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The Icon Speaks: Gilman's Black Female in Carter's "Black Venus"

When an author examines historical figures intending to draw forth observations on society and its aspects, implicit in the act is power over the voice of the objectified figures. Both Sander L. Gilman and Angela Carter present, in strikingly similar fashion, scholarly exploration of the crossroads of race, sexuality, and gender in the Victorian idea of the black woman - Gilman's "Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality" through analyzing art, literature, and science of the era, and Carter's "Black Venus" through fictionally presenting Jeanne Duval, the object of many of Charles Baudelaire's most sensual poems, as self-aware of her nature as an object. Gilman's approach is more orthodox for a scholar, but Carter's short story is parallel both in ends and means. No mere attempt at retelling history, the story rather provides an active voice for Duval that can only come from Carter's synthesis and imagination, but that allows the author to approach Gilman's same iconic topics from the view of their object while interjecting historical record. The texts trace a line of vision from a white patriarchal Victorian culture to its opposing ends in binary hierarchies, the black and the female. The line ultimately brings the reader to how that vision associated those ends with sensuality, the primitive, and ultimately with the incomplete and diseased counterparts to a healthy white and male society.

Gilman's scholarly eye is trained on the iconography of the power relation between men and women, black and white: understanding that line of vision by examining the filters of interpretation created by the dominant patriarchy. "Recent discussions. . .have centered around the function of visual inventions by which we perceive and transmit an understanding of the world". (Gilman, 1985) Thus, his inquiry extends to medical science as well as art. Both fields are occupied with visually representing their topics in the finest detail, whether categorically, as in the former, or symbolically, as in the latter. Gilman explores evolving concepts by specific citation of either visual art or descriptive passages in medical and nonmedical literature, and views individuals as the objects or objectifying propagators of the concepts within these representations. Gilman thus avoids personalization of the issues at hand through historical distance and analysis of merely descriptive elements – but at a risk of an amorphous and unclear conclusion as to the presence of the black woman within the iconography that defines her.

Carter's story provides an awareness of the same iconography through the eyes of an object, and indeed an icon, used to represent the sensuality of the black female: Jeanne Duval, one of Baudelaire's lovers, identified as the "Black Venus" of his poems. Fleurs du Mal portrays Duval's character in terms of a near-bestial erotic nature, and is notable for its place in defining the supposed lasciviousness of the black woman and her iconographic identification as a primitive and primarily physical being with whom. Carter intersperses Duval's observation of Baudelaire's ideation with a quotation from his "Sed Non Satiata": "She is not Eve but, herself, the forbidden fruit, and he has eaten her! 'Weird goddess, dusky as night,/reeking of musk smeared on tobacco. . .' " (Carter, 1997). This example is indicative of Carter's method to investigate the black woman as an icon of sensuality: a new perspective attempted from behind the eyes facing back along iconography's line of vision in the opposite direction.

By the very nature of this task, Carter "hijacks" a historical figure of which (Carter admits) little is known outside of her easily understood presence as Baudelaire's symbol for the traits of sexuality and (to-be-dominated, yet never-dominated) mystery. By claiming the ground of the icon used to define the "black female" in an influential poetic representation, Carter can deconstruct the point of view and context required to historically shape an individual into the object patriarchy uses to advance domination. However, she inevitably must provide her Duval-character with a personal inclination to deconstruct – a scholarly air that strains even poetic credibility at times – along the lines of Carter's own interpretations. ". . .[E]ven as it disclaims the truth of its own representations, and teases out the racist and colonialist assumptions that inform traditional versions of Jeanne Duval, Carter's fiction appropriates and reconstructs Jeanne in its own politically-interested image." (Matus, 1991)

Carter's Duval, at the beginning of the narrative, is already well-equipped to handle the conclusion Gilman draws: Victorian culture's syphilophobia coincided with medical and artistic association of both African "primitives" and wanton female sexuality with the disease. Carter's interpretation of Duval's dance is, at least at its surface, quite Baudelairean in allegory; it is a sensual affirmation of life to keep the macabre and ironic face of imminent death away. "The girls told over the litany of symptoms. . .peeking at the fortune-telling mirror and seeing, not their rosy faces, but their own rouged skulls." (Carter, 1997) The character knows that she is to succumb to the disease with which she is identified symbolically, but could only have contracted by contact with the society who constructed such identification.

Duval's criticism of that society is also reflective of Carter's needs: the character maintains her dignity even in lurid and disgusting conditions to allow the author to look back critically towards Baudelaire and Paris – the white male and his city. Tellingly, Carter's Duval takes her lover to task over the very skill for which the world would celebrate him - his skill at simile and metaphor. "He said she danced like a snake. . .but she knew. . .if he'd seen a snake move, he'd never have seen a thing like that." (Carter, 1997) Baudelaire the poet descriptively objectified his topics, certainly including Duval herself, and his character's ignorance in the face of Duval's experience indicates criticism parallel to Gilman's studies of Victorian culture. Objectification of the black female was notable not only for the way it dehumanized its subject, but for the method of its self-sustaining ignorance, which reinforced pleasing and pre-existing ideas. Stephen Jay Gould's study of the scientific method used by craniometrists and other Victorian contemporaries to establish the "natural inferiority" of Africans and women continually returns to one theme: scientists did not question the results of skewed and dishonest experiments because they expected their conclusions. The entire reputable scientific community already held as general principle that those who were not white or male suffered from deficiency; the question was why this was the case and how it could be measured.

Gilman and Carter both present the aesthetic counterpart to such scientific reinforcement of a culture of dominance: the artist's willing use of the black female to represent disease and the eroticism that was thought to preclude it. Baudelaire is not concerned with what Duval, who has actually seen the creature of the wild to which he has compared her, might be able to offer him in knowledge. Instead, the comparison pleasantly reinforces existing conceptions: the female connected to the serpent, temptation, underhanded wile, and man acquiring his mortality; the African attached to beastliness, "exotic" fauna, and the sensual nature of such. All of European intellectual society, in fact, is behind Baudelaire's description; his post-mortem success as a poet would add his own contribution to that society. Unsurprisingly enough, the sensual nature of his subject matter, advanced by French authorities as one of many points of controversy when his work was brought under their critical eye, were actually most uncontroversial when viewed in light of both science and art of the time. Carter's Duval presents an experienced foil to Baudelaire's vocal ignorance: she is the symbol, the "icon", that speaks.

Angela Carter thus shifts the line of vision by elevating the character's consciousness and ability to deceive the iconographer: Duval plays the role of her lover's sensual, animalistic Venus to help accomodate the disease and humiliation thrust upon her by patriarchial definition of her role. This is the pure opposite of that role as an object of inevitable demise and rot based in inherently sensual behavior - certainly a major part of Baudelaire's portrayal of women as objects, and the major aspect of black women in the iconography Gilman describes. "Black females do not merely represent the sexualized female, they also represent the female as the source of corruption and disease." (Gilman, 1985) Duval's exemplification of the role is consummate with her disgust for it, and a dignity that transcends it.

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