life and war. The 17-year-old girl travels towards the battlefield for a simple reason which is emanated from a momentary emotion – to accompany an extra mile with her lover. She was notaware of what is ahead, what is war. Once people were thrown into the war, they are swallowed by war machine in some ways sooner or later. The frightful rape has become a ruin of the human body. However, the worst wound is the mental one. Phuong has to accept grievously psychological breakdowns originated from the physical abuse. After fearful and numb moments, Phuong can still eat, sleep, and have a bath in calm. The description of Phuong’s bath brings full of meanings. This description is the only time that Bao Ninh depicts the naked body of a woman in which he particularly emphasizes the feminine softness of the physical movements. That body was exposed in the cloudless atmosphere, with an emotional state of peace and tranquility, even though surroundings were under bomb rains, bullet lanes, and smoke columns. The opposite of a descriptive way makes the body a symbol. The beauty of a 17-year-old girl seems to contain/bring the power that it can overcome lethal weapons and the life’s hazardous situations. Phuong accepted the situation with a supreme quietness. It can be said that women have existed with primordial nature, they live by their emotions and the urge of their inner feelings, but they also transcend the limit of the individual body to merge into the eternally natural vitality as well as the endless journey of life. That is the reason why Phuong is the symbol of the right to live, or an antithesis of death. Thus, through the sexually abused case of Phuong on the night train bombed at Thanh Hoa station, we can read the correlation between little men with the war machine, and also realize that the persistent power of human beings, especially women. The novel Nguyen Xuan Khanh’s The Mother Goddess of Upland Forests [4] also have acts of sexual assault. The last night of festival called Mr Dung and Mrs Da (Ong Dung Ba Da), local people have the custom of “trải ổ” (season of loving) in which unmarried couples allowed to make their loving bed, a fragrant and comfortable nest where is in a cave or under the trees’ shade in the forest for having sex. The children are conceived on that night will be deemed to have a lucky fate and great blessings. Dieu and Nhu got married when both of them were children. They waited for the festival night, waited for the sacred season to “make love”. Thus, , they made a date under the shade of banian and weeping fig trees twisted. However, Julien Messmer, the Westerner planter had tracked up and raped Nhu before Dieu saw his wife. It is a deliberate rape of the conqueror. Julien was sexed up by Nhu’s fierce resistance. The ravishment of the conqueror with the indigenous woman is similar to the affirmation of governor’s power and the establishment of boss position: “He bites all over her body, but not bleeding. He behaves like an animal which wants to mark its domain. He only stamps on the whole woman’s body in his way. Maybe he wants the woman to understand that from now, everywhere on her body when she touches, she must feel a sense of painfulness since his permanent presence. It means that he wants to become an absolute owner in using the woman body. Being stuck in a vulnerable and weak situation, Nhu resisted in desperation, painfulness, and exhaustion. In the chapter written on Philippe, Nguyen Xuan Khanh wrote visually about the relationship of the conqueror and the conquered: “The conquest of a strange land is only a phenomenon that strong males to usurp the occupied Decoding body and sex signs in literature 19 territory’s females. The result of this rape is a beautiful and lovable haft-breed child. In Nguyen Xuan Khanh’s view, Nhi is a kid conceived on the festival night Ong Dung Ba Da. Nhi is not a monster, on the contrary, the child is the crystallization of both father and mother’s beauty: an elegant face, an exceptional intelligence. She was born in Co Dinh villagers’ love and Mother Goddess’s protection. Therefore, the abuse’s result, in this case, is a metaphor for the complicated colonial - indigenous hybrid relationship. Rapist’s body and victim’s one become a symbol of Eastern-Western cultural dimensions. The opposites in the imperial and colonial cultural expressions in the novel structure confirm the interaction of two cultural forms in Annam. The result of this interaction is the emergence of a mixed and hybrid cultural form. This is the natural phenomenon in the human history. Nhi, who is the consequence of Julien's ravishment in Mr. Dung and Mrs. Da festival night, reflects not only multi-racial hybridizations but also symbolizes cultural ones. Although Nhi was born from the non-consensual sexual activity, beyond the mother's expectation, she still becomes an irrevocable existence through a strong connection ofVietnamese and French. The little girl is not different from the Vietnamese community, but she has still especially connected to the French. This reverberates the mechanism of cultural acculturation and integration which is a pivotal footing for the survival of the Vietnamese nation. The acculturation and cultural transformation are developed rule of the history. Some cultural products created during the cultural interference have illustrated that the hybridity can fully integrate into the local cultural flow. Endless Field (Cánh đồng bất tận, Nguyen Ngoc Tu) [9] ended by a rape. The beginning of the work is an “escape”, the ending of the work is a “return” to the ordinary life. Suong’s evasion - a prostitute - with the help of father-child Nuong is a specific situation, leading the readers into another escape of father-child Nuong from the human society. The rapes of illiterate, aggressive and horny guys or food robbers to rival Nuong’s family for survival on endless fields in “northeast wind season blows whirrs throughout the field”, “eclipta prostrate flowers as fairly thin borders soften rice paddies’ bright yellow”, mark a harsh truth of reality and unfold new turns, closing persistent hatreds and opening hopes. Thus, the end of the work can be considered as a “return” to the human life of father-child Nuong, as well as a harsh journey to come back the normal life of the unusual people. Endless Field’s obsessions occur in a sparkle of real details but symbolic ones. With Nuong’s outlook, Dien's abnormalities (the refusal of becoming a mature man), or destroying the herd of duck, the severe nature, and even this rape is a punitive action of her father’s intense hatreds for women. Nuong believed that, so she accepted a silent and weakly resistance to rapists, as if she resisted the rapists drastically she woul