Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Return of the Century: Time, Modernity, and the End of History in Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Return of the Century: Time, Modernity, and the End of History in Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus

Article excerpt

   The very idea of modernity is closely
   correlated with the principle that it is both
   possible and necessary to break with tradition
   and institute absolutely new ways of
   living and thinking.
   We now suspect that this 'rupture' is in
   fact a way of forgetting or repressing the
   past, that is, repeating and not surpassing
   it.
  (Jean-Francois Lyotard)[1]

Set at 'the cusp of the modern age, the hinge of the nineteenth century', Nights at the Circus,[2] Angela Carter's fin de siecle fantasy anticipates the new century as an era of radical transformation and change. However, it is also a text fascinated with modernist myths of origin: from the threshold of the twentieth century it returns to the 'prehistory' of the modern, as constructed by modernism, represented by such motifs as animals, folk and peasant culture, childhood, the wilderness of Siberia, and the colonial 'others' of empire. In The End of Modernity, Gianni Vattimo argues that modernity is 'dominated by the idea that the history of thought is a progressive "enlightenment" which develops through an ever more complete appropriation and reappropriation of its own foundations':

These [foundations] are often also understood to be 'origins', so that the theoretical and practical revolutions of Western history are presented and legitimated for the most part as recoveries, rebirths, or returns.[3]

A return to origin could be read, then, as evidence of a complicity with the forgetting and repressing of origins; a forgetting and repressing which functions as a condition of a subsequent recovery, rebirth or return. Such a reading, however, would seem difficult to reconcile with the fact that in terms of aesthetic style, Nights at the Circus is an exemplary postmodern text: the textuality of history is self-consciously evoked by the historical and literary pastiche in which it revels. Indeed, if Carter's interrogation of history did not extend beyond the playful provocations of pastiche her writing would be vulnerable to the charge commonly, and even justifiably, made against postmodern fiction: that it reduces history to a travesty of parodic gestures and costumes and that it evades a more complex and ethical encounter with the otherness of the past.

I wish to suggest that Carter's text could be read as most interesting, and most postmodern, not in its representation of history but in its rendering of time. Postmodern, that is, in the sense that Vattimo gives. Vattimo argues that the project of modernity is a process of return and overcoming, whereas postmodern thought is characterized by a critique of Western thought and of the very notion of foundation: it is a critique without overcoming, a taking leave of the logic of modernity. It is in this sense that the postmodern marks the 'end of history' in that it relinquishes an understanding of history as a linear sequence of radical breaks or ruptures. Vattimo traces this postmodern critique to Nietszche and Heidegger, a gesture which is only anachronistic if the postmodern is defined as a historical break from the modern. In its attempt to give a materialist and symbolic rewriting of modernity,[4] Nights at the Circus suggests the implication of the unconscious in history, and of history in the unconscious. As discourses of modernity, Marxism and psychoanalysis share a fascination with origins: the origins of identity and the origins of history. Carter's text makes possible an understanding of these discourses as making a return without overcoming. For both Marxism and psychoanalysis, the present is constituted by the unresolved conflicts of the past.

A double dynamic is in motion in Carter's text: a return to origin, to the past, the archaic, the 'primitive', and a projection into the future. This departure from the past is signified by motifs of passage; the picaresque narrative is transported through space by means of the railway, while it traverses time and history by means of memory. …

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