Gastroporn, vampires and unappeasable appetite
appetite is more than a simple matter of the satisfaction of physical needs. Hunger for something to fill the stomach, or more appositely, the mouth, is represented as a sexual urge; sexual desire is in turn sublimated into gourmandism, reappearing as a lust for food. Carnality here is all-embracing.
The ambiguous appetite merges food with lust, and, more importantly perhaps, turns the object of sexual desire into a culinary focus and thus a focus of potential exploitation. Eating may be libidinous, but it is also dangerous, as the urge to consume in Carter's fiction reveals. The same could be said for what she represents as frankly vampiric. Combining the bloodsucking and dependent qualities of the leech with an aggressive and rapacious search for a victim/host, the vampire becomes both victim and perpetrator, the very figure of an oxymoron. Sexual fulfilment is suggested for the sucker, and at least a frisson for the victim. The vampire, a figure of insatiable need, seeks out and feeds off an (often willing) victim, heedless of the damage caused in his or her furious and fruitless attempt to make some person fill the unbearable vacuum in his or her being.
This kind of insatiable appetite and existential vacuum are at least partially responsible for the collapsing of hunger and sexual desire into what is an essentially vampiric or cannibalistic appetite. Where does such insatiability come from?) After all, hunger and desire might both be said to be simple needs and easily satisfied. Carter, however holds that sexuality is not simple; it is neither universal nor absolute, and cannot be considered outside of its historical and social context. The same may be said of appetite for food. As she writes in The Sadeian Woman: Flesh comes to us out of history. so does the repression and taboo that governs our experience of flesh. (sic, SW 11) (2). Appetite and the function of food, beyond their obvious metabolic necessity, are constructed socially, politically and psychologically.
Food and eating, like sexuality, are indicators or results of cultural conditioning, and, like sexuality, provide a focus for the play of power relations. Indeed, Carter identifies food with some wit as both a sexual and class battleground through an incident in the novel Several Perceptions.
2. Titles of works by Angela Carter are given abbreviated in parentheses throughout this essay, references being made to editions as follows (date of first publication in brackets): SW The Sadeian Woman, London: Virago, 1992 (1979); SP Several Perceptions, London: Heinemann, 1968; MT The Magic Toyshop, London: Virago, 1992 (1967); HV Heroes and Villains, London: Penguin, 1981 (1969); BC The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, London: Penguin, 1981 (1979); V VampireIIa in Come Unto These Yellow Sands, Four radio plays by Angela Carter, Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1985; DrH - The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, London: Penguin, 1982 (1972); NC Nights at the Circus, London: Picador 1985; WC Wise Children, London: Vintage, 1992 (1991).
There is, for good measure, an element of vampirism here, in the prophylactic use of garlic. Appetite, with desire it seems, is enmeshed in a nexus of conditions and influences that press from both inside and out. And Carter focuses precisely on the complexities and contradictions involved.
In much of her writing, there is a disquieting play of appetites, as hunger of one sort masquerades as craving of another, and characters become as much objects as subjects. In The Magic Toyshop, for example, when Melanie and her two siblings are removed to the strange domain of the puppet-maker's house, they find themselves in a place of contradictory appetites. They eat well, if under strain, but any appetite for life is snuffed out by the tyrannical presence of Uncle Philip, on whom they are economically dependent. Uncle Philip freely expresses his own appetites, and exercises his conjugal appetite on Sunday nights, but Aunt Margaret and her brother Francie have a secret incestuous appetite for each other.
Uncle Philip is a domestic tyrant, who abuses members of the household and controls the household budget, not just meanly, but precisely in order to be in control. His very presence is described as drawing the savour from the food as he renders(s) the dining-room as cold and cheerless as a room in a commercial traveller's guesthouse (MT 124) a peculiarly dismal image. Yet he enjoys his food, dominating the table and eating hugely. Indeed, Melanie can barely recognise him as the same man she saw in the photograph of her parents' wedding, so enormous has he grown.
The pleasure Uncle Philip takes in food is not simply from eating it. On Sunday afternoons, Aunt Margaret is obliged to wear her best (threadbare grey) dress and to don his wedding present: a large silver choker. she takes on a tragic beauty, wearing this, and at teatime is able just to sip at a cup of tea and eat a few stalks of mustard and cress. Uncle Philip meanwhile
It is after this tea, that Uncle Philip exercises his conjugal rights. The implication is that both of Uncle Philip's appetites are well sharpened by this particular exhibition of his wife's imprisonment.
His meanness is not avarice; he is neither simple miser, nor puritan, but a profoundly greedy man. He eats heartily, and this for the same reason he bullies and controls the household: his appetite is omnivorous; he wants to eat the world. Melanie significantly describes him as heavy as Saturn (MT 168), Saturn being the power-hungry god who castrated his father and swallowed his children for fear they would supplant him, thus becoming a symbol of antagonism between the generations. In Freud's cultural account (in Totem & Taboo and Moses & Monotheism) it is the primal sons who eat the father, only to realise they have internalised his power against them (like the internalising of the superego), but in both myths the result is a complexity of conflict, an intestine war rather than the desired subsuming or incorporation.
It is this drive towards incorporation, and its bid for power, that fuels the appetite embodied in Uncle Philip and most of Carters patriarch figures. This drive reflects a powerful nostalgia for a (mythical) state of complete union, imaged by an infant at the breast in an untroubled attachment to the mother at the very earliest stages of life. According to the theory of Melanie Klein (whose analysis Carter herself uses in The Sadeian Woman), when the infant reaches the oral stage, the world, or more specifically the primary love object or breast, is experienced as either good or bad according to when it gratifies or frustrates (3). Though loving, it becomes threatening, and in turn is both loved and threatened by the infant's negative desires, such as the desire to suck it dry, or indeed to incorporate it. An adult urge for incorporation can thus be seen to be stuck at the oral stage. When Foucault writes of the limitless presumption of the appetite, he offers a correlative of the imperious desire of the youngest of children, which, unchecked, can give birth to monsters (4).
The idea of a monstrous appetite for absolute power is something Carter returns to several times. Indeed, her catalogue of what she terms modem sensibility suggests it is endemic: ... paranoia ... despair ... sexual terrors ... omnivorous egocentricity tolerance of massacre, holocaust, annihilation (SW 32) [my emphasis]. We might conclude that attempts in the latter half of the twentieth century to cut loose from the restraints imposed by the superego breed a sense of separation from precisely what might be
3. Abraham refers to the oral-cannibalistic stage, see LAPLANCHE
and PONTALIS. The Language of Psychoanalysis. London: Karnac Books
and the Institute of Psycho-analysis. 1988. See also The Selected Melanie
Klein, ed. Juliet Mitchell, London: Peregrine Books.
sustaining. With a rejected parent there is no primary love object, and therefore no conception of union or wholeness; the self has to be recreated in a psychic vacuum, with, it seems, inevitably cannibalistic results. The characters in Carter's novel of the sixties, Love, a trio of narcissistic, alienated and destructively interdependent young people, form an exemplary case, engaging in a complicated dance of mutual and self consumption as they attempt to construct their individual identities out of each other (5).
Sexual desire in much of Carter's writing masks a struggle to, as it were, eat rather than be eaten. This struggle may be real, or it may represent profound (and common) fears, as illustrated in the protagonist's dream in Several Perceptions, when his friend's mother becomes a giant ice cream that engulfs him as he is eating her. Heroes and Villains foregrounds the eat or be eaten theme in terms that are both literal (survival), and figurative (sexual and power struggles). The primitive conditions that Carter creates suggest human nature at a fairly elemental level, the imagery suggesting a reversionary Wuthering Heights, dark and foul, full of fire, meat, animals and brooding passions. Cannibalism is outlined as a plausible fear; it is used as a threat or bogey by the villagers and remains an emblem of the primitive in Marianne's imagination. More figuratively, cultural or even colonial cannibalism is evoked in the forced marriage between Jewel and Marianne, as he explains to her after he has raped her. I've got to marry you, haven't I? Swallow you up and incorporate you, see. Dr Donally says. Social psychology (HV 56).
The sexual struggle is evoked in distinctly cannibalistic terms. Marianne's dilemma is how to interact with Jewel, and the Barbarians, without being completely subsumed. This is rendered more difficult by the hungry, eroticised quality of their contact, described as a formless erotic beast, with no eyes, but a mouth, teeth and claws. Eros in the raw is not kindly. There is passion, violence, and a deadly wrestling for supremacy. Jewel even hints at butchery one evening, daubing Marianne's face with blood from the slaughtered animal carcasses.
Butchery is, as Carter points out, an act of absolute control. In The Sadeian Woman, Carter makes a distinction between meat and flesh; the butcherly delights of meat, she says, are not sensual but analytical, and pleasure can only be technical (plus the knowledge that one is the butcher and not the victim). When flesh is treated as meat as, for example, in Sade's writings then sensuality and ambiguity are banished, and sexual relations become utterly distorted.
Carter plays with such a conflation in her short story reworking of Bluebeard, The Bloody Chamber, which centres on the objectification, and fragmentation, of women.
5. See SAGE Lorna, Women in the House of Fiction, London: Macmillan, 1992, p. 171.
Consider, for example, the narrator's description of the Marquis' behaviour at the opera, the night before their wedding: l saw him watching me in the gilded mirrors with the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh, or even of a housewife in the market, inspecting cuts on the slab (BC 11).
This resembles the practice in pornographic magazines of reproducing photographs of parts of women the outsize breasts, the cheekily inviting buttocks, or the genital close-up referred to in the trade as split beaver.
The Marquis here is clearly a consumer; he sees her as his to do with as he pleases. Since what pleases is the uncensored satisfaction of appetite, the Marquis indulges in just the kind of ambiguous carnality that belongs to gastroporn. The narrator describes him as stripping her like an artichoke and sees herself as bare as a lamb chop (BC 15). Cannibalism is increasingly suggested, until just before the dénouement, when she tries to delay her beheading and he confuses dinner and execution: Do you think I shall lose appetite for the meal if you are so long about serving it? (BC 39). Murder, Carter says, demonstrates the meatiness of human flesh; it is the most elementary act of exploitation (SW 140), in which one person is seen by the other in completely primitive terms. Cannibalism, viewed thus, is an extreme example of dehumanisation.
The cannibalistic Marquis has lips that are repeatedly described as red and often as wet. It is as though he were perpetually eating or drinking but eating, or drinking what? Blood? When he fucks the narrator, he kisses the rubies on her necklace, which metonymically bites into her neck, making a clear connection between sexuality, murder, cannibalism and vampirism. Carter frequently uses images of vampirism to suggest orality: lips of vampire redness, vicious love bites, filed teeth, the sucking of a wound, kisses which try to drink the lover and so on.
In her radio play, Vampirella, Carter literalises these elements, in the story of an unhappy vampire Countess, who sees herself as victim of the most terrible passion (V 84). Her story spells out the emotional subtext of vampirism; her vampiric connection with human beings keeps her inhuman and therefore fails to yield the real connection she longs and tries for. She bas, 'an insatiable thirst for life and et an inability to live " (V 110). She is rescued by a cycling Hero who refuses the doubtful pleasure of having his life blood sucked out, and in refusing offers her a cure. His kiss renders her human and adult, but also mortal in fact dead so that the moment of wholeness and completion becomes the moment of obliteration. The vampire may be sexual and is certainly hungry, but he or she is at least half in love with death.
Vampirism, like cannibalism offers only a fleeting solution to impossible desire; beyond lies destruction. This is played out in Carter's first novel, Shadow Dance, which
features a heady mix of oral excess in images of vampirism, cannibalism and auto-cannibalism, nausea, anorexia, butchery and bad teeth. Emotional vampirism is rife. Morris is married to Edna who stifles him with smotherlove. His best friend, Honeybuzzard, has cut the face of a girl called Ghislaine whom Morris perceives as a vampire woman, with a wound like a hungry mouth that Morris fears will swallow him. She is a prototype of the suspect innocent victim, and more than a little vampiric.
It is Honeybuzzard, however, who has the full vampire trappings. He is predatory, cruel as a child, wears fake vampire teeth, and has a rusty substance beneath his fingernails that resembles dried blood. In a candlelit scene he and Morris dance in an abandoned house; vampirism is almost realised as he clasps Morris in a desperate embrace, burying his face and teeth in Morris's neck. Honeybuzzard is not a pitiful character; he rather personifies the vengeful aspect of the vampire. Though Carter handles the theme more subtly in subsequent novels, there is a gothic vigour in the eat or be eaten struggle between Honeybuzzard and his victims. Ghislaine submits, and for her pains is killed and laid out in a room full of burning candles, faintly reminiscent of Miss Havisham's banquet room. In death he may possess her totally, for she cannot interfere; at least in fantasy she becomes his feast.
But it is more complicated than this. Carter's writing goes far beyond individual pathologies; as David Punter points out, it is concerned with charting the unconscious processes of Western society (6). Underpinning these processes are the two great classes of instinct classified by Freud, the life instincts (Eros) and the death instincts (Thanatos). Clearly, the manifestations of appetite that I have been detailing with obliteration their logical conclusion suggest thanatos rather than eros as their driving force. In Carter's later novels the cannibalistic appetites of thanatos become still more avert, are accentuated and exaggerated, but at the same time an erotically-driven, joyous appetite begins to emerge. It is not a simple substitution of eros for thanatos; the cannibalistic gives way, rather, to a more inclusive, celebratory and ultimately carnivalesque appetite for life.
The hinge of this change is perhaps the picaresque novel, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, which postulates a war between reason and desire, but also enacts a struggle within desire, between eros and thanatos. Cannibalistic desire is seen here as belonging to the potential victim, both in the case of the protagonist, Desiderio, and the hyperbolical libertine Count in whom the exaggerated death instinct is clearly in the ascendant. The Count claims with grandiosity that he lives to negate the world. His monstrous egocentricity is demonstrated by greed, by his voracious and bestial sexual appetite and by his habit of never answering questions (since he rarely notices the
6. PUNTER David, AngeJa Carter. Supersessions of the Masculine, Critique, Summer 1984, p. 209-222.
questioner). With his Sadeian superiority and fantasies of omnipotence, the Count is aggressively cannibalistic; he both dreads and is most drawn to his dark counterpart, the black pimp (later the Cannibal chief) whose negating presence is described as baleful, appalling, like a depth of water.
The cannibal chief's rule is despotic and deathly, his women deliberately denatured and brutalised. The relation of cannibalism to desire here is one of power, not love, The desire is for negation; indeed the whole scene and its cast of characters may have been called up by the Count's own powerful negative desire. He responds to the world like an infant to good breast and bad breast. His anguish, the terror of a disempowered monster, is also the infant's fantasy that the love object that he desires to incorporate and destroy will, in fact, eat him.
Like Desiderio, the Count craves incorporation, but the union he seeks is entirely solipsistic. The cannibal chief as his alter ego, voices the desire: I want to learn the savour of my flesh. I wish to taste myself (DrH 162); the Count's triumph comes as he begins to boil and learns, finally, to feel ordinary pain, to be (re)unified with himself, both as subject and object. It is an ambiguous triumph though; as with Vampirella the moment of wholeness and completion is the moment of death.
The opposition of eros and thanatos becomes a specifically gendered struggle in The Passion of New Eve: Zero, associated with negation and masculinity represents an urge towards control, destruction and entropy whereas Mother, Our Lady of the Cannibals, is associated with change, revolution and a potentially fertile chaos. This is part of a burgeoning female assertiveness, which, along with a greater sense of connection with the natural world and an emphasis on eros in Carter's last novels, does suggest a force to resist the pervasive influence of cannibalistic desire. In Nights at the Circus the winged aerialiste, Fevvers, twice resists being associated with suspect carnivorousness, expressing reluctance to eat fowl, and giving her nasty veal cutlet to the Colonel's pig when he tells her of pigs omnivorousness and the similarity of pork to human flesh (NC 203). Though she has an appetite to match her size, it is not, I think, a cannibalistic one; her appetite is for life, and experience, and change, an antidote to the frozen appetite of the cannibal.
This is not to say negation is absent from this novel. Far from it. The clowns, and specifically Buffo, manifest cannibalistic desire in the desperate sense I have used earlier. Buffo's bitter and omnivorous appetite is insatiable because it is powered by despair. He has a tremendous and perpetual thirst, but his prodigious drinking is always unsatisfactory, as if alcohol were an inadequate substitute for some headier or more substantial intoxicant, as though he would have liked, if he could, to bottle the whole world, tip it down his throat, then piss it against the wall' (NC 118).
This recalls the infant fantasy of sucking the breast dry, but goes beyond this, since he wants not so much to retain the world as to annihilate it. Buffo is a figure of negation, the creature of thanatos; Nothing will come of nothing. That's the glory of it, he says in a positive celebration of Lear's threat (NC 123). The requiem the clowns dance for Buffo invites disintegration and regression, a surrender to the forces of entropy and negation:
Buffo and the clowns represent the death instinct in its extreme form. It is not surprising that Fevvers, powered by eros, should say to Walser, Don't you know how I hate clowns ... I truly think they are a crime against humanity (NC 143); fittingly, their dance of death conjures a wind that fulfils their entropic propensity, blowing them away to nothing.
The clowns' negating force is countered in the self-presentation, appetite and affirming laughter of Fevvers, who, equipped by nature only for the woman on top position (NC, 292), likes to take an active role. Walser, on the receiving end, imagines her teeth closed on his flesh with the most voluptuous lack of harm (NC, 204). But she is no cannibal; these teeth are distinctly erotic, and a reciprocal eating is suggested by Walser's rueful contemplation, Am I biting off more than I can chew? (NC 293). This novel is truly comic, in the end refuting the cannibalistic and stressing reconciliation, fertility, continuance and the restorative power of laughter.
Such laughter belongs to carnival, a festive and anarchic spirit that embraces both clowns and Fevvers. Bakhtin writes: Combined in the act of carnival laughter are death and rebirth, negation (a smirk) and affirmation (rejoicing laughter). This is a profoundly universal laughter, a 1aughter that contains a whole outlook on the world (7). It is the universal and unifying quality of camival laughter that is significant here and though the laughter at the end of this novel belongs to Fevvers it is comprehensively carnivalesque: The spiralling tornado of Fevvers' laughter began to twist and shudder across the entire globe, as if a spontaneous response to the giant comedy that endlessly unfolded beneath it, until everything that lived and breathed, everywhere, was laughing (NC 294).
7. BAKHTIN Mikhail, The Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984, p. 127.
Bakhtin also claims that laughter effects a destruction of existing false hierarchies and the creation of new connections in order to embrace fundamental realities (8). This is, I think, the aim of all Carter's writing. But the deliberate evocation of carnival, the undermining of legitimacy and an emphasis on food, drink, bodies, sex and death in Carter's final novel, Wise Children, pays avert tribute to Bakhtin in its disingenuously artless pursuit of truth through a dizzying play of oppositions, doubleness, substitutions and the transgression of boundaries.
Cannibalistic reversion reappears in attenuated form, in Melchiors egocentricity and more keenly, perhaps, with his daughter/niece, Saskia, who indulges in cruel food poisoning tricks that bring to mind the humour of Buffo and the Clowns. The connections are not simple, however. Saskia is not only associated with negation, but with food, and desire, manipulating people, witch-like, through her cooking and sexuality. The mixture of food, sex and cruelty is vividly conveyed by a television food programme in which she jugs a hare; she dismembers it with slow, voluptuous strokes, lovingly prepares its bath of wine and vegetables, talks huskily to the viewers and moans how delicious it tastes. This is in stark contrast to Grandma Chance's altruistic and nurturing vegetarianism. Food and sex in Saskia's case relate not to eros but to thanatos: her business is greed and corruption: it is thus, in the broadest sense, cannibalistic.
Hollywood, too, functions cannibalistically, and yet provides the enchanted forest where you lose yourself and find yourself, again (WC 158). Saskia's whole impetus is antilife, yet she nevertheless forms part of the overall celebratory pattern of the novel. Contradictions and reversals abound, and the purpose and status of the set piece feasts are always undermined: the party that culminates in the burning down of Lynde Court; the sabotaged Hollywood Elizabethan engagement party; Melchiors 100th birthday party with its poisoned birthday cake and unforeseen revelations. Other oppositions contribute to the pattern: the themes of legitimacy and illegitimacy, the putative and disputed paternities and pregnancies, the opposition between theatre and music hall and the very polarities of negation and affirmation. Theatre is in decline and music hall diminished to crude revues. Yet the whole culture of show business expressed in the twins' motto, the joy it is to dance and sing, is counter-entropic, and associated here with renewal, multiple births and continuity.
Carnival is overtly invoked. The war is described as no carnival (ch. 4), and Grandma Chance's theory that war is a means of old men getting rid of the young (like Saturn) sets the two nicely in opposition. But carnival is largely, hugely embodied in the figure of Uncle Peregrine, not so much a man, more of a travelling carnival (WC 169) . Peregrine, the apotheosis of a transmuted Uncle Philip, preferring to be backstage pulling the strings than
8. BAKHTIN, Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel, in The Dialogic Imagination, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.
performing in front of the footlights; who grows ever larger as the book progresses, finally reaching the dimensions of a warehouse or tower block; who blows in on a wind full of butterflies, the very reverse of the wind called up by Buffo's Clowns; Peregrine, illusionist, who claims that Life's a carnival (WC 222) and is described as the heart and soul of mirth (WC 92) embraces the whole cast: for, although promiscuous, he was also faithful, and, where he loved, he never altered, nor saw any alteration (WC 208) (9).
Here, then, is the antithesis of negation. It is no coincidence that Uncle Peregrine provides crème de menthe, and Fuller's walnut cake, and cream buns from Grandma's cleavage on the seafront at Brighton. His gargantuan size is not only a product of Dora's desire, but an indication of largeness of function. The erotic force of Uncle Peregrine offsets all the negating and entropic influences at work in the novel, including physical decline, so that he remains a patent redhead at 100 years of age. This towering figure emphasises the comprehensiveness of carnival, which through him encompasses all appetites murder, incest, poisoning, cruelty gourmandism, as well as laughter, forgiveness, generosity, reconciliation (WC 227).
Carter here follows Bakhtin in embracing both negation and affirmation, within a whole outlook on the world. Whereas largely regressive cannibalistic and vampiric hungers prevail in her earlier, more analytic writing, in her last novels there is a steady and expansive movement of the spirit of eros. This is not to say the cannibalistic is supplanted by the erotic, for Carter eschews and even subverts such simple oppositions. The frozen appetites of thanatos are instead displaced by a carnivalised celebration that embraces both eros and thanatos as substantive elements of life. In Kim Evans' posthumously shown BBC Omnibus film, Angela Carter speaks with terrible poignancy of the inextinguishable, the unappeasab1e nature of the world, of appetite, of desire... (10).
love is not love / Which alters when it alteration
finds / Or bends with the remover to remove. Shakespeare, Sonnet CXVI,
Let me not to the marriage of true minds.