Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Angela Carter

Angela Carter, born 7/5/1940, Eastbourne, UK

It would have pleased Angela Carter's mythopoeic imagination that she came into the world under a perfect new moon: both the sun and the moon are on 16 Taurus.* Such imagination was a quality not unique to her; as she wrote: 'My mother learned that she was carrying me at about the same time the Second World War was declared; with the family talent for magic realism, she once told me she had been to the doctor's on the very day.'

It's a curious thing in a chart when the sun and moon are conjunct. 'Forward to the past!' might be the motto, as the individual's sense of rootedness and embodied memory will ineluctably blend with their sense of who they are, their personal essence. Carter, famed for her sinister, erotic neo-fairy tales, may well have felt that the ancestral folk-memory really was somehow somatised and incarnated in her own triumphantly earthy being.

Her chart is an odd shape. There's a huge stellium (or planet cluster) in Taurus - Mercury, Saturn, Sun, Moon and Uranus all huddling together, with Jupiter just over in Aries - and then we find Neptune and Pluto swung out to one side. Accordingly, this is an extremely 'earthy' chart: the other elements are all relatively weak. This intense concentration on earth evokes the baroque celebration of the mundane in Carter's writing, her heady ability to work mud and blood into her otherwise very mannered and super-sophisticated prose. If one reads the eerie opening of her short-story 'Erl-King', with its haunting evocation of an English wood in late autumn, one can see Carter-the-daemonic-nature-writer shimmering behind the opalescent hauteur of the style:

The lucidity, the clarity of the light that afternoon was sufficient to itself; perfect transparency must be impenetrable, these vertical bars of a brass-coloured distillation of light coming down from sulphur-yellow interstices in a sky hunkered with grey clouds that bulge with more rain. It struck the wood with nicotine-stained fingers, the leaves glittered. A cold day of late October, when the withered blackberries dangled like their own dour spooks on the discoloured brambles. There were crisp husks of beechmast and cast acorn cups underfoot in the russet slime of dead bracken where the rains of the equinox had so soaked the earth that the cold oozed up through the soles of the shoes, lancinating cold of the approach of winter that grips hold of your belly and squeezes it tight. Now the stark elders have an anorexic look; there is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile but it is not yet, not quite yet, the saddest time of the year. Only, there is a haunting sense of the imminent cessation of being; the year, in turning, turns in on itself. Introspective weather, a sickroom hush.

The woods enclose. You step between the first trees and then you are no longer in the open air; the wood swallows you up. There is no way through the wood any more, this wood has reverted to its original privacy. Once you are inside it, you must stay there until it lets you out again for there is no clue to guide you through in perfect safety; grass grew over the track years ago and now the rabbits and the foxes make their own runs in the subtle labyrinth and nobody comes. The trees stir with a noise like taffeta skirts of women who have lost themselves in the woods and hunt round hopelessly for the way out. Tumbling crows play tig in the branches of the elms they clotted with their nests, now and then raucously cawing. A little stream with soft margins of marsh runs through the wood but it has grown sullen with the time of the year; the silent, blackish water thickens, now, to ice. All will fall still, all lapse.

Prose as purple as rotting elderberries, that. One senses that Carter's taurean Mercury liked to hoard words like trinkets, cherishing dialect words and obsolete terms for the tackle and trim of various trades. (She once wrote a story entirely in incomprehensible Victorian street-slang, for the fun of it.) There's almost a hunger to possess - a Taurus keyword - language, rubbing words as though they were pieces of smooth bottle-glass on the tideline, grubby and history-filled. One gets a sense of what it was in the Victorian underworld that so drew Carter: muckiness and industry, practical ambition, death everywhere and sex omnipresent but taboo. Her earthiness is everywhere in her writing, and Marina Warner got her exactly right when she likened Carter to purple loosestife, an 'unruly wild flower, a native to England, which self-seeds and flourishes in damp ground.' (Signs and Wonders: Essays on Literature and Culture, p. 52). Further, that taurean sensuality and love of beauty is not just present in evocations of sex and nature: Carter could write most wonderfully about food as well, producing several pieces of exquisitely evocative journalism on the effect of Elizabeth David's cookery writing on the post-war British palate and imagination. She also continued to write for Vogue surprisingly late into her literary career.

Her Sun~Moon conjunction has interesting implications for gender. Normally the Moon encodes something of an individual's 'mother-image', just as the Sun will tend to reflect, on one level, an individual's sense of their own father. For Carter, they are fused, functioning entirely as one. I suspect that this is germane to Carter's feminism, her fearless and profound interest in what makes men and women different. Male and female were not instinctively polarised to her, as they are to most people who have the Sun and Moon in different signs. Hence perhaps her forensic analysis of the mythic masculine and feminine, of the sexes' round of predation, seduction, union and separation. This analysis could be mordantly unsentimental: 'Mother goddesses are just as silly a notion as father gods. If a revival of the myths of these cults gives woman emotional satisfaction, it does so at the price of obscuring the real conditions of life. This is why they were invented in the first place.'

The Sun~Moon conjunction is also joined by Uranus, suggesting Carter's electric imagination and the fact that her fictions are always heading towards the surprise, the unexpected transformation, the kill or the thrill - though she was a genius of pacing, she is never a writer of drawing-room longeurs.

All three planets are trine Neptune and sextile Chiron. This marks a selfhood that is unavoidably keyed-in to the collective vision, to the archetypal, to that which is more than individual. These energies, especially that of Uranus, can be chillingly dissociative. In other words, if people identify with them - and it is hard not to when they are in close aspect to the Sun and Moon - they can inflate and swamp the personal individuality. People (as Clare Martin has wisely said) can 'start to believe that [they] are omniscient (Uranus), omnipresent (Neptune) or omnipotent (Pluto).' But they also put us in touch with humanity as a collective - as one species, connected by Jung's Collective Unconscious. These archetypal, impersonal influences can be immensely hard to integrate, and it's no wonder they occur very frequently in the charts of creative artists. In Carter's chart, this is not a kindly set of aspects, despite Neptune's reputation for 'universal compassion': they point rather to an imagination with a tendency to a kind of impersonal universalism - it's interesting that she made the fairy tale, that most archetypal of genres, her own. I wonder if she tended to see herself as 'great creating nature': human sympathy was not her strongest suit, certainly in her fictions with their unexpected and merciless dénouements. As she said: 'Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people' - a Uranian sentiment if ever there was one.

But heavy emphases in one sign tend to constellate their opposite: all this Taurus causes Scorpio to be dragged around like a shadow. Taurus~Scorpio is the fundamental polarity of sex and death. In Carter's chart, Pluto (ruler of Scorpio) is squaring Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn, suggesting an intensely plutonic cast of mind - a mind adept with wounding words, the urge to lance the boil, to navigate the hidden shadow-side of life and explore the perverse places where sex and death and power fall together. Carter was deeply interested in the darker side of sexuality, and her fiction abounds in disquietingly sado-masochistic explorations of beauty-as-control and sex-as-murder. (One of her most famous works is in fact entitled The Sadeian Woman.) Warner writes: '...she had an uneasy relationship to mainstream feminism in its Seventies shape: far too curious about perversity, masochism, collusion in women, far too enthralled by make-up and fashions and spectacle and performance for those days'. (Signs and Wonders, p. 50)

By way of an illustration, take this passage from 'The Lady in the House of Love':

Wearing an antique bridal gown, the beautiful queen of the vampires sits all alone in her dark, high house under the eyes of the portraits of her demented and atrocious ancestors, each one of whom, through her, projects a baleful posthumous existence; she counts out the Tarot cards, ceaselessly construing a constellation of possibilities as if the random fall of the cards on the red plush tablecloth before her could precipitate her from her chill, shuttered room into a country of perpetual summer and obliterate the perennial sadness of a girl who is both death and the maiden.

Her voice is filled with distant sonorities, like reverberations in a cave: now you are at the place of annihilation, now you are at the place of annihilation. And she is herself a cave full of echoes, she is a system of repetitions, she is a closed circuit.' Can a bird sing only the song it knows or can it learn a new song?' She draws her long, sharp fingernail across the bars of the cage in which her pet lark sings, striking a plangent twang like that of the plucked heartstrings of a woman of metal. Her hair falls down like tears.

That's the authentically plutonic, rather Jacobean fondess for fusing bedchamber and charnel-house. Also deeply plutonic is Carter's fondness for fatal structure in her fiction, for the inevitability and recurring motifs of fairy tales. She was a writer whose subterranean, seething but controlled Saturn~Pluto square (an aspect traditionally associated with personal cruelty) could see beauty in formal horror. I find interesting that in a piece of criticism she derided H. P. Lovecraft for his horror writing, for two reasons. First, for his naivety; she saw that Lovecraft thought of evil as visible horror, and no one with a strong Pluto could fall for that one. Secondly, she wrinkled her nose at his sheer gloopiness, his childishly putrid slimes. She was a hard-edged writer; in contrast to Lovecraft, her kind of horror is the lurid glamour of the knife in the hand of the insane surgeon, always with the frisson of style - not deliquescence and gunk.

I find the influence of Japan on her imagination very revealing here - Carter fled to Tokyo after the collapse of her first marriage, and several stories in the collection Fireworks are set there. The formal violence of Sepukku, for example, is wonderfully Carterian. Living in Japan apparently enabled her to focus her observation, to dissociate from England and see it from outside; this practice of writerly self-estrangement is also encoded in her incredibly strong outer-planet aspects.

Indeed, and to conclude, I think it's Neptune which is probably the key-planet in this chart, as is very common in creative people. Neptune is visionary experience, the transcendent, the fecundity of the imagination, fantasy, the depths of the unconscious, mother-as-maw, womb and tomb together, dissolution, sacrifice and rebirth, the oceanic and pre-verbal: it is the archetypal symbol of 'the hidden room, the room that exists in dreams', as Warner described Carter's writings. Carter herself was well-aware of this, once scorning conventional pedagogy as 'toilet training for the id'. She was intimately familiar with the hidden dimension whence her writing issued, and that it represented condensing roiling archetypal material and polishing it, until it was very hard, darkly lustrous, and very sharp.

* * *

*I don't have Carter's birthtime, so the chart is set for noon. As a result, the moon may have been two or three degrees either side of 16 Taurus when she was born. One wonders too what her rising sign was - I'm inclined to suspect Libra, given her aestheticism and love of glamour, which would place the Taurus stellium in the 8th house, that of sex and death, and would site that vital Neptune powerfully in the 12th house, the house of the mysterious, the unconscious, the family past. This would imply a birthtime of c. 4.30pm. Indeed of the three watery houses - the 4th, the 8th, and the 12th - it occurs to me that planets in the 4th represent those aspects of the family psyche that are spoken of freely by family members, those in the 8th represent aspects that are unspoken but tactitly understood, and those in the 12th represent those that are unspeakable, hushed by veils of taboo and shame. So a family tendency to fly hysterically off the handle - alarming to outsiders but seen as rather amusing within the family - would be a 4th house matter. The fact that Great Aunt Mildred had an affair in the 70s and left Uncle Tony for a few months to live with a bricklayer, but eventually returned - that's an 8th house matter. But a situation of incest or child-abuse back in the family tree would be a 12th house thing.

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