Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

In Despair of the Old Adams: Angela Carter's 'The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman.' (Angela Carter)

Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

In Despair of the Old Adams: Angela Carter's 'The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman.' (Angela Carter)

Article excerpt

LET'S BEGIN WITH the castle. We don't know where it is; we don't even know when it is--we are in Nebulous Time here, and space and time have nothing to do with the spatiotemporal manifold most of us like to think we move around in. What we do know is that it stands in picturesque decay against the edge of a cliff and is inhabited by a mad-scientist genius named Dr. Hoffman. It is a strange and menacing place, and deep within its walls is a huge chamber where Dr. Hoffman keeps his "disire generators." Here's how they work: inside a wire cage six feet long by three feet wide, a man and a woman fuck and suck each other--loudly, fervently, and, evidently, eternally. Their sex juices, sweat, spittle, and blood drip from their bodies and fall into a pan below their cage, and this passion-distillate--a "faintly luminous, milky, whitish substance"(1)--rises up through tubes to be mixed with the sex soup of hundreds of other caged couples who fuck and suck nearby. Next, through an unexplained process whereby Dr. Hoffman exploits certain, uh, "loopholes in metaphysics," the sex precipitate is transformed into "eroto-energy" which is used to power the desire generators. Then, via satellite dish, the generators send out into the world images of Dionysian desire and poetic irrationality that are so powerful that they become real; they literally overcome "reality" as the world knows it. Soon, "the city [is] no longer the conscious production of humanity; it [has] become the arbitrary realm of dream" (21). In the blink of an eye, for example, thousands of feather-blooming peacocks appear in the middle of an opera house where only boring black-tied bourgeoises sat before. (There are plenty of more threatening manifestations as well.) Sick of the ways that that dullard the Minister of Determination has strangled Imagination and Desire, Dr. Hoffman has unleashed war on Reason. Things go haywire. The Minister of Determination, for his part, determined to maintain the gray symmetries of the rational City, unleashes all the technological powers at his command to counter this image invasion and sends out his personal envoy to assassinate Dr. Hoffman.

This isn't the plot of a heavy metal comic book but the premise of Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman, an imaginatively dense novel with three ideologically weighty epigraphs (by Robert Desnos, Wittgenstein, and Alfred Jarry); remarkably, Carter gets away with shamelessly exploiting sci-fi B-movie conventions for serious aesthetic and ideological purposes. In some of her other works Carter uses structurally primitive kinds of narrative (the fairy tale, pornography) in much the same way: she taps into their basic structural and mythological power as a way of roiling the waters of the unconscious (both in her readers and in herself, I suspect), then proceeds, by means of hyperbole, irony, structural reversals, and the layered development of character, to give those obvious stories thematic complexity and density. The results are fictions that go well beyond the stories that inspired them to become deeply resonant mediations on the myths we tell ourselves and the reasons we need to tell them. The mythic conflict Carter takes up so explicitly in Desire Machines, published in 1972, is as old as the hills--Dionysus vs. Apollo, Orc vs. Urizen, Eros vs. Civilization--but she pulls it off with that insolent brilliance that characterizes many of the writers who came of age in the 1960s, mixing genres high and low, brazenly appropriating literary images cherished by British culture, and fearlessly tapping into a countercultural rage at a world lorded over at the time, remember, by arch-Determinators Leonid Brezhnev and Richard M. Nixon.

Angela Carter published nearly two dozen books in her twenty-five-year writing career, several of them prize winners, but the English literary establishment never really knew how to "place" her, and Americans have been even more nonplussed--here she's had trouble staying in print at all. …

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