Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve, published in 1977 is an “in-between text,” a turning-point, a confusing space of transformation, that marks a gradual yet radical change in the Carterian corpus. After her realistic Bristol Trilogy (Shadow Dance, Several Perceptions, Love), after these static texts, called by Lorna Sage “mausoleum-like cabinets of curiosities” (Sage 1994b, 11), the rigid science-fictional dystopia, Heroes and Villains and the violent surrealist collage of The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, Carter seems to turn decisively towards joyously turbulent, fantastic, picaresque, allegorical adventures, energetic speculative fictions vitalized by a polyphonic magical realist voice—a voice that becomes more and more overtly charged with an ironic ideology criticism and a feminist politics.
In my reading, Carter’s four final novels should be interpreted as a sequence, in which 1972’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman’s protagonist is a masculine desire-ridden picaro, Desiderio, 1984’s Nights at the Circus’s heroine is the giantess aerialiste picara, Fevvers whose hyper-femininity seems to be redoubled in the final swansong, the posthumous 1992 Wise Children, starring the self-consciously feminist twin showgirls, Dora and Nora Chance. In this picaresque sequence, the 1977 The Passion of New Eve constitutes the “second volume,” describing an ambivalent and transitional passion between “masculine” infernal desire and “feminine” mock-sentimentality of circus nights. It is a strange novel where transsexual hero/ine, New Eve/lyn, redoubled or mirrored by the transvestite Tristessa clearly embodies an in-between, gender-bender, Tiresias-like destabilizing picaro-picara fusion.
In the Carterian oeuvre, novels, in their chronological succession, shift gradually from a static gloomy realism to a dynamic picaresque magical realism, from ruthless heroes to witty heroines, from obsession with patriarchs to the celebration of daughters, and as Paulina Palmer claims, from coded mannequin to bird woman, from femininity as masochist entrapment to femininity as feminist self-realization (Palmer 1984). In her “Notes from the Front Line” Carter describes The Passion of New Eve as an “anti-mythic novel[…]conceived as a feminist tract about the social creation of femininity” (Carter 1983, 71), while in an interview with John Haffenden she calls it “a careful and elaborate discussion of femininity as a commodity,[…as] an illusion” (Haffenden 1985, 86). Indeed the majority of critics praise the novel for being one of if not the most effective of Carter’s feminist political attempts. Harriet Blodgett praises the text for being a “genuine revisionist fiction” enhancing female power and countering the inscription of patriarchy. (Blodgett 1994) Alison Lee stresses its powerful critique of engendering images. (Lee 1997) Sarah Gamble underlines Carter’s successful transgression of the binary essentialism of representation and gender categories. (Gamble 1997) Merja Makinen heralds female sexual and textual aggression represented in a positive light. (Makinen 1997) Lindsay Tucker with Susan Suleiman, highlights the novel’s enabling postmodern feminist fictional strategy (Tucker 1998, Suleiman 1994), while Heather L. Johnson enjoys her “frisson of narrative pleasure” due to the liberating possibilities of the refigured, transgendered body (Johnson 1994). From this perspective, the in-between novel can be interpreted as a re-enaction of the crucial turn in Carter’s literary career, her transformation from what she calls in her “Notes from the Front Line” “a male impersonator” (Carter 1983, 70) into a politically self-conscious woman-writer.
Yet, most strangely, the novel completely lacks the celebratory tone of Carter’s subsequent feminist novels, and, to me, seems more of a dark vision, “a bitter and quite uncomfortable book to read,” or at most a “piece of black comedy” (as Carter herself coins the novel in Haffenden 1985, 86). Therefore, in my view, the novel does not lend itself to a fully triumphant feminist reading. My aim is to reveal that The Passion of New Eve is a painfully passionate text fuelled by the grotesque, suffering feminine body, that is, in Christina Britzolakis’s words, “locked into a regressive circulation of literary metaphors of fatal, apparitional, mechanical femininity” forged by patriarchy (Britzolakis 1997, 50). As the novel unveils the grotesque agony of “becoming woman,” the transitional polyphonic text is cruelly torn apart, painfully shattered into pieces by contradictory yet fatally embracing masculine/feminine narrative voices.
I wish to reveal that The Passion of New Eve illustrates a par excellence transitional stage in the Carterian corpus. It discloses a femininity that is simultaneously spectacular performance and painful entrapment. It rediscovers mothers to demythologize them cruelly as mere figures of speech. It traces an illusory picaresque journey that returns disillusioned and disinterested to its stagnant point of origin. Its sadistic masculine hero proves to be its suffering feminine heroine. Thus, it is all the more challenging to scrutinize the feminist fictional intentions and achievements of the novel, which seems to speak up self-evidently in a “male impersonator’s” voice. As it is all the more thought-provoking to pursue a gender-sensitive analysis on the interconnection of narratives of suffering femininity and their self-dismantling textuality, ruined by freaked female bodies.
II. The Passion of New Eve as a “male impersonator’s” writing
1. A plot of pain
The first reading discloses the novel as a piece of “male impersonator’s” writing by a woman-writer “suffering a degree of colonialisation of the mind” positing the masculinist point of view as a general one (Carter 1983, 70). The story ruthlessly faces readers with perplexingly heartless protagonists lost in the chaotic scenes, the ill-logic and the ferocious scenarios of a post-apocalyptic, hellish world, and senselessly suffering in a picaresque journey that proves to be the vicious circle of a plot of pain, which inflicts particular torments on feminine characters. The novel’s very first sentence introduces to us the male protagonist, Evelyn, a young English professor with “perfectly normal” (9) masculine desires and sexual prehistory: “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 spermatozoa, Tristessa”(5)—admits Evelyn, and continues his macho confessions by recalling how he likes to amuse himself by tying a girl to a bed before copulating with her, and how he enjoys making a nameless girl “get to her knees in the dark on the dirty floor of the cinema, among the cigarette ends and empty potato crisp bags and trodden orangeade containers, and suck[… him] off” while with necrophiliac arousal, and all the scopophiliac pleasure of his objectifying male gaze, with his sadism and fetishism satisfied he watches on the screen the “exquisite suffering”, the “emblematic despair” and the “wounds of martyrdom” of Tristessa, the ideal perfection of femininity, the adored movie star ravishing all male spectators with her “magic and passionate sorrow” and performance of pain (8-9). Evelyn, on arriving to America, naturally finds a sadistic pleasure in the chaos of dissolution embodied for him by the irresistibly luring, hyper-feminine Leilah, whom he cruelly denigrates, sexually abuses and abandons in the apocalyptic city to flee for the desert, willing to find there himself. Ironically, a group of militant feminist Amazons capture Evelyn and take revenge on him for his excessive, sadistic, misogynistic masculinity by granting him with herself. In the women’s city of Beulah, the self-made fertility goddess and mad scientist, Mother ritually rapes, castrates and surgically transforms Evelyn in an elaborate sex change operation into a perfect woman, New Eve, designed as bearer of the New Messiah of Anti-Thesis. Though Eve escapes from Beulah, from then on she is doomed to face and identify with cruelly grotesque embodiments of femininity and must experience the pains of becoming a woman himself/herself. Castrated, raped, abused, humiliated, battered, exploited, persecuted on his/her voyage, New Eve is finally fecundated with a child by Tristessa, who turns out to be a biologically male cross-dressing man, a transvestite merely performing in drag the illusory essence of Woman, and by embodying his “ineradicable male” desires (173), propagating the patriarchal myth of idealized masochistic femininity. New Eve is always on the run in her picaresque journey, yet, being more and more violently interpellated as a feminine subject, she is constantly entrapped in narratives of victimization. She witnesses phallogocentric fictions of femininity--that of the Femme Fatale, the Angel in the House, the Mother, the Virgin and the Enigma--which all prove to be theoretically or practically damaging for female anatomy, agency and authorship alike. The Passion of New Eve ruthlessly faces and disfigures its heroines with these inevitable yet insupportable communal myths, revealing them as mean, mutilating and meaningless by the multiplication of ruined, muted and grotesque feminine bodies.
2. Mean, mutilating and meaningless myths
The Passion of New Eve narrates a story of passion in a gender-sensitive reinterpretation of the religious sense of the word: it is a novel on the passion of becoming woman. It demonstrates, à la Simone de Beauvoir, that one is not born but is rather painfully forged into a woman, by being “always already” ideologically framed icon-like by limiting patriarchal representations, and being culturally trapped by a social fiction of femininity associating her with suffering corporeality.
The patriarchal myth of the femme fatale as “good bad girl” is embodied by Leilah, a blossoming black teenager from the ghettos, who is associated by Evelyn with an excessive series of patriarchal, archetypal tropes of the fatally attractive, sexually insatiable, forever yearning, castratingly devouring femininity. She is siren, nymph, mermaid, Lorelei, succubus, Rahab, the Harlot and Lilith. She is abjectified as “profane essence of the death of the cities, the beautiful garbage eater” (18), a rotten fruit, a poisoned wound (25), “mud Lily” (29), “dressed meat” (31) and “duly” punished as she “seemed […]a born victim—submit[ing] to beatings and degradations with a curious, ironic laughter” (28). This grotesque Lolita-femme fatale, a child sucking on lollypops, with playfully painted neon violet nipples, resembling an innocent shepherdess costumed in the seductive apparatus of stilettos, cache-sexes and furs is constantly (mis)understood and (mis)interpreted by Evelyn as the incomprehensible feminine other. He hears only her “soft wordless songs” (19,21), an incomprehensible strange argot and patois (26), a speech containing more expostulations than sentences (18) “more like a demented bird than a woman, warbling arias of invocation or demand” (19). He finally beats her to silence before abandoning her as a “broken thing” (35), and dooming this grotesque “good bad girl” to her “well-deserved” fate of painful pregnancy (accompanied by swollen breasts, terrible morning sickness retching, hysterical fits), followed by an abortion with infection, hysterectomy and tragically early sterility.
The patriarchal cult of sacred and self-sacrificing motherhood is recalled by Mother, the ingenious scientist and self-made maternal goddess of Beulah, displaying two tiers of surgically transplanted nipples grafted on her enormous chest as well as an enormous beard on her mask-like face. She transforms herself into an incarnate symbol, a “paradigm of mothering” (60), the “concrete essence of woman” (60), “her own mythological artifact” (60), “a hand-carved figurehead of her own, self-constructed theology” (58). She “undergoes a painful metamorphosis of the entire body (to) become the abstraction of a natural principle” (49), and “reconstruct(s) her flesh painfully with knives and with needles into a transcendental form as an emblem, as an example” (60) of the divine Mother (emphasis mine), who embodies both the Great Parricide, the Grand Emasculator (49) and the destination, the consolatory home, the Nirvana of non-being of all men(59). She is at the same time a wound that does not heal, the source of all desire and the water of life (64), the deity of fertility amidst the infertile desert. She contains a castrating volcano of engulfing femininity in her gaping vagina and a phallic sun in her mouth (64). She fuses Danae Alphio Demeter Kali Maria Aphrodite into one. The myopic masculine view of Evelyn cannot perceive that in her grotesque incarnation Mother unveils the illusory, universalizing, essentialist nature of the fiction of the mother, as well as the painful, tormenting consequences of this “consolatory myth” for women, also revealing maternity as an impossible paradox with contradictory expectations framed within harmful myths of femininity. Mother’s speech is just as incomprehensible for Evelyn as that of Leilah: she speaks in an archaic tongue of clicks and grunts or in self-celebratory hymns, bays like a bloodhound bitch or murmurs like a maternal womb, never ripening to a rational male discourse. Evelyn is unable to recognize the celebratory, revolutionary, sublime, potentially powerful female grotesque in Mother’s figure. He merely regards her as a frightening “sacred monster” (54), a disturbingly abject freak, “Mother, but too much mother, a femaleness too vast, too gross” (66). As Heather L. Johnson notes, his limited male perspective’s interpretive failure deforms the life-affirming Bakhtinian-Rabelesian grotesque into a repulsive, derogatory post-Romantic concept of the grotesque (Johnson 1994). Accordingly, this excessive motherhood, interpreted by Evelyn’s normative patriarchal narrative as a disturbing irregularity, is “appropriately” marginalized. When at the end of the journey Eve/lyn meets Mother again, she is secluded to the End of the World and appears as a miserable embodiment of the “female grotesque” (see Russo 1995). After a nervous breakdown, having realized the impossibility of her omnipotence, she is nothing more than a blind “lone, mad old lady” with a hair dyed a brave canary yellow like a very expensive ice-cream sundae, decorated with peek-a-boo bows of pale pink silk ribbon, in a two-piece spotted bathing suit on her wrinkled body, drinking vodka and singing absent-mindedly to herself. Then, Eve/lyn can rightfully denigrate her: “Mother is [nothing more than] a figure of speech and has retired to a cave beyond consciousness” (184).
The stereotypical image of femininity personified by the Victorian Angel in the House, the docile wife completely subservient to her idealized husband is called to life by the women in Zero’s harem. They simultaneously also reflect the contemporary figure of the housewife, who submits willingly to the patriarchal economic exploitation of unpaid housework and to the “unanimously legalized, socially sanctified” domestic violence, who accepts the marital abuse of the family-head reducing her to the paradoxically secondary status of the primary caretaker, forever entrapped in the despised, feminized realm of the private. The Charles Manson-like, self-appointed Nietzschian Übermensch, sterile and misogynistic mad poet, the one eyed and one legged Zero “believed women were fashioned of a different soul substance from men, a more primitive, animal stuff” (87), and consequently demands absolute humility from his wives. He does not allow them to speak in words, pokes them with his artificial member, beats them with a gigantic bullwhip, smears his own and his dog’s excrement upon their breasts, unceremoniously rapes one of them each day, and tailors their bodies to match his deformity. Zero’s seven wives, naked apart from their faded dungaree uniforms and heavy wedding rings, with angry marks of love bites on the exposed flesh, their hair cut extremely short, and their incisor teeth pulled out, are grotesque embodiments of the suffering, 20th century household angel. Eve/lyn cannot understand the seven wives, not only because they babble gibberish, whisper, howl, hoot, roar, mew, squeak and cluck like a flying menagerie (85, 86, 89), but also because even his/her ineradicably masculine worldview is shocked by the blind subservience and stupid superstition with which they accept their fate, since despite everything “they loved him and did not think they were fit to pick up the crumbs from his table, at which he ate in his solitary splendour” (85), as these ignorant “postulants in the church of Zero” (87) believe that sexual intercourse with him guarantees their continuing strength and health. Thus, these grotesque women in pain paradoxically embody the Angel in the House, and the martyr without a cause, embracing stereotypically feminine attributes of self-sacrifice and non-productive expenditure in one, to finally turn into enraged maenads when they attack Tristessa’s hiding place and are annihilated by the self-exploding whirling glass castle, that sweeps them away like grotesque remnants, shattered debris, fragments of their fossilized myths.
The traditionally feminine archetype of the Virgin or the Virgin Mother is incorporated by the hero/ine Eve/lyn upon whom Mother wishes to reactivate the parthenogenesis archetype by castrating him, excavating the “fructifying female space” inside him, thus making him the perfect specimen of womanhood who is to be impregnated with his own sperm. Hence, the mythical Immaculate Conception becomes a feminist political gesture in a hyper-technological scientific experiment, while the Virgin Mother is embodied by an androgynous cyborg, an “artificial changeling”, a “Tiresias of Southern California” (71) challenging normative, binary gender categories and promising the new Messiah of Anti-Thesis via a multiply hermaphroditic fusion. In a grotesque confusion, the New Virgin Mother is named Eva, after the first fallen woman, culprit and victim of the primal sin, doomed to eternal punishment and repent. In her picaresque passion she is invited to blend the shameful, abject pain of the sinful female flesh with the immaculate, transcendental suffering of the Mater Dolorosa. Eve is repeatedly raped, but (s)he contemplates the violence targeted at her femininity from a distinct, masculine perspective. Thus, in a sense, she remains intact, an eternal virgin, containing the intarnishable simulacrum of the unstained essence of femininity. New Eve’s mirror image, and thus a double of the New Virgin Mother is the equally androgynous Tristessa, who impregnates Eve/lyn as a biological man yet whom New Eve’s first desire associates with her mother (123) and whom the paranoid Zero regards the “Typhoid Mary of Sterility” (104). As Tristessa never ceases to fully identify with his performance of femininity, thus, he remains “Our Lady of Dissolution” (15), “Our Lady of Sorrows” (71) (emphasis mine), more of a Virgin Mother than a Phallic father.
When New Eve, after Mother’s drastic surgical intervention, becomes the perfection of femininity incarnated, her first experience of womanhood is associated with pain, a literalized castration anxiety, a desperate “awakening to a sense of deadened pain—a knowledge of grievous internal wounds that would never heal, never” (71). After her operation, along with the daily injections of female hormones, New Eve is subjected to a psychosomatic conditioning, which displays all the pains of womanhood that she is violently interpellated to interiorize in order to become a “real” feminine woman according to the patriarchal scenario. She is initiated to all the mythic icons, stereotypical representations and social fictions of femininity, spiritually, mentally or physically damaging female anatomy and agency. During Eve’s feminization, idealized representations of “every single Virgin and Child that had ever been painted in the entire history of Western European art” (72), non-phallic imagery of symbolic receptacles as caves, sea anemones, roses, sea and moon, mingle with sound tracks of gurgling babies, murmuring mothers, and the liturgy of the Holy Mother, combined with lectures on female genital mutilation, Chinese foot binding and Jewish ankle-chaining of women, Indian widows burning on funeral pyres, and old Hollywood movies starring the suffering Tristessa, eternally tormented by an “exquisite pain,” “incomparable tears and sickness,” the “ache of eternal longing,” and a “beautiful lack of being” (72). When New Eve finally concludes that it is a real punishment to be transformed into a woman, Mother laughingly admits that “of course [he] will not be happy as a woman” (76), as femininity can only be synonymous with the performance of pain. It seems that in Carter’s view, there is no way out of the prison-house of fossilized myths, as even the feminist scientists of Beulah--although they shout at Evelyn with revengeful feminist rage: “this is what you’ve made of women! And now you yourself become what you’ve made!” (71)—they seem to be framed within the same old patriarchal fatal fictions of femininity. The absconding Eve/lyn’s fear seems justified: captured, taken back to Beulah, (s)he would be turned into a perfect Madonna via “an extended course of surgery that would not leave the brain intact this time” (82). Like in other stages of this grotesque passion, the Madonna, embodying the essence of femininity, does not think, she only suffers.
The patriarchal myth of femininity as an Enigma, oscillating between icons of Virgin and Mother, Femme Fatale and Masochistic Martyr, embodying the bleeding scar in celestial limelight, the haunting paradox and the secret behind seven veils (6) of femininity shall only be duly acted out by the transvestite movie star, Tristessa, who incarnates the most beautiful, the mysteriously perfect woman, by turning himself into “the shrine of his own desires, (by making) of himself the only woman he could have loved” (129). As Tristessa’s desires keep their “ineradicable quality of his maleness” (173), the ideal woman (s)he sado-masochistically carves on his/her own body is invariably marked by a suffering, passive femininity in a negative mode, characterized by a “beautiful absence of being” (137). Tristessa is no more than a screen to project destructive male desires upon, a mirror reflecting masculine traumatic experiences of the Lacanian primal loss, the Freudian castration anxiety and death drive , and mirroring the “desolation of America, all estrangement, our loneliness, our abandonment” (121). (S)he is a “pane [or pain] the [symbolically masculine] sun shines [aggressively] through” (137), a receptacle engulfing everything and nothing, an abyss, an illusion in a void, an empty hole, the negative “focus of pain” (122). Tristessa’s enigmatic image is an intertextual collage sewn out of fragments of iconic women in passionate pain, as Madame Bovary, Catherine Earnshaw, Madeline Usher, Scarlett O’Hara, Juliet, Desdemona, Dido, the Camelia Lady, or Bloody Mary. Their tears assemble her and tear her apart. As Tristessa “turns himself into a lucid object, with no ontological only iconographic status” (129), (s)he seems omnipresent yet transparent, like her/his glass castle, throughout the whole novel. Firstly, as an actress, she speaks in these iconic female martyrs voice or in Hollywood clichés, secondly, his/her fictive autobiography is hidden in undecipherable traces in Eve/lyn’s retrospective reminiscences constituting the novel, thirdly (s)he identifies with his/her appearance, the essence of femininity to such an extent that his/her destruction and death fail to provoke mourning or melancholy (not even in his/her greatest admirer, Eve/lyn), as (s)he seems to disperse immaterially in the desert, like a handful of sand. When the seemingly hyper-masculine characters, the actually impotent Zero and the immature child crusaders learn that they cannot project their real phallic lack on Tristessa, since (s)he is a man merely acting as a woman, strangely, instead of castration schemes, they both aim at depriving him/her of his/her femininity. Zero humiliates and torments Tristessa by (cross-)dressing her as a man (a bridegroom), forcing her to copulate as a male with the perfect female Eve (crossdressed as a bride in a violently grotesque marriage ceremony), while the children’s army shaves her bald and deprives her of her jewels. Yet, (s)he has so much identified with his/her performance-of-femininity-as-suffering that these tortures make him/her even more effeminate. Tristessa dies as a woman, when “revolting to his sinuous principle of femininity” (s)he kisses the leader of child soldiers and is ruthlessly shot on spot. Although, Tristessa’s name carries within itself the anagram of Tiresias, and thus the promise of a liberatory gender-bender, yet as a perfect woman, (s)he realizes only “all the poignancy of hopelessness in its whispering sibilants” (173) and becomes the allegorical figure of “La Tristesse,” feminine sorrow, the well of sombreness.
3. Hurting feminine landscapes
The construction of patriarchally mythical femininity as victimization is not only painfully carved onto the female flesh but is also projected on the landscapes of Eve/lyn’s picaresque journey. Carter may be regarded as a precursor of feminist geographers, as her fiction somehow undertakes what Elizabeth Grosz calls an analysis of the constitutive and mutually defining relation of bodies and cities, where cities provide a condition and milieu in which corporeality is socially, sexually and discursively produced as a cultural product which reinscribes the urban landscape in its turn (Grosz 1995). However, although The Passion of New Eve seems to reveal the interconnectedness of the ideologically coded body and its surrounding social space, Carter fails to remap the engendered body, or rename its location, she seems to remain framed within patriarchal spaces. Her fiction rather resembles traditional representation’s stereotypical images in classical texts of patriarchal literary canon, where women are likely to be associated with three-dimensional physical space waiting to be tamed and framed by two-dimensional masculine representation, Mother-Earth to be fecundated by life-giving seeds, land to be conquered, mapped, inscribed by the male explorer, sea to be sailed with abject mermaids to overcome, vagina-dentata-like, grotesque grotto, cave to be penetrated, incomprehensible, hysteric text to be unveiled, deciphered, tabula rasa to be filled with meaning by the phallic pen of the writer fathering the text. Instead of providing a feminist geographical revision, Carter seems to repeat the grotesque topography of Medieval legends that Bakhtin identifies as a fundamental inspiration of the Rabelaisian carnivalesque grotesque body concept. According to the Medieval worldview, the earthly macrocosm is structured exactly like the corporeal microcosm. Thus, the ambiguous, open, irregular, incomplete, excessive, vulgarly corporeal grotesque body (contrasting the transcendental, disciplined, closed, static, homogeneously self-contained, symmetrical classical body) surfaces in fantastic landscapes, strange geological formations, often coined after the deviant body parts of dismembered supernatural beings (Gargantua’s finger, giant’s tooth, devil’s mouth). (Bakhtin 1968, 342) In The Passion of New Eve Carter offers a gendered rewriting of the Medieval grotesque topography matching the carnivalesque grotesque anatomy. Yet, instead of the Medieval, cosmic, communal, carnivalesque merriment incited by the grotesque body, Carter’s dystopia maps out spaces of disillusion. Her fantastic landscapes embody fetishized, freaked and fractured female body parts, abject female corporeal waste’s fluids, and evoke representations of suffering femininity. The novel presents stations in Evelyn’s passion of becoming a woman, and hence trace a topography of pain intertwined with an anatomy of the shattered female body.
New York City
Nicoletta Vallorani in her original reading of the novel argues that the incomprehensible, chaotic topography of the City (urban landscapes of New York, Beulah and Zero’s town) is reflected in the “largely unreadable,” fragmented, labyrinthine, postmodernist text, as well as in Tristessa’s hybrid, enigmatically unintelligible body (Vallorani 1998). Although, here, I also concentrate on the spatial, textual, corporeal aspect of chaos in Carter’s text, unlike Vallorani, I suggest a more overtly gendered reading of landscapes, bodies and narratives. In my view, these are the mutilating myths, contradictory expectations and binding representations of femininity, painfully (de)composing the female body that are projected on the chaotic landscapes. Thus, the Carterian spaces all prove to embody the fragments of the fetishized and freaked grotesque female body, that slowly disintegrates to its primordial iconic elements, painfully putrefies to abject fluids of body waste, and in the long run, (de)forms a violently (self)dissolving text of pain.
Although New York City is originally numbered, planned, and ordered on a symmetric grid according to the doctrines of reason, yet in the post-apocalyptic world of the novel it gradually submerges into “chaos, dissolution, nigredo, night” (16). It is irreversibly becoming an alchemical city, tainted by a dark and dangerous mythical femininity emblematized by the vagina dentata. This New York is not at all the “masculine metropolis” Vallorani claims it to be (Vallorani 181), but a city marked by the Big Apple, traditional sign of the primal sin, feminine fall, source of all pain. Evelyn, the future Eve and Leilah, the would-be Lilith--together embodying two aspects of the first sinful woman redoubled--meet, unite, taste the apple here to unchain a chaos that fails to bring illuminating knowledge. New York remains a dark city abounding with images of castration and of the devouring vagina dentate. It is the metropolis of a “country where Mouth is King” (10), its walls are everywhere inscribed with the insignia of angry women, a female circle with a set of bared teeth inside (11, 17, 23), it is peopled by “a special kind of crisp-edged girl with apple-crunching incisors and long, gleaming legs like lascivious scissors” (10), by female sharp-shooters and syphilitic whores “mouthing obscenities” while grabbing balls (13), and practising the humiliation of men and “bruis(ing) machismo (that) takes longer to heal than a broken head” (17). New York city is the home of succubus-like Leilah, who seduces and entraps the fallible Evelyn with the carnivorous flower of her yearning, engulfing, palpitating sex (18), who betrayed, issues voodoo threats against Evelyn’s manhood (“she told me a chicken would come and snap my cock of” (32)) and thus, with this prophesy of castration forecasting Eve/lyn’s destiny, becomes the mouth of truth.
New York’s color is black, as the space of the city is contaminated by the tenebrous depth of the devouring vulva, as well as by the dark matter of body waste of faeces penetrating the putrefying city (a “rich smell of shit add(ing) a final discord to the cacophony of the city’s multiple odours” (17)) and by the grumous blood-clots from black Leilah’s massive hemorrhage resulting from her painful abortion. Thus, in a patriarchal paradox, the iconic vagina dentata seems to devour itself, as New York inflicts pain primarily on women. Leilah’s black blood stains mark the destruction of the succubus in her and also the abuse of her femininity. Leilah’s iconized then denigrated, fetishized then fractured femininity constitutes a terrible memento by violently embracing the surrounding space with the darkness of her blood stains.
It is Mother’s underground city named Beulah which lends itself the most easily to be identified with a fetishized, abjectified fragment of the female body, namely the womb. The captured Evelyn slowly realizes that the warm, round, dim room, covered with a soft shiny substance, “lit only by a fringe of pinkish luminescence at the foot of the wall” (49), and filled by a profound silence interrupted only by diminishing murmurs whispering in “a lulling chorus like the distant sound of the sea” a never-ending refrain: “NOW YOU ARE AT THE PLACE OF BIRTH, NOW YOU ARE AT THE PLACE OF BIRTH…”, this room--as well as Mother’s operating theater in the deepest cave where “walls were sealed tight upon us and it was oppressively warm” (57)--is nothing else but simulacrums of the womb (52). However, instead of a primary, oceanic good vibration of maternal Thalassa, Evelyn feels a metaphysical dread, the panic of being enclosed in a cannibalistic spherical place without doors, of being “swallowed up underground and trapped!” (50)—as if in a grotesque grotto beyond the vagina dentata. As Aidan Day and David Punter highlight, Beulah is a place borrowed from Blakeian mythology, where this ambivalent feminine state allies creativity to destructiveness, beauty to terror in an illusory, emotional emanation that inspires the male artist (Day 1998, 113, Punter 1998, 55). The surgically castrated Evelyn is forced to face the “deepest cave, this focus of all the darkness that had always been waiting for me in a room with just such close, red walls within me” (58) through discovering the “fructifying female space inside” (68). Yet, the introduction to the female space (53) fails to bring inspiration, illumination, or revolutionary subversion. The journey back to the source (53) proves to be static. The feminine sphere of the “timeless eternity of inferiority” (53) resembles the female corporeal fluids emblematizing the city of Beulah (recycled urine providing drinking water, synthetic pseudo-milk substituting real mother’s milk, chemicals in sterile alembics replacing amniotic fluid) in the sense that they are interpreted by Eve/lyn as frightening fossilized myths characterized by a disillusioning dead-end, a claustrophobic self-sufficiency.
Beulah’s color is blood-red, as the city is submerged in a crimson light in a temperature at constant blood heat (52), yet this abject corporeal fluid like all of Beulah’s interior spaces seems “unnatural, slippery, ersatz, treacherous, false-looking” (56). Mother’s “delivery,” Evelyn’s castration and Eve’s (re)birth must be accompanied by violent floods of blood concomitant with a pain, which is associated with femininity again. But, as the maternal womb is substituted by the sterile space of operating theatre, where an artificial surgical intervention merely simulates natural birth, Evelyn strongly doubts the veracity of blood. Operated anaesthetized (s)he “awakens to a sense of deadened pain” (71) and experiences the “crippling pain” of his/her first menstrual flow as simply “the emblem of my function” (80) (emphasis mine). Carved with a hollow female space, supplemented with the internal absence of a womb of her/his own, New Eve takes the patriarchally ideal model of femininity to the extreme. (S)he becomes a “born victim” whose female suffering is always redoubled by the masochist’s pain over the lack, the illusory nature of all real pain.
The desert draws the topography of the pathologized, mutilated, or wounded female body. It is the abode of “enforced sterility, the dehydrated sea of infertility, the post-menopausal part of the earth” (40) (emphasis mine), a “scalped, flayed” land, where “the world shines and glistens, reeks and swelters till its skin peels, flakes, cracks, blisters”. The lost Eve/lyn wanders in this desert under the insupportably hot, yellow sun, suffering of bleeding blisters, her flesh is burned away, she is skinned, grilled, beaten about the head by the sun, lashed by little whips of sand, eyes clogged with dust, lips cracking with thirst (47). Thus, the desert appears as “a landscape matching the landscape of [her desperate] heart” (41) and of her tormented body. On her picaresque journey Eve/lyn meets the freaked grotesque, mutilated inhabitants of the desert: Zero’s violently deformed, battered, bruised wives and the half-breasted, self-dismembering Amazons both represent a savage apprenticeship in womanhood either in traditional patriarchal or radical feminist utopian ways. The fragmented female body part emblematizing the desert is the wounded breast. Zero’s wives all display naked chests covered with bruises and scars, while the Amazons, presumably Beulah’s priestesses turned militant feminist sharp-shooters, mutilate themselves to become mono-mammary, moreover the “new (wo)man,” Tristessa fecundates New Eve/lyn in the desert while softly biting at her right nipple (147). Interestingly, even the child crusaders of the desert have pierced nipples. Accordingly, the desert simulates the form of the wounded breast. New Eve and Tristessa “cast [themselves] on the merciless breast of this inverted ocean, where only the specks of mica glittered, where [they] should soon die together” (145), whereas Eve/lyn’s memories of the desert confirm that: “we were beached on the breast of a pearl, so white and swollen did the sand look and then I thought, perhaps we’ve landed on one of my own breasts, the left one” (151) (emphasis mine). The desert, taking the form of Eve/lyn’s left breast embodies the symbolically remaining pain, the Amazonian mammary mutilation, or simply her broken heart (175), bruised by becoming woman. The yellow and white desert are marked by corporeal fluids of sweat and saliva as Tristessa and Eve/lyn heated by their disillusioned, desperate, dying embrace suck at the water bottle of each others mouth (149) to imagine they are painfully-pleasurably turning into water (153) amidst the dryness of the desert’s inverted sea.
The Glass House
Tristessa’s transparent glass house filled with mirrors and sculptures of tears perfectly imitates her spectacular performance of femininity based on reflectivity, passivity, and pain. Tristessa turns himself/herself “into an object as lucid as the objects [she] made from glass, and this object was, itself, an idea” (129). (S)he associates woman’s being with the absence of being, perpetual vanishing (110), recalling the depthless depth, passive reflectivity and deceptive transparency of the looking glass. (S)he negates herself to become “a pane the sun shines through” (137), to “become inviolable, like glass, [that] could only be broken” (137). (S)he aims to transcend the pain of “feminine negativity” exactly by identifying with its essence. Like the looking glass in the “heaped glass hoops of her home” (110) (s)he reflects the condensated sufferings of all women, and of (the symbolic, perfectly feminine) Woman. (S)he mirrors sorrows of all the world mimicking a “receptacle of all the pain[…]projected out of[...]hearts upon her image” (122). Both her performance of pain and femininity relies on a stylized repetition of an illusory essence. (S)he lends herself as a screen upon which myths of illusion and disillusion may be projected. (S)he becomes a site demonstrating classic and contemporary theories problematizing the mirror image, as a reflection traditionally associated with passive negativity, traumatizing partiality, a tempting yet treacherous mirage, that is conventionally identified with femininity. Tristessa is the living image of the Platonic cave’s entire shadow show (110), of the Lacanian mirror stage’s loss, of Baudrillard’s faked spectacle of simulacrum, of Irigaray’s speculum of the other woman: her view allows for seeing only through a glass, darkly, and not face to face (Corinthians 13:12). (S)he displays only fragmented parts instead of a harmonious whole. Her image offered to the possessive, othering male gaze only gives reflected light (34), merely mimicks him, while it patriarchally evokes the primal painful loss of the entry into the symbolic order shattering the illusory unity in the mirror. Her mirroring reveals reality as reflection, presence as re-presentation, all visible as simulacrum, the seeing-believing-knowing eye/I as consolatory social fiction. Tristessa’s performative femininity is constituted as a disillusioning illusion, a disturbingly omnipresent void, an all-embracing nothing, a vessel of emptiness.
Accordingly, her transcendental transparence is architecturally realized on multiple levels in her home —via mirrors reflecting mirrors, reflecting mirrors… Her perfectly translucent, luminescent glass house hides her glass coffin in the transparent shrine of the “Hall of Immortals,” as well as a clear-watered pool where she trips liquid glass to make her trademark crystalline sculptures of tears. Lorna Sage calls Tristessa’s glass shrine “an omphalos, a navel, a centrifuge” of the picaresque plot (Sage 1994a, 36). Yet, in my reading, her transcendental transparence, her mirror of pain, her glass tears (de)form a dispersed center, since the fragments and chips of her shattered looking glass seem to pierce the narrative and to frame the painful construction of femininity repeatedly, from the very beginning till the ending. Initially, Leilah ritually incarnates the seductress by abandoning her carnalized self in/to the mirror and “allowing herself to function only as a fiction of the [masculine] erotic dream into which the mirror cast” (30), while the emblematic object Eve/lyn must face at the end of his journey of “becoming woman,” in mother’s cave by the ocean is a broken mirror.
Tristessa’s glass house is a significant station in Eve/lyn’s passion because it models her suffering femininity. Tristessa’s house is turned into a glass shrine, recalling a long-abandoned cathedral (113), a mausoleum, or a vault and thus imitates the cadaverous, sepulchral, ghostly divine Tristessa making of herself a “shrine of his own desires”(128). The serpentine rooms echo her serpentine name and voice, and most importantly, the dancing reflections, shifting perspectives of glass, the vertiginously spinning transparent labyrinth-building evoke the vertiginous chasms of her depthless, crying eyes. The “reflection in the mirror step[ping] back and the reflection of that reflection in another mirror stepp[ing] back…[in] an endless sequence of reflections” (132) recall her eyes opening on an endless series of Chinese boxes, opening to an infinite plurality of worlds in unguessable depths, opening to “the abyss of myself, of emptiness, of inward void…order[ing] me to negate myself with her” (125). Thus, Tristessa’s suffering femininity, the crying eyes and the self-reflectively transparent mirrors become emblems of each other in the novel outlining a topography of pain. As Tristessa performs divinations by means of reading tears, it is no wonder that her glass tear sculptures, these “grand transparencies […]—swollen, tear shaped forms of solid glass with dimples and navels and blind depressions in their sides, the abortions of expressive surfaces” (111) not only embody the painful pathologization (swollen, blind, depression, abortion), the libidinal territorialization-fragmentation (tear, dimple, navel) and the othering objectification (abortions of expressive surfaces) of the female body, but also forecast the humiliating stripping and the final crucifixion of the perfect woman in Tristessa, which coincides with the demolition of her glass house of mirrors and tears.
The last station of Eve/lyn’s picaresque journey is a cave by the ocean at the end and the beginning of the world where the hero/ine is led by Leilah-Lilith to meet Mother, whom (s)he leaves behind for good, hoping to find herself on the sea. As Eve/lyn crawls into a fissure in the rock, and painfully pushes herself forward in a narrow stone track towards a cave that sucks her inwards, she reenacts a reversed birth. Evelyn’s pain is the extremely dramatized version of the laboured infant’s suffering (“my skin scored and grazed by the cruel embrace of the rock that kneaded my tender nipples unmercifully and bruised and jarred my knees and elbows. My hair snared on little outcroppings[…]every movement necessitated the most extreme exertion” (179) “cut and bruise fingers badly, painful buffeting from inhospitable granite” (182)), yet the cave’s pulsating slimy velvet walls, the warm meat passage of the insides of the earth (184), clearly recalling the womb, draw her/him inward. In the cave’s sphere, time is turning back on itself, the evolution is reversed, all is dissolving in the amniotic sea, as Eve/lyn is returning to the place of her/his conception, and re-experiences his/her initial being cannibalistically devoured by the vagina dentata, the violently embracing maternal womb, castrating him, creating her, painfully moulding this “newly born woman” into the iron maiden of perfect femininity, in order to give birth to the new Eve/lyn. Then, as Eve/lyn is expulsed from the cave and is violently thrown up outside onto the green seaside, the devouring lips of the vagina dentata transform into a vomiting mouth. The cave embodies the disgorging oral orifice, given that Evelyn climbs into a “fissure in the rock face” (179), recalling the mouth, and is spitted out by/through “the wide mouth of the cave” (186) (emphasis mine). In the meanwhile, (s)he is being regurgitated amidst abject materia and sensations reminiscent of vomiting: (s)he oozes forward like putrefied cheese in an airless, choked passage, surrounded by a scarcely tolerable stench, a faint reek of rotten eggs, a sulphurated steamlet, and with a sick sudden sensation of falling (180-183) is thrown up (w)retched to the bile green sea. Mother’s grotesque cave unites the devouring vagina and the regurgitating mouth into one fissure, and therefore embodies the highest and lowest fetishized and abjectified cavities of female corporeal topography, fuses beginning and end, and reveals the picaresque journey as a vicious circle, an illusory motion, a static nomadism limited by iconic feminized landscapes of pain. The picaro/picara must learn that reaching the end signifies returning to the point of origin (“I have come home. The destination of all journeys is their beginning. I have not come home” (186)). When Eve/lyn realizes that coming home, finding herself in himself is impossible, Mother never answers, Eve/lyn throws away, into the sea Leilah’s present, the mini portable refrigerator containing the set of genitals which had once belonged to Evelyn. Thus, (s)he both renounces of symbolic phallic potential and ceases to believe in mythical matriarchal powers. Although Eve/lyn sails away on the transgender fluid of “maternal ocean,” she seems less hopeful than disappointed. (S)he submerges in illusions--in her boat, that is mother’s coffin exchanged for Leilah’s alchemical gold—disillusioned, disinterested, ready to drown.
Eve/lyn’s words in the grotesque cavity of the cave can be interpreted as a metatextual and metacorporeal monologue, revealing that her/his becoming woman coincides with her/his coming to writing, her/his turning into text, with both experiences accompanied by an inescapable pain: “The rocks between which I am pressed as between pages of a gigantic book seem to be composed of silence: I am pressed between the leaves of a book of silence. This book has been emphatically closed” (180). At the end of her journey, as during the entire quest for her/his feminine self, Eve/lyn is closed within iconic representations of feminine body associated with suffering in patriarchal (his)stories silencing all attempts at female agency. “Death by pressing” signifies a “death by drowning” (181) into representation, a death by patriarchal printing which carves mutilating myths on female corporeality.
|Place||New York||Beulah||Desert||Tristessa’s glass house||Cave by the ocean|
|Iconic, fetishized,freaked feminine body part||Devouring vagina dentata||Sterile womb||Wound(ed breast)||Crying eyes||Regurgitating Mouth|
|Female fluid, abject body waste||Feces||Blood||Sweat||Tears||Vomit|
|Pain||Leilah’s abortion||Mother’s delivery Evelyn’s castration Eve’s birth||Zero’s wives’s and Amazons’s mutilation||Tristessa’s lack of being and humiliation||Eve/lyn’s loss|
As the summarizing chart above demonstrates, Carter’s narrative consistently associates fetishized, freaked female body parts, abject female corporeal waste’s fluids, representations of suffering femininity with hurting landscapes and places, and therefore traces a topography of pain intertwined with an anatomy of the shattered female body. Thus, her feminist project is more than dubious, since she remains trapped within patriarchal representations. Her geography and anatomy repeat the traditional positioning of the subject as a “spatio-temporal being” (Grosz85), that is traditionally defined marginalized in relation to the centrally positioned Lacanian key-signifier Phallus, is territorialized via the surface of the body, fragmented into scientifically located libidinal zones, while its material reality is othered, so that the other is uncannily abjectified, sublimely fetishized into an outside that is both cannibalistically contained within yet is repressed and denied. Thus, according to a hierarchical, binary logic the space is separated between subject and object, self and other, inside and other, center and margin, masculine and feminine. Although The Passion of New Eve as a feminist tract proposes to outline a “no man’s land,” Eve/lyn is abandoned alone in dystopian settings of nowhere which are no woman’s land either.
III. The Passion of New Eve as a “feminist tract about the social fiction of femininity”
In spite of all the feminine sufferings and painfully grotesque female embodiments revealed in the novel, how can The Passion of New Eve be nevertheless intended and interpreted as an “anti-mythic novel[…]conceived as a feminist tract” (Carter 1983, 71)? The fundamental paradox of metafiction is that it has to paraphrase the representations, invoke the ideologies, repeat the very fossilized myths it aims to subvert. Accordingly, what I call corporeal metafiction is a writing that wishes to analyze the text of the body and the body of texts, and undertakes to problematize the social-discursive construction, the ideological inscription of individual feminine bodies and of collective corpuses of canonized women’s literature. To accomplish this, on the one hand, it must necessarily replicate the ideologically prescribed, hierarchically-dichotomically engendered, paradoxically feminized subjectivity “written on the female body” by patriarchal technologies of power, and, on the other hand, it must retell a narrative according to the traditional codes of “always already engendered” (see Butler 1990) feminine meaning formation and text production, remaining within the frames of stereotypical representations of femininity and feminine representations. In my view, The Passion of New Eve is a par excellence example of corporeal metafiction, as its aim is to exploit the feminist tactic of speaking in quotation marks, of rehearsing mean, muting and mutilating social fictions of femininity in order to reveal them as patriarchally inevitable, yet for a woman utterly unacceptable, and in order to unveil and question the conventional incompatibility of femininity/authorship/authority/subjectivity.
In her The Sadeian Woman. An Ideology of Pornography--presumably written simultaneously with and published only one year after The Passion of New Eve--Carter applies the same logic when she calls Marquis de Sade a “moral pornographer” whose seemingly misogynist texts are actually ideology-critical manifestos serving the cause of women’s liberation by unveiling that “flesh comes to us out of history” (Carter 1978, 11), sadism is a cultural construct, sexual relations and gender hierarchies are determined by social contexts, and all mythic versions of femininity are consolatory nonsense, bringing in reality submissiveness and suffering. Carter’s suggestion that “a narrative is an argument stated in fictional terms” (Carter 1985, 13) is particularly valid to her fictional works immediately preceding and following her polemical philosophical piece, as both the picaresque of The Passion of New Eve and the rewritten fairy-tales of The Bloody Chamber aim at demystifying the ideological construction of mythical femininity.
Although many claim that Carter’s argumentation, her version of feminism based on repetition--on “putting new wine in old bottles and in some cases old wine in new bottles” (Carter 1983, 76)--is highly problematic, because it remains locked within the infernal traps of phallogocentric imagination’s imagery, the regressive circulation of patriarchal metaphors on disabling/disabled femininity (see Dworkin’s and Britzolakis’ criticism among others), yet Carter’s strategy of “subversion from within” seems to re-emerge as a recent trend in contemporary feminist thought.
When Teresa De Lauretis provides a gender-sensitive re-reading of Foucauldian technologies of power, and reveals the technologies of gender, “ingendering,” “masculinization,” “desexualization” (De Lauretis 1987, 1-30) as inevitable phallogocentric ideological manipulations, she calls attention to the feminist potentials of an internal re-vision, and highlights the importance of the feminine subject’s “recognition of misrecognition”. De Lauretis, as Carter, maps out feminine roles and gendered identity as a series of other, minority dispositions, determined by sexuality, corporeality, desires and abjection, remaining forever impossible (as subjects) because of their marginal positioning in a phallocentric (his)story. This mythic Woman is excluded from the active subject position, yet the embodied difference of the othered femininity is necessary for the constitution of the empowered masculine subject. Hence the concept of feminine subject becomes a paradox, since She is caught inside the system of representation, society, but always only as the outside of it. The De Lauretisian argumentation coincides with the Carterian narrative strategy: the repetition of arche-images of patriarchal visual mythology responsible for the cultural construction of femininity reveals the artificial constructedness of gender, and therefore enables women readers to inspect their internalization of images of femininity, to recognize their misrecognition as feminine subjects interpellated by phallogocentric technologies of power. De Lauretis highlights that the female subject is always positioned paradoxically, being simultaneously adressed as “a-woman” embodying a singular identity in its plural, heterogeneous and uncontrollable bodily reality and as “Woman” symbolizing the essential myth of homogeneous subjection and of ideologically constituted universal femininity. She encourages women to have a “view from elsewhere,” to do critical re-vision, gaining insight to their alternative, heterogeneous selves beyond the denaturalized, defamiliarized, deconstructed icons of femininity. (De Lauretis 1987, 124) In this process, the body is both in ideology, seemingly repeating the same, gendered patriarchal representations of women, and/yet beyond ideology, due to the political strategy of repetition with a difference, offering a demythologizing, ironic, critical metatext on society. Performing a subversion from within the system to be subverted so as to establish woman’s existence as a positive experience, staying and starting from within means the exposure of the masculine efforts to keep “her” outside, so the relocation of her inside as starting point institutes already a form of subversion. The violent hierarchy of binaries, the heterosexual gender asymmetry are destabilized from the inside by using the transgressive potential of woman’s paradoxical positioning itself, by starting out from a peripheral, antagonistic feminine subjectivity (versus feminine subjection).
Therefore, The Passion of New Eve shall be intended and interpreted as a feminist tract, despite/due to building the narrative on the very “process of physical pain and degradation that Eve undergoes in her apprenticeship as a woman” (Carter 1998, 592), since the text enhances the recognition of misrecognition of the paradoxically positioned feminine subject. Indeed, Carter’s grotesque suffering female bodies problematize the body discipline, a fundamental Foucauldian technology of biopower, that is, according to feminist critics, responsible for the ideological corporeal constitution of femininity via a prescriptive and painful stylization, representation and performance of the body conforming to the gender norms. Carter’s novel unveils how Western culture’s obsessive gaze always already outlines the female body antagonistically: as object of scopophilic desire and enigmatic vessel of life and death, as sublime essence of beauty and abjectified, uncanny other against which the speaking subject can define himself, as tempting and threatening, sacred and profane, corporeality associated with a femininity that remains an unresolved paradox. New Eve’s passion of becoming woman reveals how Western societies interpellate the female body as simultaneously idealized and normativized, decorporealized aestheticized and pathologized abjectified, eroticized and asceticized, marked by visibility as a real simulacrum in a society of spectacle and repressed, silenced, hidden as taboo in a society of scientia sexualis (see Foucault 1978). The aim is to disclose the very process how phallogocentric technologies of power produce via the impossible expectations of the engendered body discipline grotesque female bodies. Readers are faced with the shameful scenario how the ideologically interpellated, feminized woman voluntarily carves painful marks of her gender upon her own body by internalizing icons of femininity under the constant, panoptical surveillance of the Foucauldian Eye of the Power, conforming to the expectations of the given social, cultural, historical era. The stages of New Eve’s passion, scenes from demystified myths, ruthlessly represent how Woman’s heels or toes are cut off to make her feet fit into the prince’s shoes, to conform to his desires, how Woman is killed into the perfect mirror image where the looking glass speaks up in a male voice to tell “who in this land is the fairest of all,” or how Woman is squeezed into the S size pink corset of idealized yet normative Barbie doll, or into the iron maiden of beauty myth, concomitant with the constitution of femininity in Naomi Wolf’s view (Wolf 1991).
The epigraph of Carter’s novel, “In the beginning all the world was America,” a line from Locke, proves to be prophetic, as the United States of America is indeed marked by the grotesque female body that appears prescriptive for the entire construction of Western femininity. Reality imitates fiction, contemporary United States seems to model the Carterian post-apocalyptic world, as it turns into a hotbed of the female grotesque, by being home of the anatomically deformed Barbie doll, the excessively skinny anorexic or the abnormally obese fast food junkie, of steroidized female body builders with muscle dysmorphia, of plastic surgery-addicts, of hypertechnological net-surfing cyborgs, of maniacally stylized and designed, tattooed, pierced, dyed, shaved, “made-up” female bodies. This ever-expanding spectacular society of simulacrum hatching unrealistic, un/superhuman grotesque bodies elicits the symptoms of “body image disturbance,” a new form of female malady (succeeding to hysteria and depression) that nevertheless can be interpreted as a manifestation of dis-ease, and as such, a mode of radical transgression. Accordingly, there are two sides of the same coin, two potential interpretations of the terrorist corporeal distortions of femininity. Carterian and current U.S. grotesque body modifications may be read as body-controlling manipulations of technologies of biopower of the dominant patriarchal ideology influenced by the economic interests of consumer society’s major business fields targeting women in the form of beauty industries (diet, fitness, cosmetics, plastic surgery, etc.) and colonizing female bodies driven to (psycho)somatic disorders (see Bordo 1993). But, on the other hand, they might also signify (dubious yet) innovative technologies of the self, (re)writing the body as a mode of feminist empowerment, creating a subversive anti-aesthetic carved onto one’s very flesh. It is up the reader to decide whether these forms of female grotesque are desperate and futile attempts at the carnivalesque destabilization of the conventional social order and of traditional ways of seeing, enacted by victims of the inevitable scenario of the ideology of representation, or on the contrary, they are self-reflexive, ideology-critical subversions of woman warriors rewriting myths of “American beauty” and femininity via performative identities and heterogeneous, self-made selves in monstrous metatexts.
As I have tried to demonstrate above, despite its dwelling in images of grotesque embodiments of suffering femininity, The Passion of New Eve certainly lends itself to a reading interpreting the text as an internally subversive “feminist manifesto” enabling the “recognition of misrecognition” via a relentless ideology-criticism. It is all the more so, considering the fact that the novel is structured as a retrospective autobiographical narrative, in which the masculine Evelyn looking at women is from the very beginnings, always already looked at by the “feminized” Eve looking back on him(self). No matter how misogynist, male chauvinistic the narrative and its images seem to turn, it is always easy to detect an ironic woman’s voice complementing the macho confessions. Examples are numerous. (The sadistic Evelyn calls himself a “tender little milk-fed English lamb” (9), he escapes New York “like a true American hero, [his] money stored between [his] legs” (37). Mother’s self-created god-head is “as big and as black as Marx’s head in Highgate Cemetary” (59), while her two tiers of divine breasts recall a “patchwork quilt,” “bobbles on the fringe of an old-fashioned, red curtain at a French window open on a storm,” and the “console of a gigantic cinema organ” (60,64,65). The captured Evelyn ceremoniously exclaims: “Oh, the dreadful symbolism of that knife! To be castrated with a phallic symbol!” (70), and is turned via the ritual surgery into a “Playboy center fold” (75). The lowly Zero enacts the Nietzschian Übermensch amidst abject waste and his pigs. The child crusaders claim to be the scourge of God in shrill, sweet, child voices (155). Tristessa “a star in space, an atomized fragmented existence,” forms “the uroborus, the perfect circle, the vicious circle, the dead end” by having “his cock stuck in his asshole” (173). The masculine entity of the ocean is called a “mother of mysteries”(191).) Eve’s ventriloquist, ironic, feminist voice within Evelyn’s macho confessions is certainly powerful enough to make readers smile (see Ward Jouve’s account on her son’s reading the novel). Yet, “defeating every pornographic expectations from male readers” (Ward Jouve 1994, 142), defamiliarizing the phallogocentric imagery and destabilizing the patriarchal narrative, still does not render, in this case, the novel fully comic, celebratory or feminist-wise satisfying. In my view, the reader can never fully forget about the actual female suffering and its direct material consequences involved in the text. Nevertheless, as I have pointed out in my introduction, despite it sado-masochistic tendencies, critics tend to praise Carter’s self-conscious feminist project. Lorna Sage convincingly claims that Carter’s story of the “woman born out of a man’s body” reflects not only the woman-writer Carter’s hardships of “coming out” as a feminist, but also provides a more general “allegory of the painful process by which the 1970s women’s movement had to carve out its own identity from the unisex mould of 1960s radical politics” (Sage 1994a, 35). But does The Passion of New Eve’s writer really succeed in leaving her “male impersonator” self behind, can she carve out an own feminist identity from the unisex mould, and is her feminist manifesto’s political project truly that self-consciously structured and reassuringly coherent?
The Passion of New Eve’s narrative seems to enact the principal paradox of metafiction, irony and the “transgressive reinscription” (see Dollimore 1991) of the internally subversive, demythologizing feminism it applies. Having it both ways, like the subversion from within the system to be subverted, here signifies an uncertainty, a vertiginous balancing in the void of nowhere without location, safety or stakes—leading to painful disillusion. It could be the subject of a further analysis to examine how the text speaks up in multiple, contradictory narrative voices, in feminist, feminine, male impersonator, feminized transvestite, transsexual autobiographical, or transgender voices “becoming legion” to produce a fantastic cacophony of the text. However, instead of exploiting the joyous, playful, celebratory potential of polysemy and polyphony, these numerous dissonant narrative voices and internal narrative contradictions seem to tear the text apart in a chaos where the dissolution of the shattered narrative reflects semioticized the explosion of hurting feminine landscapes and the painful fragmentation-decomposition of grotesque female bodies.
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Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth. London: Random House, 1991. Place New York Beulah Desert Tristessa’s glass house Cave by the ocean Iconic, fetishized,freaked feminine body part Devouring vagina dentata Sterile womb Wound(ed breast) Crying eyes Regurgitating Mouth Female fluid, abject body waste Feces Blood Sweat Tears Vomit Color Black Red Yellow Transparent Green Pain Leilah’s abortion Mother’s delivery Evelyn’s castration Eve’s birth Zero’s wives’s and Amazons’s mutilation Tristessa’s lack of being and humiliation Eve/lyn’s loss