Myth and History – Spoilery Essay

More of me culling my Uni work because I’m so damn lazy. This was another essay I enjoyed writing, but it won’t make much sense to anyone who hasn’t read Angela Carter’s Passion of New Eve. In fact it will probably suck all of the wonder and goodness out of that book. That’s why I’ve hidden the essay. Go and read the book…if you have already, then read this…if you want. But I don’t want to spoil it. It really changed the way I look at things and kind of informed my Feminism muchly. In a slightly confused way. Plus I mention Fame….which has to be cool.

 

Myth is more instructive than history. Discuss

In The Passion of New Eve, Evelyn/Eve passes from manhood to womanhood through contact with three mythic Godheads, each deifying themselves through use of mythology. The ‘Castratix’ Matriarch1, the Sadomasochistic Patriarch, and the Hollywood Androgyne all relate to Evelyn/Eve through the Mythologies they have wrapped around themselves. Angela Carter calls New Eve an ‘anti-mythic novel’2, an attempt to demythologise and destroy these ‘extraordinary lies designed to make people unfree’. She identifies myth as ‘social fictions that regulate our lives – what Blake called ‘mind-forg’d manacles’’ and yet we find that the novel relies so completely on myth that it almost propagates it as much as it deconstructs it. The novel is one full of contradictions like that, and is often read in seemingly mutually exclusive ways: it can be seen as feminist or anti-feminist in the same way that it demythologses as well as reinstating the power of myth. It deconstructs; yet because it attempts to replace it with something, does not fully deconstruct, instead replacing the original with something just like it, however different it may seem. At the end of the novel, we are told that ‘History overtook myth…and made it obsolete’3, yet Eve’s world still seems ruled by myth, the destiny Mother sets in motion is still achieved as Eve re-enters the womb in the conclusion of the novel. It is hard to be sure whether history or myth rules at this point, though it seems that the world of Carter’s post-apocalyptic America has been returned to history, the history it seems to know the best, that of war.

This seems to be avoiding the question however, and I shall return to it now. When Mother tells Eve that ‘Myth is more instructive than history’4 it is because she hopes to halt time, destroy history, and replace it with myth. She turns Evelyn into Eve, creating ‘a tabula erasa, a blank sheet of paper, an unhatched egg’5 and in doing so she attempts the transformation of the whole world to this same state of blankness. From this she can rewrite the world using myth to replace the history she has erased. Myth seems purer in that it simplifies the world to the point where complete recreation is possible, if history is tamed or erased, it can no longer maintain its stranglehold on reality. Barthes explains:

The world enters a language as a dialectical relation between activities, between human actions; it comes out of myth as a harmonious display of essences. A conjuring trick has taken place; it has turned reality inside out, it has emptied it of history and has filled it with nature, it has removed from things their human meaning so as to make them signify a human insignificance. The function of myth is to empty reality: it is, literally, a ceaseless flowing out, a haemorrhage, or perhaps an evaporation, in short a perceptible absence

-‘Myth Today’ (pp142-143)

The harmonious display of essences of which Barthes speaks seems to be where the power of myth lies, in its essential nature. It is made of pure ideas (although this word is inadequate) and as such is untainted by history even when it is made by it. The current hegemonic structure can perhaps only be escaped in this realm of myth that lies outside the influence of history. Its purity makes it unaffected by ideology, even though it is also the most powerful tool for reinforcement of ideology.

The patriarchal Godhead of Zero uses myth in a less grand way. His motivations seem more selfish, and he is a representation of the worst of the patriarchy that our real world angry women seek to overthrow. His main lack as Godhead (apart from his complete reprehensibility, which somehow seems irrelevant) lies in his inability to create; his infertility. He believes himself unable to create until he has destroyed. His belief that he must kill Tristessa is his failure as Godhead, for Gods must be able to create in order to achieve true apotheosis. Mother is capable of this, but Zero is not. Zero instead can only use his constructed myths to control and possess. He does not use it to be instructive, or to replace history, except perhaps to define his own world outside history. However this is not his own construction, for in Carter’s America it seems that all outside the cities of New York and Los Angeles is a desert with out history. It is worth remembering that the desert is the symbol of infertility, and perhaps there is an implication of the infertility of myth, but this is something we must return to later, once we reach the end of Eve’s journey.

The Hollywood mythology of Tristessa’s is something of a different type to that of the other two Godheads. Christina Britzolakis draws our attention to the parallels between Tristessa and the myth of ‘The face of Garbo’6 presented by Barthes in his Mythologies7. Barthes creates Garbo as ‘a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature.’8 Tristessa is the same, although while ‘Garbo does not perform it in any feat of transvestism’ Tristessa’s essence is constructed from her transvestism, or rather her deifying of herself as perfect woman (distinct, I would say, from Evelyn’s reification as woman). Tristessa’s beauty and Godhood as ‘the perfect man’s woman’ 9comes from her status as one who ‘incarnates most completely the secret aspiration of man…Tristessa had been able to become the most beautiful woman in the world, an unbegotten woman who made no concessions to humanity’10. It is from the interplay between mask and reality that her Godhead stems. Her mythology is not wholly of her own creation. Her mythos is used by Mother as the basis of Eve’s conditioning as a woman, presumably used by Hollywood to create the legend that it needs to sustain its industry, and used by the men of the world, including Evelyn, as a symbol of perfection and beauty, and no doubt an outlet for sexual desire. However all of this mythology is not of her own construction, but is instead constructed by those who wish to use her mythology for their own purposes. Tristessa’s only goal seems to be the immortality of exile; she wishes to live outside of the world in a state of non-existence, so that she may live forever (just like the kids in Fame, striving to achieve their own apotheosis) amongst the simulacra of the dead stars and starlets who have also achieved some bizarre mythological immortality. She surrounds herself with those whose arcs are the same as hers. The instructiveness of this myth is doubtful, although it is used by Mother to instruct, or perhaps only condition, Eve, it is only used by Tristessa in her attempt to halt time for herself, escaping history by evading death. As she has impressed herself onto celluloid and the imagination of the world for eternity she also strives to impress herself upon reality for all time by becoming this immortal corpse.

Eve’s passage to womanhood is completed through her marriage to Tristessa, the consummation of their love, and Eve’s burgeoning maternity. They combine into ‘the great Platonic hermaphrodite’11and generate new life (a new life for all?) from within ‘the heart of that gigantic metaphor for sterility’ the desert, the land of myth. This is where the grand revelation, the true apocalypse of the narrative, takes place. It is only after this act of creation has taken place (or rather been conceived) that Eve is able to re-enter the post-apocalyptic world of ‘historiocity’12. In this desert (or rather within Eve’s russet gash) we find ‘the first sea, that covered everything, the waters of beginning.’13 Barthes tells us that there is nothing more natural than the sea14 and it is the sea that replaces the desert (after Eve’s brief adventures on the coast) and gives us the oceanic womb that Eve passes into before she is able to give birth to new life. Barthes metaphor of sea as nature refers us to his previous statement that:

Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but a statement of fact…. In passing from history to nature, myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences, it does away with all dialectics, with any going back beyond what is immediately visible, it organizes a world which is without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves.

-‘Myth Today’ (p143)

The metaphor of the sea flows through Barthes’ words, where all the world seems ‘immediately visible’ and what is beyond that is unreachable, beyond the seemingly infinite expanses of the ocean. This bond of the sea to the strength of myth’s transubstantiation of history into nature brings strange contradictions to Carter’s supposed anti-mythic stance. At the close of the novel we are faced with Eve herself wallowing in this wide open symbol of myth and nature; ‘Ocean, Ocean, mother of mysteries, bear me to the place of birth.’15 She seems to have fulfilled Mother’s grand plan for her destiny. Eve waits in the womb of the ocean, seeking what one must imagine is some New Eden to recreate the world in. A new birth seems imminent, and it is borne out of all of the mythological rites of passage that have formed Eve into what she is. She escapes the history of America and sets out to create something new. It seems appropriate that we are left without closure, for the end is the beginning: ‘we start from our conclusions’16. We cannot know whether the new world will be one instructed by myth, but it is certainly created from it. However we must always remember the Ocean’s opposite number, the desert. Already established as something of a symbol of the infertility of myth, and therefore a symbol of Carter’s anti-mythic stance the desert is obliterated by the fertility of the Ocean, the desert is drenched by the love of Tristessa and Eve and becomes the ocean from which the new world is born. Carter’s paradoxical parapraxes of antithetical ideas rear their head once more.

Eve’s entire identity has been instructed by mythology. The question of whether myth is more instructive than history, at least within the boundaries of this essay, seems to lie in whether or not the novel itself is instructional, or whether it is doing something destructive (although perhaps both are the same). Eve survives constant escapes from history into the realm of myth; from the Old World to the New, from the city to the desert, and finally from the wasteland warzone of California and Los Angeles to the womb of the ocean. Carter’s anti-mythic stance is problematised by the fact that all she creates is myth, a deconstruction of both myth and history is achieved, yet Eve is set off to create some replacement for what is destroyed, and as she is constructed from myth there would be nothing else that she could create. The absence of the imminent new Eden from the novel leaves us with an inability to say what the novel is instructing us to do, perhaps this is what makes the text into myth, at least according to Barthes’ statement that ‘myth is depoliticized speech’. Yet the creation of myth seems the opposite of what Carter intends, just as it is apparent that this is an inherently political text. While Carter’s own statements on the subject seem to be anti-mythic and hold The Passion of New Eve to be demythologising, I believe the text acts more to convince that myth is the ideal way to escape the hegemony of history. Myth seems to hold the power to clarify and reduce things to their very essence (though what things I am not sure, perhaps history, or perhaps not). This is surely a great instructive tool, and Barthes does provide an explanation for why myth can be used to fight myth in the way Carter does, and it is entirely because of its function as an instructive weapon of, or possibly against, history. Barthes tells us:

Truth to tell, the best weapon against myth is perhaps to mythify it in its turn, and to produce an artificial myth: and this reconstituted myth will in fact be a mythology.’

-‘Myth Today’ (p135)

So perhaps we can finally understand Angela Carter’s paradox, the confusion comes from the fact that she is fighting fire with fire, or rather myth with myth. So perhaps myth is more instructive than myth purely because it can be used to fight myth itself, whereas history only reinforces whatever mind forg’d manacles it may try to fight.

Bibliography

  • Barthes, Roland Mythologies (London: Jonathan Cape 1974) particularly ‘The Face of Garbo’ and ‘Myth Today’

  • Britzolakis, Christina ‘Angela Carter’s fetishism’ The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter (Harlow: Longman 1997)

  • Carter, Angela ‘Notes from the Front Line’ On Gender and Writing Ed. Michelene Wandor (London: Pandora 1983)

  • Carter, Angela The Passion of New Eve (London: Virago 1991)

1 The Passion of New Eve (London: Virago 1991) P67

2 ‘Notes from the Front Line’ On Gender and Writing Ed. Michelene Wandor (London: Pandora 1983) p71

3 New Eve p-172-173

4 New Eve p68

5 New Eve p83

6 ‘Angela Carter’s fetishism’ The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter (Harlow: Longman 1997) p50

7 ‘The Face of Garbo’ Mythologies (London: Jonathan Cape 1974) p56-57

8 ‘The Face of Garbo’ p56

9 New Eve p128

10 New Eve p129

11 New Eve p148

12 New Eve p166

13 New Eve p148

14 ‘Myth Today’ Mythologies p144

15 New Eve p191

16 New Eve p191

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