Flesh is a function of enchantment

Dear Angela,

While reading your novel The Passion of New Eve (1977), I could not stop thinking to myself: this must be how it feels to go through a reverse out-of-body experience. My mind is there with you, catching the references, the twisted sense of humour, the symbolic spins, the sharp satire, and all that; but my body is forever gone elsewhere. I do not engage, I am numb, and I cannot care less.

When the novel starts, our protagonist and narrator, Evelyn, a self-serving Englishman, is about to leave England to take up a new position in a university in New York. On his last night in London, he goes to see a film starring his all-time favourite actress: Tristessa St. Ange, a Garbo-esque silent movie star, as “beautiful as only things that don’t exist can be”, whom he reveres for her tragic demeanour. As a tribute to his boyhood passion for Tristessa, whilst he watches her on screen, Evelyn is given fellatio by a girl he takes to see the film.

Then we jump to a dystopian New York, a city overrun by rats. When Evelyn arrives, the United States is torn by crime, riots, and an ongoing civil war between racial and gendered militias. The teaching job he has been offered no longer exists, because the university has been taken over by a black militia. Evelyn is reduced to living with very little money, roaming the labyrinthic streets of rotting New York (“the fructifying chaos of anteriority, the state before the beginning of the beginning”).

Shortly thereafter, he meets Leilah, a beautiful African-American nightclub dancer with whom he becomes intoxicated. After a brief, abusive affair, Leilah get pregnant and Evelyn immediately becomes repelled by her (“she became only an irritation of the flesh, an itch to be scratched”). He insists on an abortion which leaves her sterile; then, somewhat relieved, he leaves everything behind, and heads on to the Californian desert.

Once there, Evelyn is soon captured by a cult-like feminist militia: a group of Amazon-like, one-breasted women who have been living in the hidden city of Beulah, made of womblike caverns in the underground desert (“a place where contrarieties are equally true”), under the rule of Mother, “The Grand Emasculator”, a many-breasted surgical genius who looks like an ancient fertility goddess.

There, our protagonist is raped by Mother in a bizarre ceremony, and his semen is collected. Both as punishment for Evelyn’s misogyny and as part of Mother’s messianic plan, he is castrated and surgically transformed into a woman – in Beulah, Evelyn is reborn as the New Eve: “I had become my own masturbatory fantasy”; “They had turned me into the Playboy centre fold.” As part of her plan, Mother hopes to impregnate Evelyn/Eve with his/her own sperm, so that a New Messiah can be born. Trying to come to terms to her newly imposed gender, and terrified of motherhood, Eve manages to escape to desert once again.

But, alas, only for a little while. “I did not know that the apotheosis was inevitable and, however fast I fled, I could not run away from it but would always be running towards it. Indeed, to run away from it would be the quickest way to arrive there; my inexorable destination selects my route. I drove on.” Eve is soon captured by another militia hidden in the desert: a Manson-like cult of enslaved women, led by a misogynist named Zero, a paranoid, one-eyed so-called poet. Eve is then raped and enslaved by Zero, who “regulated our understanding of him and also our understanding of ourselves in relation to him”. Eve experiences a deep change in his position in society: he has to fend as a woman in a male dominated environment. “Although I was a woman, I was now also passing for a woman, but, then, many women born spend their whole lives in such imitations.

Zero, very much like Mother, is also on a weird mission. The so-called poet is as much obsessed with Tristessa as Evelyn was. However, he believes that the Garbo-esque star has made him infertile, and he is on a mission to kill her. The Manson-like Zero leads his slave-wives to Tristessa’s gothic-like glass palace, attacks her, and, lol and behold, discovers she is a male in disguise.

Life ain’t easy for the New Eve, my dear: she is forced into a mock-up wedding ceremony with her former obsession; and Tristessa is forced to rape her. But, as you put it, “the vengeance of the sex is love”: our protagonist and the film star rediscover themselves in the midst of their newly discovered sexuality. And this is not even the end of the story. Eve is about to experience another rebirth – and to give birth.

Your writing was the strength of the book for me: exuberant, overloaded with literary, symbolic and mythological references. We have the desert as a place for temptation, discovery, and redemption (“a landscape that matches the landscape of my heart”); and we have the search of one’s self, “that most elusive of all chimeras”, “the Minotaur at the heart of the maze”. You’ve certainly did a good job at taking apart mythologies here, asking us very nuanced questions about we understand and expect of gender and sexuality.

The myth of Tiresias is your special plaything: the blind prophet, turned into a woman by Hera as a punishment, then, after seven years, turned into a man again. Here we have Evelyn/Eve – this Orlando-like character, no longer a man but not yet a woman; a sort of Plato’s hermaphrodite, or the androgynous mind of A Room of One’s Own; a hybrid person with no history, a creature who belongs to no group and nowhere, caught in the process of permanently rebuilding his/her/their own identity.

Tiresias strikes two snakes with a stick, and is transformed into a woman by Hera. Engraving by Johann Ulrich Kraus c. 1690. Taken from Die Verwandlungen des Ovidii (The Metamorphoses of Ovid).

If this book is your feminist statement, as you once said, I kind of buy it (in its context). As a radical attempt to reverse the patriarchal tradition, Beulah ends up emulating such patterns, and becomes equally rigid and constraining – it’s a society for one-breasted women only. Moreover, much like Zero’s cult of enslaved wives, it’s a sterile project, hidden in the middle of the desert, kept by women who continue to be complicit in their own subjugation. Your New Eve turns her back on both Zero and Mother. She follows her own way, alone, and broken.

I also appreciate the sensorial nature of your writing: we feel the city rotting, the skin blistering, the disgust, the brutality. You defy any attempt at domestication or good taste. You want us to feel repulsed. I kind of enjoyed the contrasting overlap between lyrical writing and, well, plain bad taste.  New Eve was in fact calculated to give offence, you said, and the book really tries hard at it.

The problem for me, however, was the fact that your method turns against itself in one point very early in the process: we become quite numb. We do as you do (and seem to bid us to): we refuse any attempt at engaging or caring. In the end, your book is very conservative in its underlying impulse to overuse sexuality and gender to impart shock and disgust. By the end, we really cannot care less, my dear. And this is such a shame. We are locked inside Tristessa’s glass palace: a cold thing, forever lost, and hidden in plain sight.

Yours truly,

J.


The Renaissance of Venus. Walter Crane, 1877sati


“For hours, for days, for years, she had wandered endlessly within herself but never met anybody, nobody.”  ― Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve

“Degredation is the subtlest drug, the most insinuating. But they could do nothing to me I had not already imagined.” ― Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve

“Our external symbols must always express the life within us with absolute precision; how could they do otherwise, since that life has generated them? Therefore we must not blame our poor symbols if they take forms that seem trivial to us, or absurd … the nature of our life alone has determined their forms.

A critique of these symbols is a critique of our lives.” ― Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve

“A dreadful innocence protected her. She was like a mermaid, an isolated creature that lives in fulfilment of its own senses; she lured me on, she was the lorelei of the gleaming river of traffic with its million, brilliant eyes that intermittently flowed between us.” ― Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve

“Her mouth had a strange flavour, like that of those mysterious fruits, such as the medlar, that are not fit to eat until they are rotten; her tongue was incandescent.” ― Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve

“So, together, we entered the same reverie, the self-created, self-perpetuating, solipsistic world of the woman watching herself being wathced in a mirror that seemed to have split apart under the strain of supporting her world.” ― Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve

“So, hypocrites that we were, we spared ourselves the final hypocrisy of love. Or, I saved myself from that most brutal of all assaults, the siege of the other.” ― Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve

“I went towards you as towards my own face in a magnetic mirror, but when, in accordance with all the laws of physics, you came towards me, I did not feel a sense of homecoming, only the forlorn premonition of loss.” ― Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve

“Flesh is a function of enchantment. It uncreates the world.” ― Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve

“Landlocked so long, I’d forgotten the omnivorous inscrutability of the sea, how it nibbles the earth with a mouth of water, how it ignores us.” ― Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve

“I am helplessly lost in the middle of the desert, without map or guide or compass. The landscape around me like an old fan that has lost all its painted silk and left only the care, yellowed sticks of antique ivory in a world in which, since I am alive, have no business. The earth has been scalped, flayed; it is peopled only with echoes. The world shines and glistens, reeks and swelters till its skin peels, flakes, cracks, blisters.

I have found a landscape that matches the landscape of my heart.” ― Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve


About the book

  • Virago Modern Classics, 2015, 192 p. Goodreads
  • First published 1977
  • My rating: 3 stars
  • I read this book for The 1977 Club.
Advertisements
View All

2 Comments

  1. That’s exactly it – it was just impossible to care about the characters or their fates at all, which is perhaps why i disliked the book so much. It’s interesting about the Tiresias myth though – Carter draws on it for one of the stories in the Fireworks collection, which I thought was much more effective.

    Like

    Reply

    1. Thank you, Karen! It took me so long to write this review, because I was feeling so uninspired by the book… I was very curious about Fireworks after reading your review, though. I might give it a go, if I find it on my library.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.