PRINT Summer 1993


Yet already he concludes, before the kaleidoscope of her expressions, before this face that from being all surface, smooth and waxed, passed to an almost fluid state of translucid gaiety and from the chiselled polish of an opal to the feverish black-red congestion of a cyclamen, that the Name is an example of a barbarous society’s primitivism, and as conventionally inadequate as “Homer” or “sea.”
—Samuel Beckett, Proust, 1957

What kind of part is Orlando?

Virginia Woolf wrote Orlando in the fall of 1927 and finished it off that next March. It was Vita, she said to her diary, “Orlando: Vita”; others like Vita’s husband would say so too. That is to say, for the uninitiated, it was a character spun from her love for her Vita, a male character that suddenly would be transformed into a woman. In many ways this transformation would not be a change. Four centuries would come and go for Orlando, along with flickers of gender oscillation and a general discomfiture with the usual social roles proposed for genders—those of man and wife—no matter Orlando’s sex, which is never a matter of things so crude as organs, substances, metaphors, or parts. Orlando’s part hinges on it never being touched or spoken, let alone being one. Orlando’s part was not a revelation, a sexuality, or a truth. You see, it was immaterial.

Orlando was as close to science fiction or lesbian utopia as Virginia Woolf ever came. It is probably more accurate to call the book an after-dinner fairy tale. For the character remains entirely bound to a romance, which is in part literary conceit and in part roman à clef but always first and foremost Virginia’s own. To separate this character from the romance, or, to put it another way, to separate this character from Virginia’s love, is to do it/him/her a deep disservice. For this is not a character suited to abstract discussion of gender, not even then, and especially not now.

What then, to say about it/him/her? Well, Orlando is Vita, but Vita transformed. Orlando would begin life as a beautiful Elizabethan aristocratic male, somewhat unlucky in love, prone to maudlin heartache poems, and so fancied by the brittle old queen herself that a great country house is bestowed. Orlando does not return this fancy exactly but does accept the house. Orlando will then lead many lives of maudlin heartache and spend the next four hundred years writing a poem about a tree. One very long and giant romp, you could say, but it happens to be built from the details of Vita’s and Virginia’s mornings, afternoons, and evenings in the fall of 1927 and the winter of 1928, details that Virginia’s nephew would itemize for posterity: “Vita at Knole, showing her over the building—4 acres of it—stalking through it in a Turkish dress surrounded by dogs and children; a cart bringing in wood as carts had done for centuries to feed the great fires of the house; Vita hunting through her writing desk to find a letter from Dryden; Vita sailing through the Mediterranean in January 1926, with gold-laced captains off Trieste; Vita standing gorgeous in emeralds; a description of Vita and Violet Trefusis meeting for the first time upon the ice; Vita dressing her son as a Russian boy and his objection—‘Don’t,’ he said, ‘it makes me look like a girl’; Vita courted and caressed by the literary world; the homage of Sir Edmund Gosse, and indeed of Virginia herself. Then, early in September, Maynard and Lydia Keynes gave a party at Tilton. Jack (later Sir John) Sheppard enacted the part of an Italian prima donna, words and music being supplied by a gramophone. Someone had brought a newspaper cutting with them; it reproduced the photograph of a pretty young woman who had become a man, and this for the rest of the evening became Virginia’s main topic of conversation.”1

And so a love passes through the chat and the details to become insubstantial Orlando, a love becomes a romance, a love becomes the decoration of a character: a surface of words. For this is Orlando’s tragedy as well as its/his/her charm. This is a character whose consciousness is kept at bay. Virginia sees to it that Orlando is untouched by time, unaffected by history. Clear memory is denied. This is not a tale from which anyone, least of all Virginia Woolf, will wake you. Character is sleep.

Life is not a dream but maybe literature should be. In its day Orlando was very popular, one of Virginia’s most popular novels. People found it accessible. Was it because the difficult questions of putting consciousness into a male and then a female body are treated lightly in the novel? When Orlando falls into forgetful sleep periodically, we are given another Gulliver or a Sleeping Beauty that only the author will ever touch. Such a blanketed consciousness may well be simpler, but it is seen through the eyes of a love that cannot bear the thought of change. That kind of love is snarled. But Virginia’s love is never questioned in the novel, where, indeed, much is never questioned.

Still, for all the obfuscation, periodically Virginia does scratch the surface of the beyond and there Orlando feels a twinge. At those points Orlando’s adolescence comes to a crossing of pain and revelation, that cross of transition that will one day bring hope to bear on death. But not yet to Orlando, oh no, not yet. Orlando is forever Virginia’s romance, her Vita, her frozen wild red rose, forever ever after, the last kiss still the first.

To make a film from such a novel and such a character takes one to this crossing where pain is only a distant possibility. Sally Potter’s Orlando has gone another way, forswearing even scratching the beyond. It goes for the rose alone. But Sally Potter is unable to render the Vita in Orlando. She has sliced an already refined character very fine, showing less interest in the implications of crossdressing and gender bending than even the novel had displayed. Orlando appears as a thinner, lusher surface, full of awkwardness, art direction, and emptiness. Orlando becomes Tilda Swinton, who siphons her enormous talent into the articulation of this adolescent shell. But can talent make this Orlando more than a character? Could this Orlando be a love?

No. On that score the film flounders. Periodically Tilda Swinton breaks the thinning fiction by turning a quick, iron look to the viewer. But Tilda cannot stand in for Vita, no performance could. This is not a film where sensations bring the beloved or the unseen inside, no, any wind pressing on this character is merely felt as cold. The film chooses not to ask the novel’s questions. Instead of interrogating a love, it mouths “What is Cinema?” And if this question no longer satisfies? And if we ask film to step away from the mirror? For that look cannot complicate a character any more than it can give a surface depth. Potter’s Orlando ends where it begins: Orlando remains an untroubled surface, plagued by its own unconsciousness and scripted to search for the always already acceptable concept, whether male or female it does not really matter. To put it another way, this Orlando’s part reverts to a face. The face, or better, the close-up of the face, is cinema’s equivalent of the heartache poem.

We have better ways to think about the face. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s “Capitalism and Schizophrenia” project, for example, proposed the face as a trope for all Western expression, the place where the axes of significance and subjectification cross and words are shot with feeling.2 To use their face, however, would require breaking the usual bounds of character and cliché. Potter retreats instead into the old, creamy, cinematic face, making it carry desire, making it moon and brood and sigh. And so Tilda Swinton’s face does all of these things, beautifully. In so doing it looks unbearably naive and cinematically old.

Virginia’s Orlando was a body traveling across time, in the end a paradox, a Vita forever being disembodied by Virginia’s words of love. Time’s substance, just like love’s, is evacuated by the film. Time, like love, is butchered, I wish it were not so, but there is no other way to say it and no excuse for it. Time appears only as a one word intertitle—1650 is POETRY, 1700 is POLITICS, 1850 gets called SEX—history gets to be a teenage abstraction. This is not useful. It is childish. For history is not a new dress or a zeitgeist; dear sisters please be careful here. Perhaps Sally Potter is trying to make fun of the schoolbook, of oversimplifications generally, making fun, even, of Orlando’s surface and swing between male and female. But she has reduced not only the plot but also the character so considerably that her Orlando is not even potentially farce. The film leaves Orlando at the end of a time line, female, happy, at one with the angels, an integral Self. If her Orlando could have seen history as a psychic event, character might have had destiny.

The novel left Orlando happy too, with her dashing husband Shelmerdine sailing back to center stage, but at the same time Virginia’s Orlando is a shaking compound of a self, through whom a multitude of thoughts and times continues to echo. An explosion is placed in her hands: “Here she forced herself by a great effort, to stop by the carpenter’s shop, and to stand stock-still watching Joe Stubbs fashion a cart wheel. She was standing with her eye fixed on his hand when the quarter struck. It hurtled through her like a meteor, so hot that no fingers can hold it. She saw with disgusting vividness that the thumb on Joe’s right hand was without a finger nail and there was a raised saucer of pink flesh where the nail should have been. The sight was so repulsive that she felt faint for a moment, but in that moment’s darkness, when her eyelids flickered, she was relieved of the pressure of the present. There was something strange in the shadow that the flicker of her eyes cast, something which (as anyone can test for himself by looking now at the sky), is always absent from the present—whence its terror, its nondescript character—something one trembles to pin through the body with a name and call beauty, for it has no body, is as a shadow and without substance or quality of its own, yet has the power to change whatever it adds itself to. This shadow now while she flickered her eye in her faintness in the carpenter’s shop stole out, and attaching itself to the innumerable sights she had been receiving, composed them into something tolerable, comprehensible. Yes, she thought, heaving a deep sigh of relief, as she turned from the carpenter’s shop to climb the hill, I can begin to live again. I am by the Serpentine, she thought, the little boat is climbing through the white arch of a thousand deaths. I am about to understand. . .”3 Virginia’s Orlando would now want to be Dil.

Dil could never be Virginia’s part. For with Dil and The Crying Game, character and love have outpaced word and screen. Neil Jordan has put a face to a penis; Stephen Rea and Jaye Davidson have taken it farther still. In so doing the cinematic face has been undone. For faces organize nothing in The Crying Game. Bodies organize nothing. Clichés, stereotypes, psychoanalysis, traditional identities organize nothing. And history enters as the wordless pressure of events on lives. This requires us to understand character very differently. It requires us to try to understand ourselves. We are obliged to leave the surface for somewhere else.

Politics. It is politics after all, the abduction of a black British soldier in order to have something to trade for a captive IRA man, that provides the event from which all else proceeds. Politics sets up the violent destruction of the face, here the soldier’s face hooded in a black sack through which he speaks, smokes, sobs, bleeds. And still, through all this, a man makes a friend of his enemy. Nothing rational can bound this face. From its bloodied and fabric blackness come sweet and devilish prodding, a parable about a scorpion and a frog, and an escape. For the soldier does escape his captors’ narratives. Then by the hand of fate he dies.

With the destruction of the face comes the advent of presence. Acting becomes enacting. None of the characters in The Crying Game exists as type, trope, or cliché. That, in fact, is the much-touted surprise. It is the emotional memory of a man that his friend carries to London. The friend will grant his enemy’s last wish and fall in love with it. Dil.

Love is a material that, like politics and time, or like history, does not submit easily to concepts and never will. Think of it as a decomposition. Definitely not a story. Think of The Crying Game as a film devoted to the prospect of a Body without Organs. Think of this while contemplating the humanity of a penis. Dil’s part, of course, involves a change in the surface of her character; like Orlando, she changes suddenly, from appearing as a woman to appearing as a beautiful man in drag. This, too, not really a change. Only a detail. For in the meantime the Irish Republican friend of his enemy has been overtaken by love.

Deleuze and Guattari produced that concept of the Body without Organs, which is not so much a concept as a question, and Dil in effect does ask it: “How do you make yourself a Body without Organs?” By having too many or too few or in all the wrong places. The Body without Organs (BwO) is filled with unpredictable sexuality, ambient desires, refrigerator waves, pure possibility. “The egg is the BwO. The BwO is not ’before’ the organism; it is adjacent to it and is continually in the process of constructing itself. If it is tied to childhood, it is not in the sense that the adult regresses to the child and the child to the Mother, but in the sense that the child, like the Dogon twin who takes a piece of the placenta with him, tears from the organic form of the Mother an intense and &stratified matter that on the contrary constitutes his or her perpetual break with the past, his or her present experience, experimentation. The BwO is a childhood block, a becoming, the opposite of a childhood memory. It is not the child ’before’ the adult, or the mother ’before’ the child: it is strict contemporaneousness of the adult, of the adult and the child, their map of comparative densities and intensities, and all of the variations on that map. The BwO is precisely this intense germen where there are not and cannot be either parents or children (organic representation). This is what Freud failed to understand about Weissmann: the child as the germinal contemporary of its parents. Thus the BwO is never yours or mine. It is always a body. It is no more projective than it is regressive. It is an involution, but always a contemporary, creative involution. The organs distribute themselves on the BwO, but they distribute themselves independently of the form of the organism; forms become contingent, organs are no longer anything more than intensities that are produced, flows, thresholds, and gradients. ‘A’ stomach, ‘an’ eye, ‘a’ mouth: the indefinite article does not lack anything; it is not indeterminate or undifferentiated, but expresses the pure determination of intensity, intensive difference. The indefinite article is the conductor of desire. It is not at all a question of a fragmented, splintered body, of organs without the body (OwB). The BwO is exactly the opposite.”4

The Body without Organs is a beyond. A friendly, forthcoming beyond that can help explain how an Irishman who loves women can continue to love a man who appears with a woman’s surface. There will he no story necessary here: love overtakes the preconceptions, the identities, the prescriptions for success. Dil makes any discussions of surface irrelevant. Dil shakes free of all that, turns inside out, transcends form, becomes a love. Somewhere out there Vita realizes this; she is jealous. Virginia will be too. For this kind of love larger than character, this love’s body need never fear change. This kind of love need not be frozen. It will have another destiny; it will circulate in whatever form available to it. Imagine a shift without change. For the Body without Organs is not sentimental. The Body without Organs is a teacher. Entire audiences have learned much from The Crying Game, or is it from the effects of their own surprise? Apropos of something else, over dinner someone said, “He never went searching it, he was the Madonna to the Child.”

What kind of part is Dil?
Baby, it’s yours.

Molly Nesbit is currently a fellow at the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities. Her book Atget’s Seven Albums appeared this fall from Yale University Press.


1. Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf: A Biography, two volumes, London: The Hogarth Press, 1973, 2:132.

2. See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1987, pp. 167 91.

3. Virginia Woolf, Orlando, New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich, 1928. pp. 321–22.

4. Deleuze and Guattari, p. 164.