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The definition of alchemy is not confined to the transmutation of metallic substances, but can also refer to philosophical alchemy. Alchemy can be categorised as either practical or exoteric alchemy or esoteric, spiritual, or philosophical alchemy (Linden 8). As regards Angela Carters The Passion of New Eve, the second category is predominant. This second form of alchemy is said to have originated from practical alchemy, where, mundane transmutation of metals became merely symbolic of the transformation of sinful man into a perfect being through...submission to the will of God (Linden 8).
Even in practical alchemy, the purely chemical operations and reactions can be seen to symbolise deeper spiritual meanings. The analogy of Christs death, resurrection, and mans salvation has often been adapted to the alchemical process: the material undergoes blackness and death and is later appeared to be reborn in the form of pure, incorruptible gold (Linden 9).
In The Passion of New Eve, Carter uses both alchemical and religious themes to deconstruct myths of gender. The text primarily looks at the social creation of femininity and targets the cultural discourses that control its theoretical and material formation, such as cinema, psychoanalysis, mythology, alchemy, and religion (Krchy 120).
The assumptions of Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, relating to the archetypal feminine and the androgynous self (Del Mar Prez-Gil 216), fall with the array of cultural discourses that Carter satirically demythologises in The Passion of New Eve. Both in structure and theme, the novel imitates Jungs psychological concepts, such as individuation and stages of alchemical work, and sequentially subverts them. Examples of such imitations can be seen in Eve[lyn]s search for freedom and for the anima a Jungian term referring to the feminine side of the male psyche (Fordham 52).
Additionally, the alchemical imagery becomes an alternative means through which Carter's feminist ideology finds expression in the text. Not only are the feminine archetypes subject to ridicule, but they are also contaminated with the vocabulary of the nigredo, the stage in alchemy akin to death, mortification, and putrefaction (Linden 86).
Carter uses Greek mythology and philosophical alchemy to illustrate Evelyns search for identity. The latter stages of the alchemy opus can be seen when Evelyn is reborn by Mother turning him into a woman. In doing this, Evelyn becomes their Tiresias - a blind prophet from Greek mythology who experiences being both male and female. Mother, one of Carter's most grotesque figures, has surgically altered herself to embody a mythic and deformed notion of motherhood. She is described as "a sacred monsterpersonified and self-fulfilling fertility. [...] Breasted like a sow - she possessed two tiers of nipples. [...] Her ponderous feet were heavy enough to serve as illustrations for gravity" (Carter PNE 59). The theme of alchemy can be seen in Mothers transformation into a warped god-like figure of her matriarchy.
A direct reference to physical alchemy in The Passion of New Eve can be found at the beginning of the text when Evelyn moves into an apartment in New York neighbouring an old, Russian alchemist. His neighbour teaches him about alchemy and turns lead to gold and gives it to him, while the city continues to decay around them. As Carter writes:
It was, then, an alchemical city. It was chaos, dissolution, nigredo, night. [...]A city of visible reason that had been the intention. And this city, built to a specification that precluded the notion of the Old Adam, had hence become uniquely vulnerable to that which the streamlined spires conspired to ignore, for the darkness had lain, unacknowledged, within the builders (Carter PNE 16).
The fact his only friend is an alchemist and the use of the term nigredo foreshadow the change that occurs in Evelyn as the tension in the city reaches boiling point with the black population walling up Harlem and the alchemist being beaten to death while waiting for him outside a shop.
Evelyn begins the narrative of The Passion of New Eve as male; but his name implies potential androgyny which materialises as the story progresses. Although the gender transgressions of the characters challenge traditional concepts of masculinity and femininity, the effects of androcentric norms are still evident: Eve, Leilah, and Tristessa all play the role of woman according to a set of dominant cultural expectations, and the common defining feature of their experience as women is suffering.
In a sense, Eve[lyn] becomes a true hermaphrodite, not because she has both male and female genitals, but because she is inhabited by both the anima and the animus (Fordham 52). In Jungian theory, anima refers to the unconscious feminine personality and animus depicts the unconscious masculine personality of a male character (Fordham 52). In alchemical symbolism, the hermaphrodite represents the chemical marriage of mercury (male principles) and sulphur (female principles), a major stage in transmutation, as its reconciliation is a necessary step toward achieving perfection of the philosophers stone (Metzler 5). Through Eves dual nature of being, she transcends both sexes, entering a state of conflictual equilibrium (Metzler 6).
In Eve[lyn]s sexual union with Tristessa, they form a transgressive figure which defies the norms and categories of a heterosexual society:
"I know who we are," says Eve, "we are Tiresias. [...] Out of these fathomless kisses and our interpenetrating, undifferentiated sex, we had made the great Platonic hermaphrodite together, the whole and perfect being" (Carter PNE 146, 148).
As Tiresias, Eve and Tristessa represent the androgyne", an ideal figure as it represents male and female components that do not neutralize each other, but rather exalt (Metzler 6). Carter presents a fantasy image of a sexual union, in which the participants have transcended the limiting gender values that saturate our religious, androcentric world, as a gesture of hope.
In Carters revealing Tristessa as a transvestite, she purposefully departs from narrative conventions which clearly delineate and maintain masculinity and femininity as separate concepts defined in opposition to each other.
Carter critiques a masculine archetype with the character of Zero. She unsubtly mocks the patriarchal archetype by naming him "Zero" (Carter PNE 85), drawing attention to his infertility. In contrast to Mother, Zero is a one-eyed, one-legged patriarch in essence, a personified penis who has convinced his harem of wives that his sexual attentions are necessary for their continued health. His wives recognize Zero unquestioningly as a god-head, and as with Mothers Beulah, their community is a kind of fundamentalist cult in this case structured as an androcentric pornotopia (Rubinson 167). The patriarchy is maintained by a violent enslavement, which links sexual/physical cruelty and male dominance. Zero not only physically abuses his wives but he deprives them of individuation through control of their communication and appearance.
Mother is a parody of the maternal archetype. Instead of depicting sacralised fantasies of a protective, pacifying, supportive mother, Carter presents Mother more akin to Carter's description of Sade's Durand:
"she is the omnipotent mother of early childhood who gave and withheld love and nourishment at whim. [...] The cruel mother, huge as a giantess, the punishment giver, the one who makes you cry" (Carter SW 114).
This view of Mother is particularly highlighted when Mother declares, "I am the Great Parricide, I am the Castrix of the Phallocentric Universe" (Carter PNE 67). By creating Mother and her fanatical attempt to rewrite patriarchy as matriarchy, Carter de-sacralises systems of social organization based on sexual inequality whether they are androcentric or gynocentric. As an alternative to Mother's inversion of patriarchy, Carter will eventually lead us towards imagining a world without gender hierarchies.
By Carters use of what she terms "moral pornography" (Gamble 87) in both Mothers matriarchy and Zeros patriarchy, she promotes the idea that a variety of social and cultural factors contribute significantly, and perhaps even entirely, to determination of gender traits. This point of view creates the possibility for change in gender roles and relations between men and women, enabling both women and men to participate in society in ways that were previously deemed taboo.
Carter speculates that in dispensing of societys archetypes, by tearing down the patriarchal society, revolutionary opportunities would be made available; and not just for women but for other disempowered freedom-fighting groups as well. In Carter's novel, the apocalypse constitutes the eradication of myths and archetypes which define social roles and limit human potential by attributing essential qualities to people based upon their gender.
Nicole Ward Jouve, in her essay Mother is a Figure of Speech, suggests Carter has "hunted the [maternal] archetype down to extinction" (Ward 151). This bold observation accurately highlights what it is Carter is attempting to eliminate myths and archetypes which define social roles and limit human potential by attributing essential qualities to people based upon their gender (Rubinson 173).