Ways of pleasure – introduction



According to Apuleius, Pleasure is the daughter of Cupid and Psyche – of Love and the Soul, that is, a sufficiently elevated pedigree, one would have thought. Yet the British still put up a strong resistance to the idea that pleasurability might be a valid criterion in the response to literature’ (Carter 1997: 490). So claims Angela Carter in a book review written towards the end of her life. Thus formulated, her opinion that books are first of all for gratification, for the reader’s pleasure – not ideological statements, samples of literary tradition or tools of moral self-improvement – puts forward what seems to be crucial to understanding her own literary output, namely, the idea of pleasurability. It is the pleasurability of reading, and of living – together with evolving moral standards and definitions of pleasure which we have inherited from our cultural past – that are her primary interest. : Both Carter’s fiction and non-fiction reflect these fascinations.

Angela Carter’s growing popularity is in my opinion partly due to the fact that hers is the literature of pleasure – with pleasure does it deal, and by its pleasurability is it remembered. Therefore, the detailed exploration of the ways of pleasure analyzed and charted by Angela Carter seems to me a promising approach to her extraordinary prose. This is what this thesis aims at – my major concern in the following paper is with Angela Carter’s ‘discourse of delight’, a kind of writing focused on pleasure-giving. I seek to reaffirm her interest in the gratifying power of literature and to argue that the notion of ‘pleasure’ is both the key to accounting for the heterogeneity of her output, as well as the common denominator of all her diverse fascinations.

Considered a marginal writer and a part of the counterculture of the sixties and seventies – an attitude which started to change not until the eighties – Carter now belongs in the literary canon. Indeed, the amount and breadth of academic critique of her writing is altogether impressive. Analyzed within the context of women’s studies, post-modern or post-structural writing, psychoanalytical schools, camp esthetics and reminiscences of hippie culture, the fifteen books which Carter published (novels, collections of short stories, essays, journalism and screenplays) are usually read as specimens of cultural subversion.

For many critics Carter is first of all formidably well-read in literary theory and skilful at imitating specific discourses. Thus, she is considered to be a parody and a pastiche writer for whom theoretical premises reflect stereotypes in modern thinking. Keen on removing the camouflage from these epistemological traps, she is referred to as a great de-mythologizer and de-mystifier who strives for a re-negotiation of femininity and of sexual myths. Another influential tendency is to discuss Carter’s work as fire play, with literary traditions and an erudite exercise in intertextuality whose alteration of prior texts demonstrates their hidden meanings, thus passing judgments on our culture.

Although important and textually well-grounded, the studies approaching Carter from such specific perspectives are usually limited to but some part of her writing and take the form of essays, reviews and conference papers. The exception here is that of the best and the most exhaustive assessments of her career written by Lorna Sage, who knew Carter personally. But these are biography-based rather than theory-based. In general, the dominant critical tendency is rather to divide Carter’s output than to attempt an all-inclusive presentation. What is more, in the last few years the ever-growing interest in Angela Carter within academia has led to the inclusion of her work in various courses – not only those having to do with literature, but in cultural studies as well. This has resulted in numerous papers covering less obvious aspects of this oeuvre and, consequently, in still further diversification of ‘Carterian studies’.

Though very much under the influence of current criticism on Carter, this particular work aims at offering neither insights into Carter’s life nor a revolutionary counter theory whose aim would be to disagree with critics who claim that Carter demythologizes our culture. Written outside Britain and from the point of view of a generation different than Carter’s, my paper raises questions about the pleasures informing Carter’s texts, this being an extremely important issue, and one that is unaccounted for in the criticism to date. The aim of my thesis is to demonstrate the thematic unity underlying all Carter’s writing. Hence, throughout my work I simultaneously proceed to address both her fiction and non-fiction, ever indicating their interdependence. I argue that Carter in many various ways persistently examines different theories of pleasure, thus entering into dialogue with numerous pleasure connoisseurs, theorists as well as writers. I seek to demonstrate both what her favorite theory is and how she plays with it.

In Chapter One I attempt to give the reader some indication of the current state of academic criticism on Carter’s work, at the same time demonstrating the critical tradition to which I myself am indebted. Here I establish my central premise that Carter’s oeuvre may be read as ‘discourse of delight’, which is both about pleasure and pleasure-giving, and which consists of reconstructing different pleasure discourses, alluding to them and making them enter the intertextual dialogue. I explain the chief sources of the Carterian ‘discourse of delight’ model by discussing a number of critical texts to which she alludes most often while formulating her broad definition of pleasure. These texts are: Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” (1889), Sigmund Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), the critical output of André Breton and Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” (1964). Their examination charts the intellectual horizon within which ‘discourse of delight’ is inscribed.