(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 14. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1998)
“The Strings of Lust”: Angela Carter and the French Connection
University of Toronto
In the postmodern age of what Arthur Kroker calls “panic sex”, lust can probably never be what it once was: AIDS, feminism, radical gay and lesbian sexuality—all have conspired to change irrevocably our concepts of the erotic. In this cultural climate, Angela Carter’s writing has stood out from much of the rest for its attempt not only to problematize but also to rescue eroticism. It has openly challenged the patriarchal and masculinist values and theoretical assumptions that have led to the fetishization and reification of women into objects of male fantasy and desire, but at the same time it has refused to give up—or give up on—women’s (and men’s) real sexual pleasures. In the story, “The Loves of Lady Purple”, for instance, Carter offers both a macabre celebration of female erotic power and a postmodern deconstruction of the discursive structures (and strictures) that define that female erotic in a phallocentric culture. Commenting intertextually (and not unironically) both on Freud’s “uncanny” interest in the implications of Hoffman’s “Sandman” tale and on Baudrillard’s theory of the postmodern simulacrum, this parable of the “quintessence of eroticism” (27), of the simulacrum of the ultimate desirable woman as a puppet pulled by the “strings of lust”, is the story of freedom and bondage—as inextricably linked.
In feminist theory today, the many investigations into the engendering of desire have made us particularly aware of the culture- as well as gender-specific nature of the erotic. In passing, it is interesting to note that the Encyclopedia Britannica has no entry for the “erotic” or “eroticism”: only the god Eros is allowed (an) entry. However, significantly, La Grande Encyclopédie Larousse has four densely printed pages on eroticism, defined as the description and exaltation of sensual love, of sexuality. Its discussion is focussed
on eroticism as deferral of desire (and therefore, in a Derridean world, writing becomes the perfect vehicle of the erotic). In France, in the land of the Cartesian cogito, eroticism is seen as essentially intellectual, as well as demanding some sense of sexual transgression. Its patron saints are Bataille, Sacher-Masoch, and, of course, de Sade. When Carter, the author of The Sadeian Woman, entered this realm of deferral and transgression, she brought to it a feminist (that is, politicized and historicized) sense of the possible meanings of the erotic: “Flesh comes to us out of history.” Nothing is, in and of itself, erotic; it becomes so when articulated in a complex discursive formation that includes the past as well as the present. And, as such, the notion of the erotic ends up being impossible to dissociate from issues such as gender, race, class, and so on. Indeed, as Carter suggested, what we call eroticism in art may really only be the pornography of the elite (Sadeian 17). Certainly her parodic rewritings of the stories of Bluebeard and of Beauty and the Beast in The Bloody Chamber have done much to expose the inherited sexist psychology of the erotic tradition in the West. But she did rewrite them: in other words, the erotic does not get lost, even it if gets redefined through parodic challenges.
In The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, the erotic and its eroto-energy are directly linked to the themes of power and of the formation of the individual subject. Dr. Hoffman’s version of the cogito is a demonic parody of the Lacanian “I desire therefore I exist.” In The Passion of New Eve, Carter crosses genre borders in a complex parodic play that inescapably links genre to gender, and both to desire. She plays with magic realism, the picaresque, the romance, the Hollywood love story, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères. Her hero-turned-heroine is a modern Tiresias, made into a physical woman, but retaining a doubled sense of her/his subjectivity. The movie star he/she once admired, Tristessa, may be modelled on Garbo, but she turns out to be a male in disguise, as if womanliness were something to be assumed and worn like a mask (recalling Joan Rivière’s famous paper on “Womanliness as Masquerade”). Eve’s transformation into a woman (which the male side of him/her sees as a punishment) takes place in an ironically named Beulah, the Biblical land of Israel and the land of peace in Pilgrim’s Progress. In Beulah, a matriarchal ethic and aesthetic would appear to dominate—though neither is untainted by traces of familiar male modes of domination. In fact, Beulah is described as the place where “contrarieties” exist together. Its symbol is the broken phallus; its leader, the “Great Parricide”, the “Castratrix of the Phallocentric Universe” (67)—a.k.a. “Mother”. After a series of operations by this surgeon-Mother, Eve looks in the mirror and sees a Playboy centrefold: “I was the object of all the unfocused desires that had ever existed in my own head. I had become my own masturbatory fantasy” (75). In a parody of the Lacanian definition of woman as lack, Eve
(now literally “she/slash/he”, as we say orally) realizes: “But, where I remembered my cock, was nothing. Only a void, an insistent absence, like a noisy silence” (75).
This obvious satiric contestation of the social construction of the female and the erotic suggests that Carter, like Rosalind Coward in her Female Desire, believes that women’s pleasures are constructed within a range of signifying practices; they are never natural or innate. Produced by discourses which in our culture usually sustain male privilege, feminine desire—its satisfactions, its objects—may need rethinking and changing. But first, those male discourses certainly do need confronting, not to say debunking. This is exactly what happens in a story like Carter’s “Black Venus”. Here two discourses meet—and clash: the poetic language of male sublimated desire for woman (as both muse and object of erotic fantasy) and the language of the political and contextualizing discourses of female experience. This is a text that almost demands to be read as the site for the discursive construction of the meaning of gender, but in a most problematic sense: there are two conflicting discourses which work to foreground and contest the history of desire—male desire, that is.
This story is based on the biographical facts surrounding Charles Baudelaire and his mulatto mistress, Jeanne Duval. Or rather, in Carter’s hands, it becomes the story of the woman to whom history denied a voice: Duval is the subject of Carter’s “Black Venus” just as she was the object of Baudelaire’s “Black Venus” poems. Carter’s text consistently contrasts the language of Baudelairean decadent, male eroticism with the stark reality of Jeanne Duval’s position as a colonial, a black, and a “kept woman”. That exotic “Dame Créole” of whom we read in the poems is not exactly absent from Carter’s story: as expected, Duval dances naked, her long hair flowing to her sensuous movements. But while Baudelaire dreams his erotic dreams, his dancing woman ponders what the text calls her “use value” and her syphilis.
Carter’s version of this story opens with an overt Baudelairean echoing of the evening descriptions of the poems “Harmonie du soir” and “Crépuscule du soir.” But the woman described here as a “forlorn Eve” is presented in a discourse rather different from that of the male poet: she “never experienced her experience as experience, life never added to the sum of her knowledge; rather, subtracted from it” (9). In contrast, the male (identified at this point only by the third-person male pronoun) offers her his fantasy, a fantasy that makes him a parody of “le pauvre amoureux des pays chimériques”, the Baudelairean inventor of the Americas in “Le Voyage”. The details of his fantasy parody those of “Voyage à Cythère” and “La Chevelure” in that they offer exactly the same topoi but vulgarized into bourgeois escapism: “Baby, baby, let me take you back where you belong”—mixed with Yeatsian Byzantine parody: “back to your lovely, lazy island where the jewelled parrot rocks on the enamel tree” (10). The woman’s reply attacks this fantasy: “No! Not the bloody parrot
forest! Don’t take me on the slavers’ route back to the West Indies” (11). Male erotic revery clashes head on with political and historical fact, reminding us too that Cythère, the island of Venus, is no paradise: even in Baudelaire’s version, the poet hangs from its gallows. For this black West Indian woman, the island paradise the white Parisian male imagines is one of “glaring yellow shore” and “harsh blue sky”, of “[f]ly-blown towns” that are not Paris (10). We soon see that the thousand sonnets Baudelaire’s famous “Dame Créole” was to have inspired in the hearts of poets are indeed written, but they are used by that very woman as the paper in which to roll her cheroots. This is one dream that literally goes up in smoke.
Lisa Tickner has argued that male erotic iconography of woman has two poles: the romantic/decadent fantasist (like Baudelaire’s here) and the realist (woman as sexual partner), but in neither case is the woman seen as anything but a “mediating sign for the male” (264). Carter’s text calls attention to this through its attempts to code and then re-code the “colonized territory” of the female body. She first encodes it as erotic masculine fantasy; then she re-codes it in terms of female experience. The text ends up being a complex interweaving of the discourse of desire and politics, of the erotic and the analytic, of the male and the female.
While he dreams his erotic dreams and she ponders the state of her health and her economic potential, the reader is asked an ironic rhetorical question: “was pox not the emblematic fate of a creature made for pleasure and the price you paid for the atrocious mixture of corruption and innocence this child of the sun brought with her from the Antilles?” (13). The political discourse of the narratorial voice intensifies: the pox is then called America’s (“the raped continent’s”) revenge against European imperialism (14). But the revenge has backfired here. Carter’s text concisely and elegantly brings together nineteenth-century French discourses of disease, colonialism, race, and gender in a way that Sander Gilman (in his article, “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature”) implies is absolutely appropriate for the Paris of Baudelaire’s day.
Finally the text actually identifies by name the male as Baudelaire and the woman as Jeanne Duval, also know as Jeanne Prosper or Lemer “as if her name was of no consequence” (16). Her origins are equally unclear; in parentheses we read: “(Her pays d’origine of less importance than it would have been had she been a wine.)” (16). Perhaps she came from the Dominican Republic where, we are rather pointedly told, Toussaint Louverture had led a slave revolt against the French. The racial, economic and gender politics of French colonial imperialism are all foregrounded in this one brief passage. Yet, almost at once, the text returns us to the Baudelairean exotic and erotic discourse, even if indirectly, in denial:
But she was the deposed Empress, royalty in exile, for, of the entire and heterogeneous wealth of all those countries, had she not been dispossessed? Robbed of the bronze gateways of Benin; of the iron breasts of the Amazons of the court of the King of Dahomey . . . . The Abyssinia of black saints and holy lions was not even so much as a legend to her. Of those savannahs where men wrestle with leopards she know not one jot. The splendid continent to which her skin allied her had been excised from her memory. She had been deprived of history, she was the pure child of the colony. The colony—white, imperious—had fathered her. (17)
The political here, however, inescapably colours the exotic and the decadent, as Carter begins to give back to Duval the history of which she has been deprived.
Duval’s other deprivation was her language. We learn that she spoke Creole badly, that she tried to speak “good” French when she arrived in Paris. But herein lies the true of irony of those literary representation of Duval by Baudelaire (the only representations by which we even know her at all today, aside from passing remarks in biographies): “you could say, not so much that Jeanne did not understand the lapidary, troubled serenity of her lover’s poetry but, that it was a perpetual affront to her. He recited it to her by the hour and she ached, raged and chafed under it because his eloquence denied her language” (18). She cannot hear his poetic/erotic tributes to her outside of her colonial—racial and linguistic—context. Nor, obviously, can she ignore the context of gender: “The goddess of his heart, the ideal of the poet, lay resplendently on the bed; he liked to have her make a spectacle of herself, to provide a sumptuous feast for his bright eyes that were always bigger than his belly. Venus lies on the bed, waiting for a wind to rise: the sooty albatross hankers for the storm” (18). But for the reader of Baudelaire’s poetry, there is a curious reversal here—not only of colour (the sooty albatross) but of roles. In his poem named after the albatross, it is the poet who flies on the wings of poesy, though clumsy on earth like that famous bird. In Carter’s rewritten version, it is the woman who is the graceful albatross; the poet is, instead, that great dandy of birds (also read through the intertextual lenses of Baudelaire’s favourite’s—Poe’s—Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym)—the penguin: flightless, bourgeois, inescapably comic: “Wind is the element of the albatross just as domesticity is that of the penguin” (19).
It must be said that the erotic encounters of these two strange birds are carefully presented according to specific cultural codes—and the text situates the codes historically for us: “It is essential to their connection that, if she should put on the private garments of nudity, its non-sartorial regalia of jewellery and rouge, then he himself must retain the public nineteenth-century masculine impediments of frock coat (exquisitely cut), white shire (pure
silk, London tailored), oxblood cravat, and impeccable trousers” (19-20). Any thoughts of the work of the painter, Manet here are not accidental. The text continues: “There’s more to ‘Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe’ than meets the eye. (Manet, another friend of his.) Man does and is dressed to do so; his skin is his own business. He is artful, the creation of culture. Woman is; and is, therefore, fully dressed in no clothes at all, her skin in common property.”
Throughout, the “Black Venus” poems are consistently the major intertext to the story’s language. Nevertheless, Baudelaire’s customary erotic rhetoric keeps giving way to Duval’s reality: “Jeanne stoically laboured over her lover’s pleasure, as if he were her vineyard” (21)—recalling (albeit ironically) his poem “Les Bijoux” in which her breasts were “ces grappes de ma vigne”. But in that male revisionist version, she doesn’t have to labour over his pleasure; she is passive—“elle se laissait aimer.” She lies on her divan, “les yeux fixés sur moi”, not unlike those of Manet’s own erotic scandal, his “Olympia”.
At the end of the story, Baudelaire is said to die “deaf, dumb and paralyzed” (22); Jeanne Duval loses her beauty and then her life. But then Carter briefly offers a second possible fate for her fictionalized Duval. This one buys a new wig, some teeth, and restores at least a little of her ravaged beauty. She returns to the Caribbean with the money from the sale of her lover’s manuscripts and from what he could sneak to her before his death. In this, we are told, “she was surprised to find out how much she was worth” (22). In this version, Duval reverses the associations of the trip’s direction on the “slavers’ route.” Later she dies, in extreme old age, after a life as a madam. Here the text betrays its fantasy status though its use of the future tense and its attendant irony: from her grave, “she will continue to dispense, to the most privileged of the colonial administration, at a not excessive price, the veritable, the authentic, the true Baudelairean syphilis” (24).
With such an ending, it becomes hard not to read this tale as the locus of the discursive construction of the meaning of gender; it becomes difficult not to see its meaning(s) as inseparable from the historical context of its production and reception, and thus from the political arena that has been called the “social networks of [here, erotic and literary] power/knowledge relations which give society its current form” (Weedon 138). But it is equally difficult to ignore the energy and power of female desire and of the erotic, even if only in fantasy. The celebratory and the deconstructing impulses come together here, and the contradictions that inevitably result are what define the field of paradoxes that perhaps constitute the postmodern today. Carter’s words about American artist Barbara Kruger are equally applicable to herself: “Irreverence, lucidity, wit are the characteristics of Kruger’s [and Carter’s] work. She makes the clash of contradictions, the instability of circumstances, the jagged unexpectedness of experience, a source of pleasure, and of the kind of laughter that makes you wise” (“The World” 3).
Carter, Angela, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.
“The Loves of Lady Purple”, in Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces. London: Quartet Books, 1974. 23-28.
The Passion of New Eve. London: Victor Gollancz, 1977.
The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History. London: Virago, 1979.
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. London: Gollancz, 1979.
“Black Venus”, in Black Venus. London: Chatto & Windus and the Hogarth Press, 1985. 9-24.
“The World According to Common Sense: A General Guide to the Work of Barbara Kruger”, in Barbara Kruger, catalogue, Mary Boone Gallery, January 7-28, 1989. 1-3.
Coward, Rosalind, Female Desire. London: Paladin, 1984.
Gilman, Sander, “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature.” Critical Inquiry 12, 1985. 204-42.
Kroker, Arthur and David Cooke, The Postmodern Scene: Excremental Culture and Hyper-Aesthetics. Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1986.
Rivière, Joan, “Womanliness as a Masquerade”, in Formations of Fantasy. Ed. Victor Burgin, James Donald and Cora Kaplan. London and New York: Methuen, 1986. 35-44.
Tickner, Lisa, “The Body Politic: Female Sexuality and Women Artists Since 1970”, in Framing Feminism: Art and the Women’s Movement, 1970-85. Ed. Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock. London and New York: Pandora, 1987. 263-76.
Weedon, Chris, Feminist Practice and Postructuralist Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987.
(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 14. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1998)