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Bodies that bleed

Anna Pasolini

Duplicitous appetites: a new heteronormative model of incorporating consumption

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1Carter’s ‘new wine’ is still making old bottles explode as the fairy tales collected in The Bloody Chamber go on engendering reflections and new interpretations. Most notably, they also engage in a productive dialogue with the work of contemporary writers such as Tanith Lee, Margo Lanagan or Sara Maitland, who followed Carter’s path in exploiting fairy tales’ potential to represent, investigate and re-interpret female identity. That is why, rather than ‘drawing conclusions’, I would like to end this journey by expanding on Margaret Atwood’s perceptive observation that: «The Bloody Chamber is arranged according to categories of meat-eater» (2001: 138). This remark offers a new ‘angle’, an interesting point of view on the collection, which combines issues of genre – more precisely, an assessment of the female protagonists’ ability to give an account of their transformative identity journeys –, gender and the body in both its animal and monstrous connotations. More to the point, Atwood’s suggestion widens the scope of the study of the sexed body and gendered relationships in the fairy tales because it gives way to the possibility of interpreting them in the light of appetites. The choice of the plural «appetites» endeavours to convey the symbolic polysemy the concept might take on with reference to different levels of reading. To begin with, appetite and eating are revealed as «loc[i] of vigorously exercised power relations» (Sceats 1997: 102).

2Sceats makes an interesting distinction between hunger and appetite, according to which hunger is a physical drive coming exclusively from the inside whereas appetite, like sexuality, is a cultural construct that comes from inside as well as outside, being also subject to «external constraints and forces» (Ibidem). Such a distinction is even more meaningful since, whether it is sexual or alimentary, appetite does not necessarily privilege either the provider or the consumer (Ibidem). In other words, representing power distributions according to appetite promotes an alternative to institutionalised power, which «can be seen in the Foucauldian model of unstable power relations where dominant and subordinate positions are not fixed» (110).

3Analysing the stories following the categories of meat eaters and the relationships between them, then, enables one to examine power distribution in the tales, since – as should be clear by now – both male and female characters can be carnivores and herbivores, wielding or struggling to obtain power. Moreover, predatory performances enacted by men and women, monsters and beasts within The Bloody Chamber question the ways in which heterosexual relationships are negotiated. That is to say, after having exposed the dangers hidden in different patriarchal traditions, Carter proposes alternative models of identification and of approaching sexual relations which are based on new foundations, and which, most importantly, are always the outcome of a transformation of some sort.

4As to patriarchy, the predator-versus-prey-arrangement emphasises that patriarchal discourses work in a cannibalistic fashion, whereby the relationship with the other invariably entails devouring, violently incorporating it «to discipline, exclude, and repress it, and define it negatively, against himself» (Kerchy 2008: 47). It is true that «the object of desire has to be made digestible» (Braidotti 2002: 141), but digestion, that is processing and incorporating the body of the other, can result in assimilation rather than a voracious consummation which leads to its effacement.

5This is where the experiences of the female characters represented in The Bloody Chamber culminate: the strategies through which they struggle to be the narrators of their own stories, the negotiations through which they perform and rework their identity journeys and the metamorphic appropriation of their bodies are aimed at piecing together an alternative model of heteronormative – sexual – desire and relationships. Even though the examples set forth by Carter’s heroines are always specific, at times paradoxical, and never conclusive – for the kernel of their driving force is ongoing transformation – they tend towards the construction of an alternative model of heterosexual relationships based on reciprocity. The reciprocity already mentioned in terms of subject formation and identity development, indeed, finds even stronger grounds in the protagonists’ bodily performances analysed by means of the eating/predator metaphor.

6Once again the fictional enactment of what was theoretically speculated about in The Sadeian Woman, the bodies described in The Bloody Chamber open themselves up «to reciprocal otherness», that is they perform «negotiations between exciting, heterogeneous beings whose “alterities” (Grosz 1994: 192; Bordo 1993: 41) enrich each other through an exchange that instead of aggressively remodelling them, leaves and loves them-(selves) deformed as they are» (Kerchy 2008: 47).

7Conceiving of (and enacting) reciprocity and assimilating incorporation requires (self-) awareness on the part of the female subject about the political location of her body in discourse. This seems to be the pivotal starting point of the conclusive remarks of The Sadeian Woman, which scrutinise the construction of female flesh in phallogocentric power-knowledge formations. In the fairy tales, Carter plays with the double meaning of the word «consummation», which could stand for both eating and sexual encounters. This idea is enforced by Carter’s Exercise in Cultural History, where the definition of «meat» and that of «flesh» are contrasted in order to underline the difference between the two acts addressed by the concept of consummation. «Meat» becomes synonymous with the edibility of a body, which can be devoured in a cannibalistic fashion as it is dead, devoid of meaning, an empty surface of inscription on which any meanings can be imposed. As a consequence, the term refers to sexual relationships where the object of desire is the victim, i.e. subject to othering, constrictive power, whose desire is not taken into account and from whom pleasure is stolen. «Flesh», in turn, comes to signify the lively meat of the subject who has learned – or is learning – to act on her desire, who is subject of power and for whom sexual encounters imply exchange, and therefore reciprocity in giving and receiving pleasure. In Carter’s words: «In the English language, we make a fine distinction between flesh, which is usually alive and, typically, human; and meat, which is dead, inert, animal and intended for consumption» (Carter 1979b: 161).

8Interestingly, this provocative definition already forecasts the complexities taken on by Carter’s representation of the animal motif in the fairy tales. As a matter of fact, in the stories female animality is not simply synonymous with victimhood and dead meat ready for consummation, but it is rather an alternative source for empowerment which escapes patriarchal – human, and masculine – established and limited ranges of behaviours and performances. Inert meat, Carter seems to suggest, is not a natural fact, but a cultural construction; that is to say, what qualifies as meat is made such, and likewise flesh needs to be appropriated and signified in order to be considered the lively, desiring version of its slaughtered counterpart: «flesh becomes meat by a magical transition about which there is nothing natural» (166). When Carter contends: «But, if flesh plus skin equals sensuality, then flesh minus skin equals meat» (162), it could be claimed that the recurrent images of symbolic disrobing and the skin literally being peeled off of the body surface in the fairy tales address the necessity for women to give up established, oppressive meanings imposed on their bodies so as to be able to re-inscribe them with new, autonomously devised ones. In addition, sensuality is identified with a reciprocal notion of desire, where pleasure is exchanged through the flesh of both participants. This assumption is sustained by the following remarks, where Carter maintains that the reason why Sade’s novels describe sexual relations «in terms of butchery and meat» is that he «will disinfect of sensuality anything he can lay his hands on» (163).

9Powerfully linked to this first topic is the complex relationship between prey and predator, carnivore and herbivore – which do not necessarily stand respectively for man and woman – conceptualised in The Sadeian Woman and forcefully fictionalised in the fairy tales. The grounding assumption of both is that a simplistic parallel must not be drawn between woman-herbivore-victim, as the relations between predator and prey are in fact far more complex:

The relations between men and women are often distorted by the reluctance of both parties to acknowledge that the function of flesh is meat to the carnivore but not grass to the herbivore.
The ignorance of one party as to the intentions of the other makes the victim so defenceless against predation that it can seem as if a treacherous complicity finally unites them; as though, in some sense, the victim wills a victim’s fate. (Ibidem)

10Explicitly enough, and unsurprisingly, the source of – more or less willing – victimhood is lack of awareness of one’s own position and of the intentions of the other. In other words, women enforce their cultural construction as victims by uncritically accepting naturalised and naturalising positions offered by patriarchal discourses. This is exactly what the identification of woman with herbivore, therefore victim, therefore deemed to be devoured hides: her performances have been literally naturalised through their identification with the natural behaviour of animals. Human beings, however, no matter to what extent they are fictionally represented by resorting to monstrous or animal figurations, are ultimately different from animals, not because of their souls, but because of their ability to signify their meat as flesh: «Sexuality, stripped of the idea of free exchange, is not in any way humane; it is nothing but pure cruelty. Carnal knowledge is the infernal knowledge of the flesh as meat» (165).

11Carter once again addresses a discursive economy of desire in which one of the two parties acts as the predator who subjugates and devours the flesh of its victim as lack of reciprocity. Her criticism is here against Sade’s narratives as a contextualised example of phallocentric discourse:

The act of predation […] is the assertion of the abyss between master and victim. There is no question of reciprocal sensation; […] to share is to be stolen from […] when a woman pilfers her sexual pleasure from a man, she patently reduces his own and to witness her pleasure can do nothing more for him than to flatter his vanity. (166-167)

12The Sadeian protagonists, and the patriarchal tradition they stand for, are incapable of experiencing reciprocity and of conceiving of sexual relations as mutually enriching, and are therefore prevented from changing, because for them «desire is a function of the act rather than the act a function of desire», through which «desire loses its troubling otherness; it ceases to be a movement outwards from the self» (171). These controversial acknowledgements are fictionally underscored in The Bloody Chamber through the “Beauty and the Beast” stories. The female protagonists of both tales, indeed, overtly speculate about their relations with the Beasts in terms of standard animal images of predators and victims. Interestingly, in both cases the issue at stake is otherness and the apparently natural impossibility of reconciliation and conceivable coexistence between carnivores and herbivores.

13In the first story the topic is approached through the biblical image of the lion and the lamb, where Beauty unmistakably identifies with the prey, not only on account of the proverbial victimhood embodied by woman, but also for the compliance with which she is willingly sacrificing herself to obey her father and save his fortune:

How strange he was. She found his bewildering difference from herself almost intolerable; its presence choked her. There seemed to be a heavy, soundless pressure upon her in his house, as if it lay under water, and when she saw the great paws lying on the arm of his chair, she thought: they are the death of any tender herbivore. And such a one she felt herself to be, Miss Lamb, spotless, sacrificial. (Carter 1979a: 45)

14Apparently similar but radically different is the experience of her twin character in “The Tiger’s Bride”. As happened with reference to many other motifs, the intertextual references between the two stories mark a progression. In the second one, indeed, in spite of Beauty letting herself go to similar considerations about predators and preys and the difficulty of their coexistence, she acts on them and decides to change the naturalised arrangements. In this case, the girl suffers, too, when facing the outstanding difference of the Beast, which causes in her a physical, but paradoxically welcomed, pain:

The Tiger will never lie down with the lamb; he acknowledges no pact that is not reciprocal. The lamb must learn to run with the tigers. A great, feline, tawny shape whose pelt was barred with a savage geometry of bars the colour of burned wood. His domed, heavy head, so terrible he must hide it. How subtle the muscles, how profound the tread. The annihilating vehemence of his eyes, like twin suns.
I felt my breast ripped apart as if I suffered a marvellous wound. (64)

15As the first lines emphasise, it is the lamb, not the tiger, which can change the situation; that is, the herbivore can and must learn how to approach the predator not in order to fight or defeat it, but so as to «learn» how to play its game, how to be able to run free, to turn a body which has been signified as meat into flesh. This Beauty succeeds in the tasks: she gives up her old skin – i.e. what qualified her body as meat – and decides to wear the fur that the Tiger has exposed on the surface of her body as flesh. In this way, the woman is no longer a victim, she has overcome the «earliest and most archaic of fears, fear of devourment» (67), that is to say, she is no longer afraid of being consumed in a cannibalistic fashion, for she has made a pact of reciprocity by incorporating the animal other in her body. Therefore, it is as flesh and not as meat, that she slowly approaches and offers herself to the Beast, shaking not out of fear but perhaps because of desire, as now she understands that she is offering with her body, with «myself, the key to a peaceable kingdom in which his appetite need not be my extinction» (Ibidem). The Tiger’s bride has decided to change her skin and to embrace animality – i.e. the «troubling otherness» of the Beast – in order to change the meaning and reach of her sexual desire, so that the «act becomes a function of desire» and she is able to move outwards from her self, to reach for the other and thereby to experience empowered and empowering reciprocity.

16In sum, the reflections of these characters about the relationship between carnivore and herbivore, predator and prey, serve to emphasise that, metaphors aside, victimhood and predatoriness can and must be renegotiated within human – sexual – relationships, so that reciprocity and the circulation of pleasure can grant to both participants the enactment of desire through the body as flesh. In this way, the body of the other is digested and assimilated, and not utterly consumed and obliterated.

17The stories about “Beauty and the Beast” explicitly challenge cannibalistic consumption offered as the most viable model of heterosexual relationships by patriarchal traditions. Throughout the collection, nevertheless, other, more covert but equally powerful instances are aimed at overthrowing, and above all at providing alternatives to bodily consummation. Significantly enough, Carter’s challenge functions as usual as a process of unmasking, disclosing what lies at the heart of discourses disguised as natural, matter-of-fact truths and counters what it criticises through transformation.

18In this sense, the transformative power of metamorphosis progresses within the collection, increasing from story to story with different intensities, but always at work. The opening tale, “The Bloody Chamber”, presents the reader with a human but no less beastly predator, the Marquis, whose appetite is described several times as devouring, annihilating for his prey, the young wife. The interplay between hunger and sexual consummation is omnipresent, so that in every instance where the Marquis’ appetite is mentioned, it refers to the desire of the beastly predator, which devours and annihilates his victim.

He stripped me, gourmand that he was, as if he were stripping the leaves off an artichoke – but do not imagine much finesse about it; this artichoke was no particular treat for the diner nor was he yet in any greedy haste. He approached his familiar treat with a weary appetite. (Carter 1979a: 15)
When he saw my reluctance, his eyes veiled over and yet his appetite did not diminish. His tongue ran over red lips already wet. (34)

“Don’t loiter, girl! Do you think I shall lose appetite for the meal if you are so long about serving it? No; I shall grow hungrier, more ravenous with each moment, more cruel ... Run to me, run! I have a place prepared for your exquisite corpse in my display of flesh!” (39)

19In “The Erl-King” the duplicitous meanings assigned to violent, cannibalistic consummation are even more complex. The male, predatory monster is an evil spirit of the woods always on the alert and ready to «gobble up» the female prey, to do her «grievous harm» (85). However, his dangerous nature is just the result of the projection of the female narrator’s fears, due to what she has been taught about the dangers of acting on sexual desire. In the end the woman proves to be, in fact, the predator, and kills the Erl-King because she has enjoyed their sexual encounters but does not know how to set her desire free and to turn consummation into reciprocity. Therefore, the mutually exclusive association between man-predator and woman-victim is blurred and exceeded, as both characters prove to embody either role. As the story seems to suggest, under these circumstances the sexual relationship is annihilating for both male and female.

20Similarly, in “The Snow Child” the lack of reciprocity stemming from the conception of a woman entirely out of a man’s desire proves to be perverse (as the motifs of incest and necrophilia insinuate) and to prevent the peaceful absorption of the other, who is destined to die, to utterly be consumed by the desire of the predator – the Snow Child, indeed, in the end melts back into the elements which originated her body. Moreover, like in “The Erl-King”, both male and female characters prove to be able to act the role of the predator, even if the addition of a third side of the triangle increases the complexity of the picture. The arrangements of the power relationships in the story could be read as follows: the part of the primary predator is played by the Count, who is able to impart his will both on his wife and on the child of his desire. The Countess, in turn, despite being victimised by the husband is allowed, with his consent, to act as a predator against the girl who, lastly, is totally speechless and powerless.

21Other three tales seem to counterbalance this impossibility of amending the allocation of victimhood and of circulating power within the relationships between the sexes in order to enable the accomplishment a different kind of consummation. “The Werewolf” is all about feminine predatoriness; the werewolfish Grandmother, indeed, is violently killed by her niece, which grants the latter’s survival and prosperity. As has already been remarked, the tale underlines the need for a renewal of values and discourses in order for new models of femininity to take roots.

22Utter displacement is brought about by the last two tales taken into consideration: “The Lady of the House of Love” and “The Company of Wolves”. The first story features a female carnivore, monstrous femininity in the flesh, who is a predator – albeit reluctant – for her own vampiric nature. Consummation is mentioned twice in the text, always referring to cannibalistic, devouring consumption, which, as has been argued in the previous section, acquires different meanings from that of the predatory male animal-monster:

However hard she tries to think of any other, she only knows of one kind of consummation. (Carter 1979a: 103)

[…] she knows no other consummation than the only one she can offer him. She has not eaten for three days. It is dinner-time. It is bedtime. (105)

23Nevertheless, the vampire struggles to conceive of an alternative consummation, which ends up consuming her soulless life. In this way, even if no metamorphosis is actually enacted – as both characters end up dying – its feasibility is nonetheless implied. As a result of the protagonists’ unforeseeable destinies, the roles of prey and predator are not only obviously reversed, but also questioned and redistributed. On the one hand the cyclist does not embody the predator, since he is supposed to be the powerless victim of a voracious female-vampire, but neither is he a victim, because in the end he is not bitten to death by the monster – and, ironically, he does not even realise the danger he has faced. On the other hand, the Lady is supposed to be the carnivore ready to devour its prey; instead, she sees his meat as flesh and endeavours to devise a different kind of consumption that allows her to fulfil her desire of his body in a non-cannibalistic way. The paradoxical inversion and intermingling of the roles of the victim and the predator and of the polysemy of consummation is further emphasised by the silent monologue of the Countess. In her unheard plea, she reassures and exhorts the cyclist like a groom would do with his bride on their first night together: «the bridegroom bleeds in my inverted marriage bed» (105). Throughout the passage, the boundaries between consummation understood as sexual encounter and as vampiric feast are often blurred, as if to hint at the dreadful commonalities raising from the confusion between the two meanings:

Vous serez ma proie.
You have such a fine throat, m’sieu, like a column of marble. When you came through the door retaining about you all the golden light of the summer’s day of which I know nothing, the card called ‘Les Amoureux’ had just emerged from the tumbling chaos of imagery before me; it seemed to me you had stepped off the card into my darkness and, for a moment, I thought, perhaps, you might irradiate it.
I do not mean to hurt you. I shall wait for you in my bride’s dress in the dark.
The bridegroom is come, he will go into the chamber which has been prepared for him.
I am condemned to solitude and dark; I do not mean to hurt you.
I will be very gentle. […]
See, how I’m ready for you. I’ve always been ready for you; I’ve been waiting for you in my wedding dress, why have you delayed for so long ... it will all be over very quickly.
You will feel no pain, my darling. (103)

24In general, rather than staged and enacted, the necessity of transformation is suggested by showing how immobility and inescapable eternal repetition – of the body of the vampire and of the stubborn rationality of the young man – prevent reciprocal assimilation and lead to death. After turning into a human being, the vampire is doomed to die because her performance, eternally staged as a «predator-prey ritual» does not include an alternative script (see Atwood 2001: 144). Most notably, however, the fact that the boy dies as well could signify that this cannibalistic, oppositional script should be left behind altogether, as it led to the annihilation of both actors in the struggle to devour and to be spared.

25“The Company of Wolves”, which perhaps best illustrates the actual transformation of patriarchal carnivorous appetites, begins in a rather traditional fashion, with a carnivore werewolf undoubtedly playing the role of the aggressive predator. Significantly, the very first lines state: «the wolf is carnivore incarnate and he’s as cunning as he is ferocious; once he’s had a taste of flesh than nothing else will do» (Carter 1979a: 110), and the refrain «the wolf is carnivore incarnate» is then repeated as an ominous, but ultimately paradoxical reminder later in the story (116). The use of the term «flesh» with reference to eating instead of meat could be a deliberate strategy on Carter’s part, to signify both implied meanings of consummation (as the following part of the story discloses). The nocturnal howling of wolves in the god-forsaken land where the tale is set is described as a melancholic lament, as if the wolves were «mourning for their own, irremediable appetites» for which there is «no redemption» (112). Even though «grace could not come to the wolf from its own despair, only through some external mediator, so that, sometimes, the beast will look as if he half welcomes the knife that dispatches him», the narrative proves the contrary. The apparently irremediable cannibalistic appetite of the male werewolf-hunter protagonist is in fact tamed by the «strong minded» (113) Red Riding Hood, and turned into assimilating, reciprocal consumption. The most remarkable clues suggesting the oncoming metamorphosis if the wolf’s appetite are preceded by textual evidence pointing to the duplicity of consumption. In the first place, the girl’s shawl is «red as the blood she must spill», which could seem to refer to the bloodshed following the wolf’s feasting on her body, but that actually designates her defloration. Secondly, when Riding Hood takes off her clothes, it is not meat that they reveal, but flesh: «now she was clothed only in her untouched integument of flesh» (118). Finally, and more explicitly, when the wolf answers the ritual exclamation «What big teeth you have» with «All the better to eat you with», «the girl burst out laughing» because «she knew she was nobody’s meat» (Ibidem). And her subsequent actions, that is ripping off the wolf’s shirt in a surge of desire, enact the metamorphosis of the wolf, which does not turn into a human being, but realises that there exist alternative forms of consummation. His carnivorous nature is now presented under a different light: no longer devouring, but being appeased by the girl’s flesh. Although the wolf is still described as a «carnivore incarnate» whose appetite is only satisfied by «immaculate flesh» (Ibidem) this does not prevent reciprocity. Once more, it is the girl who teaches him how to accept and incorporate the other through mutual exchange by performing an animal ritual which would be disgusting for a human being, thus proving that she – the lamb – is assimilating his wolfish nature, too: «she will lay his fearful head on her lap and she will pick out the lice from his pelt and perhaps she will put lice in her mouth and eat them, as he will bid her, as she would do in a savage marriage ceremony» (Ibidem).


26Overall, it can be claimed that metamorphosis is the kernel of the heteronormative models of relationship offered by Carter and cast in opposition to those established by different patriarchal traditions. In contrast with phallocentric normative discursive constructions, metamorphosis is an unruly principle, whose reach is variable and depends on the extent of the transgression brought about by different kinds of transformation. As this analysis has tried to show, the transformations encoded with language and enacted and performed through the body are at the same time the source and the outcome of a process of bodily re-inscription and re-signification which, in turn, expose and engender the changes taking place at the level of identity. Re-negotiating power arrangements through bodily performances is a subversive strategy deployed by Carter to counter patriarchal traditions which project, confine, and expel what is deemed to be different, other, on account of the difficulty (and therefore also the importance) of rationally explaining and controlling it. Embodying the displacing and disturbing attributes of change, the female body has thus been restrained and contained on account of the excessive abjection of its mobile borders through its over-identification with the dangers of unbridled sexual desire.

27Carter’s fairy tales offer alternative, empowering and liberating examples for women exactly because they advocate for the necessity and illustrate the possibility of performing metamorphosis as a celebration of the displacement, the mutability and permeability of female bodies. Thus otherness, difference and excess take on positive connotations, so that the over-identification of woman with her body can be exploited to extract and wield the power generated by the driving force of ongoing change. In a powerful reflective inversion, what sustained subordination can disruptively be turned into a source of power: «The metamorphic power of monstrous others serves the function of illuminating the thresholds of “otherness” while displacing their boundaries» (Braidotti 2002: 202).


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