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The Poetic Ordeal
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The Poetic Ordeal
Angela Carter , The Passion of New Eve , experience , narrative , sex , gender , transformation
  • Fictionalizing Sex and Gender

    The future that awaits Evelyn is ever-present: “Both memory and prescience were at work in me when I and a girl whose name I don’t remember went to see Tristessa in Wuthering Heights the last night I was ever in London” (6). As a work of memory, Tristessa is recalled as the object of Evelyn’s adolescent sexual fantasies, as the narrative recalls: “I’d dream of meeting Tristessa, she stark naked, tied, perhaps to a tree in a midnight forest under the wheeling stars” (7). Evelyn’s formative fantasy of Tristessa is drawn as counterpart to the tragic and vulnerable femininity embodied by the screen-star, whose “speciality had been suffering” (8). Evelyn arrives in New York City, which is in the grip of violent uprisings and social chaos. He meets “Leilah,” a young black woman who eats hash cakes by day and performs as an exotic dancer by night. Their encounter leads to an intense sexual affair and an unwanted pregnancy. Evelyn regards Leilah with violent and misogynistic contempt. His desire for her and for her body is, nevertheless, all consuming: “my existence was now gone away into my tumescence; I was nothing but cock” (25). Evelyn considers his entire body and existence in the brute schematic terms of the phallus, and also employs such an imaginary to cast Leilah, although in opposition to himself: “I made her lie on her back and parted her legs like a doctor in order to examine more closely the exquisite negative of her sex” (27). Evelyn sadistically (and mistakenly) believes Leilah to be his “meat” and his “victim.” Evelyn abandons Leilah, who is injured from a backyard abortion, and flees the city for the desert in order to “find that most elusive of chimeras, myself” (38). Near death, Evelyn is captured by the “Women’s Army” and taken to Beulah to meet “Mother.” Mother is a plastic surgeon and the self-fashioned deity of a new, female world order. She has rows of breasts “like a sow,” and her attendants are required to shear off a breast in her honour. At Beulah, Evelyn is castrated and his body is re-crafted into female form. Specifically, Evelyn is turned into a “complicated mix of mythology and technology,” or the messianic “new” Eve (48). Although physically perfect, Eve experiences a discrepancy between her form and what remains of her previously male self. What follows for Eve is a course of mental modification, what Mother calls “psycho-surgery,” which involves watching footage of women and animals nurturing their babies. After this, Eve escapes Beulah. She goes onto to be captured by “Zero the Poet” and his ensemble of slave-wives, and then goes on to meet Tristessa in the flesh.

    In counterpoint to Evelyn’s transformation into Eve, it is revealed that, in fact, Tristessa, “the most beautiful woman in the world,” is a man who has spent his life in female impersonation. “Lilith,” a character who is encountered later in the story, and who provides another entwined and dual perspective as the transformation of the brutalized Leilah, Evelyn’s lover, describes Tristessa: “Abandoned on this great continent like a star in space, an atomised, fragmented existence, his cock stuck in his asshole so that he himself formed the uroborus, the perfect circle, the vicious circle, the dead-end” (173). It is interesting that Carter makes use of the image of the uroborus circle—the symbol of the serpent in the act of biting or devouring its own tail—to describe a bodily performance; in imagining how the female impersonator conceals his sexual anatomy to perform “Tristessa,” something of the ideology of sexual difference is also betrayed. The uroborus, as it describes Tristessa’s desired performance of femininity, is also a descriptor of critical, and for Carter, feminist, concerns of the narrative itself. The uroborus circle figures a self-consuming and self-sustaining narrative loop, providing an analogical form to the way sex and the cultural system of masculine/feminine are imagined and critiqued by Carter. While Tristessa introduces themes of gender as performance (in a way that anticipates Judith Butler’s account of “gender performativity”), he/she also provides the text with its significant “sexual iconography.” Carter addresses what she calls sexual iconography, how it is imagined, and what it produces in The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History (1979). Characterizing this, she writes:

    If the image of the uroborus circle is interpreted as signifying futility—“the vicious circle, the dead-end”—then we are encouraged to read Tristessa’s enactment of femininity as a form of nihilism, an act of sexualized self-negation. The filmic, feminine persona “Tristessa” is a performance of femininity lost to the man Tristessa, who persists in confusing the sexual iconography of woman with what women are in general:

    For Tristessa, feminine subjectivity is sustained through the negation and destruction of materiality; the female sex is non-existent as form, but is imagined as a “hole” in being, or an inverse of being. The sexed body schematically generates the imagery of sexual iconography. This, in turn, brings-into-being the cultural system of masculine/feminine, folding these figurations back into the “real” materiality of given male and female bodies. From here, the process repeats itself: sex becomes essence, essence becomes sex. Sexualized bodies are either characterized as “nothing but cock,” recalling Evelyn, or nothing at all. For Carter, as for many feminist theorists of her time and subsequently, the self-reifying nature of the sex/gender system is the quintessence of the vicious circle. Such an uroborus circle does not only limit the possibilities of different or alternative experiences of sex and self, but is a priori a foreclosure on experience itself. Along with Tristessa, the characters Mother and Zero the Poet also establish self-reifying accounts of sex and the nature of sexual difference. Before turning to Mother (which I do in the next section), we may continue a reading of the uroborus circle in relation to Zero the Poet, who in fact entwines his sexual mythology with the figure of Tristessa.

    Along with his seven wives, Zero kidnaps the freshly made Eve upon her escape from Beulah. While the new Eve is physically sexed as “woman,” she has no knowledge or experience from which to create an identity or sense of self: “I know nothing. I am a 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 and less than a real woman” (83). Zero is a desert inhabitant who has all but “abandoned verbalization,” preferring to use an assortment of bestial sounds to communicate with his harem of wives: “He attempted to maintain an existence only in terms of expletives and tableaux vivants” (85). Grunts, shrieks and howls become a form of poetic language, a language that aspires to inaugurate Zero’s vision of the future. What forms this vision, in part, is Zero’s belief that “women [are] fashioned of a different soul substance than men, a more primitive animal stuff” (87). His wives are subjected to ritual debasement, smeared with excrement and forbidden the use of sensible language. Crucially, Zero’s design for a Brave New World is dependant on finding and murdering Tristessa. When he does actually speak, it is to refer to Tristessa, whom he believes has bewitched him of his virility: “She’s magicked the genius out of my jissom, that evil bitch! And it won’t come back until I stick my merciless finger into this ultimate dyke . . . [this] sluice of nothingness” (91). Eve is raped by Zero and claimed as one of his wives, remaining enslaved and “passing as a woman”:

    Self-defined as “the lowest point; vanishing point; nullity” (102), Zero is the infinite, singular and unproductive uroborus circle. With only one eye and one leg, he literalizes and materializes the misogynistic sexual iconography to which Tristessa (and the former Evelyn) also subscribes. He is the epitome of determined phallic action and as such, the “zero” movement of empty repetition: “the deathly and annihilating circle of Zero” (100). He evokes the Nietzschean problem of “Eternal Recurrence”; he keeps a bust of Nietzsche in his study, to which he declares himself. The zero that he takes as his name is itself the form of an endless or self-sustaining circle – the perpetual return to the same, in Nietzsche’s terms – which might also be thought of as the uroborus. In the character of Zero, Carter derides the modern philosophic ideal of self-overcoming, expounded by Nietzsche’s famous character, “Zarathustra,” for the positivity with which Zero affirms himself comes only with the ontological denial of the women that he has imprisoned. Indeed, sexual difference is necessary to Zero for his affirmation of self (sameness) and futurity; the uroborus is then a figure of illusion, found to be false in its reliance on that which is sexually-other but integral to the self-sustaining loop of phallic rhetoric. Carter suggests that sex and sexed experience are complicated by significant ambiguity and that the potential to “change” sex is not that which makes masculine and feminine uncertain or relative terms of experience. The experience itself, the figures and representations through which sex is embodied and presented, is that which remains unfixed and multiple. Both Tristessa and Zero are bound by the sex/gender systems they reproduce. Interestingly, too, as Zero uncovers Tristessa’s “true” sex, he unknowingly finds in her a sympathetic perspective, a mirror reflection of his worldview. Eve makes the connection: “While Zero tortured you, . . . you must have been in complete complicity with him. You must have thought Zero, with his guns and knives and whips and attendant chorus of cringing slaves, was a man worth the ironic gift of that female appearance which was your symbolic autobiography” (129). Caught in the futile, nihilistic aspect of the “essential,” of the uroborus circle, neither Tristessa nor Zero survives poetic ordeal/ experience. For Carter, transformative experience, which is what characterizes experience, cannot exist in the vacuum of sameness.

    The Alchemic City

    The figure of the uroborus circle is further exemplified in the return of Eve’s perspective to the beginning of the narrative. The temporal divergence of narrative perspective/s denies the notion of a single beginning or originary point, reinterpreting the circulating sexual iconography of male and female, encountered throughout the novel, from an elsewhere. Certainly, this is suggested at the novel’s close, where Eve declares: “We start from our conclusions” (191). Eve’s narrative is retrospective; Eve is herself an amalgam of multiple and itinerant selves that combine different situations of experience, and to be put together from a place that is elsewhere to the narrative. More than a transposition of the experientially transformed Eve into Evelyn’s narrative, the interlocking of the end and beginning is like a self-fertilizing uroborus circle. This resonates with the uroborus circle as an alchemic symbol, a metaphor Carter uses to describe the unfolding urban apocalypse of the first part of The Passion of New Eve. “Baroslav,” an alchemist whom Evelyn encounters shortly into his journey, details the corruption and dissolution of the city as the “crucible” of potential:

    The symbolic polis of the New World, New York City, a “city of visible reason” (16), is eroded by its antithesis: a primal, undulating, feminine mayhem. A black guerrilla army has partitioned parts of the city, and women have banded under a militant, separatist ideology of which Mother is the figurehead. The “bright, rich smell of shit” and the pandemonium of anarchy rupture the city. Darkness and violence paralyze the city, and its occupants succumb to its doom, dwelling in fantasies of decline and apocalypse. Evelyn, too, is seduced by this chaos. When he encounters Leilah, he describes her as fractured by chaos and animality, foreshadowing Zero’s doctrinal beliefs about women as “primitive” and as “animal”: her eyes “roll without focus,” her skin is “as black as the source of shadow”; sometimes “bird-like,” sometimes “fox,” as “subtle as a fish.” Further, “her lascivious totter that sometimes broke into a stumbling dance for a few seconds, the hot, animal perfume she exuded –all of these were the palpable manifestations of seduction” (21).

    As Evelyn chases Leilah through the city, he is unaware of Leilah’s true identity, later revealed to be “Lilith” (in Jewish mythology, Lilith was Adam’s first wife, and she refused to be subjugated by him, making her the first exile from Eden). Space and time expand in some places, and contract in others, as Evelyn stalks Leilah through the city. Leilah unbinds physical laws as she apparently lures Evelyn through the labyrinthine streets: “Under the dying moon, she led me on an invisible string through the back streets” (21). The figuring of this experience of seduction, recalls, too, the twilight city-streets of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs Du Mal (1857); sensual and alien at the same time, threatening as well as thrilling. An undetermined space begins to emerge and interfere with Evelyn’s relation to linear time and self-certainty:

    At first, the shifting spatio-temporality generated destruction is an aphrodisiac for Evelyn, the naïf or “innocent” Englishman abroad. Gorged on the intoxicating, disorienting effects of anarchy, Evelyn is singularly dominated by his desire to be a cruel participant in the terror of the city; to indulge his sadistic fantasies where Leilah is imagined as “dressed meat” and his for the taking: “I felt the ghastly attraction of the fall. Like a man upon a precipice, irresistibly lured by gravity, I succumbed at once. I took the quickest way down, I plunged. I could not resist the impulsion of vertigo” (25).

    In her theorization of “syncope” – which is the experience of fainting, swooning, pause, accent, and death – Catherine Clément writes that vertigo pulls the self into the gravity of otherness. Clement describes this ordeal as “an absence of the self,” which is an experience of being outside the conventional world of subjectivity (1-2). The experience of self-negation for Evelyn opens up a Pandora’s box of woes as he neglects to notice the inscription above the threshold of Leilah/Lilith’s apartment: “INTROITE ET HIC DII SUNT” (Enter, for here the Gods are) (25). The vertiginous experience of apocalypse sets Evelyn on a path out of the city, and into the desert, where Mother will castrate him and fashion him into Eve. He leaves Leilah stripped of “all her furs” and “awash with blood” (35), and he blames the collapse of the city’s order, and indeed the end of civilization, on Leilah’s “slow, sweet flesh . . . with its corrupt languor,” and ultimately on “the slow delirious sickness of femininity” (37). He then begins his exile from history.

    The Labyrinth of Experience

    The ordeal that shapes the transformation of sex, time, and perspective in The Passion of New Eve shares the significant movement of the inward turn, which can be symbolized by the form of the labyrinth. Evelyn describes the descent he is forced to make into Beulah and the underground world of Mother:

    Through an “inscrutable series of circular, intertwining, always descending corridors,” the conventional boundaries of inner/outer, self/world, and sex/gender are no longer staged in the forms of oppositions, but as the enfolding space of experience (57). The “passion” of Eve brings about an effective short-circuit in the uroboric circularity of the narrative, transforming perspective, now irreducible to opposites to be instead directed towards multiplicity. Georges Bataille writes of experience and the transgression of limits. The very prominent theme of transgression in Carter’s work has been well theorized (Bristow and Broughton 1997). My contribution to this is to use the work of Georges Bataille to attend to such themes, and to put these into different terms; terms which stick closely to the concept of experience. With reference to Carter’s undoing of the economy of sexual iconography, and the textual transformations of the limitations of sexed opposites, undertaken by the novel as a whole, experience becomes a question of—or quest for—the “limits” and for what exceeds these limits. For Bataille, this surpassing of known experience, through acts that transgress and transform the self, leads the subject to “plethoric” being. From this, experience becomes involved in “infinite” possibilities for being. Plethora is a pulsing, non-differential, growth that takes place through the division of an individual thing or life being dispatched by what Bataille calls “super-abundance” (96). He writes: “The being experiences being in the crisis that puts it to the test” in which “the being’s very being is called into question” (101); this is the transformative movement of the “continuity” of experience – of the self as subject to identity, sexual norms, and culture – to the uncertainty of “discontinuity,” where all forms of knowing are replaced by something larger, other, and elsewhere to the self. Evelyn’s dissolution or fall into an absence of self begins when he falls over the threshold of Leilah’s apartment. This commences his inner journey, his “inner-experience” in Bataille’s words, and his material transformation, which is signified and symbolized by the labyrinth. This absence-of-self, this inward falling, is paradoxically also an excess of self: a super-abundance, growing towards death (101).

    While traveling in an “estranging” desert landscape, Evelyn is abducted by “Sophia,” one of Mother’s followers. He is imprisoned underground at Beulah, where Mother has fashioned herself as an anteriority, the primal antithesis of “Old Adam,” calling herself the “Grand Emasculator”: “She, this darkest one, this fleshy extinction, beyond time, beyond imagination, always just beyond, a little way beyond the fingertips of the spirit, the eternally elusive quietus who will free me from being, transform my I into the other and, in doing so, annihilate it” (59). In a perverse and inverted Oedipal ritual, Mother rapes Evelyn and procures his semen. He is castrated, and surgically transformed into the new Eve, a radically politicized “fructifying female space” designed to bring forth the “Messiah of the Antithesis” with the semen of her former materiality and being. Like Tristessa and Zero, Mother reproduces her ideology from the logic of sexual iconography, for Mother believes that “a change in the appearance will restructure the essence” (68). Evelyn’s transformation into a woman, in the labyrinth-womb of Beulah, forms the physical ordeal of the text and is the first phase of Eve’s passion. Not until Eve escapes from Mother does the contradictory duality of Eve/Evelyn’s “two channels of sensation, her fleshy ones and his mental ones,” begin to be transformed to be rearranged via experience and in ways that make the former sexual system of male and female unsustainable and “discontinuous” (77-8).

    The second phase of ordeal is to do with sex and desire; this is where the systems of sexual violence are reworked through Eve’s new experiences of desire. Eve refers to the time she spends with Zero as her “apprenticeship in womanhood” (109). That is, Eve is introduced first hand to the kinds of violence she once inflicted on women and, through this, is introduced to the experience of sexual ideology as the ideology of heterosexual exchange. The significant sexual ordeal for Eve, however, takes place in the desert with the now-male Tristessa. Together they escape Zero, leaving him and his harem to the burning ruins of Tristessa’s home. With Tristessa, Eve gains quite a different experience of sex. During sexual intercourse, Eve finds another means for experience. She descends into an inter-subjective labyrinthine space through the ecstasy of orgasm, le petit mort:

    Orgasm offers and produces the possibility of inner-movement. As an ordeal, this experience troubles what is known about the body, the self, by dissolving the distinctions between the bodies of the lovers, which further challenges the systems of sex and gender that are depicted in the narrative. Language, too, is unable to describe or explain such an experience; the rapturous danger of sexual pleasure and love are the means to an elsewhere of narrative-perspective and speaking positions. The pleasurable moment or “death” of sexual climax is an experience that becomes the possibility of something and somewhere other, putting the self in the way of (physical and psychic) danger.

    The final ordeal of The Passion of New Eve is the initiation of Eve (as the transformed and transformative Eve) into infinite time. She faces this alone, after Tristessa has been shot by desert-children. The figure of Mother has also been transformed, and has “retired” from warmongering to a “cave beyond consciousness,” to become the essence of a question—of femininity, of Mother as a creative force, of subjectivity—unfolding itself in a subterranean, labyrinthine set of vortices that scramble the nature of matter itself. Just like Zero’s poetic vision, Mother’s plan to bring forth the “feminisation of Father Time” ultimately fails. As such, the last leg of Eve’s passion is to “return” to reality or to worldly time, traversing the caves inhabited by a disembodied Mother and undergoing rituals of experience in order to be free of the notion of Mother. To be experientially transformed, Eve must move beyond the materiality of her transformation and into the “inner self.” I quote at length here, to show the way experience accrues its inner, constant motion:

    Eve’s passage through large-scale time, backwards through eons of natural evolution, is also an inner-journey; time is only meaningful through interaction with subjective experience and the question of the self who is telling/speaking from experience. From this, too, another alternative version of (the) beginning, here as the destination of the story, situates the narrative. That is, Eve’s destination is the beginning of the story, which is the place from which Evelyn’s story begins as Eve retells it.

    The physical, sexual, and transformative ordeals that form the “passion” of new Eve bring the narrative into figures of experience (the uroborus circle, the labyrinth) that presents the self as an experiential plural. In terms of sex/gender, the transformed self is neither masculine nor feminine, but it exceeds determined or essential forms of sexual identity. What is left of essence, of self, and identity is worked out or mapped through liminal experiences: “all this strange experience, as I remember it, confounds itself in a fugue” (191). Bataille writes, “I call experience a voyage to the end of possible man,” which would be the surpassing of all forms of knowledge as experience. Bataille equates experience with what he terms “The Impossible,” and one meaning of the impossible is death. But death is not a straightforward event or defined only as the cessation of life. Rather, death is an unfolding—a multiple unfolding of the self, of the body, of philosophy towards death— giving shape to an infinite number of subjective, individual, and “lived” experiences because the possibility of death is also the possibility of an infinite number of experiences towards it. For Bataille, we should value “looking within” the self – the turning inwardly, the absence of self that marks this turn. In the place of divine relationality, which is experience defined or ordained by God, modern subjectivity is open to the endless and limitless abyss of the self-as-limit. That is, the modern subject is self-defining. Whether it is a pre-existing knowledge that constitutes our experience of the world, or our experience that shapes knowledge, it is the question of experience that has demarcated the limits of what it is to be human. This is what makes the concept important for Bataille, and what makes it a valuable term in the analysis of Carter’s text. What underpins writing and text, then, is a circular and ceaseless self-reflexivity, characterised by a textual or linguistic folding-in-on-self. What is significant about The Passion of New Eve is that it is a feminist exploration of self-figuring experience as this relates to sexual ideology.

    For Bataille, the crucial experience is one that actualizes The Impossible. Such an experience would fuse life and death in one and the same instant. This is what he calls “eroticism.” Occurring in “a limitless questioning of the self, of the self and everything at the same time,” eroticism maintains what are otherwise mutually exclusive potentialities (142). What is at stake, finally, is an experience of finitude as an impossible that makes possible. That is, the experience of finitude as a condition of possibility that is impossible to figure, a ruined sublime or missed encounter, the poetic or erotic experience of the absence of experience that “returns” the self to its discontinuous narrative iterations, permutations, and transformations. The eroticism of The Passion of New Eve inheres in its ways of using literature/literary conventions in articulation with its exploring questions about sex and sexuality. It is a textual articulation of the limits of narrative subjectivity, sex, and gender, and the critical “elsewhere” of possibility.

    Rather than a model to be imitated or justified by practice, what Carter presents is a literary experience that is itself erotic. In the fantastical, sex-changing, and self-changing scenarios that comprise The Passion of New Eve, the problematic of eroticism interrupts the formation and delineation of a subject and also its subjective boundaries, including the attribution of knowledge to (or from within) this subject. Eroticism, in this sense, is the experience that brings us to the innerness of desire. Bataille writes: “in human consciousness eroticism is that within man which calls his being into question” (29). In such a way, it is proposed that The Passion of New Eve is an example of this questioning power of eroticism. Carter is concerned with the question of experience as it relates to the question of the self, and with the discourses of sexual ideology that circulate meanings within the limits of these questions. The textual self traditionally evolves in parallel with the character development of the protagonist. The self and the field of its experience unfold through a narrative arc, taking form in whatever adventures, exploits, trials, and obstacles may be engaged. However, through its self-conscious, modal relationship of the subject and the world, the modern novel has dramatically displaced such narrative traditions. While recent literary criticism poses the problem of the self/subject that accompanies the structural and “linguistic turn,” it is also acknowledged that the reader brings meaning to the trajectory that follows the formation of character, actively partaking in the creation of the textual self. Accordingly, Carter’s writing articulates a political and feminist motivation to write the text through the self and into the self, in an open-ended process that maps an authorship that is already and always dispersed.


    In The Passion of New Eve, experience takes the form of a poetic ordeal, at once sexual, literary, and transformative. The reader is led to question the conventions of reading and their expectations for a sexual and gendered perspective. The multiple forms of the narrative layer the time and space of perspective, drawing from an “elsewhere” to narrative unity, and engage with the critical concerns of feminism and experience. In the novel, Evelyn’s journey, which sexually and materially transformed into the question of Eve’s becoming, is represented through the imagery of an inner-terrain or world, where the question of the self and the experience of the self-in-question are formulated from the inside out – not as the origin or original condition of narrative sense, but as an incipient subversion of conventional form. Such questions, and such experiences, are posed as anterior to the time-of-narrative and further, as anterior to the experience of time itself. This resembles Teresa de Lauretis’s theoretical-feminist work on experience; that is, Carter’s fictional work includes an elsewhere from where the production of narrative, experience, and self as a relation to knowledge and embodiment, can be tested. The Passion of New Eve locates an elsewhere of imaginative and “discontinuous” experiences that enfold the perspectives of the narrative and challenge the simple configuration of sexual iconography that produces damaging and limiting events of experience. This also provides for what Carter defines as the “creative” activity of reading, and this can be thought of as an extension of the textually elsewhere to reading as an experience. I have suggested that images like the uroborus circle and the labyrinth are significant critical forms, offering an examination of the kinds of experience that inform perspective. In The Passion of New Eve, this is situated by Carter’s commitment to and engagement with feminism. The narrative expansion of sexual and subjective perspectives can be used to illuminate The Passion of New Eve through its proffering of the creative or poetic possibilities for experience.

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