• angela carter’s allegory of reading in nights at the circus

    Excerpt from my book Eroticism, Ethics and Reading (1996). Download the book here.

    Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus is divided into three parts: “London,” “Petersburg” and “Siberia.” In the first part, Walser, a young American journalist, has come to interview Fevvers the aérialiste. Walser is enchanted by her stories and follows Fevvers on her tour with the circus to St Petersburg and then, while on their way to Japan, they end up in the wilderness of Siberia. Walser’s amorous travels in and through “London,” “Petersburg” and “Siberia” is an adventure which I follow, treating his journey as an allegory of the reading process. [1] This allegory is however not a moral allegory: rather, as the novel’s magic realism indicates, [2] allegory is a way of reading the world that does not draw a distinction between dream and reality nor between language and reality. Such an allegory is found in the South American writer Borges. That is, allegory in the sense used here postulates the impossibility of the speaking subject’s living outside the library, the very language and knowledge, including the not yet known, through which we articulate our being in the world.

    The etymology of allegory tells us further that allegory is the other (allos) making a public speech (agoreuein) which enables us to understand the term as the speech of the Other through which the passions of the real that cannot stop from not writing itself can be heard. It should be remembered though that the real is not the truth but the speaking body’s truth, its truth in articulation which makes its truth subject to corruption and deformation. Nights at the Circus is such a deformed piece of writing, grotesque and bizarre which, if we pursue and contrast this with Barthes’s fascination with the signs of Japan, is closer to the Japanese butoh dance than to the formal aestheticism of the signs of Japan. The butoh dance explores spaces of transformation by means of its grotesque movements and deformed bodies and has been developed in reaction against the formalism of Japanese culture. Or yet, to bring its aesthetics closer to ourselves, Nights at the Circus sides, in its exuberance, with the British new Baroque that can be discerned throughout the 80s in various art forms: in a video clip such as Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” in the fashion of designers like John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood, in the films of directors such as Derek Jarman, Peter Greenaway and Sally Potter.

    These examples taken from art forms that have the image as its medium have been chosen because the image, the scenic and the cinematic are stylistic features of Carter’s novel. For instance, the novel can be seen as a paraphrase of Chaplin’s film Circus in which a young man falls in love with a circus artist and joins the circus, and the final scene of the London section, where Fevvers and her foster-mother part with Walser on a London bridge, mirrors a similar scene in Fellini’s Casanova. Apart from belonging to the rich and abundant intertextuality of the novel, the cinematic technique itself is evident in Carter’s style, as in the slapstick scenes of the clowns’ game, as well as in the burlesque and carnevalesque that these film directors foreground in their art.

    This brief introduction to Carter’s allegorical world, to its magic realism, its cinematic, carnevalesque and intertextual features, circles around the question of how to relate to the image and, in particular, to the image of the self and the body. Where Barthes experiences the gaze of the Sartrean Other to hold his self and body in its grasp, [...], Carter’s approach towards the image is slightly different. Aware of the power of the gaze, of the eye of the beholder, by which the speaking body is arrested in its image, Carter, as a novelist, reverses the process: instead of attempting to withdraw from the gaze, it is the eye of the beholder, her reader, that is being worked on, reworked and, eventually and ideally, rewritten as is the case with Walser who undertakes the journey through which such a rewriting is made possible.

    Carter’s rewriting of Walser and, ideally, of her reader takes the form of a journey that signals new beginnings, as the metaphor of the journey did in pre-Christian days, rather than symbolizing the Christian journey towards a teleological end whose atheistic but yet teleological counterpart is found in Barthes’s “initiatic way” of reading. There is in Barthes, as we have seen [in EE and R], a desire to transcend the human being’s predicament as a historical and sexual being in the world: there is, in other words, a desire for an asceticism that compels Barthes the hedonist to continue writing, refining his perception towards clarity, purifying himself of that which is extraneous, other and foreign to him, travelling on an “initiatic way” returning to innocence. This Barthesian journey towards innocence is reversed by Carter. Setting off in innocence, naivety and a sense of wonder, travelling through the constraints of our historical predicament as human beings in the world, Carter’s initiatory way implodes, jerks, loops and expands towards the Other and the most archaic recesses of the human psyche, towards both our and the text’s beginnings. It is a rebirth through which the speaking body, and hence the position from where the subject speaks, is transformed.3

    Such a transformation is exactly Walser’s trajectory in Nights at the Circus. Initially, as he comes to interview Fevvers the bird-woman in the London section, his questions and his thoughts remain at the level of that which is empirically verifiable. Is Fevvers fact or fiction? This is the central question around which he “whimsically” reasons with himself, as for instance:

    ...now, the wings of the birds are nothing more than the forelegs, or, as should we say, the arms, and the skeleton of a wing does indeed show elbows, wrists and fingers, all complete. So, if this lovely lady is indeed, as her publicity alleges, a fabulous bird-woman, then she, by all the laws of evolution and human reason, ought to possess no arms at all, for it’s her arms that ought to be her wings! (15)

    Towards the end of the novel, however, Walser’s set of questions has changed from begging for empirical verification to a probing of Fevvers’s being in the world: “What is your name? Have you a soul? Can you love?,” he asks (291). Since this is said at the end of the novel, we are not told how his new articulations and questions will affect his reading of Fevvers. Yet, the shift of inquiry, which involves a shift from asking for verification of what is visible to a probing of the invisible by means of language, shows that he has undergone a radical transformation in the course of his journey and that he by now is speaking and articulating his questions from a new and different position within language. Yet, Walser’s position here is not a teleological end in itself; rather, it initiates another turn of events as Fevvers answers his questions by exclaiming: “That’s the way to start the interview ... Get out you pencil and we’ll begin!” (291). Walser is in other words thrown back to the beginning of his adventures at the circus but this time his questions, and hence his reading of Fevvers, will be different.

    The transformation of the place from where Walser reads postulates that reading is a double time: one that is anticipatory of the disclosure of meaning and another that exceeds meaning where the first contains the second within a circular movement as the time exceeding meaning is the beginning of a renewed anticipation for meaning to disclose itself. The actual act of conclusive and cognitive understanding, however, is marked by a loss in the interstice between the two times and remains at the heart of reading as a promise.

    The act of reading as a circular movement that is marked by a loss is, however, not only inscribed in the narrative’s unfolding in time but returns at every juncture of the journey through Nights at the Circus as, in Linda Hutecheon’s understanding of the novel, an “ironic signalling of difference at the heart of similarity” of which the circus arena itself is the main metaphor.4

    ...What a cheap, convenient, expressionist device, this sawdust ring, this little O! Round like an eye, with a still vortex at its centre; but give it a little rub as if it were Aladdin’s wishing lamp and, instantly, the circus turns into that durably metaphoric, uroboric snake with its tail in the mouth, wheel that turns full circle, the wheel whose end is its beginning, the wheel of fortune, the potter’s wheel on which our clay is formed, the wheel of life on which we all are broken.(107)

    The image of the circle is “shop-soiled,” as Carter says, yet its “polyvalent romance” makes Walser thrill (107). The polyvalence of the image shows in its referential undecidability how the metaphor of the circus arena generates new and different meanings of the arena, and hence of Nights at the Circus, as each reading is instantly followed by a new one that displaces the preceding one. The undecidability of the arena as a metaphor for the novel as well as of its reading is marked by the absence or loss of a connective phrase between the discrete, alternative readings that the metaphor of the circus arena elicits. Every reading of the arena is a different and discrete loop, an O, in which the act of reading is enacted over and over again creating a chain of loops, what Lacan would call “knots,” at the interface of text and reader.

    Nights at the Circus, then, is a narrative about the very act of reading and the three sections of the novel are different moments in one and the same journey. In Carter’s analysis and theorizing of the act of reading, the three correspond to three different layers of experience that constitute a complex and multi-faceted space-time of reading; namely, the imaginary (London), the symbolic (Petersburg) and the real (Siberia) in Lacanian theory. The erotic space-time of reading is here at once a “still vortex at the centre” that postulates the possibility of a single, fixed reading position and a play of differences through which this very position is dis-positioned. On the “wheel of life,” reading is dis-positioned and, following the logic of the “wheel whose end is its beginning,” continuously “formed” and “broken” according to the vicissitudes of the “sawdust ring” and its “O! of wonders; O! of griefs” (107). This seesaw of an endless forming and breaking constitutes the novel’s erotic space-time of reading and is exemplified by Walser’s experience during his nights at the circus. It is a movement that enacts the end that is its beginning over and over again; a movement that advances and retreats, expands and implodes in a manner of ritual dance which is the basic psychic and erotic movement of Walser’s journey and adventures in Nights at the Circus.


    1. Paul de Man’s “allegory of reading” is quite another matter in that it focuses on a text’s rhetoric. “Rhetoric is a text,” he says, “in that it allows for two incompatible, mutually self-destructive points of view [one of rhetoric as persuasion and the other of rhetoric as a system of tropes], and therefore puts an insurmountable obstacle in the way of any reading or understanding” (Allegories of Reading 131). This deconstructive mode of reading, it is worth noting, is in de Man’s view “always ethical, the term ethical designating the structural interference of two distinct value systems” 206”. back up

    2. See David Punter for a discussion on Angela Carter and magic realism in Nights at the Circus. back up

    3. In her “(Re)writing the Body: The Politics and Poetics of Female Eroticism,” Susan Suleiman sees the rewriting of the female body as a general concern in Carter’s writing. In Nights at the Circus, however, this rewriting is not confined to the female body since it is a man, Walser, who undergoes the process of being rewritten. back up

    4. The “ironic signalling of difference at the heart of similarity” Linda Hutcheon claims to be characteristic of postmodern art (A Poetics of Postmodernism 26). The circus arena, she also points out, is a metaphor that returns in postmodern culture where the “multi-ringed circus becomes the pluralized and paradoxical metaphor for a decentered world where there is only ex-centricity” (61). In Nights at the Circus, Hutcheon continues, Carter “combines this freak-circus framework with contestings of narrative centering” (61). back up

    © yvonne martinsson, 1996.


    Punter, David. "Essential Imaginings: The Novels of Angela Carter and Russel Hobal." The British and Irish Novel Since 1960, MacMillan, 1991.

    de Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. Yale UP, 1979.

    Carter, Angela. Nights at the Circus. Chatto & Windus, 1984.

    Martinsson, Yvonne. Eroticism, Ethics and Reading: Angela Carter in Dialogue with Roland Barthes. Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1996.

    Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. Routledge, 1986.

    Acheson, James. The British and Irish Novel Since 1960. MacMillan, 1991.

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