Sometimes the ironies, contradictions and absurdities mount so high to fuel the pyre that honors our postmodern relativism — oh, the vanity of bonfires! — that one wonders what must go through the minds of aliens looking down as they watch the spontaneous combustion of a species. What blue ship in the starry night is this that is all “mutiny from stern to bow” from dawn to dusk every walking-plank day? Sometimes the humanistic Captain Kirk seems in charge, like an acid trip redux, but if you blink you see instead Queeg razing Caine over strawberries, or, most often, the militaristic Ahab, who doesn’t have a leg to stand on whenever he tries to explain his rabbit-hole obsession with the white Russian whale. What must they think?
I was watching the 1965 film Ship of Fools the other day. The cautionary film was based upon the novel by Katherine Anne Porter, who was inspired by the satirical medieval classic by Sebastian Brant, who, in turn, derived his notions of neurotic oceans from Plato’s reference in the Republic. The trope has found its way into song (The Doors), as well as painting (see Bosch) and even modern sculpture. In the film, the fascistic rise of Nazi Germany is pre-figured on a luxury liner cruising off Mexico in 1933. Sardined migrant workers languish in the hold, while, above them, First Class passengers (mostly Germans) luxuriate and squabble over the politics of class, gender, and pre-Krisstalnacht anti-semitism. The malignant leather cancer metastasizes before your eyes.
The signs are always there, it will always seem, in retrospect. Russian meddling in American elections. You double-take as you hear President Obama admonish the Russians, shortly after the 2016 presidential election, “We can do stuff to you.” I’m old enough to remember that such ‘stuff’ has been going on for awhile. In 1996, Americans crowed about having meddled in the Russian presidential election. Well, you could argue that they can do stuff too.
Let’s recount. Reagan told Gorbachev to “tear down that wall” in Berlin. He did, along with the Iron Curtain. The neoliberals rushed in like RawdyYates in Rawhide with their bling and sto ho ethos. The oligarchs took over in Russia. Clinton installed the dancing circus bear Boris Yeltsin and laughed so hard at the president’s buffoonery that it looked for awhile like America would be friends-for-life with the Russkies. Maybe they could do stuff together.
But not every Russian citizen liked being represented on the world stage by a drunken lout. So maybe the Russians did stuff back: Maybe they did meddle. They larfed their asses off when Edward Snowden became the most famous American defector since Lee Harvey Oswald. And now we have our own humiliating buffoon calling the shots, while the Russkies tumble over themselves laughing, as Trump cries, ‘Put up that wall! Or iron curtain, or whatever you wanna call it. Doesn’t matter.’ Thus Spake Saint Gropian, patron saint of coarse and vulgar people. Well, Putin came after Yeltsin. KGB. Who will come after Trump’s second term (wink)? Won’t be Biden, Bernie or Pocohantas. They’ll all be too old. Maybe even dead, if they’re lucky. Maybe a disciplinarian’s on-deck.
Americans don’t need the Russians; we’re not above rocking our own ship of state with meddled elections. You don’t hear about it much or in context. Nixon did McGovern in (1972). Reagan boinked Carter (1980). And Bush whacked Gore (2000). In all three instances, potential treason is in play. In Gore’s case, not only did his loss open up the still-suppurating ugliness of race politics in America, but we may have lost our best chance at climate change leadership, here and abroad. Instead, we got 9 Eleven™. Now it’s too late, as the prophet-driven Bob Marley put it, because “Nobody can stop them now.”
Well, as Bobby Dylan would say, people’ve been drawing conclusions on the wall for quite awhile now, the signs have been there for the seeing. I’ve counted at least seven signs. Odd shit happening. The Pentagon, after decades of denial, suddenly announcing they’ve been chasing UFOs and providing evidence. People developing the Truman Show syndrome, thinking “that their lives are staged reality shows, or that they are being watched on cameras.” Verbs trying to take down nouns. Dinosaurs having the last laugh, as they release the comet energy that they absorbed onto us. DARPA talking ‘bout robo-bees replacing the dying honey-bees. The Pentagon talking Gay Bombs to drop on enemies, but pulling back at the last moment no doubt for fear of the potential blow-back, literally.
I’ve been saying for years that if the gargoyles are now in charge of the cathedrals — those colossi of pure beauty and holy terror worthy of any God’s love — then it’s time to tear the cathedrals down. Lo and behold, next thing I know, Notre Dame forest has gone poof! The firemen ate cake. The gilded crown of Christ was saved. No insurance. The 1% came to the rescue. Will it be known in the future as the MacDonalds Notre Dame Cathedral. Will we have to pray to the candy-colored clown christ of capitalism in the future? What was Quasimodo’s alibi that day anyway? Signs.
An enquiring mind wants to know how is it possible that a flat-earther like basketball star Kyrie Irving is allowed to dribble that round round ball so recklessly on that flat flat rectangular surface, repeatedly going off the edge of his world on lay-ups? Signs.
And then another sign. The controversy over a new app called DeepNude, described as an app that “Undresses a Photo of Any Woman With a Single Click.” Kind of like the Male Gaze fights back. Needless to say, in this #MeToo era, the app was pulled, pitchforks, torches, and calls to storm the Bastard were hailed. Actually, Ray Milland demoed the product in The Man with the Xray Eyes. But when they took away his glasses he went into a tailspin funk and ended up drinking himself half to death in The Lost Weekend.
Let’s face it: Ever since We fell from grace after eating an iApple from the Tree of Knowledge and were unceremoniously booted from Eden, God telling Adam, while pointing at the newly ribbed Eve, “take her with you and go fuck yourself. You’ll see.” After millennia of cultural and technological ‘evolution’ we arrive back, catastrophic methane bubbles popping out of the sea all around us, at the place we started from without knowing it, God taunting us, “So how did you like them apples?” Meaning everything from the be-bop bone in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the wormholes and the quantum and the mofo multiverses ahead. A self-made Adam carries a worn-out Eve across the threshold, from a living hell back to a Paradise frozen over. See ya.
My bedridden grandfather used to say, a Will Rogers twinkle in his eyes, “If you’re not a little wacky today, there’s something wrong with you.” That was back in the ‘60s, in the days of ‘Nam and Love, when everyone seemed to have a little jungle floating around in their heads, and you were either grooving on the stench of Napalm in the Morning or the sweet aroma of Reefer Madness mournings.
I kept grandpa’s wisdom in mind throughout my undergraduate years as a philosophy student. Through the study of Hamlet and his problematical disposition(s). Through my Sanity and Madness class, featuring Foucault, the Ship of Fools, and the world seen as an upstairs-downstairs Titanic without icebergs and going down in the Flood. And through Jung and Freud, the Human Condition as an archetypal rainbow leading the seeker to a pot of gold of selfhood versus the grumpy old self-destructiveness of the Id-bound human mess never to be sufficiently “sublimated” as depicted in Civilization and Its Discontents.
Nietzsche really did me in though, when it came to a vision of madness. Who was. Who wasn’t. In Beyond Good and Evil, he wrote, “Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.” If that was true in 1886, before the War to End All Wars and the One That Followed, etc., then it’s even truer today, now that we’ve taken to declaring a global war on an abstract noun: Terrorism. When you have such an open word (one man’s ceiling, another man’s floor), can it be very long before the leathered-up verbs wake from their dogmatics slumbers and reified concepts start disappearing at freefall speed into their own footprints?
Well, I was thinking about all the evidence of wackiness I’ve seen since that boyhood visit to my accidental oracle (who really only wanted a shot of whiskey (I gave him two) before collapsing back onto his bed, only to wake up later alone staring up a constellation of night-glow stars someone pasted to his ceiling), as I began reading the newly released Let Me Not Be Mad by A. K. Benjamin. It’s a book, a memoir about intersections, existential concentricity, a Venn diagram that illustrates the fragility of boundaries between people and their concepts of themselves and others.
Let Me Not Be Mad is written by a psychiatrist who fears he may be going insane, as he listens — as he deeply empathizes — with the narratives his clients bring to him, tales of survival and “resilience” in the Carnivalesque world we accept as normal, the mid-point of the acceptability bell-curve most of us strive up like gig economy Sisyphuses, only to inevitably backslide for reasons that Dr. Benjamin is there to help us come to terms with through reasoning and listening without judgement.
What makes Benjamin’s modus o. unusual (these days) is his near-absence from relying on Big Pharma prescriptions for DSM-guided diagnoses he himself doesn’t fully believe in. The other thing is he’s a people doctor, he believes in talking, listening, Being There in the clients’ narratives, not so much for analysis but to honor the narrative by participating as a reader would a story. But what happens for Benjamin is that he discovers that being the serene pond upon which these anxious raindrops fall, and interpenetrate, has its price: his own sense of sanity.
Benjamin begins to have virtual out-of-body experiences, seeing himself in the bodies of others facing himself as doctor, over-empathizing as it were; in the end, he sees himself as his own client sitting beore himself. He mixes and matches the Venn narratives until they and he become part of the same story, without the usual “professional” separation between story and reader. Freud first warned of this hazard between patient and doctor in his discussion of transference and counter-transference. Freud saw it as inevitable, to evolve such feelings, but such inevitability has been largely quashed today by the current practice of diagnosing symptoms (think: astrology charts) and putting everyone on psychotropics (it is a jungle in there).
However, a better reference point would be Anton Chekhov’s “Ward No. 6.” Ivan, a long-term patient on the ward, confronts Andrey Yefimitch, his psychiatrist, one day: “,,,You have seen nothing of life, you know absolutely nothing of it, and are only theoretically acquainted with reality; you despise suffering and are surprised at nothing for a very simple reason: vanity of vanities, the external and the internal, contempt for life, for suffering and for death, comprehension, true happiness–that’s the philosophy that suits the … sluggard best.” Most contemporary psychiatrists would up the dosage, if they heard such “drivel,” but Benjamin, like Yelfimitch, is stricken by the truth enunciated. It hurts him to realize we suffer in our separation from each other through some almost-arbitrary imposition of yet another dominant abstract noun: Normal.
And this of course leads one to think back on the revolution that almost was in psychiatry in the early ‘70s, when prominent Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing totally rejected the artificial boundary between normal and abnormal experience. As he famously put it: “insanity — a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.” He elaborated on this in The Politics of Experience. “Social phenomenology,” he writes, “is the science of my own and of others’ experience. It is concerned with the relation between my experience of you and your experience of me. That is, with inter-experience. It is concerned with your behaviour and my behaviour as I experience it, and your and my behaviour as you experience it.” Benjamin’s memoir is demonstration of this entanglement of selves co-producing “reality.”
One narrator after another comes to tell their tale of intersecting with reality: Tracy, Bron, Craig, JB, et. al., until finally, as at the beginning, there is You, facing yourself, your own client, your own doctor. They come in, at him, “Daughter, mother, father, marriage, family, broken in an instant, by [some freakish moment that changes everything]. No need to tell them their family will never be the same again.” It is a struggle to maintain one’s intensity, one’s empathy level, story after story. It may be the memoir’s finest feature: it’s depiction of the complexity of humanity, and its embracement.
Benjamin’s intersection is not just with clients coming to him in the privacy of an office; they’re everywhere: “I walked over London bridge in rush hour, faces thronging around me, and diagnosed each one in an instant:’Psychosis…Depression…LewyBodies…Panic…Depression…Sociopath…OCD…Cynophobia…Panic…Guam’s…’ Everybody has something, and now there’s a name for it, even if it’s fear of having something, of going insane, aka dementophobia.” What if the pandemic we were waiting for were not physical but mental, a disease that devastates consciousness, the one major advantage that humans have over the animal world? If the animal world around us going extinct, one species at a time, why not us?
Entropy all around us; we see permanence at our own risk. Benjamin sees people falling apart all around him, and in this mass of half-formed people he sees himself, he passes himself, like T.S. Eliot’s “compound ghost,” and asks himself a rhetorical question: “Can you have a breakdown in a breakdown? What if everything is breaking down, always breaking down? A self-portrait in a convex mirror that has been smashed to smithereens.”
Benjamin is not merely concerned with the present, with the lack of therapeutic talking/listening, and the total capitulation to maintenance drugs in America — opiates, marijuana, and other prescribed mind-altering drugs, but he keenly understands where we stand in relation to the future, the continuous convergence of man and machine. Like Freud, he doesn’t have an optimistic sense of our current evolutionary direction.
He writes, “It’s been the decade of the brain for the last twenty-five years. Fashions come and go; the cortex, the subcortex, white-matter tracts, relay speed, gamma oscillations, secret pathways which openly in the dead of night….It’s not too cynical to suggest that we too might run the risk of getting lost constructing fantastically elaborate and expensive simulacra of our own ideas.” Not just a warning about AI; it’s a warning about our own humanity, together and alone.
The question as to whether or not Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy: Out of the Spirit of Music is a work of optimism or pessimism is a trick question with a paradoxical answer. On the one hand, Nietzsche’s tract is steeped in the profound pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer’s reductive world view; but, on the other hand, Nietzsche shares his life-affirmative take on human experience as an aesthetic phenomenon. Similarly, though Socratism brought an “optimistic dialect” to tragedy, for Nietzsche such a movement was lethal to the play as an aesthetic experience, and, therefore pessimistically viewed by the self-styled re-valuer of all values. Despite that, Nietzsche looks toward Richard Wagner’s work which, early on, shows signs of providing a re-birth to music, in general, and tragedy, in particular. In the following essay, I will briefly discuss the origin of music and its role in tragedy, especially the use of dithyrambs and the chorus. I will also examine the role of the Dionysian and Apollonian dichotomy in tragedy. Finally, I will argue that Nietzsche was, at last, as a philosophical position facing up to the human condition, largely optimistic, as anyone who dreamed up an ubermensch would need to be.
In the following brief essay I will analyze three reversioned fairy tales–“The Bloody Chamber,” “The Company of Wolves,” and “Wolf-Alice”– included in Angela Carter’s collection titled The Bloody Chamber (1979). I will employ two principal methods for analysis: first, the psychoanalytic model, espoused by Bruno Bettelheim (1979), in which fairy tales are seen as useful to children (and to child-rearing) because of the symbolic working out of underlying oedipal conflicts, which act as psycho-social cautionary tales; second, the postmodernist approach of Julia Kristeva, with particular emphasis on her notions of the “abject” and “intertextuality,” the former which acts as a bridge back to the Freudian approach to Bettelheim, and the latter more closely aligned with contemporary views of culture theory. I will also introduce some critical rebuttals to both Bettelheim and Kristeva, while arguing that the role of fairy tales has evolved to the point of symbolic extinction, and that, in fact, Carter’s tales operate as both a reversion and a critical rebuttal in their own mode. But first a brief summary of the views of Bettelheim and Kristeva, followed by a summary of each Carter tale, and then how Bettelheim and Kristeva’s views apply to the chosen tales.
Louise (Lu) Lasson, a clinical social worker and licensing specialist in New York City, recently sent me an email in which she bemoaned the fact that state license exams for social workers “still ask questions about Freud and Erickson.” To this, she says: “Give it up people and move into the present!” Lu knows from her decades in the field that the psychoanalytic approach to the kinds of problems she sees is outmoded, given the continuing deinstitutionalization of the nuclear family (in the West) and, while nostalgically cogent as backgrounding, virtually useless in practice. I thought of Lu and her quibbles with The Tradition as I began to consider Bruno Bettelheim’s assumptions regarding childhood and ego development out of the ashes of the id/superego conflagration and its relevance to the fairy tale tradition, in general, and to Carter’s provocative ouevre, in particular. In general, states Bettelheim (1979, 214),
each child in his development must repeat the history of man, real or imagined. We are all expelled eventually from the original paradise of infancy, where all our wishes seemed to be fulfilled without any sort of effort on our part. Learning about good and evil—gaining knowledge—seems to split our personality in two: the red chaos of unbridled emotions, the id; and the white purity of our conscience, the superego….Adulthood can be reached only when these inner contradictions are resolved and a new awakening of the mature ego is achieved, to which red and white coexist harmoniously.
So, this is Bettelheim’s view of children’s literature in a nutshell. Within the literature we will find embedded symbols which point to the conflict of the child’s becoming. But it is difficult for a contemporary reader who has been fed (sometimes forcibly so) a steady diet of post-modernist theory to proceed unalarmed by Bettelheim’s Judeo-Christian language—the allusions to the Garden and Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge and Paradise Lost; the equating of knowledge with the acquisition of “good and evil”; the easy simplicity of duality between id and superego, and the resolution of this conflict in a kind of triadic dialectic reminiscent of Hegel (thesis<>antithesis<>synthesis). In the above passage Bettelheim also fusses about the colors red and white, but mostly, in this case, because he is referencing Snow White. Still, the simple universal symbolism is halting.
Compare Bettelheim to the more active and modern Kristeva, with her complexity that makes room for values that are other than Judeo-Christian (even essentially opposed to the J-C hegemony). How otherworldly, vis-a-vis Bettelheim, is her language. Listen, as she speaks of one of her key concepts, “abjection” (1982, 4):
It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is a savior. . . . Any crime, because it draws attention to the fragility of the law, is abject, but premeditated crime, cunning murder, hypocritical revenge are even more so because they heighten the display of such fragility. He who denies morality is not abject, there can be grandeur in amorality and even in crime that flaunts its disrespect for the law – rebellious, liberating, and suicidal crime. Abjection, on the other hand, is immoral, sinister, scheming, and shady: a terror that dissembles, a hatred that smiles, a passion that uses the body for barter instead of inflaming it, a debtor who sets you up, a friend who stabs you. . . .
Herein we find the sinister dread of horror—the hallucinatory paranoia that leaves one momentarily breached by a kind of intimation that the self is little more than a constellation of impulses and desires being drawn toward a black hole of total annihilation of self. So, we are talking two distinct voices when we offer up a fairy tale for further fathoming.
Take the story of Bluebeard, for instance. Perrault himself says that the moral of this story is: “Curiosity, in spite of its appeal, often leads to deep regret. To the displeasure of many a maiden, its enjoyment is short lived. Once satisfied, it ceases to exist, and always costs dearly”(1889). Obviously, this moral is a bit of a puzzlement to the modern reader, given the ending. Albeit, “several” unlucky wives have had to pay the price beforehand. But, in reality, it all comes down to the newlywed having a couple of martially-trained brothers who arrive in the nick of time. To the modern reader, this is not a tale of broken trust and fatal curiosity, but one of psychopathology and entrapment.
Yet, according to Bettelheim (1979, 302), it’s a simple process: “However one interprets “Bluebeard,” it is a cautionary tale which warns: Women, don’t give into your sexual curiosity; men, don’t permit yourself to be carried away by your anger at being sexually betrayed.” To arrive at this interpretation, Bettelheim has had to do some magic tricks. Bluebeard’s previous wives’ deaths and the unnecessary proffering of a key are not considered, because, one guesses, Bettelheim is determined to see self-serving symbols, along the lines of an Edenic fall from grace, where reality would suffice. It could be argued that the young girl gave into her sexual curiosity on her wedding night—literally. Instead, Bettelheim sees the secret room as the maiden’s curiosity into the husband’s sexual proclivities, which, as it turns out, are better off being left alone, because of their perversity. And the idea that another part of the moral is that husband’s should see that wives entering into secret rooms as sexual betrayal is, frankly, bizarre.
With Kristeva, we see an interpretation along the lines of her notion of “abjection” in relation to the events of Bluebeard. The key event, as it were, is when the young newlywed enters the secret forbidden chamber and discovers the bodies of the previous wives. For Kristeva, this moment when the bride discovers the body parts and responds partly in deepest “terror”, and yet, partly in erotic fascination is indicative of a response to the abject, the Thing-presence without name, that is neither I nor Other, and yet real and there.
This powerful presence is much easier to obtain in Angela Carter’s collection of reversionary fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber. Here, fully aware of the short-comings of Perrault’s patri-central version, with title centering on the male (although the moral is about what the female learns), Carter draws up a completely subversive vision of the tale which first changes the title to “The Bloody Chamber,” the opening tale of the collection, to indicate where the decisive action of the story takes place, while also suggesting the sexual surrender of the young bride. Carter changes the point of view from an objectifying third person to first person from the bride’s take on events. The language is heightened, contemporialized, lyrical and ironic, at times reminding one of the best of Nabakov and Poe. The brothers are relieved of their protective services and replaced with a saving matriarch, who puts a bullet through Bluebeard’s head. But, again, as the title suggests, the key focus is the chamber of horror.
If Kristeva is right (1982), and we first experience abjection in our separation from the mother, then Carter’s tale is truly a tale about abjectivity. The young bride, Saint Cecilia (a brilliant parallel reversion of the Catholic patron saint of music, whose own legend has a chamber, secrets and a bloody ending), separated from her mother for the first time and given over to the material male presence (for which she seems to have limited previous oedipal experience, as no mention of father is made) is ripe for the experience of carnal revelation of the forbidden bloody chamber. The abject figures the bride discovers in the secret room exist between two worlds—that of self and the Other—in a dimension you might call undinal. The bride interacts in this realm with fear and repulsion, but also with a kind of erotic fascination, as when she describes the room thusly: “And yet enough, oh more than enough, to see a room designed for desecration and some dark night of unimaginable lovers whose embraces were annihilation.” (28) Sex working toward orgasm often has this dirty annihilative quality. The abject Kristeva describes seems placed in that interstice that comprises orgasmic and horrific, good and evil, the mind-body problem solved in one fell swoon. One could spend many hours examining the details Carter embellishes Perrault’s tale with, but Carter rightly puts the emphasis on the chamber—how she gets there (curiosity) and how she attempts to cover up (hiding the key) are functional, even mechanical, but it is how she responds to the “secret” that determines what she already has inside herself. Despite its lyrical beauty, “The Bloody Chamber” seems to be a fairly straightforward subversion of patriarchal power, not only in the absence of Cecilia’s father, the deletion of the two brothers as saviors in the end, the ultimate execution of the chief powerful male, and Cecilia’s choosing to sleep with the blind male piano tuner, but also in the matriarchal rescue, which suggests, along Kristevan lines a reunion with the mother and transcendence of the abject.
Carter continues her subversive ways in the tales “The Company of Wolves” and “Wolf-Alice.” Both stories are reversions of the Grimm classic, “Little Red Riding Hood (Little Red Cap)”, although the latter story also combines thematic elements from Through the Looking Glass and “Beauty and the Beast.” If the Grimm tale can be seen as a cautionary tale about little girls trusting strange men, then Carter’s “The Company of Wolves” moves to a new level of subversion altogether. First, Carter addresses the reader or listener (for it reads like an oral tale) directly as “you” and spends several paragraphs of building admonishment, with such lines as “The wolfsong is the sound of the rending you will suffer, in itself a murdering”(104) and “Fear and flee the wolf; for, worst of all, the wolf may be more than he seems”(105). It is at this point that Carter has the narrator cites several examples of wolf evil-do, including their murder of “a mad old man who used to live by himself in a hut halfway up the mountain and sing to Jesus all day” (111). The narrator’s language has the tone and tinge of some miner telling campfire tales (“the sensible girl dried her eyes and found herself another husband not too shy to piss into a pot “), except that notion is throttled by lyricism and a vocabulary (“Commonplaces of a rustic seduction”)which tear the narration apart at the ‘seems’. Carter’s Red Cap is, like some sexually avaricious high school virgin, is tough: “She has her knife and she is afraid of nothing.(114).” Carter romps through Red Riding Hood like some thespian-philosopher on the set of a Marx Brothers send-up of Wuthering Heights.
Bruno Bettelheim predictably saw the Grimm tale as symbolic of individuation, budding sexuality, and it “takes up some crucial problems the school-age girl has to solve if oedipal attachments linger on in the unconscious, which may drive her to expose herself dangerously to the possibility of seduction” (1979, 170). But Bettelheim sings his Freud like the mad old man singing Jesus in Carter’s version and is critically devoured by the reversion. In Carter’s tale, full of casual, almost-comical cruelty, the girl can hardly wait to be “eaten” by the wolf. As for Kristeva, Carter seems to have turned the critic’s notion of “intertextuality” into a full-blown ha’ penny opera in this tale, with so many intertwining influences present that the text seems to have its own life. I believe Kristeva would be hard-pressed to make a case for the “abject” here.
“Wolf-Alice,” the last story in the Carter collection, tells the story of a young feral girl found by nuns next to the “bullet-riddled” body of her mother. The wolf-girl “inhabits only the present tense, a fugue of the continuous, a world of sensual immediacy as without hope as it is without despair” (113). Carter also introduces the Duke, a cannibal and necrophiliac who casts no image in the mirror. The nuns half-heartedly try to raise the child and, after they give up too easily, deposit the girl at the door of the Duke, thus subverting the idea of good and evil by having innocence handed over to the devil by the maidens of Jesus. The Duke is having a bad “here” day, existing neither wholly in the material world, nor in that of the spirit. Still, he appears to be a good father, showing if not love then non-threatening acceptance in his pastoral care. Bettelheim could be the Duke, raising the girl-wolf out of her pre-symbolism and with his meager ministrations allowing her to take shape into the first intimations of a human self:
When she curled up among the cinders, the color, texture and warmth of them brought her foster mother’s belly out of the past and printed it on her flesh; her first conscious memory, painful as the first time the nuns combed her hair. She howled a little, in a firmer, deepening trajectory, to obtain the inscrutable consolation of the wolves’ response, for now the world around her was assuming form. She perceived an essential difference between herself and her surroundings that you might say she could not put her finger on–only, the trees and grass of the meadows outside no longer seemed the emanation of her questing nose and erect ears, and yet sufficient to itself, but a kind of backdrop for her, that waited for her arrivals to give it meaning. She saw herself upon it and her eyes, with their sombre clarity, took on a veiled, introspective look. (118)
Here, the world waits for her meaning-giving: existence preceding essence. And because of her innocence of the horrifying, she is not undone when the undine Duke walks past her with a human leg plopped over his shoulder. Later, after he is ambushed by justice-seeking townspeople with silver bullets and alluring wolf-howls, she returns the favor of promoting selfhood by licking his wounds, which results in the final image of the Duke’s face appearing in the mirror. This tale has both Kristeva’s “abject” and her interlocking of culture pieces she calls “intertextuality”.Certainly, we can consider her opening orphaned situation one abjectivity, in both a literal sense and in Kristeva’s sense of being separated from the mother. She, too, like the Duke exists in a state that is neither “here” nor “there”. It is no surprise that they must rescue each other from indeterminancy. And, as with “The Company of Wolves,” the narrative is resplendent with iconoclastic cultural-linguistic echoes that border on parody of form. Kristeva and Carter could have been best friends.
So, we see in these reversionary Carter tales how the very notion of reversions can take on a self-consciousness that undermines the very structure it is intended (or not) to reinforce. Carter’s prose is lyrical and expansive, Romantic and existential, and transcending the usual power traps of gender duals. Bettelheim’s Freudian decidedly shows its age in an analysis of such reversions. Julia Kristeva, however, has more to salvage. But the essential point here is that Carter’s fiction has theoretical subversion built into it, the tales are both reader-centric and reader-opposed (I..e., they fall way from readerly certainty as you go on their journey) they point to a fresh, new horizon where literature has not been before.
Bettleheim, B 1979, The uses of enchantment and importance of fairy tales, Vintage, New York.
Carter, A 1979, The Blood Chamber and Other Stories, Penguin, New York and London.
Kristeva, J 1982 Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, Columbia University Press, New York.
Lasson, L 2008, “Subject: Base Touching,” email message to John Hawkins delivered on 04/06/2008 and accessed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Perrault, C and Andrew Lang (trans.)1889 (1697), “La Barbe bleüe, “Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités: Contes de ma mère l’Oye, Longmans, Green, and Company,
London, accessed online on June 5, 2008 at: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/perrault03.html.