Angela Carter’s écriture féminine

“Thus, as there are no grounds for establishing a discourse, but rather an arid millennial ground to break, what I say has at least two sides and two aims: to break up, to destroy; and to foresee the unforeseeable, to project.” (Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”)

Angela Carter may have laid out similar aims for her novel, Nights at the Circus.  She ‘breaks up’ and ‘destroys’ the reader’s acceptance of the unquestioned supremacy of the masculine when she inserts words like “bonfemmerie” and “mistresspiece”.  She projects an image of broken binaries throughout the novel, constantly questioning and subverting concepts of strict gender and behaviour codes.  Fevvers is the feminine body written out, she is écriture féminine.

écriture féminine is “not a theory as such (at least not in the sense which theory is commonly understood), but something that is still related to theory” (Blythe and Sellers, “Helene Cixous: Live theory”).  It is hard to describe and I do not have nearly the grounding to do a good job of it.  It is “feminine writing”, writing that attempts to break the feminine body out of the neat categories commonly accepted for it.  It is writing that attempts to reclaim the act of articulation and creation from the masculine hand.

Masculine writing is grounded in the things that are typically masculine – logic, straight lines – and it is the accepted style.  Feminine writing subverts that style and can be circular, more grounded in the body (and maybe, because we are so unsettled and liberated by this, by its nature “carnivalesque”?)  There is something very disturbing about the idea of ‘feminine writing’ because of the essentialist qualities that seem to be built into it.  However, it can also be a type of writing that is intentionally “turning away from gender-specific formulations and instead emphasizing particular libidinal economies. Thus, feminine writing is a kind of writing that is ‘feminine’ in the sense that it avoids appropriation and annihilation. It is feminine in its relationship to language.” (Kristen Hennesy, “The Complexities of Cixious and Ecriture Feminine”)

Carter does not seem to have the same leanings toward essentialism that are found in Cixous.  She constantly undermines essentialist ideas by complicating Fevver’s gender over and over again, and allowing multiple characters (Walser, The Princess) to inhabit complex and murky gendered spaces.  Fevvers is a strongly masculine woman, but also overwhelmingly feminine.  Her attitude and physical present take space the same way we expect men to, but her clothing and emphasis on looks are very stereotypically feminine.**

I reread “The Laugh of the Medusa” after reading “Nights at the Circus”, because the circular narrative and the subversive language choices reminded me so much of Cixous, who is one of my favorite theorists.  When I first read the essay, it wound its way through my entire being, breathing possibility and joy and anger into all the spaces I didn’t know were empty.  I read it over my birthday, which always includes a camping trip, and I remember campfire smoke and camp chairs and reading whole paragraphs out loud because they were so delightful.  “It is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing, and this is an impossibility that will remain, for this practice can never be theorized, enclosed, encoded – which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist” (Cixous, “Laugh of the Medusa”).  Her language is just so beautiful, so poetic, and so militant.

I found the same thing in “Nights at the Circus”.  Every word Carter writes is intentional.  Everything has layer over layer of meaning, some so obscure they only tug imperceptibly at a memory of a paper written in grade 5 about myths, some so obvious they crash like an anvil launched directly at your worldview.  I had sticky notes all over the place throughout the novel, noting a paragraph that begged to be read out loud or an idea that sliced so efficiently to the core of me.

“…the faint jingling of Colonel Kearney’s elephants of flesh and blood as they rattled the chains on their legs as they did continually, all their waking hours, since in their millennial and long-lived patience they knew quite well how, in a hundred years, or a thousand years’ time, or else, perhaps, tomorrow, in an hour’s time, for it was all a gamble, a million to one chance, but all the same there was a chance that if they kept on shaking their chains, one day, some day, the clasps upon the shackles would part.” (Carter, “Nights at the Circus”)

There’s so much anger there!  So much frustration.  We keep shaking our chains, our gilded cages, we keep shaking them and shaking them and shaking them until all it is is the faint rattle of modern feminism and doesn’t even resemble the roar of the first wave.  And people walk by and shake their heads because don’t we understand?  It’s as good as it will get.  But we have to keep shaking our chains.  I love that quote.  It’s too long, it’s uncomfortable to read, it repeats and repeats and the very length of it seems somehow offensive and unseemly, like the elephants and the quote itself should just stop already.  Enough.  We heard you.  But it keeps going, just like the elephants keep going and just like we must keep going, to find freedom.  Some day.  (Even if we end up dead and frozen in our hour of emancipation.  Carter is not an optimist, and she does not paint a rosy picture of the “unforeseeable” future.)

Carter breaks, again, the “arid, millennial ground” that Cixous describes.

** Ouch.  Don’t you hate it when you accidentally expose your own biases and ugly beliefs like that?  Assertiveness is masculine and superficiality is feminine.  Nice one, Miss Feminist!  But I’ll leave it there, because it’s what I wrote.  I do think that Carter used Fevvers’ costumes to emphasize her femininity, almost to the extreme of making it like a drag performance, but I highly doubt she was belittling women who wear makeup.  Yeesh.


Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus. 1984.

Helene Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa. 1975.

Kristen Hennesy, The Complexities of Cixious and Ecriture Feminine. 2004.

***This was my post for last week, which I somehow saved to draft rather than publishing.  Oops.***


~ by Gloom Fairy on June 15, 2010.

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