Deep South v.2 n.3 (Spring, 1996)
I will begin this essay by defining the terms abject and abjection. I will then proceed to outline how Kristeva's theory of abjection works by summarising the main points of The Powers Of Horror: An Essay On Abjection. I will then continue to develop the essay by identifying abjection in two of Angela Carter's stories in her collection The Bloody Chamber: the title story and 'The Tiger's Bride', and Keri Hulme's The Bone People. In doing this I hope to expose and evaluate the impact abjection makes on the form and genre of these two texts. In addition, and as a summarising overview I will incorporate my own responses to abjection in relation to the texts.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines abject as "Brought low, miserable; craven, degraded, despicable, self abasing." It describes abjection as a "state of misery or degradation." However, these definitions are somewhat ambiguous and intangible. Thus, it is useful to consider how abjection is expressed. Religious abhorrence, incest, women's bodies, human sacrifice, bodily waste, death, cannibalism, murder, decay, and perversion are aspects of humanity that society considers abject. Barbara Creed writes:
The place of the abject is where meaning collapses, the place where I am not. The abject threatens life, it must be radically excluded from the place of the living subject, propelled away from the body and deposited on the other side of an imaginary border which separates the self from that which threatens the self.
Thus, we forcefully exclude the abject which ostensibly draws our attention to the place where meaning collapses.
In Powers Of Horror:An Essay On Abjection Kristeva identifies that we first experience abjection at the point of separation from the mother. This idea is drawn from Lacan's psychoanalytical theory which underpins her theory of abjection. She identifies that abjection represents a revolt against that which gave us our own existence or state of being. At this point the child enters the symbolic realm, or law of the father. Thus, when we as adults confront the abject we simultaneously fear and identify with it. It provokes us into recalling a state of being prior to signification (or the law of the father) where we feel a sense of helplessness. The self is threatened by something that is not part of us in terms of identity and non-identity, human and non-human. Kristeva expresses this succinctly when she says: "The abject has only one quality of the object and that is being opposed to I." Thus we must be acutely aware of the link between the abject and the subject. The border between these two positions is imaginary, and however we try to exclude the abject it still exists. When we are propelled into the world of the abject, our imaginary borders disintegrate and the abject becomes a tangible threat because our identity system and conception of order has been disrupted. Hence, Kristeva's theory of abjection is concerned with figures that are in a state of transition or transformation. The abject is located in a liminal state that is on the margins of two positions. This state is particularly interesting to Kristeva because of the link between psychoanalysis and the subconscious mind.
We are both drawn to and repelled by the abject; nausea is a biological recognition of it, and fear and adrenalin also acknowledge its presence. These are the feelings that we recall from prior to separation from the mother. Kristeva describes one aspect of the abject as 'jouissance' which is a sensation akin to joyousness. She says that it is because of this sensation that "One thus understands why so many victims of the abject are its fascinated victims - if not its submissive and willing ones." Thus we can deduce from Kristeva's essay that the main point of her theory of abjection is that "The abject is perverse because it neither gives up nor assumes a prohibition, a rule, or law; but turns them aside, misleads, corrupts; uses them, takes advantage of them, the better to deny them." Consequently it is a manipulator, and as such subverts boundaries, laws, and conventions.
Abjection is a consistent feature of Angela Carter's 'The Bloody Chamber' and 'The Tiger's Bride'. They form part of a collection of stories in the fairy tale genre. In this volume Carter effectively reworks several ancient tales and fables. This genre has a rigid set of conventions and rules that usually involve polarised imagery. These can be presented as the handsome prince and passive heroine, good and evil, and light and dark. Fairy tales traditionally endorse patriarchal ideology through polarised imagery that encodes conventional features of femininity. This genre usually has a recognisable plot structure, a moral, and of course the obligatory happy ending. They can be read as ways of seeing and maintaining the patriarchal world as the status quo.
'The Bloody Chamber' is a sophisticated reworking of the traditional story of Bluebeard. The abject is encountered by the heroine when she enters the bloody chamber. The impact of this moment is powerful because to this point the heroine has been portrayed as the archetypal, naive, blushing bride. It is at this point that she realises that as Bluebeards wife, death awaits her. Hence, she crosses Kristeva's imaginary boundary into the realm of death, mutilation, blood, and horror. The heroine passes through the physical "door of hell" and over the invisible threshold between her own state of being and that which threatens it i.e. "this stark torture chamber." Thus, the boundaries, laws, and rules of her existence have been manipulated to a point where meaning is undermined. The passage which describes the chamber is highly descriptive and overtly self indulgent to the point where pornographic undertones ensue. There is a sense of relish and excitement when the narrator describes, "And yet enough, oh more than enough, to see a room designed for desecration and some dark night of unimaginable lovers whose embraces were annihilation." Carter further intensifies the abject through the personification of the chamber walls, "they gleamed as if they were sweating with fright."
The narrative begins with an exited and garbled description of her surroundings. Then the heroine begins a closer description which evokes a sense of immediacy. We are then guided by the narrative to the core of the chamber where a corpse lies. The idea of death is defamiliarised by the glamour and the fact that "the dead lips smiled." The narrative continues to carry us past the core to the marginal shadows of the room where she can see skulls which are described through elegant and beautiful imagery, "Yet the skull was still so beautiful, had shaped with its sheer planes so imperiously the face that once existed above it..." Then anticipation takes over as the heroine becomes familiar with her surroundings. This is shown by the fact that she actively interacts with the abject by prising open the coffin of her husband's last wife. It is at this point that the heroine is overwhelmed and compelled to escape the horrors of the chamber. Carter uses spikes and piercing imagery to emphasise the horror of the abject, "She was pierced, not by one but by a hundred spikes..." The heroine is also threatened by this penetrating imagery, "a metal figure hinged at the side, which I knew to be spiked..." I believe that this represents a grotesque manifestation of masculine power which expresses patriarchal dominance explicitly. Throughout this section the language becomes almost poetic and the sentence structure achieves an almost lyrical effect. This technique evokes a sense of self indulgence and satisfaction on Carter's part as a heterosexual author. However there is a paradox because the images suggest that there is something sinister and threatening about masculine penetration and dominance.
Carter's use of abjection in 'The Bloody Chamber ' transforms the fairy tale genre beyond its conventions into the realm of pornographic gothic fantasy. Carter undermines the traditional structure of the genre by focusing the climax of the tale in the abject instead of a reconciliatory closure. The abject is foregrounded through its positioning between an almost childlike evocation of curiosity, and the shock realisation caused by the confrontation of the abject. Consequently, we can recognise that Carter has utilised abjection in 'The Bloody Chamber' as a conscious strategy to disrupt the conventions of the fairy tale. It also introduces features of pornography and horror which undermine the traditional conventions of the fairy tale genre by incorporating, and sustaining elements of subconscious desire.
'The Tiger's Bride' is a reworking of Beauty and the Beast. Carter successfully humanises the strongly abject figure of the beast which is both controversial and unusual. Carter achieves this through the language. The first description of the beast is sensual and alliterative, "He must bathe himself in scent, soak his shirts and underlinen in it..." The soft sound of the 's' is comforting even though the beast is abject. The beast's masking of his natural form is representative of an inversion of the traditional figure of the frog that transforms into a prince. The beast is described as "a carnival figure made of papier mache and crepe hair." It is not the beast itself that disturbs the heroine, but the superficial masquerade of his appearance, "The artificial masterpiece of his face appals me."
The heroine's reaction to the beast is a mixture of pity and intrigue. She confronts the abject in the beast when they both expose their naked bodies to one another and the laws associated with identity and fear are contravened and meaning collapses. The logical response to his nakedness is usurped by the exciting and powerful impact of his exposure, "The annihilating vehemence of his eyes, like twin suns." Beauty articulates her response to the beast's naked form, "I felt my breast ripped apart as if I suffered a marvellous wound." Carter uses exhilarating language that adds a sense of jouissance to the narrative. The abject is foregrounded at a moment of sexual awakening and union of the two protagonists' psyches.
The final transformation occurs when Beauty joins the beast in his own environment where the laws of the material world have no meaning. She is what Kristeva describes as a 'willing victim', "I, white, shaking, raw approaching him as if offering, in myself, the key to a peaceable kingdom in which his appetite need not be my extinction." Thus, the abject no longer threatens her because she has willingly crossed the imaginary margins. Beauty's articulation of her sexuality and desires leads to a relinquishing of the material world and a consequent humanising of the abject. Carter's use of abjection in 'The Tiger's Bride' usurps the traditional patriarchal convention of the female as victim. Her heroine is strong, in control, and actively orchestrating events on her own terms. Beauty's transformation takes the genre into the realm of fantasy and surrealism. This is underpinned by a feminist message that advocates taking control of one's life.
In 'The Tiger's Bride' Carter's use of poetic language to describe the abject is again pornographic. This disrupts the narrative structure of the tale by creating a sense of voyeuristic indulgence, although sexuality is still presented as phallocentric. However, there is a feminist message to counter this because Carter empowers Beauty through the abject. Consequently, Beauty is in a position where she is able to articulate her power and desires. 'The Tiger's Bride' ultimately obliterates the confining codes of femininity which form part of the patriarchal ideology that traditionally underpins the genre. I believe we can consider Carter's use of abjection as a deliberate strategy with which she manipulates both the structure, rules and stipulations of the genre. Carter's work epitomises the antithesis of the traditional fairy tale. Her use of the abject stands as a counterpoint to the conventions and traditional techniques of the genre. Thus, the abject serves to parody the binary oppositions which are a feature of the traditional fairy tale. This adds a dimension to her work that introduces a whole new realm of possibilities. Abjection also effectively deconstructs the reader's expectations of the genre and form by forcing the reader to concentrate on Carter's technique which usurps reader complacency.
Keri Hulme's The Bone People is sharply contrasted with Carter's work both in terms of form and genre. The Bone People is a post colonial novel that incorporates many different literary techniques including abjection. The abject in The Bone People is manifested and personified in the figure of Simon. He is unable to articulate his own identity because he has been unable to speak since he was shipwrecked by an out of season storm that killed his parents. He communicates through the written word and signing which adds an alternative linguistic dimension to the novel. His physical appearance is disconcerting because he carries the scars of abuse and is unable to explain them. Thus, we can say that Simon's physical condition represents a state of misery and degradation. His mental health is also an area of concern but only comes to the fore at such times when the subconscious dominates. This can be identified in his difficulty in sleeping and his terrible nightmares. Simon is also plagued by dark voices that remain locked in the internalised world of his psyche. It seems that his conscious mind represses these horrors, however they still exist beyond the imaginary border between the self and that which is too terrible to consciously acknowledge. Simon has a distinct lack of identity, he is believed to be Irish but lives in a mixture of western and Maori culture, his exact age is unknown, he is an outsider.
Simon is perceived as abject by the other protagonists in the novel although he is not explicitly labelled as such. The locals talk of his wildness, and associate him with the devil. Joe projects his frustrated rage onto Simon and seems to feel threatened by the unquantifiable events of his past. Joe's rage can be associated with his homosexuality. Hulme capitalises on a heterosexual, homophobic subject position to present homosexuality as abject and implicitly links it to Joe's relationship with Simon. Binny Daniels also abuses Simon by paying him for kisses. Even Kerewin rejects him in a moment of exasperation, "She loathes every part of his being" and "She hopes his father knocks him sillier than he is now." Kerewin is drawn and compelled by the violence Joe inflicts on Simon, "She is screaming with delight inside herself, trembling with dark joy." This demonstrates that Simon's state of being creates such a momentum that even the detached Holmes is drawn into a position of repugnance and rejection of the child. Her subject position is one where Simon represents the Other.
When Simon confronts the abject be it boats, needles, violence, or death, his physical reaction is nausea and sickness which correlates with Kristeva's theory. On the boat trip his eyes are described as "black and blank and his face has twisted in terror... next moment, he's spewing his heart out over the gunwales." Simon experiences hysterical terror when faced with medics and needles which I believe are the key to the abject in The Bone People. Joe recounts Simon's reaction to an injection, "I thought the needle would break, Himi's arm was that rigid." The abject is foregrounded when Simon finds Binny Daniels' corpse. However Simon's presence draws the flies from Binny to himself, "They were impatient when he came through them, skidding onto him, face and eyes and hair, as though they thought he was more of the feast." This horrific scene is an explicit recognition that even the flies perceive Simon as abject.
The horrific characteristics of abjection culminate in chapter eight which is entitled 'Nightfall'. The dark voices within Simon's psyche rejoice as Joe systematically thrashes Simon in the opening paragraphs. Simon is then rejected from school and he visits Binny, only to find him lying dead and his body in the early stages of decomposition. Kerewin reacts angrily to him and sends him away because he stole her knife and is violent towards her. One can sense that the intensification of the abject is spiralling to a crescendo as Simon experiences rejection and expulsion time after time. Breaking point occurs at the end of the chapter when Joe administers Simon's final beating. This can be read as a last, futile attempt to communicate with Simon who is by now inaccessible. Simon's existence is threatened by the onslaught and thus this chapter epitomises the disturbing nature of abjection. Hulme successfully creates a state of a living death or death in life.
In this chapter the narrative moves into the poetic, and the language is explicit and inappropriately beautiful, "The world is full of dazzlement, jewel beams, fires of crystal splendour. I am on fire." It is pertinent to mention that when we are given an insight into Simon's thoughts the language is intricate and technically brilliant marking a sharp contrast to his muteness. The chapter opens with a group of words arranged into the shape of a crescent. The words run into each other which give a sense of drowning, suffocation, and enclosure. The poetic sequence ends in an image of desecration, "The blood pours from everywhere. He can feel it spilling from his mouth, his ears, his eyes, and his nose. The drone of flies gets louder. The world goes away. The night has come." This section of the text ebbs in and out on the page which mirrors Simon slipping in and out of consciousness to final darkness. Hulme uses repetition to emphasise the relentless nature of the violence, "Again. Again. And again." This adds to the intensity of the abject by giving it a sense of energy or momentum.
The consistency of the violence in The Bone People works on many levels. Firstly, it serves to deconstruct the novel's theme of unity. The structure of the novel has been described by Webby as a "double spiral." Simon's presence disrupts this pattern by forcing a confrontation of the abject which endorses Kristeva's claim that however we try to exclude the abject it still exists. Simon's pain and suffering underpin the novel and decenter the notion of the conventional plot. This leads to a greater significance being attached to particular events, as opposed to the traditional concept of a coherent plot development. The closure of the novel is unconventional because there is a sense of unity, but at the expense of Simon who continues to internalise his pain and suffering. However his presence is so powerful that it acts as a constant reminder of the dark realm of the abject. He can be seen as a Christ figure or an angel and as a reminder of the dark side of humanity. The use of poetic language in chapter eight has a direct impact on the structure of the novel. Hulme successfully blends discourse, narrative, and poetry to a fragmented structure in The Bone People. Consequently, the disjointed nature of the text compliments the unusual plot arrangement.
The use of abjection in 'The Bloody Chamber' and The Bone People provides a forum for the exploration of the subconscious. It is provocative because it forces the reader to contemplate that which is uncomfortable to face. This both disorients the reader and encourages us to actively interact with the text in order to ascribe meaning to the place where it collapses. Carter uses abjection simultaneously to defamiliarise the fairy tale genre, and to undermine the reader's expectations of the form. I believe this is a conscious strategy to manipulate literary conventions. Consequently, Carter effectively breaks the rules of the fairy tale genre by reworking traditional tales into new and pioneering forms. It is unclear whether Hulme perceives her presentation of Simon as abject, although my reading of The Bone People places it as central to the novel. Kristeva's theory of abjection is a useful lens with which to examine Simon and The Bone People as a whole but the reader must not underestimate the complexity of the text and the wide variety of possible readings. However we can see that both authors (be it wittingly or unwittingly) use abjection to its full potential in their writings to create a new dimension to their respective forms and genres.
1) Creed, B. Horror And The Monstrous Feminine : An Imaginary Abjection . London Routledge, 1993. Page 65.
2) Kristeva, J. Powers Of Horror: An Essay On Abjection. Columbia University Press, 1982. Page 1.
3) Kristeva, J. Powers Of Horror: An Essay On Abjection. Columbia University Press, 1982. Page 9.
4) Kristeva, J. Powers Of Horror: An Essay On Abjection . Columbia University Press, 1982. Page 15.
5) Carter, A. The Bloody Chamber. Vintage, 1995. Page 30.
6) Carter, A. The Bloody Chamber. Vintage, 1995. Page 28.
7) Carter, A. The Bloody Chamber. Vintage, 1995. Page 28.
8) Carter, A. The Bloody Chamber. Vintage, 1995. Page 28.
9) Carter, A. The Bloody Chamber. Vintage, 1995. Page 28.
10) Carter, A. The Bloody Chamber. Vintage, 1995. Page 29.
11) Carter, A. The Bloody Chamber. Vintage, 1995. Page 29.
12) Carter, A. The Bloody Chamber. Vintage, 1995. Page 28.
13) Carter, A. The Bloody Chamber. Vintage, 1995. Page 53.
14) Carter, A. The Bloody Chamber. Vintage, 1995. Page 53.
15) Carter, A. The Bloody Chamber. Vintage, 1995. Page 58.
16) Carter, A. The Bloody Chamber. Vintage, 1995. Page 64.
17) Carter, A. The Bloody Chamber. Vintage, 1995. Page 64.
18) Carter, A. The Bloody Chamber. Vintage, 1995. Page 67.
19) Hulme, K. The Bone People. Picador, 1986. Page 94.
20) Hulme, K. The Bone People. Picador, 1986. Page 307.
21) Hulme, K. The Bone People. Picador, 1986. Page 307.
22) Hulme, K. The Bone People. Picador, 1986. Page 190.
23) Hulme, K. The Bone People. Picador, 1986. Page 209.
24) Hulme, K. The Bone People. Picador, 1986. Page 221.
25) Hulme, K. The Bone People. Picador, 1986. Page 303.
26) Hulme, K. The Bone People. Picador, 1986. Page 308.
27) Hulme, K. The Bone People. Picador, 1986. Page 302.
28) Hulme, K. The Bone People. Picador, 1986. Page 309.
29) Webby, E. 'Keri Hulme: Spiralling To Success'. Meanjin Vol. 44, No 1, 1985.
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