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About this book

Woman as gorgon, woman as temptress: the classical and biblical mythology which has dominated Western thinking defines women in a variety of patriarchally encoded roles. This study addresses the surprising persistence of mythical influence in contemporary fiction. Opening with the question 'what is myth?', the first section provides a wide-ranging review of mythography. It traces how myths have been perceived and interpreted by such commentators as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Bruno Bettelheim, Roland Barthes, Jack Zipes and Marina Warner. This leads to an examination of the role that mythic narrative plays in social and self formation, drawing on the literary, feminist and psychoanalytic theories of Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Helene Cixous and Judith Butler to delineate the ways in which women's mythos can transcend the limitations of logos and give rise to potent new models for individual and cultural regeneration.
In this light, Susan Sellers offers challenging new readings of a wide range of contemporary women's fiction, including works by A. S. Byatt, Angela Carter, Anne Rice, Michele Roberts, Emma Tennant and Fay Weldon. Topics explored include fairy tale as erotic fiction, new religious writing, vampires and gender-bending, mythic mothers, genre fiction, the still-persuasive paradigm of feminine beauty, and the radical potential of comedy.

Table of Contents

1. Contexts

Theories of Myth
Abstract
Dictionaries are always a useful place to start, even if only to provide a jumping-off point for disagreement and quibble. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a surprisingly short definition of the word ‘myth’. It states it is ‘a purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions, or events, and embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena’. It points out that as a consequence it can mean ‘a fictitious or imaginary person or object’, and that there is the subsidiary meaning in standard usage of ‘an untrue or popular tale, a rumour’. In this instance, the dictionary definition does not advance us very far, since its insistence on the ‘purely fictitious’ appears to override the complex interactions between life and story that seem the generating force of myth even while its inclusion of the ‘popular’ returns it to the common domain. Perhaps mythographers will provide us with more fruitful descriptions.
Susan Sellers

2. The Double-Voice of Laughter

Metamorphosing Monsters and Rescripting Female Desire in A. S. Byatt’s ‘The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye’ and Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She Devil
Abstract
In Apuleius’ comedy The Golden Ass or Metamorphoses, written in the second century CE, the love-stricken Pamphile employs magic to transform herself into a bird in order to procure her man.3 The narrator Lucius is fascinated by her art and begs Pamphile’s servant to steal some of her ointment so that he may try the metamorphosis himself. Unfortunately the servant mistakes the jar and Lucius is changed into an ass, giving rise to a series of savagely comic social satires. ‘The Story of Cupid and Psyche’ which The Golden Ass contains reiterates the themes of female desire and bodily representation in forms that have become familiar to us as fairy tales.4 In Apuleius’ version, Psyche is the youngest daughter of a king and queen, whose beauty is so great it arouses the envy of Venus. The goddess accordingly commands her son Cupid to strike Psyche with one of his arrows so that she will instantly fall in love with a ‘degraded’ creature.5 Venus’ plan is foiled by Cupid himself who wounds his own body with the arrow and becomes Psyche’s lover. Ignorant of these divine schemes, Psyche is conducted to a mysterious and beautiful palace where her every need is attended to and where each night Cupid makes love to her.
Susan Sellers

3. Re-Creation in Other Love

Myth-Breaking and Myth-Making in Christine Crow’s Miss X or the Wolf Woman and Hélène Cixous’s The Book of Promethea
Abstract
In Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play ‘The Love of the Nightingale’, the myth of Philomela, raped by her brother-in-law Tereus and then prevented from revealing what has happened by the violent removal of her tongue, is restaged to depict the difficulties but also the necessity of endeavouring to tell the truth. In Ovid’s version of the myth, Philomela finally communicates her story by weaving her experience into an intricate cloth which her sister deciphers.4 The obstacles to speech figured in the mythical Philomela’s mutilation are compounded in Wertenbaker’s play by a recognition of the inadequacies of language itself. As the female chorus argues, words can only grope towards answers when confronted with such brutalities as the eagle’s daily devouring of Prometheus’ liver or the rape of young girls in city car parks. Yet despite the problems, what Wertenbaker’s reworking elucidates is that if the questions remain unasked then the future is lost, as inexorably as the mythical Tereus’ son Itys — explicitly identified by the chorus as the future — is murdered and eaten by his father as punishment for his crime. In the play, the questions have been silenced for the sake of order. As Philomel’s sister Procne says to her husband: ‘I obeyed all the rules’.5 Adherence to the rules, coupled with the apparent impossibility of determining alternative paths, is equally shown to be Tereus’ predicament, since he has ‘loved’ Philomel according to the codes of violence and domination he has been taught. Wertenbaker’s drama ends, like Ovid’s tale, with the metamorphosis of all three characters into birds, a mythic allusion that here signals the possibility of hope since it prompts the still living Itys to ask a question.6
Susan Sellers

4. Becoming Gods and Umbilical Wordbows

The New Hagiography of Michèle Roberts
Abstract
In Michèle Roberts’s Impossible Saints, the central character Josephine is taken as a child to a festival at which she sees a fat lady attempting to walk across a wire she has hung between two parked wagons.3 The fat lady is a ridiculous figure in her gaudy costume and the crowd for the most part ignore her, but Josephine is entranced as she watches the fat lady delicately launch herself into the dangerous space ahead, twirling her wand for balance. Josephine cries at the fat lady’s daring to be more than herself as she progresses across the wire, and she realises, as she recalls the incident some thirty years later, that her own life by contrast has been circumscribed by fear and that her religious vocation is a lie. The terror the Church has induced her to feel is graphically illustrated, as Josephine remembers how a few hours after seeing the fat lady she watched the heretics sentenced to death by the Inquisition being tied to their stakes. The wood for the heretics’ fires came from the wagons the fat lady used to secure her wire, and as the flames kindle it seems to Josephine that they consume her intrepid, pirouetting figure.
Susan Sellers

5. Unlimited Horror

Vampires, Sex-Slaves and Paragons of the Feminine in Anne Rice and Emma Tennant
Abstract
When Mina Murray in Bram Stoker’s Dracula meets the old sailor in the graveyard overlooking Whitby bay, he categorically rejects all instances of the supernatural as clever inventions designed to scare or coerce.4 Despite the versimilitude of Stoker’s narration, which intersperses eyewitness accounts with corroborating newspaper extracts and correspondence from estate and transport agencies, the return to order at the end of the novel tends to confirm the old sailor’s assessment. David Rogers, in an introduction to Dracula, suggests that while its author drew on an existing mythology of werewolves and nosferatu, Stoker’s achievement in his tale of the villanous Count was to voice the anxieties of an age.5 Rogers argues that the infecting, shape-shifting, evil menace of the Count incarnates the fears of late Victorian patriachy, as the certainties of male privilege, class hierarchy, rationality and the Bible were increasingly called into doubt.6 In Dracula, such apprehensions are effectively assuaged as Christianity and its self-appointed group of male protectors put an end to the Count’s career. That this is the triumph of good over evil is made clear by Dr Van Helsing’s description of the group as the ‘ministers of God’s own wish’ and by the proliferation of hellish images employed to depict the Count.7
Susan Sellers

6. Bodies of Power

Beauty Myths in Tales by Marina Warner, Emma Donoghue, Sheri Tepper and Alice Thompson
Abstract
In Marina Warner’s rewriting of the story of the Queen of Sheba, the legend of the Queen’s beauty is appropriately intertwined with an analysis of the power relations that underscored her famous meeting with King Solomon.3 This is signalled right at the start of Warner’s retelling, as the modern-day narrator outlines how Solomon’s letter to Sheba warned her of retribution if she failed to yield to his suzerainty. Warner’s narrator is a female academic, attending a conference in Jerusalem with a group of male colleagues. The tale opens with the narrator hastily hiding the various beauty items she has brought with her so that she can take her turn in hosting a drink in her hotel bedroom. Despite her precautions, she quickly finds herself revealing details of women’s beauty procedures in an uncomfortable endeavour to join in the men’s sexist banter. Her desire to be approved of prompts her to display her legs, an action that explicitly recalls the trick Solomon played on Sheba in order to glimpse what lay beneath her skirts. After her colleagues have left, Warner’s narrator upbraids herself for forgetting her feminism in her attempt to curry favour, and ponders the complicated causality that leads women to betray their sex. In her own case, she remembers her mother’s ruthless ‘assassination’ of other women’s bodies in her discussions with her friends and the impact their implied ideal had on her own emerging sense of herself as female.4 This more subtle power nexus, identified by the narrator in the light of her contemporary experience, is then shown to operate in the legend of Sheba alongside the discernible dynamic of the relative inferiority of Sheba’s country. In Warner’s version, Solomon’s freezing of the river into an ice mirror over which Sheba must walk is interpreted in terms of the irregularity of Sheba’s position as a beautiful, wise, comparatively wealthy, single woman: she must be a sorcerer’s illusion, the djinns whisper to Solomon, with diabolic hooves and hairy legs.
Susan Sellers

7. New Myths or Old?

Angela Carter’s Mirrors and Mothers
Abstract
In Angela Carter’s perplexing tale ‘Reflections’, the male narrator is forced to kiss himself in a mirror.3 Since he fully expects the reflected lips to be cold and lifeless, he is astonished when he discovers that they are warm and moist and that the embrace excites his sexual desire. The narrator is drawn through the mirror by the kiss, into the antithetical domain of its other side. Despite the strange, topsyturviness of this realm, where the reversed laws require the narrator to do the opposite to what he intends, it quickly becomes impossible for the narrator to distinguish between the real world and its reflection. Carter’s precise, elaborate descriptions make the hold this mirror world exerts over the narrator entirely convincing.
Susan Sellers

Conclusion

Abstract
Christine Brooke-Rose’s novel Amalgamemnon is set in the nightmare world of the future in which computers controlled by an elite of ‘technomaniacs’ rule.3 As the ex-‘literature history philosophy’ teacher who narrates the fiction outlines, this is a ‘technoidideology’ — a pun that indicates the frightening impersonality of the machine-controlled ideology which prevents any criticism or counter-thought.4 Despite the narrator’s initial insistence that the ancient Greek myth of Agamemnon can have no place in such a scheme, her narrative finally upholds the necessity of such stories as a crucial means of survival and escape.5
Susan Sellers
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