The Passion of New Eve
Just a few things of note before we start with today’s article on Angela Carter. Later in the week I’ll be posting an advance review of Jeff VanderMeer’s new short story collection, The Third Bear (recent recipient of a starred Publishers Weekly review), and over the weekend either Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age or Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller. Next week will see an essay on Carter’s short story collection Black Venus (also known as Saints and Strangers) as well as a review of David Herter’s October Dark and whichever of the two previous books I didn’t cover. Next month, I’ll be finishing of the Carter series and reviewing a number of books including Caitlin Kiernan’s The Red Tree, Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa and the short work of Gogol. I have also been pondering doing a series of articles on the work of Gustav Meyrink as Dedalus are republishing The Angel of the West Window in August, covering a reread of the entire body of Borges’ fiction in preparion for my good friend Larry’s Borges month, and perhaps even some Kafka. Everything is better with some Kafka.
The Passion of New Eve – 1977
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.
Published in 1977, her seventh novel, The Passion of Ne w Eve is undoubtedly a modern masterwork. Carter’s prose as always is wonderfully rich and her use of varying symbolism, religious, mythical and alchemic is multilayered and at times profound. She skilfully deconstructs and then reconstructs the mythology and iconology of modern society, New York becomes a dystopia on the edge of primal chaos, California a warzone and gender roles are dissembled, dissected and then put back together as male becomes female and female becomes male. In this essay, I feel I haven’t even begun to mine the depths of that symbolism and it will continue to be on my mind long after today.
The protagonist, Evelyn, is a young English man who we are told has from a young age felt a strong connection to the female movie star Tristessa D’Auge, who he believes is the perfect woman. Evelyn’s odyssey begins with his arrival in New York, which he finds is caught in the middle of some kind of upheaval. Tension runs high with militant African-Americans armed on the streets and random attacks upon men by some kind of new feminist resistance, bearing the symbol of Venus enclosing a fist. Moving into a modest apartment downstairs beneath an old, Russian alchemist, he finds that the University that he had arranged to teach in has been taken over by the African-American movement and as a result he has no job. Attracted to the terror and the fear it evokes in him, Evelyn stays in the city despite this, learning about alchemy from the old man who turns lead to gold and gives it to him, while the city continues to decay and the rats roam the street. As Carter writes:
It was, then, an alchemical city. It was chaos, dissolution, nigredo, night. Built on a grid like the harmonious cities of the Chinese Empire, planned, like those cities, in strict accord with the dictates of a doctrine of reason, the streets had been given numbers and not names out of a respect for pure function, had been designed in clean, abstract lines, discrete blocks, geometric intersections, to avoid just those vile repositories of the past, sewers of history, that poisoned the lives of European cities. A city of visible reason – that had been the intention. And this city, built to a specification that precluded the notion of the Old Adam, had hence become uniquely vulnerable to that which the streamlined spires conspired to ignore, for the darkness had lain, unacknowledged, within the builders.
The fact his only friend is an alchemist and the use of the term nigredo foreshadow the change that is about to occur in Evelyn as the tension in the city reaches boiling point with the black population walling up Harlem and the alchemist being beaten to death while waiting for him outside a convenience store. Now completely alone, one night at the store he encounters a beautiful, scantily clad, African-American girl who he decides that he must possess and follows her in a kind of sexual game where she leads her through the darkness of the city, past robberies and rapes, until the end of the pretensions and the pair have intercourse. I believe his relationship with the girl, Leilah, represents his own nigredo, represented by the darkness of her skin. It is purely sexual in nature, his desire for her is almost inexhaustible, but he also takes a dominant role and enjoys abusing her, tying her to the bed and sometimes beating her with a belt. This symbolizes, as in the alchemical process, Evelyn at his lowest point, at his basest level in a sense through his debauchery and his degradation of her. Eventually he grows tired of her and when Leilah becomes pregnant he refuses to marry her and forces her to have an abortion, which she gets from a Haiti Voodoo lady, that becomes infected and leads to the loss of her womb. Now uninterested in her and with her mother on the way, he pays for her hospital bills and buys a car and leaves the city wanting to visit the desert.
When he arrives in the desert he finds himself both out of fuel and lost. His reasons for wanting to be in the desert are quite explicitly stated by Carter though, who writes:
I am lost, quite lost in the middle of the desert.
I have abandoned the temperate parts of the earth. The sun burned out the eyes of the man in the service station; the dry air etched his face full of fine lines. He did not speak. That was yesterday, or the day before. The day before, or else yesterday, the wind blew my map away. The air dries out my lungs, I gasp.
There is no-one, no-one.
I am helplessly lost in the middle of the desert, without map or guide or compass. The landscape unfurls around me like an old fan that has lost all its painted silk and left only the bare, 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.
When he leaves his car in search of gasoline, he hears a gunshot and finds a bleeding white bird which is significant because of its alchemical and mythological connotations. It is, as Evelyn notes, the messenger of Hermes, himself a hermaphrodite, but it also symbolises mercury which forms of a part of the alchemical symbol of the hermaphrodite. The fact it is white also symbolises albedo, the second part of the process, in purification following from nigredo. Evelyn himself associates it as an ill omen, as its large size convinces him that it is an albatross and as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner teaches us (Instead of the cross, the albatross / About my neck was hung” – Ed.), dead albatrosses are bad luck. He is then captured by one of the militant feminists, although her insignia is slightly different, a broken pillar instead (which he later discovers to be a broken phallus), and is marched across the desert scorched by the sun. The yellowness of this act signifies citrinitas or xanthosis, the third stage of the process in the dawning of the solar light. Eventually they arrive at the central headquarters of the feminist group, the underground city of Beulah.
There, Evelyn is imprisoned before being taken to see their leader, Mother, a scientist and surgeon who has sculpted herself into a godhead. In his cell the walls glow red, like a womb as he is here to be reborn, but also symbolizing the last stage of the alchemical process, rubedo, preceding his soon to be “wholeness”. Taken further underground, he meets Mother:
The great, black, self-anointed, self-appointed prophetess, the self-created godhead that had assumed the flesh of its own prophecy was the destination to which her unknowing acolyte had no option but to lead me; one woman is all women… Her head, with its handsome and austere mask teetering ponderously on the bull-like pillar of her neck, was as big and as black as Marx’ head in Highgate Cemetery; her face had the stern, democratic beauty of a figure on a pediment in the provincial square of a people’s republic and she wore a false beard of crisp, black curls like the false beard Queen Hatshepsut of the Two Kingdoms had worn. She was fully clothed in obscene nakedness; she was breasted like a sow – she possessed two tiers of nipples, the result (Sophia would tell me, to my squeamish horror) of a strenuous process of grafting, so that, in theory, she could suckle four babies at one time. And how gigantic her limbs were! Her ponderous feet were heavy enough to serve as illustrations of gravity, her hands, the shape of giant fig leaves, lay at rest on the bolsters of her knees. Her skin, wrinkled like the skin of a black olive, rucked like a Greek peasant’s goatskin bottle, looked as rich as though it might contain within itself the source of a marvellous, dark, revivifying river, as if she herself were the only oasis in this desert and her crack the source of all the life giving water in the world.
It is here what that Evelyn learns what the women have planned for him. They believe that Oedipus had the right idea in that through his sexual intercourse with his mother he wanted to be reborn, but because of what he inherited from his father, his phallus, he went forward through the world instead of backwards. They intend to rectify this by giving Evelyn a new birth, but this time as a woman through surgery and subliminal re-education. He is to be their Tiresias. Mother believes that men represent time and women space, so through this act she will be able to kill time. He is forced to copulate with Mother and afterwards his sperm is collected to impregnate him with after the operation to create a child born of one person as mother and father. They perform the operation on him under local anaesthetic, showing him his castrated member and shape him into the perfect woman by the standards of society. In order to make his mind female, they show him a number of things during his recover: movies starring “the perfect woman” Tristessa, images by different artists of the Madonna and Child, as well as non-phallic images such as caves. This is overseen by his captor from the desert Sophia, her name purposely recalling the Greek “wisdom”, one of Mother’s servants who like the Amazons and the priests of Cybele have cut off one of their breasts in supplication. Through this process he is no longer Evelyn and becomes their new Eve.
The problem is the re-education does not take and Eve still does not feel completely like a woman as we see:
I know nothing. I am tabula erasa, a blank sheet of paper, an unhatched egg. I have not yet become a woman, although I possess a woman’s shape. Not a woman, no; both more than less than a real woman. Now I am a being as mythic and monstrous as Mother herself; but I cannot bring myself to think that. Eve remains wilfully in the state of innocence that precedes the fall.
In a sense, Evelyn/Eve has become a true hermaphrodite, not because she has two sets of genitals, but because she is inhabited by both the anima and the animus. In alchemical symbolism, the hermaphrodite represents the chemical marriage of mercury and sulphur, activity married to passivity, perfect wholeness. Through the dual nature of her being, Eve transcends both sexes to become something more and less than both combined. Afraid of the impregnation that is to follow, she flees the city and is captured by the sadistic Zero the poet and taken to the ghost town where he lives. A one eyed, one legged misogynist who keeps a harem of subjugated wives and believes that the primary material of the soul of a woman is something less than that of a man’s. He beats and rapes Eve brutally, forcing her to marry him. His wives are treated both as slaves and lower than animals, as is shown by the way that his pigs and his dog Cain are treated as being of greater importance as his wives are beaten if they mistreat them. His wives are not afforded even cutlery, are not allowed to speak English in front of him unless asked so as a result speak some kind of made up guttural language and must serve his every whim, practical or sexual. All women with histories of abuse, they are subservient and even believe that his semen is what keeps them healthy. Here Eve learns what it is like to be other the other side of the dominant/submissive dichotomy and what it is like to suffer abuse. Zero is quite mad; he has a poster of Tristessa in his room that he uses for target practice, as he believes his impotence is a result of a hallucinatory episode that occurred while he was watching one of her movies in the theatre. He spends all his spare time in his helicopter scouring the desert for her secret retreat, believing that if he rapes his virility will return.
Eve lives this way as one of Zero’s wives until one day he returns having finally found the secret retreat of Tristressa. He takes all his wives there to discover that it is a house made of glass, and breaks in, killing the man-servant, but not before he can operate some sort of apparatus that makes the entire house spin. Eve realises that Tristessa has constructed this place to be her living mausoleum and within, a waxwork museum to those who have lost their life because of fame: Valentino, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow, and more. They find Tristessa there also, at a conservative guess, old enough to be Eve’s mother. She is only pretending to be dead as a ploy though and Cain, through his keen canine sense of smell, is able to see through the illusion. Zero forcefully removes her underwear in order to rape her only to discover than cinema’s “perfect woman” has a penis and is an aborted earlier attempt of Mother’s because he was too psychologically damaged. Tristessa represents the way in which femininity is commercialized as while he is the perfect woman on screen, he has turned himself into this because it is what he desired. He also has false memories that seem to be caused by implied tragedy that is expected of him because of his role as a lady of great sorrow in movies, but also false memories of degradation as a result of the way in which men would desire him in their fantasies. Both the Madonna and the Whore and as a result therefore he is the perfect commodity. In the same sense he is not real though as he exists as an illusion of something that he is not and can never be. Zero and his wives, excepting Eve, humiliate and abuse him, and force him to be the bride in a mock wedding ceremony to Eve where she is dressed in drag, after which they force the pair to have intercourse. Afterwards they manage to escape, and Tristessa sets the controls to full speed, the house spinning so fast that neither Zero nor his wives can hold on and are thrown great distances, in all likely hood to their deaths. Taking the helicopter, Eve takes them back into the desert in search of Beulah.
Out in the desert, the pair makes love on a towel bearing the stars and stripes and the child is conceived with both two mother and two fathers. Eve is happy, having finally been united with Tristessa, who he has in a sense loved since he was a boy and he first saw her on the silver screen. That happiness does not last though, as the pair are captured by a children’s crusade, an army of buzz cut Christian Right youths lead by an over privileged rich kid who believes he is the second coming of Christ. California has seceded and they have come to fight the rebels in the name of America and the name of Christ. They kill Tristessa and keep the heartbroken Eve captive, but she is able to escape by stealing a jeep and finds herself in an eerily quiet California, stumbling across a man who kills himself after killing all of his family as a civil war in now taking place within a civil war between warring factions. Eventually she finds life in a mall where a fire fighting is taking place and once again finds Leilah wearing the uniform of Mother’s soldiers, having travelling all the way across America to be back where she started. She reveals that her name is Lilith, like that of Adam’s first wife who in Rabbinic Literature precedes Eve, and Eve realises that everything had been set in motion in New York, and that the identity of the mother on her way to visit Leilah/Lilith in the hospital was the Mother. She takes Eve to Mother who has retired to a cave after her plan to kill time was unsuccessful while the rest of the women fight the war for California. When Eve enters the cave she learns that Mother has retreated on a higher level as well, as she no longer has a physical form and has become the cave, as Carter describes it as having “meatwalls”, either like a womb or a vagina, where time is able to go backwards to the beginning and forwards to the end at the same time. Perhaps instead of killing time, Mother has come to understand it. Eve knows that Lilith intends to abandon her there by the sea as she no longer has any purpose, so she buys a small boat from a homeless woman with the gold given to her by the alchemist at the beginning of her journey (which he had given to Lilith, who returned it when they met again) and climbs in it hoping to traverse the sea and return home. Having survived America, but forever changed by it.
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