[In case you were in search of some edifying xmas reading, I thought I'd post my most recent scholarly endeavour: an essay on Angela Carter's wonderful novel Nights at the Circus]
One day in November 1900, in the mission village of Skidegate, on an island off the coast of western Canada, a man sat down to tell a story. Only two people, so far as we know, were listening, and only one of those could really understand the storyteller's language. It was a moment just as tender and as fragile, just as fraught with possibility and danger, as the moment of making love. Yet this particular genus and species of story—about a bird hunter who falls in love with a woman who is herself a bird—had survived and reproduced by just such means for many thousands of years, adapting in the process to hundreds of human languages and cultural traditions, and traveling most of the globe. This particular incarnation of the story, quirky and lovely as it is, told in these particular syllables, in this particular voice, has survived and prospered too. It might in fact go on, like an individual Sitka spruce, to live for centuries—or even for millennia like a sequoia or bristlecone pine. (Bringhurst, Everywhere 329)
The turn of the century. Three people: two local, one a young American. Of the former pair, one is telling a story, the other listening, but also assisting in the narration. The latter records all that he hears, though he understands but a fraction of it. The scenario described above by Robert Bringhurst involves the blind Haida poet Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas, a younger bilingual Haida man named Henry Moody, and the twenty-seven-year-old Harvard-educated ethnologist John Reed Swanton, who had also studied linguistics at Columbia University under Franz Boas, the father of modern anthropology (Ghandl 17-18). The dynamics of this scene will be uncannily familiar to anyone who has read Angela Carter's penultimate novel Nights at the Circus. Nights is set, not in 1900 but 1899, at “the hinge of the nineteenth century” (Nights 265); it opens with two locals—one (Fevvers) telling a story, the other (Lizzie) listening but also interpolating—and twenty-five-year old American journalist Jack Walser (9), who records everything spoken, exhaustively, in his notebook. The atmosphere is charged; “a moment fraught with possibility and danger” indeed. Oh, and the story? It is, of course, the archetypal tale of “a bird hunter who falls in love with a woman who is herself a bird”—though Walser does not yet realize this. And like the man in Ghandl's poem, who becomes a seagull in the end (Ghandl 94), Walser, too, is destined for a perilous, adventure-filled journey and avian metamorphosis.
I do not mean to suggest that Angela Carter had these specific parallels in mind when she sat down to write her novel. In all likelihood, Swanton's (incredibly apposite!) name and story would have been unknown to her. Bringhurst's English translations of Swanton's Haida transcripts did not begin to appear, printed and bound, until the hinge of the next century, 1999, seven years after Carter's death. Before that, Swanton was a relatively obscure figure on the margins of anthropological history. And the Swan Maiden tale is, as Bringhurst says, a “universal story” (Bringhurst, Story 44), a paradigm Carter might have borrowed from any number of possible sources. Carter's probable ignorance of the particulars does not, however, rob this two-pronged coincidence of its significance. Like Swanton, and like Bringhurst, Carter's respect for oral traditions from all parts of the globe was profound, and the influence those traditions exercised on her thought and fictional technique can be seen throughout her oeuvre. While Carter's critics tend, when they talk about her relationship to fairy tales, to go no further back than the seventeenth century,1 she herself knew that the roots of European folklore are anchored deep in the bedrock of human prehistory. Moreover, the temporal setting of Nights reflects, in part, her concern with the erasure of ancient hunter-gatherer cultures by the juggernaut of Western industrial capitalism.2
The function of shamanism in Nights is a remarkably untapped vein in Carter scholarship—and when tapped, it is often taken for pyrite instead of the gold that it is. These omissions and misapprehensions reflect, I think, a couple of things. Because Carter was a leading figure in feminist thought and action, the bulk of academic work on her oeuvre has been, unsurprisingly and not inappropriately, focused on such topics as gender identity and patriarchy.3 It is a sad fact, however, that her instrumental use to the political views of her critics (pro and con) has probably led to non-feminist4 dimensions of her work being, to a significant extent, overlooked or written off.5 The other issue is that few scholars of twentieth century English literature are sufficiently familiar with hunter-gatherer belief systems and oral literatures6 to perceive the connection between them and a novel like Nights. The irony is that an irreverently pagan, polytheistic book in which speakers and their stories proliferate and possibilities abound—a novel, as Sarah Sceats has said, “that seems to relish its own diversity” (Sceats 148)—has become something of a bird in the gilded cage of a monologic, monotheistic7 (and often humourless) hermeneutics, in which the script starring Fevvers qua New Woman in a postmodern deconstruction of grand narratives comes to dominate all other options.8
It is a commonplace of Carter criticism to list the riotous postmodern mix of influences, intertexts and sources to be found in her books. In the process, the terms “oral tradition” and “folk tale” get invoked often, but rarely are they spelunked to any depth.9 But shamanism is not merely a patch in the literary crazy quilt of Nights at the Circus, nor is it simply a theme in the book's third section or a foil, as Aidan Day has suggested, for “superior” rational means of understanding the world. It is, rather, an integral element of the novel's overall design and, by extension, of its meaning. This is not to say that Nights is an atavistic avatar of the shamanic story, per se, nor that Carter—for whom Enlightenment values of scepticism and reason were by no means anathema10 and to whom, famously, there was nothing sacred, nothing immune to dialectical analysis or unavailable for deconstruction—endorsed shamanism wholeheartedly. Carter once said that “[a] day without an argument is like an egg without salt” (Carter, Expletives 2), and her quarrels with shamanism are in evidence in this novel. Nevertheless, it is my contention that Carter's approach in Nights is informed throughout, thematically and structurally, by the ethos and narrative logic of shamanic culture, belief systems and storytelling techniques.
If there is a consensus regarding the taxonomy of Nights at the Circus, it is that the novel, true to the ludic spirit of its uncageable author and protagonist, partakes of multiple genres simultaneously. Gothic horror, fairy tale, historiographic metafiction, magic realism, Shakespearean comedy, picaresque, neo-Victorian—all are identified by one critic or another as carrier beams in the book's narrative framework. Similarly, critics often take inventory of Carter's range of reference, as Linden Peach does: “In its interweaving of different voices ... with allusions to Shakespeare, Milton, Poe, Ibsen, Joyce, Foucault, the novel creates, as Palmer says 'a polyphonic interplay of European cultural attitudes and moments'” (Peach 149). All of which is plainly true,11 but such self-evident truths are often misleading. Because Carter was a feminist and a socialist writing in the second half of the twentieth century, it is natural enough to see Nights as “an exemplary postmodern text” (Carroll 188), as Rachel Carroll has said, and leave it at that. But it takes only a brief foray into, for example, the myths and legends of various North American tribes,12 to see that, once upon a time, long before Jean-François Lyotard laid out the groundwork for the postmodern condition, there existed a single hybrid genre that could comfortably accommodate the supposedly discrete categories of literary nomenclature ticked off by Carter's critics—a fictional mode which licenses her various narratological gambits.
That genre is the mythic13 oral tale, the origins of which can be traced to shamanic hunter-gatherer societies. Nights opens, not with scene-setting prose, but with the resonant, vulgar voice of Fevvers, “clang[ing] like dustbin lids” as she relates the improbable myth of her origins. Her speech hews to the vernacular; she drops consonants (“Lor'” and “'ave”); she swears (“bloody”); she places special emphasis on words (“normal channels”; “hatched”). This isn't merely speech, but a performance, likened in the novel's first sentence to song, enacted as much in body language as it is inscribed in words:
The blonde guffawed uproariously, slapped the marbly thigh on which her wrap fell open and flashed a pair of vast, blue, indecorous eyes at the young reporter with his open notebook and his poised pencil, as if to dare him: 'Believe it or not!' Then she spun around on her swivelling dressing-stool ... and confronted herself with a grin in the mirror as she ripped six inches of false lash from her left eyelid with an incisive gesture and a small, explosive rasping sound. (7)
The performance in this paragraph, patterned densely with assonant runs and sibilant swerves, is as much Carter's as it is Fevvers', because virtuosic brio is very much the point, as an enthusiastic Walser reflects at the end of Nights' first section: “What a performance! Such style! Such vigour!” (90) As Carter has said, “I don't mind being called a spell-binder. Telling stories is a perfectly honourable thing to do. One is in the entertainment business” (Haffenden 82).
The idea of an original performance of an unoriginal story is a powerful link between Carter's novel and oral literature. As Brian Finney says, Carter draws “our attention to the fact that all narratives originate with the human voice telling a story and that all of them are retellings of an earlier telling” (Finney, 162). Carter's roots in, and affinity for, ancient storytelling techniques are understood well by her friend and critic Lorna Sage:
Readings recalled for [Carter] the story-teller's ancient role, and had something of the magic she found in writing for radio: 'the atavistic lure, the atavistic power, of voices in the dark ... the writer who gives the words to those voices retains some of the authority of the most antique tellers of tales.' ... More than most of her contemporaries, I suspect, she found performing her work not so much an afterthought as a dimension of its real life, something that entered into its nature. (Sage 17)
In writing of the Haida myths transcribed by Swanton and translated by himself, Bringhurst says that they
were made in ... a world ... where the performance could be read but the work could not. Now they are frozen, verbatim transcriptions of single performances. Voices hide in these transcriptions. If they are to speak, we must find a way to listen. That is difficult to do so long as we keep thinking of the fixed and silent texts that have come to overshadow every other kind of literature in the European tradition. (Bringhurst, Story 14, emphases in original)
Thus, performance was “a dimension of [the] real life” of these tales. And so it is with Carter's novel, which needs to be viewed not just as a text—or “system of signification” (Carter, quoted in Day 13), as Carter has put it—but, to borrow Colonel Kearney's phrasing, as a “moveable feast, [an] opera of the eye, [a] peripatetic celebration of life and laughter” (100).
Fevvers' story-telling is far from the only performance enacted in Nights. The circus, of course, is all about showmanship, but instances of song, dance and drama refuse to be contained by the circumference of the Colonel's ring: the tableaux vivants in Madame Schreck's museum; Mignon's song in Fevvers' hotel suite; Herr M.'s seances; the animated musical toys in the Grand Duke's mansion; the music played by the Princess, Mignon and the Maestro at the Conservatoire; the cells in the Siberian panopticon, which are “small theatres” (211). Even an episode that is not overtly performative, Fevvers' conversation with the leader of the outlaws, is described by Carter as “operatic” (229). Probably the novel's most disturbing performances are reserved for the clowns, who stage impromptu shows in both Petersburg and Siberia, the latter of which is so powerful as to occasion a storm that sweeps both them and the Russian outlaws out of the novel for good (243), in an episode that forges an undeniable link between performance and a kind of sympathetic magic that cannot be explained away as illusion or sleight of hand. That the moral value of these performances is often ambiguous at best demonstrates all the more persuasively that they partake of a shamanistic ethos, as I shall explain below.
Walser's initiation into clowning is a crucial transition in the development of his character. When Walser joins the circus, he goes, significantly, from being a detached observer to an engaged performer:
When Walser first put on his make-up, he looked in the mirror and did not recognise himself ... he felt the beginnings of a vertiginous sense of freedom ... Walser's very self, as he had known it, departed from him, he experienced the freedom that lies behind the mask, within dissimulation, the freedom to juggle with being, and, indeed, with the language which is vital to our being, that lies at the heart of the burlesque. (Nights 103)
By linking the ontology of the performed self to language, Carter is saying that Walser is now ready to start telling his own story rather than merely recording and reporting the stories of others. It is important to note, however, that the clown, once he chooses the face he will wear, is stuck with that identity for good (122) and thereby loses the freedom to choose how he performs his selfhood. Becoming a clown is therefore just a first step for Walser in becoming the teller of his own tale.
If performance is a thematic bridge between Nights and shamanic storytelling, an equally important consideration is the temporal setting in which the novel's various performances are staged. As mentioned above, Carter places Nights in a highly specific historical timeframe. Much of the narration, however—both the main thread of the story, as well as the many embedded narratives—takes place in a kind of suspended nowhen that is strongly analogous with what Bringhurst says about the settings of Ghandl's stories, which are
narrative poems set in mythtime. They are stories in which mythtime rises like a tide and covers, for a timeless moment, a familiar human space.
Mythtime is wild time; historical time is domesticated time. ... mythtime surrounds historical time, much the way the forest and the ocean and the sky surround the village or the camp. Wild does not, of course mean disordered. It means ecologically ordered: self-sustaining, alive and quite independent of human control. (Ghandl 23-24)
That much of the narrative of Nights unspools in a mythtime distinct from and enveloping historical time14 is made manifest in the book's first section, when Walser hears Big Ben—a reification of historical time—strike midnight on three separate occasions (37, 42, 53). Walser wants to explain this as a trick, a “piece of sleight-of-hand, or ear, rather,” but is at a loss to account for his own watch stopping “precisely at midnight” (90). During the course of Fevvers' narration, the three participants step out of historical time and into a mythtime governed by Ma Nelson's clock “on which the hands stood always at either midnight or noon ... the shadowless hour, the hour of vision and revelation, the still hour in the centre of the storm of time” (29)—an hour, in other words, not governed by the order of reason and science. When Big Ben strikes six at the end of Fevvers' story, the narrative returns, abruptly, to historical time:
During the less-than-a-blink of time it took the last chime to die there came a vertiginous sensation, as if Walser and his companions and the very dressing-room itself were all at once precipitated down a vast chute. It took his breath away. As if the room that had, in some way, without his knowledge, been plucked out of its everyday, temporal continuum, had been held for a while above the spinning world and was now—dropped back into place. (87)
Significantly, Fevvers is now no longer a larger-than-life shamanic storyteller, but “diminished in size” and sapped of strength and energy. She yawns, “not like a whale, not like a lioness, but like a girl who has stayed up too long.” Ripped from mythtime back to mundane reality, she begins her coda with the tired cliché “'The rest is history'” (87), drawing our attention to the temporal mise en abîme her storytelling has enacted.
It is the how of storytelling that matters as much as its what. Having once established the novel's debt to oral myth and its relationship to mythtime, the question of genre becomes more or less moot.15 If we consider the Ghandl poem cited above, what I am saying becomes clear. In it, for example, we see many things typically associated with magic realism. The natural and supernatural, the mundane and the fantastic, occupy the same frame in a manner deemed unremarkable by the storyteller. Anthropologist Hugh Brody, who has spent a great deal of time immersed in the societies and languages of various North American hunter-gatherer societies, explains that “[s]hamans are the people whose special skills and techniques allow them to move from the practical realm to the spiritual, from the everyday to the metaphysical” (Brody 128). This is, not surprisingly, reflected in the mythological legends of shamanistic tribes, such as the Haida. Ghandl's “swan maiden” tale, for example, involves a hunter for whom climbing a pole into the sky and putting on the skin of a mouse are circumstances as plausible as the routine business of his work:
She brought out a box.
She pulled out four more boxes within boxes
In the innermost box was the skin of a mouse with small bent claws.
She said to him,
“Put this on.”
Small though it was, he got into it.
It was easy. (Ghandl 89)
Carter knew well that such juxtapositions of mundane and magic were by no means original to her age or to a contemporary artistic and literary movement that emerged out of Latin America. Lorna Sage explains that Gabriel Garcia Marquez “liked to tell interviewers that he arrived at the style of One Hundred Years of Solitude by modelling himself on his grandmother's story-telling technique. Grandma would make the transition from realistic events to impossible imaginings without any change of expression, he said” (Sage 1). Carter herself has said that apparently magic realist elements of her work predated her reading of Marquez (Haffenden 81). The convergent evolution of magical realist tropes in the two writers' oeuvres is easily explained: they both had taproots in the same narrative soil.16 Carter even goes so far in Nights as to make the analogous relationship of shamanism and magic realism explicit, when she writes that the Shaman sees “no difference between fact and fiction; instead, a sort of magic realism” (260).
For shamanic societies, magic realism is not boldly innovative, but radically traditional; it is the very foundation of the way they interpret and respond to the world. It might just as well be called “realism.” Brody elucidates this in terms that chime neatly with Carter:
The knowledge that marks hunter-gatherers' relationship to their territories is an intricate mixture of the real and the supernatural. There are facts about things and facts about spirits. And the wall between these two kinds of entity is not solid. People can cross from the natural into the supernatural; spirits can move into the human domain. Just as this divide between physical and metaphysical is permeable, so also is the divide between humans and animals. In this way, the boundaries around the human world are porous. This porosity is the way of seeing and understanding the world that underlies shamanism. (Brody 233, emphasis added)
The identification of Nights as magic realist fiction is therefore not factually inaccurate so much as redundant, once one understands the novel's kinship with oral myth. Fevvers, for all her urbanity, is a character who would fit perfectly with the “birds with fins and fish on stilts and many other physiologically anomalous apparitions” (237) of a shamanic tale, not only because of her physical hybridity, but also because of her particular blend of virtues (her generosity and occasional displays of maternal care) and flaws (her impetuosity and insatiable appetite for financial gain). Again, Brody's account of shamanistic narrative is illuminating:
Hunter-gatherer stories reveal an array of spirits that influence what happens and are available to be influenced. These spirits are flexible and ambiguous in character. The supernatural creatures that have undertaken to make and keep the world as it is are tricksters as well as godlike. In the myths and histories of the hunter-gatherer world, there is a lack of defining line between good and bad, playful and serious. There is an instability of moral qualities, therefore, that matches the instability of identity. (Brody, Eden 234)
Morally ambiguous tricksters Brody writes of are everywhere evident in Carter's novel, not just in its heroine: Lizzie, Colonel Kearney, Herr M., Buffo, to name a few. The porosity of boundaries can be seen in the anthropomorphic qualities and behaviour of the apes, the tigers, Sybil the pig, and the shaman's bear. To be sure, these porosities are not left unproblematised by Carter. Herr M.'s seances and “authentic pictures of the loved and lost ones” (136), for instance, have about them more sham than shamanism. Such intrusions of the factual disqualify the book as shamanic mythtelling, however, no more than as magic realism.
The relationship of Nights to hunter-gatherer storytelling is evident as much in the book's structure as in its tropes. Carter's use of the picaresque in Nights accords nicely with the conventions of shamanic narrative practice. Ghandl's swan maiden poem follows an episodic one-thing-then-another-then-another trajectory as its protagonist wanders from place to place, much as Nights does when it shifts from its initial scene of narration (Fevvers's dressing room) to Petersburg and on to Siberia. Ghandl's transitions from one episode to the next are often abruptly surprising:
After a time, he came to a hump in the muskeg.
Something slender and red grew from the top of it.
He went up close to it.
All around the bottom of the tall, thin thing lay human bones.
He saw no way of going up.
Then he entered the mouse skin.
Pushing the salmon roe ahead of him, he climbed.
He went up after it.
When he came to the top,
he pulled himself onto the sky.
The trail stretched ahead of him there too.
He walked along. (Ghandl 91)
In the oneiric logic of the poem, this space-warping feat and the magical means of its achievement are perfectly congruous. Transitions in the poem are rarely seamless. We see similar rough cuts in Nights, particularly in Carter's frequent unsignalled shifts in narrative voice, digressions (e.g. the Panopticon set-piece) and discontinuities.17
The most jarring, and significant, of these disjunctions occurs in the Grand Duke's house, when Fevvers, in defiance not only of the conventions of realistic fiction, but, as Brian Finney says, of “all laws of space-time” (Finney 176), escapes from the Duke's clutches by boarding the miniature train she has thrown onto the carpet and setting off across the Siberian steppes. Sarah Sceats explains this spatial-temporal rift in terms of magic realism:
Carter's use of magic realism at this point is both inventive and traditional. It is, after all, a deus ex machina, albeit without the deus. But it is also exciting, funny, impossibly bold and mischievous. And it releases the narrative from its tight, intricately plotted, urban character, into something much more apparently disorganised, in both content and structure, with threads running in all directions. (Sceats 148)
The conclusion that Sceats falls just shy of making is that the book relinquishes its tight plotting and becomes most pronouncedly picaresque in character just as Carter jolts it out of an urban space, governed by reason, science and engineering, and into the Siberian wilderness, a land penetrated by rationalism, in the form of the rail line and the Conservatoire of Transbaikalia, but still resistant to the industrial age's rage to order.18 The train is knocked off the tracks and destroyed, the maestro has no students and his “clothes, if perfectly acceptable on the concert-hall rostrum, [are] a mite out of place in the middle of nowhere” (249). The very location of the Panopticon, “established ... on the most scientific lines available”(210), is what allows its inmates to vanish without a trace when they escape from its highly structured historical time (absurdly synchronized with Moscow (212)) into the wild time of the taiga. And Jack Walser, the embodiment of rational scepticism at the beginning of the novel, loses his wits altogether and “goes native” (272).
It is no coincidence that Fevvers has her sword broken just before the voyage, nor that Lizzie's handbag and Nelson's clock are lost in the train crash. Brody explains that “the power of shamanism lies in a particular area and is not a way of understanding or influencing the world as a whole” (Brody, Eden 234). On their own home turf, Fevvers and, especially, Lizzie are shamans. The sword, the clock and the handbag are talismans of their shamanic power. Without them, they are lost, as Lizzie well knows:
'Prepare yourself for the worst, gel; we've lost the bloody clock, haven't we. ... First your sword, now my clock. We'll soon lose all track of time, and then what will become of us. Nelson's clock. Gone. And that's not all. My handbag. That's gone too.' (226)
In the context of London, which is referred to, in true shamanic fashion, as Fevvers' “natural mother” (36), their magic makes sense, but “[a]s soon as we turned our backs on the train ... we were translated into another world, thrust into the hearts of limbo to which we had no map.”(225) Their sort of “household magic” (199) holds no sway in this strange land; they aren't powerless because they've lost their talismans, they've lost their talismans because they're powerless.
That Carter recognises the limitations of shamanic authority is evident in the narrator's observations about what Carter has called the Shaman's “epistemology” (Haffenden 88):
And even when his eyes were open, you might have said the Shaman 'lived in a dream.' But so did they all. They shared a common dream, which was their world and it should rather be called an 'idea' than a 'dream,' since it constituted their entire sense of lived reality, which impinged on real reality only inadvertently.
This world, dream, dreamed idea or settled conviction extended upwards, to the heavens, and downwards, into the bowels of the earth and the depths of the lakes and rivers, with all whose tenants they lived on intimate terms. But it did not extend laterally. It did not, could not take into account any other interpretation of the world, or dream, which was not their own one. ... The Shaman's cosmogony, for all its complexity of forms, impulses and states of being perpetually in flux, was finite just because it was a human invention and possessed none of the implausibility of authentic history. And 'history' was a concept with which they were perfectly unfamiliar, as, indeed, they were with any kind of geography except the mystically four-dimensional one they invented for themselves.
They knew the space they saw. They believed in a space they apprehended. (253)
Aidan Day takes passages such as this one as indications of Carter's valuing of rationalism over “[t]he absurdity of the Shaman's belief in what constitutes mystical truth” (Day 188). Day takes Carter's evaluation of shamanism to be “scornful” (Day 187) and claims that “Carter's wild fables and the pungency of her style may disguise the extent to which her feminism is grounded in the values of reason” (Day 12). In his zeal to squeeze Carter's novel into his thesis, Day misses several boats at once and perpetrates an almost perverse misreading of her world-view.
Far from wishing to “disguise” her fondness for reason in Nights, Carter puts it everywhere on display. Fevvers learns to fly not by magical means, but from observing pigeons “in the minutest detail” (31) and through Lizzie's mathematical calculations (32); Ma Nelson's brothel is an “academy ... governed by a sweet and loving reason” (39); and Fevvers insists that she is “a rational being” who “took in [her] rationality with [Lizzie's] milk” (225). Indeed, it makes as much (or as little) sense to claim that Carter's reason-grounded feminism may disguise the extent to which her vision is indebted to shamanic mysticism, as the obverse. Rather, with a chronic dialectician such as Carter, it makes more sense to say that rationalism and mysticism are in a tensile relationship, housed within an epistemology that is sufficiently capacious to contain both, while exempting neither from criticism. Or, as Carter herself says in the same interview Day uses to bolster his claims about her anti-shamanic disposition, “everything is relative—you see the world differently from different places. You cannot make any statements which are universally true” (Haffenden 94). The Siberian tribe is no more incapable of understanding European ways than Fevvers and Lizzie are of hunter-gatherer mores.
Day says that Lizzie's is “not the Enlightenment reason of egocentricity, exclusion and oppression” (Day 182). Which is well taken, but what Day doesn't seem to realize is that it is not such a reason precisely because it incorporates the irrational. As Fevvers observes, “when she puts two and two together sometimes she comes up with five ... How does she reconcile her politics with her hanky-panky? Don't ask me!” (225) Although Lizzie remains suspicious of the “somewhat backward and superstitious folk,” she encounters in Siberia and she takes pains to educate them in midwifery, she nevertheless looks to their amulet bags for a potential replacement for her lost handbag (293). The thoroughly rational, sceptical Walser, meanwhile, must lose his wits in order to become a shaman, but it is through the practice of shamanism that he is able to find and reconstruct himself. Even if it is not an epistemology to which he can remain committed once his memory and sanity return, it is the antithesis through which he must pass to achieve dialectical synthesis and become the sort of “new man” fit to love Fevvers.
Even if one discounts the manifest influence of shamanism on the style and structure of the novel as a whole, Carter's explicit statements about shamanic belief systems, both in Nights and in other venues, hardly amount to “mockery” (Day 190) as Day maintains. The passage quoted above is strikingly similar in substance and tone to respectful descriptions of shamanistic practice in the writings of Brody and Bringhurst, particularly if you do not, as Day does, ignore what precedes it:
As far as seeing went, they made good use of their eyes. Tracks of bird and beast upon the snow were legends they descried like writing. They read the sky to know from which direction wind, snow and the thaw would come. Stars were their compasses. The wilderness that seemed a bundle of blank paper to the ignorant, urban eye was the encyclopedia, packed with information, they consulted every day for every need, conning the landscape as if it were an instruction manual of universal knowledge of the 'Inquire within' type. They were illiterate only in the literal sense and, as far as the theory and accumulation of knowledge were concerned, they were pedants.
The Shaman was the pedant of pedants. There was nothing vague about his system of belief. His type of mystification necessitated hard, if illusory, fact, and his mind was stocked with concrete specifics. With what passionate academicism he devoted himself to assigning phenomena their rightful places in his subtle and intricate theology! (252-253)
Like Day, Brian Finney misses the mark when he sees the Shaman's cosmology as absurd (Finney 182) and says that he “exists almost entirely in a world of dreams and fantasy” (Finney 178). The Shaman and his people might “live in a dream,” but they are also “pragmatic as all hell” (253). Nor does the tribespeople's reverence for dreaming consign them to intellectual irrelevance. Carter has said that “dreams are real as dreams ... there's a materiality to imaginative life and imaginative experience which should be taken quite seriously” (Haffenden 85). And so the roles of dreams, song, dance and mythopoeic stories in Nights have to be taken more seriously than Finney and especially Day do.
Angela Carter has said that “Nights at the Circus is using the whole of western European culture as though it were an oral tradition” (Haffenden 92). The flip side to this is treating the oral tradition as though it were literature. And the synthesis of these two approaches, like a Cockney Venus with feathered wings, is a postmodern novel that is oral story and an oral story that is postmodern novel, where intertextual escapade meets prototextual primordial narrative. Standard expectations for initiated exegetes of postmodern literature are irony and pastiche. Such readers can easily come away from Nights with their expectations undisturbed. But Nights is so thoroughly preoccupied with dissimulation, duplicity and disguise that readers should be wary of falling into the trap of believing too readily what they see. Early in the book's first section, Walser recalls a fakir in Kathmandu who asked him rhetorically, “what ... would be the point of the illusion if it looked like an illusion? For, opined the old charlatan to Walser with po-faced solemnity, is not this whole world an illusion? And yet it fools everybody” (16). The novel ends with Fevvers marvelling that she has fooled Walser (295). Nights is as much reconstruction as it is deconstruction, a reflection of Carter's belief that “more and more we need to know who we were in greater and greater detail in order to be able to surmise what we might be” (Carter, Virago x). Given the weight of evidence, it is hard to resist the idea that Carter has created a kind of repro shamanic tale for the postmodern age, a book that must mask its nature—that must pose as a fake—in order to be believed. And so the novel seems to have fooled many critics into thinking it is about one thing or another, when in fact it is concerned, in proper shamanic fashion, with the integrated totality of things, or, to borrow Carter's own phrase, with the “mystical four-dimensional” (253) geography she has invented for herself. And for those who hearken well to her tale.
Bringhurst, Robert. Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking. Kentville: Gaspereau Press, 2007. Print.
___. A Story As Sharp As a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World. Masterworks of the classical Haida mythtellers, v. 1. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2002. Print.
Brody, Hugh. Maps and Dreams: Indians and the British Columbia Frontier. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1981. Print.
___. The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers and the Shaping of the World. New York: North Point Press, 2000. Print.
Carroll, Rachel. “Return of the Century: Time, Modernity, and the End of History in Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus.” The Yearbook of English Studies. 30 (2000): 187-201. Web.
Carter, Angela. Expletives Deleted. London: Chatto & Windus, 1992. Print.
___. Nights at the Circus. London: Penguin, 1986. Print.
___. The Virago Book of Fairy Tales. London: Virago, 1990. Print
Day, Aidan. Angela Carter: The Rational Glass. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1998. Print.
Finney, Brian H. “Tall Tales and Brief Lives: Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus.” The Journal of Narrative Technique 28.2 (Spring 1998): 161-185. Print.
Ghandl of the Qayahl Llanas and Robert Bringhurst. Nine Visits to the Mythworld: Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas. Masterworks of the classical Haida mythtellers, v. 2. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2000. Print.
Haffenden, John. Novelists in Interview: Martin Amis, Malcolm Bradbury, Anita Brookner, Angela Carter, William Golding, Russell Hoban, David Lodge, Ian Mcewan, Iris Murdoch, V.s. Pritchett, Salman Rushdie, David Storey, Emma Tennant, Fay Weldon. New York: Methuen, 1985. Print.
Katsavos, Anna. “An Interview with Angela Carter.” Review of Contemporary Fiction. 14.3 (1994). 11- 17. Web.
Peach, Linden. Angela Carter. New York: St. Martin's, 1998. Print.
Sage, Lorna. “Introduction.” Flesh and the Mirror: Essays on the Art of Angela Carter. Ed. Lorna Sage. London: Virago Press, 1994. 1-23. Print.
Sceats, Sarah. “Flights of Fancy: Angela Carter's Transgressive Narratives.” A Companion to Magical Realism. Stephen M. Hart & Wen-chin Ouyang, eds. Rochester: Boydell & Brewer, 2005. 142- 150. Print.
Toye, Margaret. “Eating Their Way Out of Patriarchy: Consuming the Female Panopticon in Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus.” Women's Studies. 36.7 (2007): 477-506. Web.
Armstrong, Isobel. “Woolf by the Lake, Woolf at the Circus: Carter and Tradition.” Flesh and the Mirror: Essays on the Art of Angela Carter. Ed. Lorna Sage. London: Virago Press, 1994. 257- 278. Print.
Gass, Joanne M. “Angela Carter: an Introduction.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction. 14.3 (1994): 7-95. Web.
Michael, Magali C. “Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus: an Engaged Feminism Via Subversive Postmodern Strategies.” Contemporary Literature. 35.3 (1994): 492-521. Web.
O'Brien, Wendy. “Feminine Freakishness: Carnivalesque Bodies in Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus.”Genders. 44 (2006): 38. Web.
Punter, David. “Angela Carter's Magic Realism.” Acheson, James and Sarah C.E. Ross (ed. and introd.), The Contemporary British Novel since 1980. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 48- 58. Print.
Reeds, Kenneth. “Magical Realism: a Problem of Definition.” Neophilologus. 90.2 (2006): 175-96. Web.
Warner, Marina. “Angela Carter: Bottle Blonde, Double Drag.” Flesh and the Mirror: Essays on the Art of Angela Carter. Ed. Lorna Sage. London: Virago Press, 1994. 243-56. Print.
1They tend also to focus more on Carter's short fiction, in which her engagement with fairy tales is most explicit.
2A concern also evident, for example, in Carter's introduction to the Virago Book of Fairy Tales: “[T]his last century has seen the most fundamental change in human culture since the Iron Age—the final divorce from the land” (Carter, Virago xxi-xxii).
3Which might account for why her academic vogue has waned as Second Wave feminism has been, to a great extent, superseded by the less radical Third Wave.
4By this, I don't mean to say that these dimensions are somehow “unfeminist” or “anti-feminist,” but rather that they are not immediately related to feminism.
5Brian Finney is one critic who shifts the discussion away from exclusively feminist discourse when he says that “Nights at the Circus takes as its subject the hypnotic power of narrative, the ways in which we construct ourselves and our world by narrative means” (Finney 161). This is a thesis germane to my analysis of Nights, but Finney misses the mark when it comes to Carter's take on shamanism, as I will argue below.
6And, in many cases, at least deaf to the literary merits of literature that has been created beyond the bounds of print culture, if not actively dismissive of such art forms.
7As Margaret Toye has said, “Most of the criticism on the novel focuses on the character of Fevvers” (Toye 483). This is understandable, as Fevvers certainly commands attention, but regrettable nonetheless, as the book is so rich with story and incident.
8As Lorna Sage puts it, Carter “multiplied and distributed and so strengthened the authorial voice, and this is why, I think, her writing resists the orthodox strategies of deconstruction. You can make it sound like écriture féminine only if you don't quote much” (Sage 20).
9If it is difficult to imagine the intrepid doctoral candidate who might write a thesis entitled, say, Myth and Magic: The Shamanistic Ethos in the Works of Ted Hughes and Angela Carter, it is perhaps more challenging still to conjure in the mind the scholar willing to supervise such a thesis.
10But neither is she so thoroughly wedded to rationality as Aidan Day would have us believe, about which more anon.
11Even if Peach's use of “European” is problematically limiting.
12Most of my examples will be drawn from North American shamanic societies, but the general tenets of shamanism apply as much to one shamanic society as to any other, as anthropologist Hugh Brody argues in his book The Other Side of Eden. Many of the qualities of North American shamanisms, for example, can be seen in the rites and artwork of Australian aborigines, as described by Bruce Chatwin in The Songlines.
13I recognise that it is problematic to use the term “myth” in connection with Carter's fiction, since she herself balked at this, insisting that she was “in the demythologizing business” (Katsavos 11). That said, readers must be wary of taking an author's commentary as the final authority on any aspect of her work. Carter herself reminds us of this:
“'Never trust the teller, trust the tale,' said D.H. Lawrence, and he was right, even if he did not want this to happen to his tales. If you read the tale carefully, the tale tells you more than the writer knows, often much more than they wanted to give away. The tale tells you, in all innocence, what its writer thinks is important, who she or he thinks is important and, above all, why. Call it the sub-text.” (Carter, Expletives 3)
I would say, besides, that Carter was speaking against a rather narrow idea of what constitutes a “myth.” Bringhurst calls Ghandl a “mythteller” (Ghandl 22) and I see no good reason not to extend that label to Carter, given, as I will demonstrate, the mutual affinities of their techniques.
14As I say above, I do not mean to assert that there is a perfect equivalence between Nights and shamanic myths. Carter's novel is set as much in historical time as it is in mythtime, and this distinguishes it from most of Ghandl's stories. Nevertheless, a generic distinction made by Bringhurst between two different types of story told by Ghandl renders homologous comparisons all the more persuasive. Eight of the tales collected in Nine Visits to the Mythworld are, as Bringhurst explains, qqaygaang, which are set exlusively in mythtime (Ghandl 23). One of the stories, however, is “a qqayaagaang, a story in which mythtime coexists with historical time” (Ghandl 23), which seems to me a perfect encapsulation of Nights.
15Even such patently postmodern narrative species as historiographic metafiction and neo-Victorian pastiche are by no means incompatible with the flexibly accommodating values of shamanic belief systems. Carter refers to the tribespeople's “flexible and resilient mythology”(265), which is demonstrated by the Shaman's cousin's ability to “assimilate... the design motifs [of Old Glory] with the traditional iconography of the tribe” (266). This chimes nicely with what Hugh Brody says about shamans' capacity to fold new myths into their established cosmogony: “For the shamans, Christianity offered new spirits, unfamiliar but not false ... they had not heard of this new region of the supernatural, but they were easily able to add it to the supernatural possibilities they already knew about” (Brody, Eden 236-237).
16I acknowledge that it is dubious to use the word “same” here, lest one stray too far into the totalising fallacy that if you know one oral storytelling tradition, you know them all. That said, Boas's findings that certain story patterns and motifs could be found in geographically disparate regions (Boas 635), alongside observations such as Bringhurst's about the ubiquity of the Swan Maiden storyline, indicate that a basic commonality underlies particular regional variations. Carter's knowledge of folklore and myth was by no means limited to Europe, as the varied contents of her fairy tale anthologies indicate, so I do not think this is a terribly problematic statement.
17The seemingly unplanned meander of Carter's narrative bears a lovely and, I would argue, not entirely coincidental, resemblance to Hugh Brody's description of a hunting trip with Athapaskan natives in the north of British Columbia:
The Athapaskan hunter will move in a direction and at a time that are determined by a sense of weather (to indicate a variable that is easily grasped if all too easily oversimplified by the one word) and by a sense of rightness. He will also have ideas about animal movement, his own and others' patterns of land use ... But already the nature of the hunter's decision making is being misrepresented by this kind of listing. To disconnect the variables, to compartmentalize the thinking, is to fail to acknowledge its sophistication and completeness. He considers variables as a composite, in parallel, and with the help of a blending of the metaphysical and the obviously pragmatic. To make a good, wise, sensible hunting choice is to accept the interconnection of all possible factors, and avoids the mistake of seeking rationally to focus on any one consideration that is held as primary. What is more, the decision is taken in the doing: there is no step or pause between theory and practice. As a consequence, the decision—like the action from which it is inseparable—is always alterable (and therefore may not properly even be termed a decision). The hunter moves in a chosen direction; but, highly sensitive to so many shifting considerations, he is always ready to change his directions. (Brody, Maps 37)
18A shift that, significantly, mirrors the movement from the historical time of London in 1899 to the mythtime of Fevvers' narrative in the first section of Nights.