For my latest interview, I sit down with Scott A. Dimovitz to discuss his recent book Angela Carter: Surrealist, Psychologist, Moral Pornographer, a book that draws on the Angela Carter archive held at the British Library. The conversation takes in a variety of topics, including Carter’s reputation in North America, the relationship between her private life and her public writings, and her relation to modernism and postmodernism.
Caleb Sivyer: Could you begin by telling me a little about yourself and your background, as well as how you first came to read Angela Carter?
Scott Dimovitz: I grew up the son of a textile factory worker in a working-class town in the States called Allentown, Pennsylvania. D.H. Lawrence modelled Sons and Lovers on my childhood, and we’re still in copyright litigation. My father was temperamentally more than a bit like The Magic Toyshop’s Uncle Philip, and my mother instilled in me an obsessively deep love of reading. My tendency was toward the Gothic as a kid — Poe, King, Stoker, that kind of thing — so I was prepared for Carter when I got to her.
“My father was temperamentally more than a bit like The Magic Toyshop’s Uncle Philip.”
I went to a state school for college, where I double majored in psychology and English literature, with a minor in philosophy. Our psychology department was largely empirically based, whereas my interest was in people like Freud, Kristeva, and Lacan. Our literature program was strong in 20th-century literature, but it was still fairly traditional—Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, and the occasional Malcolm Lowry. It was when I got to graduate school at New York University that I first read The Passion of New Eve, and my response was like my students’ response when they first encounter her works: “I didn’t know that you were allowed to write like this!” It was a revelation. I was planning on focusing on postmodern literature for my dissertation, and Carter just moved to the front. I went right down the rabbit hole, reading everything she had published—not only the novels, stories, and Shaking a Leg, which had just been published, but also obscure essays, like “Borges the Taxonomist” and “The Language of Sisterhood,” which took much longer to track down. Everything I read was a sort of homecoming, and I just could not get enough.
“I first read The Passion of New Eve, and my response was like my students’ response when they first encounter her works: “I didn’t know that you were allowed to write like this!” It was a revelation.”
CS: What is Angela Carter’s reputation in North America? Is she read by either an academic or general audience?
SD: Well, to be honest, she has almost no reputation at all, although I am trying to help change that. When I first read New Eve in that graduate class, it was in a photocopy packet, because the novel was completely out of print here. Americans never took to her. I think it is probably a function of our Puritanical heritage. American second wave feminists always had a hard time engaging in her works. We are the land of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, after all (we’re also the land of playboys like Hugh Hefner and Donald Trump, but what’s America without a bunch of contradictions?). Dworkin and Carter loathed one another, and Carter’s letters have some satirically brutal comments about Dworkin. Carter’s sensibility was far more decadent and Continental. Three of her big Bs of influence were Baudelaire, Breton, and Bataille, who, when added to all the other European surrealist writers and visual artists, had little to do with some of the more provincial attitudes of American feminists of the time. The Bloody Chamber is her best-known work here, which I think speaks more to the interests she helped to spawn in retelling fairy tales (which has become a bit of a cliché nowadays), than to any appreciation of some densely graphic symbolism out of “Wolf-Alice.”
“When I first read New Eve in that graduate class, it was in a photocopy packet, because the novel was completely out of print here. Americans never took to her. I think it is probably a function of our Puritanical heritage.”
CS: How did you come to write a book-length study of Carter?
SD: Carter was a large part of my dissertation, which was about a trend in contemporary literature that I called “contrapostmodernism,” but I knew that I was only beginning a much more complex project. I was already well underway in mapping out the themes and symbol systems across her works when the British Library finished cataloguing her collected papers back in 2009, and I leaped at the opportunity to jump the Pond to read that amazing collection. I spent a total of 10 weeks, eight hours-a-day, pouring over every journal, diary, letter, photograph, uncollected and unfinished story, essay, and poem (and many early drafts). It was an astonishing experience, and in the end, I took over 60,000 words of notes, some of which made it into my final book, although I probably have enough material to write a few more.
“I spent a total of 10 weeks, eight hours-a-day, pouring over every journal, diary, letter, photograph, uncollected and unfinished story, essay, and poem (and many early drafts). It was an astonishing experience.”
CS: What is the significance of the title? Why did you choose to focus on surrealism, psychology and pornography in Carter’s work? Is there a relationship between these three themes or are they considered separately in the book?
SD: The title, Angela Carter: Surrealist, Psychologist, Moral Pornographer, is an homage to Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, which had a profound effect on me as a budding autodidactic intellectual in rural Pennsylvania when I was an undergrad. Kaufmann’s book was a seminal re-evaluation of Nietzsche’s works, wrestling him back from the charges of irrationalism and antisemitism he was constantly under because he became one of the favourite go-to philosophers of the Third Reich. Kaufmann helped me to read Nietzsche by reading across the entirety of his works, placing each one in context both of Nietzsche’s biography and in the historical moment in which they were written, and tracing the development of key ideas across his life. It was one of those intensely exciting moments of my intellectual life, and I saw scholarship as something that can truly help people to understand a difficult work or thinker by helping them to see connections that a more limited engagement with the work would not allow. I was in many ways writing to that young me, hoping to help people see things they might not have seen otherwise.
The title itself starts from an essay Carter wrote in 1977, “The Alchemy of the Word,” where she describes surrealism as an attempted “synthesis of Freud and Hegel.” Her engagement with these traditions is a constant concern in almost all her fictions and in her journals, which obsessively catalogue hundreds of quotes from primary and secondary works of surrealists and psychoanalysts. “Moral pornographer” comes from her study of the works of the Marquis de Sade, The Sadeian Woman, where she proposes the possibility of an author using pornography to analyse and catalogue the true power dynamics behind our sexual and socially-gendered lives in the hopes of leading both men and women somewhere better—something “demythologized,” as she called it. Ultimately, she argued that Sade failed to become a moral pornographer, partly from his lack of courage to take his works far enough, if you can believe it. A large portion of my book demonstrates how her works rewrite Sade (and the surrealists who loved him) and try to achieve what he had failed to accomplish, even though I don’t think that what she was doing was really—or at least legally—pornography.
CS: It seems an interesting coincidence that your book has been published in the same year as another study of Carter and surrealism, namely Anna Watz’s Angela Carter and Surealism: A Feminist Libertarian Aesthetic. Have you had a chance to read her book and are there any strong similarities or differences between your two studies?
Oh, yes, I’ve read her book, and it is wonderful. Both books were in press at the same time, so neither of us had a chance to read the other beforehand. I’d say, broadly, that some of the main differences are that I spend more time on Carter’s biography, the influence of psychoanalysis, and more of the early works, including the poetry; Anna goes into far more contextual information and a wider cast of surrealist artists—all of which is also very valuable (and quite well written, I might add). So, obviously, I think everyone should read them together, of course!
CS: Along with your own book, a number of other recent studies of Carter, such as Watz’s Angela Carter and Surrealism and Heidi Yeandle’s Angela Carter and Western Philosophy, have drawn extensively on the Angela Carter Papers held at the British Library. Could you talk a little about the significance of this archive, both generally and for your own work?
“I have always been interested in the private lives of those who create. For a long while, I was contemplating studying for a Ph.D. in psychology, focusing on the psychology of creativity.”
SD: Well, as someone who wasn’t completely brainwashed by the New Critics and Roland Barthes, who all thought that any reference to the author’s “intent” was anathema, I find the lives of authors to be infinitely fascinating. Perhaps it is my background in psychology and my own attempts at creative work, but I have always been interested in the private lives of those who create. For a long while, I was contemplating studying for a Ph.D. in psychology, focusing on the psychology of creativity. When I went to NYU to focus on English, instead, I was initially planning on taking their then new literary biography track, since they had some biographers who influenced me greatly, like Kenneth Silverman and Frederick Karl, who wrote a wonderful biography of Faulkner. I started to pull away from literary biography as a focus the deeper I got into postmodern and psychoanalytic literature and theory, but I always think about the relationship of the author to the works they write. Honestly, I think most people do; I don’t know one Carter scholar who has not read Lorna Sage’s introductory book or wasn’t excited to read Gordon’s biography as soon as it came out. Carter herself would never ignore such biographical information (her essays on Baudelaire and Lawrence are hilariously honest about their private lives’ influence on their works).
So, the archive for me was a treasure. I don’t think it is a guarantor of all meaning, since I am not that reductive. I do think that seeing how her intellectual development — her meditations on her reading, for example, and her working out of plot details and what she called “image clusters” for novels while she was concurrently reading other thinkers — offers wonderful new strategies for understanding the complexities of her writing.
CS: On a side-note, have you read Gordon’s biography? If so, what are your impressions and do you think it will change our understanding and appreciation of Carter?
SD: Yes, I have, and it will definitely change our understanding of Carter, for good and ill. Gordon did some impressive legwork in tracking down those who wanted to be tracked down, like Sozo Araki, Carter’s first lover in Japan who was so important to that part of her life. I’m not sure he needed to recreate her trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway! One of the reasons I dropped the biography program at NYU, no doubt. Of course, as he points out in the epilogue, his is only one of the Carters we’ll encounter.
CS: You draw on both Carter’s private life and public writing, and you refer to these as forming a “tight interrelation.” Could you talk a little about how you came to write about these two aspects of her life and how you position yourself as a critic?
SD: Yes, this is one of the most interesting parts of the collected papers. The fifteen journals alone give a sense of who she was (or at least who she was trying to be), from her early sufferings of depression in her first marriage to the working out of complex notions of sexuality, especially around her time in Japan. In the journals, for example, you’ll read long meditations on her relationship with her lover, Sozo, while she’s also quoting from Jean-Paul Sartre’s chapter on masochism from Being and Nothingness; suddenly, she starts to apply the existentialist vocabulary directly to her understanding of what she was experiencing in her personal life. The meditations then begin to blur together, and then you read an entire long passage about her relationship that she directly ports over into “Flesh and the Mirror,” one of the short stories from Fireworks. Gordon’s biography often overlooks these moments in the journals, which I think is a shame. I personally think that they are very illuminating, if not the final key, to seeing how her thinking about sexual politics evolved over time.
“In the journals, for example, you’ll read long meditations on her relationship with her lover, Sozo, while she’s also quoting from Jean-Paul Sartre’s chapter on masochism from Being and Nothingness; suddenly, she starts to apply the existentialist vocabulary directly to her understanding of what she was experiencing in her personal life.”
CS: Which texts by Carter did you choose to write about and why?
SD: I tried to think about the entire output of her writing across her career. I organised the chapters not so much in terms of linear treatment of one text after another, but rather more in terms of key themes and images that build one after the other across the analysis. You can’t fully understand the later chapters unless you go through the logic of the earlier analyses. My goal was to do a reading of one matrix of interconnected ideas in her thinking as it manifested in her works, and I unpack how she wrestled across her career with both surrealism, which she saw as a marvellous aesthetic approach, except for the way its male practitioners treated women, and psychoanalysis, which she saw as a brilliant interpretive model, but one that ended up reinforcing the very patriarchy she was hoping to problematize. Personally, I don’t think she ever fully resolved it for herself, but that is part of my larger argument.
“My goal was to do a reading of one matrix of interconnected ideas in her thinking as it manifested in her works.”
CS: A large part of your book considers three particular novels as forming a kind of loose trilogy: The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, The Passion of New Eve and Nights at the Circus. How did you come to see these novels as related and what is the advantage of grouping them together?
SD: While they are clearly linked in a style very different from the works that preceded and followed them, I started thinking of them as a related unit while reading the journals. In 1972, after finishing Hoffman, Carter mapped out the next two big works, which she said would eventually be published under the heading, The Manifesto for Year One; these became The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, The Passion of New Eve (which was originally The Great Hermaphrodite), and Nights at the Circus. They were developed for many years as a trilogy in her thinking. I see them as exploring similar themes and images that she derived from the surrealists and partly from psychoanalytic theory.
CS: In your introduction, you refer to Carter’s works as “some of the most complex and formally structured literature after modernism”. How do you see Carter’s relationship to both modernism and to postmodernism?
“I believe that her works are more appropriately seen in the high modernist tradition of someone like James Joyce, who had these amazingly complicated, architectonic schemata that underlie the structure of his apparently chaotic novels.”
SD: That’s a complicated question, and much of my introduction tries to parse what that means. The short answer is that I believe that her works are more appropriately seen in the high modernist tradition of someone like James Joyce, who had these amazingly complicated, architectonic schemata that underlie the structure of his apparently chaotic novels. Joyce even supposedly explained the structural strategies underpinning Finnegans Wake to the author James Stephens in the hopes that Stephens would take it over, like working out the details of a complex mathematical formula. Carter came at a similarly structured technique through the modernists and also through her work on medieval literature. In interview after interview (and I can’t stress this enough), she tells people that she is an allegorist in the medieval sense, and she wants to be read with a structured, allegorical approach. For a lot of complex reasons, few critics seem to have taken her seriously. Of course, you don’t have to read her that way. But I thought I’d take her seriously and see what those allegories might look like if we read the works the way she said she constructed them to be read.
There are certainly postmodern techniques and themes in her works, as well, but I think Lorna Sage was right at the beginning when she said that trying to cram Carter into the more extreme forms of postmodern epistemic nihilism or mere textual “play” was a dead end. Carter was always trying to get somewhere new, and in that sense, I don’t think she ever gave up her attachment to an existentialist desire for an emancipatory politics that she inherited from Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.
“In interview after interview […] she tells people that she is an allegorist in the medieval sense, and she wants to be read with a structured, allegorical approach.”
CS: Could you also talk here about your particular approach to Carter, in which you see her texts as complex, psychoanalytically informed allegories – how did this reading come about?
SD: Well, the evidence is certainly all over the journals. But you can also see the psychoanalytic influence all over the text if you have a background in that discourse, such as when Evelyn sees written across Leilah’s apartment building Heraclitus’s “Introite et hic dii sunt” (“Enter, for here too are gods”), which Freud quoted in a letter to Fleiss, his early partner, referring to his work on hysteria. New Eve is a kind of reverse psychoanalysis, taking the decadent patriarch back in time to see how he got to be that way. This reading grew out of contemplating the end of New Eve, where Eve claims that “We start from our conclusions” before sailing off on an “amniotic sea.” I started to think about how the beginning of the novel was actually the endpoint of development—of the individual and of the culture—while the novel allegorically was a reversal of how a patriarch came to be that way. I published a few essays informed by this reading, but it wasn’t for many years that I saw the line in her journals where she declared that New Eve was a “re-telling of the Oedipus legend.” This makes no sense in the manifest plot structure, but if you reverse the plot elements — as she recommended we do to see what is really going on in her essay on Poe — the allegory becomes much clearer.
The phrase “Year One” was a recurring motif for her at this time, and it also shows up literally and symbolically in each of these texts, always as a kind of clearing of the psyche down to a preoedipal level — the “year one” of us all. In her essays, “Year One” also alludes to the Year One of a socialist revolution. In each of these texts, I argue, there is a parodic allegorical recreation of the psychoanalytic stage theories of Freud, Melanie Klein, and Jacques Lacan — sometimes forward, sometimes in reverse — that she felt needed to be deconstructed before real cultural transformation could occur.
CS: On a related note, how do you see Carter’s relationship to politics? Christopher Frayling has suggested that her socialism, which she could be very solemn about on occasion, has been downplayed. Do you agree?
SD: Oh, absolutely! To me, her socialism is fundamental to understanding her works, and it is one of the major influences that keeps her from the more extreme forms of postmodernism. In one of her letters to Lorna Sage around the publication of The Passion of New Eve, she says that the one thing that kept her going was that the “red dawn will indeed break over Clapham.” As I discuss at length in my book, I think that this was the ultimate point of her three great novels that made up The Manifesto for Year One. The main goal of those books was to analyse the current state of sexual politics so completely that the “year one” of the socialist revolution could come into being. In that way, Angela Carter was always about 20 years ahead of many of her peers.
“To me, her socialism is fundamental to understanding her works, and it is one of the major influences that keeps her from the more extreme forms of postmodernism.”
CS: Throughout the book, you note the influence of many intellectuals for Carter’s writing, including Freud, Jung, Klein, Barthes, and Foucault amongst others. Do you see Carter as a uniquely intellectual writer within British post-war fiction?
SD: Well, there are plenty of brilliant writers in British post-war fiction. I am particularly impressed by David Mitchell, whom I am writing about quite a bit now. But there are rarely writers on either side of the pond who have been so unabashedly intellectual—who wear their influences and sources quite openly and who constantly want to engage in writing as an act of overt exploration of philosophical and sociopolitical ideas. Her journals also catalogue the breadth of her reading, and she clearly tried to develop a coherent worldview through the exploration of psychology, philosophy, history, and cultural anthropology, among other things. She says in one essay that for her, a narrative is “an argument stated in fictional terms,” and she brings everything to the argument.
CS: Is there a danger of over-systematising and intellectualising Carter as a writer? When I interviewed Edmund Gordon, I got the impression from him that he felt this was a real danger, and that Carter did herself no favours by making statements such as the one you just quoted.
SD: “No favours”? I’d say, “For whom?” That kind of claim speaks more to a certain kind of anti-intellectual bias in contemporary literature and publishing than it does to Carter’s writings. Carter’s journals make it clear that she was trying from a very early age to be a serious (and seriously systematic) intellectual. Personally, I’m more curious about what authors thought they were doing than what I thought they should be doing. But perhaps that’s why I am a scholar and not a critic.
“Carter’s journals make it clear that she was trying from a very early age to be a serious (and seriously systematic) intellectual.”
I’m sure you heard all the grumblings at the Carter conference in Bristol about that page in the biography that randomly belittles academics and their essay titles, like a bit of peevish umbrage from the yearly coverage of the MLA by the conservative press. For some reason, the bio trashed, among other things, Jean Wyatt’s excellent essay, which is mislabeled as, “The Violence of Gendering: Castration Images in Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop.” Why exactly is Wyatt’s title mockable? If that is ridiculous, I have to wonder if we are reading the same Angela Carter. After all, New Eve has a character named Mother who declares, “I am the Castratrix of the Phallocentric universe,” before cutting off the protagonist’s penis with an obsidian knife and forcing a gender reassignment on him. That’s some violent gendering!
Carter knew what she was doing, and she was deeply engaged in many, many different intellectual traditions. The big mistake, in my view, is to read her either as a unintellectual storyteller or as a mildly mischievous postmodern trickster — an English Donald Barthelme who is just taking a pastiche-y piss. These are two more characterisations that are just as bad as the mother goddess misreading of her works that Gordon rightly deflates.
“The big mistake, in my view, is to read her either as a unintellectual storyteller or as a mildly mischievous postmodern trickster.”
CS: What would Carter have made of today’s political landscape?
SD: It’s always dicey to speak for a dead person, but I think she would have been absolutely mortified. We know that she despised Margaret Thatcher, rather publicly in her writings and in interviews, and she certainly had no love for Ronald Reagan, either. How quaint they seem in retrospect! When she was teaching in the States in 1980, she wrote in a letter to her husband, Mark, that she was depressed that we had elected Reagan, whom she already thought was senile during his first year in office (about six years before most everyone else figured it out). During that decade, she proudly declared in a television interview that she was “absolutely” a socialist. That kind of unapologetic socialism is such a major difference, historically and culturally, between the English and the American artists and intellectuals. The fact that an avowed socialist like Bernie Sanders got as far as he did is astonishing in American politics — even if he is more of an old guard liberal than a socialist.
“When she was teaching in the States in 1980, she wrote in a letter to her husband, Mark, that she was depressed that we had elected Reagan, whom she already thought was senile during his first year in office.”
We’ve seen the nationalist authoritarian turn going on throughout Europe and the States before, and it hasn’t gone well yet. The use of Orwellian “alternative facts” in the face of seemingly objective reality was exactly the kind of dime-store perspectivalism that Carter distrusted in the extremer forms of postmodern epistemological relativism, which she thought hampered women’s emancipation (and men’s, too, for that matter).
CS: Which is your favourite Carter text and why?
“I suppose New Eve still holds a major place in my heart, since that was the first one that introduced me to the wonders of Carter’s work.”
SD: Carter’s favourites of her own works at various times in her life were The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman and The Passion of New Eve, and I’d have to agree that those were two of her great texts. I suppose New Eve still holds a major place in my heart, since that was the first one that introduced me to the wonders of Carter’s work, although I have come to think of the three novels of the Manifesto for Year One as a unit. I can go back to them over and over without remotely exhausting their richness. I personally think that these three works are far more impressive achievements than The Bloody Chamber, which tends to get much of the critical attention (partly, I think, because it is much easier to assimilate a riff on Puss in Boots than to figure out what the point of Desire Machines’ centaur gang rape might be).
CS: What are you currently working on? Do you have any plans for more work on Carter?
“As Joyce once said, “The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.” I’m afraid that Carter might have demanded just such a devotion.”
SD: I’m working on a book about postmodern apocalyptic literatures, and there is indeed more on Carter in there. It is a theoretical analysis of the problems of literary representation across many authors rather than a study of a single author like my Carter book. I am not sure if or when I would ever do a single-author monograph again. Academic publishing is becoming increasingly constrained by market pressures, and the difficulty in marketing an extended reading of one author is making such studies rarer. That is a real shame, since you simply can’t understand the complexities of a writer like Carter by only dipping into one or a small handful of her works. As Joyce once said, “The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.” I’m afraid that Carter might have demanded just such a devotion.
CS: Thank you for your time today Scott. It was a pleasure talking with you.
Scott A. Dimovitz is Associate Professor of English at Regis University in Colorado. His book Angela Carter: Surrealist, Psychologist, Moral Pornographer is available from Routledge. Scott has also published a number of articles on writers such as David Mitchell, Paul Auster and Alison Bechdel. His research interests lie with English and Anglophone literatures of the 20th and 21st century, and he is particularly fascinated by modern and postmodern literatures that push the boundaries of what is consider “literary”. Scott teaches a range of courses, from James Joyce to Angela Carter, and from British Modernisms to Postcolonial World Literature. To find out more about Scott’s work, check out his profile page at Regis University here or his WordPress blog here.