ANGELA CARTER'S THE PASSION OF NEW EVE

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Angela Carter's anti-mythic The Passion of New Eve (1977) is a novel that, for me, resides in easy company with Jean-Luc Godard's new wave Weekend (1967) and Derek Jarman's post-punk Jubilee (1978). Visually, with its hysterical sexually dimorphic revolutionaries, graffiti, machine guns, dystopian landscapes, surgical Sadomasochism and improvised guerrilla skirmishes The Passion of New Eve is also a literary counterpart to the cult pursuit movies that closed out the 1970s. Here, I am including Mad Max and The Warriors; the former a macho revenge narrative expanding outwards from rape and murder, and the latter finding its tough guy protagonists (in one of its more nuanced scenes) at the mercy of a ruthless gang of militant lesbians. Film is at the heart, if I can descend into such sentimentality, of The Passion of New Eve. At the most superficial level, Carter's novel concerns the infatuation of London lad Evelyn for the Garbo-esque film star Tristessa; that is the most crass (and unsustainable) elevator pitch for the book. However, what The Passion of New Eve is really about is dismantling the mythic language of sex. Carter achieves this through a fantastic bricolage of pulp science fiction, agitprop and French feminist literary theory. Much of Carter’s oeuvre is referred to as postmodern, and her baroque prose is regularly deployed in the subversion of myth and folk narratives; the current pop cultural vogue for rehabilitated folk and fairy tales is unthinkable without Carter's contribution through her d'tournements in The Bloody Chamber (1979)and by extension in Neil Jordan's film The Company of Wolves (1984). However, the genius of The Passion of New Eve is that in presenting a dystopian setting for her protagonists, Carter articulates a dystopian future for literature itself: a literature in thrall to convenient myths, all of which, setting herself in the wider cultural context of punk, Carter the anarchist destroys.

The theory that informs The Passion of New Eve is articulated in two significant sources: Hélène Cixous Sorties (1975)and Carter's own The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (1978); again,one preceding her novel, the other following it. From Cixous, and her essential work on écriture féminine Carter draws on the notion that:

"Man has been given the grotesque and unenviable fate of being reduced to a single idol with clay balls. And terrified of homosexuality, as Freud and his followers remark. Why does man fear being a woman? Why this refusal (Ablehnung) of femininity? The question that stumps Freud. The 'bare rock' of castration."

From The Sadeian Woman:

"If women allow themselves to be consoled for their culturally determined lack of access to the modes of intellectual debate by the invocation of hypothetical great goddesses, they are simply flattering themselves into submission (a technique often used on them by men). All the mythic versions of women, from the myth of the redeeming purity of the virgin to that of the healing, reconciling mother, are consolatory nonsenses; and consolatory nonsense seems to me a fair definition of myth, anyway. Mother goddesses are just as silly a notion as father gods. If a revival of the myths of these cults gives women satisfaction, it does so at the expense of obscuring the real conditions of life. This is why they were invented in the first place."

The plot is subservient to these two complimentary positions: that He and She are fictions in the service of the greater fiction of culture, particularly contemporary literature and film. It is not a novel that, as Susan Rubin Suleiman suggests in Subversive Intent: Gender, Politics, and the Avant-Garde (1990), quite defies summary but rather it shifts rapidly through pulp dioramas and gender-bending set pieces. I don't want to destroy the suspense but suffice to say that after an evening of anonymous movie theatre hand-job action Evelyn transits through four stages in his/her quest to unite with this enigmatic, yet camp and faded actress Tristessa. Evelyn's Tiresian transsexual odyssey from young man to "Playboy centerfold" Eve is not marked by epiphanies, only unremitting surrealist catastrophes:

"The last night I spent in London, I took some girl or other to the movies and, through her mediation, I paid you a little tribute of spermatazoa, Tristessa."

The novel really begins in New York. The first diorama is perhaps best thought of as a rewriting of Leopold von Sacher Masoch's Venus in Furs (Suleiman also suggests Robert Desnos as a source) as a blaxploitation movie in a rat-infested New York. It's the bankrupt yet experimental New York memorialized in Celine Danhier's documentary of late-seventies early eighties No Wave cinema Blank City (2012). The second diorama is set in the desert vortex of the hyper-feminine: California. Here, Evelyn discovers a monolithic monument to that "single idol with clay balls." Evelyn is captured by women from a militant fertility cult and led into a labyrinth of monstrous femininity, ruled by the grotesque "Mother" ("Embrace your fate like Oedipus...I am the Castratrix of the Phallocentric Universe"). After a ritualized union with the Mother, Evelyn is castrated and surgically made female. The women hope to use own Evelyn's collected sperm to impregnate him/her, or Evelyn/Eve:

"Hail, Evelyn, most fortunate of men! You are going to bring forth the Messiah of the Antithesis! ...Woman has been the antithesis in the dialectic of creation quite long enough."

The third diorama introduces the masculine antithesis "Zero", the disfigured, impotent, but Byronic poet and rapist. Zero, the parody of the male artist, insists that his impotence is the fault of Tristessa. From his ghost town retreat, attended by seven abused sycophantic sister-wives, he hunts the "dyke" film star by helicopter. This is all parody, of course. Again, without undermining the action if you have not read the novel yet, the encounter between Evelyn/Eve and Tristessa is a classic of drag, queer theory, criture feminine and the banging of postmodern signs. This is all a crude summary that elides the depth of Carter's undermining of mythologies, language and cultural coercion. The end of the novel, the post-apocalyptic drift, features a surreal and chthonic scene reminiscent of the final "Beyond the Infinite" pataphysical chess game that concludes Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (incidentally, a narrative in which monolithic phallic progress finally transcends the need for the female and births the 'star child'; but an ironic psychosexual reading of 2001 is for another day). Carter's fourth diorama, in conflating sex war and race war, represents the summit of her condemnation (via Cixous) of logocentric/phallocentric culture: sexism and racism have parallel linguistic/mythological/symbolic components, yet art narratives have largely outgrown or cast off the colonial convenience of black/white, occident/orient, etc, but our fictions still depend too much on the convenience (the consolatory nonsense) of logocentric ideas of sex and sexuality. Carter declares that everything must go.

It is thirty-five years since The Passion of New Eve, Angela Carter's classic of physical graffiti, was published. The following year, in The Sadeian Woman she wrote:

"Anatomy is destiny, said Freud, which is true enough as far as it goes, but ambiguous. My anatomy is only part of an infinitely complex organization: my self. The anatomical reductionalism of graffiti, the reductio ad absurdum of the bodily differences between men and women, extracts all the evidence of me from myself and leaves behind only a single aspect of my life as a mammal. It enlarges this aspect, simplifies it and then presents it as the most significant aspect of my entire humanity. This is true of all mythologising of sexuality; but graffiti lets it be seen to be true...In the face of this symbolism, my pretensions to any kind of social existence go for nothing; graffiti directs me back to my mythic generation as a woman, and as a woman, my symbolic value is primarily that of a myth of patience and receptivity, a dumb mouth from which the teeth have been pulled."

One line of graffiti recurs as a motif in The Passion of New Eve: INTROITE ET HIC DII SUNT (Enter, "for here the Gods are," - Carter's translation). This is a line that Carter, I believe, lifted from Freud's letter to Wilhelm Fliess; furthermore, Cixous mentions Freud's friendship with Fleiss in Sorties, I think further establishing that essay as crucial to Carter's work. In December 1896, Freud wrote to Fliess: "My psychology of hysteria will be preceded by the proud words: Introite et hic dii sunt (Enter, for here, too, are gods)." Carter's iconoclastic novel takes exactly that which is seen to be true at the extremities of the sex war, but crucially, as the implicit architecture of the most popular and potent narratives, those that perpetuate the most convenient myths "at the expense of obscuring the real conditions of life." The Passion of New Eve is in every sense a vital novel, a brilliant document of what we might now recognize as No Wave refusal, high critical theory and hysterical punk-pulp scandal. I commend it to your bosom in whatever form or in what number that may be.

 

*****

James Reich - Author of 'I, Judas' (Soft Skull Press, Oct. 2011) and 'Bombshell' (Soft Skull Press, April 2013). Work has also appeared at/in The Rumpus, Bold Type Magazine, Headzine, and others. Also: Musician w/ post-punk band Venus Bogardus; sometime bookstore owner in Bath, England; currently adjunct faculty at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.