June 2, 2009

Kate Durbin on Angela Carter and Joan Didion

Kate Durbin's first full-length collection of poetry, The Ravenous Audience, is forthcoming from Black Goat Press/Akashic Books. Her chapbook, Fragments Found in a 1937 Aviator's Boot, is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. She lives in Whittier, California.

The Deviant Woman

(Not So Much an Endorsement As a Femfight)

I am not so much concerned by the problems of what you might call our day but I am burdened by the particular, the mad person who writes a letter.
-Maria, Play it as it Lays

Angela Carter loathed Joan Didion. She called her “an alien from another planet.” She abhorred her female characters even more, stating in an interview: “Although I am a card-carrying and committed feminist, what I would like to see happen to Joan Didion’s female characters is that a particularly hairy and repulsive chapter of Hells Angels descend upon their therapy group with a squeal of brakes and sweep these anorexic nutters behind them despite their squeaks of protest…”

Carter was known for being “spikily outspoken,” as Salman Rushdie coined her in the introduction to Burning Your Boats. Her ferocious, funny statement above does not end with the wreaked havoc of the Hells Angels. Carter provides two more colorful ends for Didion’s female characters, one involving the rape of the Sabine women. As with most judgment statements made about other people, this reveals more about Carter’s person than it does about Didion’s characters, here cruelly caricatured. And yet, Didion was no fan of feminism, at least not in the 70’s. Here’s a statement from her at the time, also from an interview: “The feminist analysis,” she said, “[denies] one's actual apprehension of what it is like to be a woman, the irreconcilable difference of it—that sense of living one's deepest life underwater, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death."

This is typical Didion—frank, though less gaudy than Carter. And her statement is just as troubling. For one thing “the feminist analysis” she refers to is vague—whose feminist analysis, and what specifically is that analysis all about? Then there is the “irreconcilable difference” she speaks of—but the difference of what to what, precisely? What are we comparing here, and to what end?

Instinctively, however, I feel Didion is speaking of a real contradiction, not so much in the sense that Carter is a hypocrite in her statement above by calling herself feminist and then wishing wild demise upon women who deviate from her agenda, though that touches the surface of it. But the inherent contradictoriness of being a person—no, not a person—in being a woman, which has to do with “that dark involvement with blood and birth and death.” A dark involvement, it seems, that feminism, at least to Didion, had not completely come clean about.

There is plenty of involvement with “blood and birth and death” in “card-carrying feminist” Angela Carter’s works. The Bloody Chamber is a glorious example. And yet, Carter’s involvement, for all its grotesque decadent darkness, is ultimately a very redemptive one, even if it’s a pagan or animal redemption. There is little malice in the stories beyond that malice of the patriarchy. Carter’s women are rarely self-destructive, and if they are ambivalent about themselves, then narrator/Carter swoops in quickly to tell us exactly how they have been manipulated by the patriarchy into being so. Carter’s women are feminist heroes—complex and sexual and insatiable, and forever feminist—and we love them for it.

Didion’s Maria is no feminist hero. Maria spends the bulk of Didion’s classic 1960’s Hollywood novel Play it as It Lays driving the desert aimlessly or flipping through Vogue magazines by the pool. She is filled with ambivalence about everyone around her, and herself (particularly her body). She barely eats, gets her hair done for no reason, sleeps all afternoon. She is infuriatingly, willfully passive. Try and count the number of times in the novel where “Maria said nothing” and “Maria did nothing.” You will get sick of counting. Like Carter’s, though, this book, for all its praised “aridity,” is actually very bloody. Maria bleeds for fifty-one days straight from a botched abortion, refusing to go to the doctor when she is obviously hemorrhaging. A male character says to her, after she is arrested for stealing a car and vomits on herself: “There’s something in your behavior, Maria, I would almost go so far to call it…a very self-destructive personality structure.” This man is an ass, but he’s right.

Still, there is something else about Maria, deviant Maria. Something easy to undervalue, because it’s inexplicable: Maria, for all her evasion and self-damaging (in)decisions, seems to know the “irreconcilable difference” of herself. And in the face of this awful knowledge, she chooses to live on. Maria is a scarred survivor, in the sense that only those women who have experienced impossible paradox—stared straight into the empty pit where the eye should be—can be. This seems valuable, a necessary message in a language I can’t comprehend.

But what is it really, you ask—this mysterious “irreconcilable difference?” The question, of course, is impossible. It is, as Didion says, “the sense of ones deepest life being lived underwater”—the very darkest of “dark involvement[s].” You cannot understand it by reading about it. Maria calls it “nothing.” At least, in the light of its darkness, nothing is all that applies.

What do you do with the woman to whom “nothing applies”? The woman whose deviancy comes not from resisting patriarchal structures and attitudes but from believing that resistance to such structures and attitudes does not ultimately matter? Who has no interest in returning to the woods and feral, life affirming ways, but who knows only the way of the desert, the brutal truth of “the rattlesnake in the playpen”? Angela Carter clearly did not know what to do with these women, which is why she wanted to sick the Hells Angels on them. Interestingly enough, Maria does encounter the Hells Angels twice in the novel. Both times she comes out surviving. So Carter’s wish—which is really a wish that these women would not exist at all, since they complicate the way of progressive feminism—is a fantasy, and underestimates the endurance of the deviant woman.

There are women who, like it or not, cannot or will not reconcile their contradictions. There are women writers are hostile or ambivalent to their female characters because this is how they see themselves. This was as true in the 60’s and 70’s as it is now. But is it solely because they’ve swallowed institutional bias and cannot figure how to heave it back up, or is it because they know that if they begin to throw up, they won’t be able to stop? There are truths women know only in nightmares. Maria’s nightmares are of plumbing stopped up due to “hacked pieces of human flesh” stuck in the pipes, of fetuses floating in the East River. The patriarchy’s power, so blatant in the waking world, is less direct in dreams. At times there seem to be other, elemental forces at work. What are they? Where do they come from?

These are questions for which I venture no answers, and Didion would likely say there are no answers. Carter, I suspect, might not have found the questions relevant.

As for Maria, she sits in front of a mirror “picking out her mother’s features. Sometime in the night, she had moved into a realm of miseries peculiar to women.” During the day, she watches a woman walk across a parking lot with “slow mincing steps.” The woman is “the dead still center of the world, the quintessential intersection of nothing.” After more nightmares, of both the dreaming and waking sorts, she concedes only this: that “there would be plumbing anywhere she went.”

One thing in my defense, not that it matters: I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what “nothing” means, and I keep on playing.
-Maria, Play It As It Lays


Interview with Angela Carter
Interview with Joan Didion


becca said...

Kate-- This focus on the "nothing" woman as she relates to feminism is really fascinating. It *does* feel threatening on some level, because, as you say, feminism is progressive, a practice, a movement, and all of these things require action. The fact that feminism requires action is obvious, so it seems obvious, too, that a certain type of feminist would hate a "nothing" woman. And yet the "nothing" woman's state is the result of a culture that has oppressed her, at least in Play It As It Lays, so portraits like these feel important to feminism even in their refusal. Not even "refusal" -- that implies too much agency. Important in their "nothing"ness!

Kate Durbin said...

Well said, Becca! The deviant (or nothing) woman totally fascinates me in her abjectness—the ways in which she has swallowed and been swallowed up by institutional and/or cultural oppression. It also seems relevant that Maria lives and works as a washed up actress in Hollywood, one of the most fucked up places for women, in terms of rendering them empty vessels for fantasy projection.

It’s interesting to think of Maria’s abjectness as a way to unconsciously resist patriarchal control. Her anorexia seems to work on this level—I’m currently fascinated by studies of how women’s (especially teenage girls and saints/martyrs) refusal to eat has worked historically as opposition to patriarchal control (as is explored in books like Holy Anorexia). Of course to a thriving, healthy specimen such as Carter, this would be totally blasphemous and upsetting! And it is upsetting, of course—it totally gets in the way of feminist progress or “movement,” and is self-destructive—but like you said, it’s really important in pointing to the deepness of the problem, the terrible emptiness at its center.

becca said...

Yes -- and the more I think about it, the fact that characters like Maria can be useful to feminism as emblems of problems is actually *really* useful. Usually we only hear from "survivors," right? But fiction can get around that. We can hear from/about those who don't find redemption, can ask ourselves if the culture is still creating women like this (yes).

In your first paragraph, you say "swallowed up," "washed up," "fucked up": these phrases seem to say it all, too. Someone like Maria is passive, acted upon by [Hollywood] culture, and all of these things will stamp her unless she puts up a fight. Which, of course, she won't. And which most women don't have the energy to do. You hear it today in women who say things are "better," are "good enough." Half the time I can hardly blame them -- it's a big fight!