“My Body” is a hypertext written by Shelley Jackson the combines both text and image in order to conduct an exploration of the human body. As the text is semi-autobiographical in nature, the body that is being explored belongs to none other than Shelley Jackson herself. But it is not simply an exploration of the body in the literal sense. “My Body” is a work centered around discovering the significance and meaning of the various parts through lexias associated with each one. Although Jackson herself gives “My Body” the subtitle, dubbing it “a Wunderkammer” – a Cabinet of Curiosities – it is not this self-declared label that makes it a “Wunderkammer”, but instead, Jackson’s use of the hypertext form for this work combined with the semi-autobiographical writing style of the narrative that are essentially what allow the readers to experience Jackson’s work as the Cabinet of Curiosities she herself sees and intended it to be.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology for “Wunderkammer” is strictly Germanic and is comprised of two separate words: “wunder” (meaning “wonder”) and “Kammer” (meaning “chamber”). Logically, given those two definitions, “Wunderkammer” would essentially mean “a chamber (or cabinet) of wonders”. However, another definition that the OED gives is not nearly so straightforward. Specifically, “Wunderkammer” is defined as “a place exhibiting the collection of a connoisseur of curiosities.” To put it plainly, it refers to a place where a collection of items is kept; each item inside that collection is meant to spark a sense of curiosity and wonder in the person viewing the collection. However, though the objects and mementos within that collection may or may not have anything to do with each other, they each individually hold some form of importance, interest, or meaning to the owner of the cabinet. With this definition in mind, it is understood that, in “My Body”, the cabinet is Jackson’s body itself, and the items in the collection, the various body parts.
But even if the word “Wunderkammer” itself is not understood, the hypertext format of “My Body” helps to ingrain the basic concept of a single container – meaningless on its own- housing smaller parts that do hold some sort of significance. For example, right at the beginning of “My Body”, the main page helps to convey the idea that the body is merely a container for the smaller parts that hold meaning through the use of an image. It is Jackson’s self portrait of her body with all the various parts of her body drawn in a way to attract attention to them. The parts that Jackson deem important are rendered in greater detail, and more often than not drawn with boxes around them and labeled. And there’s reason for that. Should a reader decide to click on any one of these body parts, they are taken to a lexia relevant to said body part, explaining what its significance is to Jackson through small narratives that are little more than memories from Jackson’s life. These lexias, in turn, are comprised of hypertext of their own, which then take the reader to completely different body part, and so forth and so on; clicking on the shoulder from the image takes the reader to a lexia where Jackson describes how her muscular shoulders made her feel like a hulk and how she saw herself as a “a leering giant, gesticulating and capering around the little people, making them laugh, just one jot off a Frankenstein monster”. Clicking on the link there then takes the reader to the arms. As the reader travels from lexia to lexia, they learn more and more about the objects and meaning that lie within Jackson’s “cabinet” of a body.
But with the way hypertext fiction works, the readers cannot directly control what lexias will become available paths for them to follow the next time they click. They cannot be guaranteed to be given a full meaning of a piece of the collection simply by venturing there. At times, there are instances where the meaning of a piece or body part relatively vague next to the narratives we are given for other parts. And so, until they reach at lexia that does extrapolate more on the mystery behind that particularly curious piece of the collection, they must try to piece together a meaning from what they have learned so far. This artificially-created meaning, in turn, then invokes an even greater sense of curiosity in the reader that they must satisfy by delving even further into the cabinet. For instance, if the reader were to simply click on the tattoo on the body’s right arm from the main page, they are taken to a narrative relevant to the tattoo, but only tangentially. The narrative there speaks of her experience with tattoos in general, but says nothing of the meaning behind the ampersand tattoo itself. It isn’t until the reader clicks on the hypertext in the tattoo lexia that they are taken to the hypertext for “skin”, which actually does give background on the ampersand tattoo and what significance it has to Jackson’s life: it was something that carried over from her childhood, when she once “snipped a cursive S out of cloth tape and stuck it to [her] shoulder, replacing it when necessary, and by the end of the summer when [she] took it off…it was reversed, and looked like an &.” In this sense, it is not merely only the body parts themselves that are meaningful in the eyes of Jackson, but the connections between them as well, as the meaning behind ampersand tattoo would have remained a mystery had it not been for the existence of skin. Even the lack of connections is crucial in making “My Body” a Cabinet of Curiosities. After all, the more the reader understands and delves into the meaning behind one object in the collection, the further they are away from understanding an entirely different object. The important thing to keep in mind is the fact that it is the hypertext form that is essentially crucial for keeping the readers in a state of wonder and curiosity as to what meaning they will gleam next and from which part of the collection.
Just as the hypertext form is responsible for both shedding light on the multiple different meanings that lay within the objects of the cabinet, so too, is the autobiographical writing style of the work. Because the entire narrative scattered amongst the various pieces of the collection are seen through the eyes of none other than Jackson herself, the reader is more or less told outright what each part of the body means to Jackson, or at the very least, they are given a glimpse as to what relevance and impact they have on Jackson’s life. While the hypertext form may force the reader to create or derive their own meaning through the various lexias on occasion due to a lack of a relevant narrative to be found, having narratives written in an autobiographical style allows the reader to able to directly gain knowledge about a particular body part and how Jackson feels about it, leaving them free from being left with making incorrect assumptions. In this case, where the meaning and importance of the pieces in the collection are made transparent, the curiosity is sated and the sense of wonder is quelled. It is a phenomenon that, logically, would be working in complete opposition to the “randomness” of the hypertext form, which is centered around on periodically keeping the reader in the dark for the sake of preserving a sense of curiosity and wonder.
However, the hypertext form and the autobiographical style of “My Body” work to balance each other out. When the narrative sheds light on one subject, the hypertext links draw them (usually) in a completely different direction, making it difficult for readers to accurately guess the meaning and importance of the items within the cabinet. Without the hypertext form, we would essentially be left with an unemotional and factual narrative. All the meanings would be made totally clear in a single moment and lose the freedom we had to create our own meanings for the pieces of Jackson’s collection. We would lose the sense of wonder and curiosity that only comes from being “left out of the loop”, so to speak. Without the semi-autobiographical style, we lose the sense of importance associated with each piece of the collection; we are unable to understand the meanings that they represent. Without the autobiographical style, we are left in the dark entirely, confused and clueless as to why Jackson finds the various parts of her body so be so special. And that is why these two elements of the narrative that truly make “My Body” a “Wunderkammer”.
Jackson, Shelley. “my body – a Wunderkammer.” Electronic Literature Organization Collection Volume One. Electronic Literature Organization Collection, Oct 2006. Web. 16 Jan 2013.
“Wunderkammer.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press. n.d. Web. 12 Jan 2013.