Heroes and Villains by Angela Carter

Penguin 1988 cover by James Marsh

A few Mewsings ago, I reviewed H M Hoover’s Morrow books, in the first of which a pair of children living in a semi-barbarous, post-apocalyptic society escape to the more technologically advanced society of Morrow. In Angela Carter’s (not YA) Heroes and Villains (1969), the opposite happens. Carter’s heroine Marianne (a young woman rather than a child) leaves her home community, a fenced-in remnant of the pre-“blast” civilisation dwelling in the buildings that survived this particular future’s apocalypse — mostly farmers and soldiers with the added “intellectual luxury of a few Professors who corresponded by the trading convoys” — for the wastelands, in the company of a barbarian man, Jewel. Whereas Hoover’s Tia and Rabbit leave because of their telepathic abilities and outsider status, Marianne goes because she’s bored with the possibilities offered to her by her society. She’s always been drawn to the barbarians — by their freedom, their vivacity, their bright colours. In Carter’s post-apocalyptic future, it’s the technological society that’s the most repressive (the soldiers are “developing an autonomous power of their own”, and look set to take over once the last few Professors die out). The barbarians can afford to be more free — in part because they live by raiding the farmers every so often — but are nevertheless beset by disease, physical ailments, and, crucially for Marianne, superstition. Hoover’s Tia left “the Base” because they thought she was a witch; arriving at Jewel’s people’s latest home, Marianne finds herself believed to be a witch, too, and doesn’t even have Tia’s witchy telepathic abilities to make up for it.

Carter, though, is less interested in the differences between the two types of communities, as to the dichotomy Marianne is caught by throughout the book, two poles she can’t escape because she carries them within herself, and often finds difficult to tell apart: desire and need.

Beardsleyesque Graham Percy cover

Jewel takes Marianne to his people, currently living in a large, semi-ruined house beyond the swamps and forests that surround her former home. There, she meets Mrs Green, the tribe’s matriarch, herself an escapee from the world of the Professors. Mrs Green is motherly, and treats everyone as though they were just big children, which, in a sense, they are. But these barbarians also have a dark father-figure in the shape of Doctor Donnelly, a former Professor who, “bored” and “ambitious”, went out into the world and, Kurtz-like, turned himself into a shaman and holy man for this tribe, frightening, guiding, and controlling them with his fits, his visions, and his stuffed snake. He feels like a character that’s appeared in the other Carter novels I’ve read (though quite some time ago), the puppeteer/shop-owner of The Magic Toyshop and the titular doctor from The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffmann. Unpredictable, entirely self-serving, helping Marianne one moment, plotting to poison her the next, Donnelly is undoubtedly the book’s liveliest character, also its most dangerous. He instructs and warns Marianne through a series of slogans daubed above his door, most of which are nonsense, but one of which is:

“OUR NEEDS BEAR NO RELATION TO OUR DESIRES”

Pocket Books PB, cover by Gene Szafran

Marianne is obviously drawn to Jewel, but not quite enough to want to stay with him. When she attempts to escape (after Jewel’s brothers threaten to rape her) Jewel tracks her down and rapes her himself. She’s then brought back to the house and told she’s going to marry Jewel, even though his people are all convinced Marianne is a witch and ought to be burned. (Motherly Mrs Green’s sympathies are all with her boy, Jewel, who she felt had no choice but to do what he did.) Marianne and Jewel spend the rest of the novel alternately hating and needing one another, hurting and healing one another, breaking up and coming together, giving in to each other one moment, struggling and fighting the next. For most of its second half, Heroes and Villains is like being forced to witness the often verging-on-violence tussles of a quarrelsome couple who can’t live together but can’t live apart either. Morrowian telepathy might help, but I can’t help feeling, in Carter’s world, it would only make things worse, as the real battle is within each character, with their own human nature. Carter’s post-blast future is not, like The Death of Grass or Day of the Triffids, an exploration of how easily civilisation might give way to barbarism; it’s more about how the world changes when you grow up and leave the (here) boring world of childhood for the dangerous and never-satisfying world of adulthood, and meet with only frustration, pain, and more boredom:

“Boredom and exhaustion conspired to erode her formerly complacent idea of herself. She could find no logic to account for her presence nor for that of the people around her nor any familiar, sequential logic at all in this shifting world; for that consciousness of reason in which her own had ripened was now withering away and she might soon be prepared to accept, since it was coherent, whatever malign structure of the world with which the shaman who rode the donkey should one day choose to present her.”

And at the heart of it, that constant inner struggle between desire and need:

“Night came; that confusion between need and desire against which she had been warned consumed her. If it was only that she desired him, then it became a simple situation which she could perfectly resolve while continuing to despise him. But if he was necessary to her, that constituted a wholly other situation which raised a constellation of miserable possibilities each one indicating that, willy nilly, she would be changed.”

It’s evident Marianne will never decide one way or the other. She and Jewel sometimes fit each other’s desires, sometimes fit each other’s needs, but rarely for long or at the same time. It’s all rather despairing (“There’s nowhere to go, dear,” said the Doctor. “If there was, I would have found it.”) — and not because this is a post-apocalyptic, ruined version of our world, but because it’s an emotional picture of the world as it can be now, if you’re caught between incompatible desires and needs, and perhaps trapped in a marriage you sometimes want and sometimes hate. The post-apocalyptic wasteland just exists to add that note of hardly-necessary hopelessness to an already hopeless domestic situation. As Mrs Green says:

“It’d be hell with your Dr Donnelly running everything, real hell, no respect for the old or nothing. Only tortures, mutilations and displays of magic.”

I can’t help feeling, though, that Dr Donnelly is running the world in Heroes and Villains, or at least his approach is the only one that works. He’s given up all attempt at being rational and consistent, and has embraced a sort of wilful madness. As a child, Marianne lived in a world of carefully-protected reason; bored with that (and after the death of her father) she left it, to find that nothing would ever be the same again:

“When I was a little girl, we played at heroes and villains but now I don’t know which is which any more… Because nobody can teach me which is which or who is who because my father is dead.”

So, the comparison with H M Hoover’s Children of Morrow is less about the two authors’ ideas on technological as opposed to barbaric societies, and more about differing complexities in their characters’ inner worlds, the simplicity (or not) of their needs and desires, the difference, perhaps, between childhood’s easy answers and adulthood’s impossible questions.

Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

It’s the 1920s and the Mayor of New Orleans, sitting in his office with a good-time girl on his lap, is interrupted by a phone call:

“Harry, you’d better get down here quick. What was once dormant is now a Creeping Thing.”

The “Creeping Thing” is no Lovecraftian entity but a phenomenon called Jes Grew. Arriving at a church that has rapidly been converted into an infirmary, the Mayor learns what’s been happening:

“We got reports from down here that people were doing “stupid sensual things”, were in a state of “uncontrollable frenzy”, were wiggling like fish, doing something called the “Eagle Rock” and the “Sassy Bump”; were cutting a mean “Mooche” and “lusting after relevance.””

Jes Grew — whose name comes from a quote from James Weldon Johnson, “The earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, “jes’ grew”” — is an outbreak of dancing and having a good time, a “psychic epidemic”, a “mighty influence” that “knows no class no race no consciousness”:

“For some, it’s a disease, a plague, but in fact it is an anti-plague.”

Those who see it as “a disease, a plague” are what are known in the novel as Atonists, and they are the ones who are in power in 1920s America. Self-appointed guardians of Western Culture, they are only interested in the dominance and preservation of their monoculture. Jes Grew represents everything that monoculture isn’t:

“…the ancient Vodun aesthetic: pantheistic, becoming, 1 which bountifully permits 1000s of spirits, as many as the imagination can hold.”

In short:

“Individuality. It couldn’t be herded, rounded-up…”

First published in 1972, Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo is a gleeful mix of conspiracy theories, gangster movies, Voodoo magic, and metaphorical history, very much of the same feel as Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s later Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975), which quotes Reed’s book on its title page. Both are clearly products of the 1960’s revolutions in political thinking, consciousness expansion and narrative technique, but whereas Shea and Wilson’s book is (as far as I remember) much more purely a fantasy, Reed’s is grounded in a very real moment of cultural emancipation, the flourishing of African American culture, particularly jazz and blues, between World War I and the Great Depression. (The latter engineered, in Mumbo Jumbo, by the Atonist secret society the Wallflower Order, in a final attempt to kill the free-for-all self-expression of Jes Grew.)

There’s very little on-screen (on-page?) dancing, though, as the narrative focuses on the conflict between Atonist secret societies (the Wallflower Order and, inevitably, the Knights Templar) who want to kill Jes Grew, and those few among the African American communities who realise what’s going on and take steps to try to ensure Jes Grew’s success. Among the latter are Papa LaBas, a “noonday HooDoo, fugitive-hermit, obeah-man, botanist, animal impersonator, 2-headed man, You-Name-It”, and his former colleague Berbalang, who now heads the “Mu’tafikah”, a group dedicated to liberating cultural artefacts from museums and centres of “Art Detention”, returning them to their originating cultures.

Central to the conflict is “the Text”, located in New York, which Jes Grew needs in order to survive, and perhaps transform itself into something of even greater power:

“If it could not find its Text then it would be mistaken for entertainment.”

This “Text” is an anthology of ancient writings that relate the dance crazes of Jes Grew to fertility rites first enacted in Ancient Egypt by Osiris, and opposed by the first Atonist, Set. (Something that ties the novel up with Jessie Weston’s book, From Ritual to Romance, which I reviewed not too long ago. Though, in Mumbo Jumbo, the Grail, conjuring associations of “Teutonic Knights” and the Western Christian monoculture, is made to feel more like an Atonist symbol of control than, as Weston would have it, a link to those same fertility rituals.)

The great thing about Reed’s novel is that it’s such a lively, fun read. It doesn’t just defend and celebrate the idea of self-expression and cultural freedom, it enacts it. The storytelling is jazzy in feel, full of swift changes, improvisations, riffs on an idea, and quick-fire allusions — but always tight and alive, never dull or repetitive. Speech gets no quotes, the word “one” is always rendered “1”, there are occasional photographs and illustrations, real figures from history turn up to mix with the fictional, there’s a lecture on Western history, there’s an extract from a fake epic poem, and the novel begins before its own copyright page.

There’s something about this form of narrative that clearly emerges from countercultures — Grant Morrison’s end-of-millennium comic The Invisibles is a similar “all conspiracy theories are true, all magic works” world — which attempts to destabilise monocultural ideas at the same time it destabilises readers’ minds. Mumbo Jumbo, though, never feels like it’s being intentionally post-modern and never feels like a difficult read; its experimentalism comes across as a genuine emanation of its belief in freedom of expression, something coming from the same source as the culture it celebrates — the playful, soulful, dazzling improvisations of jazz, all riding upon the despair and longing of blues.

I first heard about Mumbo Jumbo from a review last year in The Guardian, when the book was reissued in the UK as a Penguin Modern Classic.

Blow-Up and Performance

The two films I most associate with the swinging 60s are Blow-Up (1966) and Performance (made in 1968, but not released until 1970). I didn’t realise, till I watched them again recently, how much, while being very different in feel, they had in common. While one is set at the height of London’s cultural moment, and the other feels very much in its aftermath, both feature an artist (a photographer in Blow-Up, a musician in Performance) experiencing a revitalisation of their art through contact with violence and crime.

Blow-Up starts with its unnamed photographer (played by David Hemmings) emerging from a doss house, having just spent the night as one of the homeless while secretly taking snapshots. This might be taken as showing dedication to his art and a worthy social responsibility, but soon feels like just one more stunt in a day full of quick photoshoots, impulse buys and throwaway ideas. The dismissive way he orders the clothes he wore in the doss house burned, and the way he skims the proofs of the photos, interested only in the superficial impact of the images, seems to imply how little he’s been touched by the experience. His one contact with a deeper relationship to art seems to be his painter neighbour, who’s at the opposite end of the impulsiveness scale, being quite capable of leaving a painting incomplete for years till he’s sure he knows how to finish it.

One of his many impulses leads the photographer to follow a couple into a park, taking surreptitious snaps. He’s spotted, and the girl of the couple tries to get the photos off him. Something about the situation — its apparent peacefulness compared to the rush of his creative life, the desperation of the girl, an intuition that there’s more to it than meets the eye — catches his imagination and he starts studying the photos, blowing up sections till he realises he may have been present at a murder attempt. For a moment, he’s elated, thinking his art has had a genuine effect on the world — it’s saved someone’s life! Then comes the realisation: he didn’t save a life at all. Instead, he failed to notice a successful murder taking place right before his eyes.

Performance is more ambiguous. It brings together two characters, both in need of a new sort of energy in their lives. One is Chas (played by James Fox), an East End gangster’s ‘Front Man’ who oversteps his bounds and has to go on the run; the other is Turner (Mick Jagger), a burned-out rock star hiding away in dishevelled Bohemian digs in Powis Square. It’s the meeting of these representatives of two very different undergrounds (the criminal and the countercultural) that revitalises both. Turner absorbs Chas’s gangster persona, and uses it to make contact with his musical ‘daemon’ once more; meanwhile, Chas has his ultra-macho self-image broken down to free his more feminine side.

In both films, a musical performance captures the mix of art and violence they’re heading towards: the Yardbirds playing ‘Train Kept A-Rolling’ in Blow-Up (with Jeff Beck rather self-consciously destroying a guitar and throwing its neck into the audience, waking them from catatonia into a scramble of violence), Mick Jagger singing the rather Dylanesque “Memo From Turner”, surrounded by naked gangsters, in Performance.

Both films end ambiguously. In Blow-Up, after realising he didn’t save anyone’s life at all, Hemmings’s character wanders in the park till he falls in with a group of feral street-performers, who set about an impromptu game of mimed tennis. Joining in — throwing back their non-existent ball when it’s knocked out of court — seems, somehow, to provide some sort of resolution to his story. In Performance things are even stranger, with Chas (either more in touch with his feminine side and a fuller human being, or simply stoned out on mushrooms) shooting Turner, then being taken outside by his gangster friends to meet a similar fate, where he reveals himself, in a brief glimpse, to in fact be Turner, or perhaps the both of them, melded into a Chas-Turner hybrid.

Both endings seem not so much to be interested in explaining or resolving the change that’s taken place in their characters, as wilfully defying any sort of interpretation at all. But the feeling, in both cases, is of a sort of rising above the action into an entirely new plane of meaning, an alchemical synthesis of the two worlds (art and violence) that have been polarised in each film’s preceding action. These endings defy rational explanation because that change, that revitalisation, can perhaps only come about through giving way to a wholly new logic.