EESE 2/97

"Black Venus" - Jeanne Duval and Charles Baudelaire
Revisited by Angela Carter

Susanne Schmid (Berlin)

Angela Carter, mythomaniac and demythologiser, rewriter of the Western canon, focusses on the shattering of male myths about femininity. She presents archetypal virgins and monsters and gives a voice to women who have figured as objects in (male) literature without being allowed to tell their own stories: Leda in The Magic Toyshop, the biblical Eve in Heroes and Villains and Mignon in Nights at the Circus. Women who have frequently been described in the literary tradition are not only given the opportunity to present their view of the events, they also become agents, being allowed to influence their own lives. Thus, Mignon, who is given a complete biography, does not die but 'lives happily ever after' (Steedman 1992) , Leda is allowed to watch herself being avenged on the swan, and Eve can leave God and Adam dying in a post-apocalyptic paradise, in which she takes over the power. Whereas much feminist criticism has been centred on the making and breaking of images of women, the intertextual references by authors such as Angela Carter have been regarded as a secondary issue. If one wants to comprehend the cutting edge of Carter's criticism as regards male myths of femininity, however, one needs to concentrate on her playful way of dealing with mythic references. In a postmodern bricolage, Carter uses European literature as a "scrapyard" (Carter 1985: 92), from which she takes bits and pieces, rearranging them in a way that exposes the constructedness of the reality that they depict.

The volume Black Venus, a collection of short stories, appeared in 1985 and relates "everyday life among the mythic classes" (Sage 1985: 1169): Edgar Allan Poe's relationship with his mother, Puck's attempt to initiate a homosexual relationship with the "Golden Herm", the "changeling" of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Lizzie Borden, a nursery rhyme figure, who solves domestic problems with an axe. The title story, "Black Venus", in which the poet Baudelaire is described from the point of view of his mistress, Jeanne Duval, tackles yet another of the many myths of femininity which Carter debunks with particular pleasure: that of the exotic mistress. Jeanne Duval, a Creole woman, about whose origins not much is known, was the woman with whom Baudelaire had a long, occasionally interrupted, relationship. For nineteenth-century (male) readers and writers, Jeanne Duval was the 'Other' in a double sense: both as a woman and because of her dark skin (Matus 1991). Dark women were usually seen as highly sexualized, corrupting and diseased (Matus 1991: 467). Those of Baudelaire's poems in Les Fleurs du Mal that describe his "Vénus Noire" constitute no exception from the mainstream of nineteenth-century French representations of Creole women.

Carter challenges Baudelaire's representation of Jeanne Duval by describing their relationship from the woman's point of view, making use of a number of quotations in order to expose Baudelaire's views as ideologically fraught. In a brief comment following the short story, she refers to some of his poems in which he describes Duval. They are part of the so-called Black Venus cycle: "Sed non satiata", "Les Bijoux", "La Chevelure", "Le Serpent qui danse", "Parfum Exotique", "Le Chat" and "Je t'adore à l'égal de la voûte nocturne" (BV 23f.).

Like other beholders of exotic womanhood, Baudelaire is fascinated by Jeanne Duval's appearance: her hair, her scent and her suppleness make her the archetype of the sexually exciting exotic woman, "le serpent qui danse" (Baudelaire 1994: 33), who, conveniently, possesses hardly any individuality. He regards her as the personification of the animal-like, of the natural. Baudelaire's construction of her as exotic is based on the colour of her skin and her origin. By quoting from Baudelaire, Carter takes up elements of this mystification and rewrites them with a twist.

Carter's narrative sets in with a Baudelairean description of autumn, related from Jeanne Duval's perspective:

Clearly, Carter draws upon "Harmonie du soir" and "Le Crépuscule du soir" (Hutcheon 1988: 145). The Paris of a gloomy autumn evening is contrasted with the Caribbean, which Baudelaire frequently described as an ideal space, e.g. in "L'Invitation au voyage". His vision, related by his mistress, comes across as follows: On these sad days, at those melancholy times, as the room sinks into dusk, he, instead of lighting the lamp, fixing drinks, making all cosy, will ramble on: The verb "ramble on" alone shows of how little value Baudelaire's poetic utterances are to his mistress. The style of the passage is reminiscent of the lyrics of pop songs, which frequently resort to trivializations such as "baby", sometimes using this word as a standard address for women. The phrase "let me take you back where you belong" sounds as if it has been taken from Country and Western music, where the return to the paradise of childhood is a frequent topos. Towards the end of his dream, the style becomes more and more colloquial: "think how lovely it would be to live there ...". For Carter, Baudelaire's visions has only a place in a tradition of kitsch and triviality. His dream creates a refuge, in which everything one can desire is available in abundance. This is in contrast to the memories of Duval, who had lived there for much longer than the poet: "All there is to eat is green bananas and yams and a brochette of rubber goat to chew." (BV 10). The supposed realm of plenty is characterised by lack and monotony. Through the contrasting references to the vegetation, Carter fights a myth with its own weapons. Part of the effect of this passage lies in the comic discrepancy which contributes to the debunking of the myth. Here, as in the rest of the short story, the reader is given Baudelaire's view as related through Duval's thoughts. His language and gestures are those of the colonial usurper, and like many of his contemporaries, he idealizes the Caribbean as a secular paradise.

After this introduction, which explains the precondition for Baudelaire's 'reading' of Jeanne Duval, Carter focusses on her female protagonist's physical appearance. Again, Carter uses motifs and quotations from Les Fleurs du Mal in order to contrast Baudelaire's and Duval's points of view. Dancing naked in front of her lover seems to have been one important task of Duval's. In "Le Serpent qui danse" he describes the feeling of sensual extasy which this dancing evokes in him:

For her, however, the dance is "a series of voluptuous poses one following another" (BV 11). It is not Jeanne Duval who is per se voluptuous, it is Baudelaire who sexualizes her whole personality. Referring to "Les Bijoux", Carter describes the appearance of the dancing Duval: As in other texts (e.g. Nights at the Circus), Carter introduces an economic aspect into her tale thus addressing the status of the mistress as a kept woman. Unlike most biographies, this story does not criticize Duval for her lack of emotional response towards Baudelaire. She is rather presented as being more aware of the everyday necessities of life.

Carter not only attacks Baudelaire's images of Jeanne Duval, she also questions and ridicules the imagery he uses:

The inadequacy of his metaphors is yet another instance proving his idealization of her otherness. His image of Duval is as unrealistic as his description of a snake.

One of Duval's main attractions seems to be her scent, which is described in the poem "Parfum exotique":

The scent makes Baudelaire dream once again of an ideal space. Eroticism becomes a vehicle for transcendence. Carter describes his construction of sensuality: By specifying Duval's scent as kitchen odours, Carter again contrasts Baudelaire's dreams with the banal reality. At the same time, Duval's scent is presented not as a natural and organic property, part of her essence, but as an effect that has been produced. This contrast between nature and culture reaches its height in the following description: By using the terms "culture" and "nature", Carter makes the contrast explicit and points to the fact that it is historically constructed. The reference to Manet's well-known painting, which depicts several dressed men, one naked and one sparsely dressed woman, puts Baudelaire's description of Duval into the context of nineetenth-century representations of femininity. "Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe" (illustration 1) bears witness to the prevailing misogyny: whereas the two men are dressed and in dialogue with each other, the two women, one completely naked, the other dressed in a white négligé, are left out of the communication. They are pure essence and ornament. Significantly, Manet positions a basket full of fruit next to the naked woman in the foreground, thus establishing yet another link between femininity and nature (as fertility). The colour contrast between the men's black suits and the women's flesh/white négligé is striking. The colours, set off against each other, express the huge difference Manet sees between the two genders. To him, they are not of the same essence.

Manet actually painted Duval in 1862 ("La Maîtresse de Baudelaire" - illustration 2). Even though he painted her dressed, she does not resemble the men in their subject position. Duval is reclining on a bed or a settee, restricted by an enormous white dress with bluish stripes. She has the position of a lifeless doll, and her limbs do not seem to be of use for any purpose. Whereas her right hand touches the furniture, her hidden left hand holds a fan. One of her feet sticks out from underneath her voluminous skirt. Unlike the men in "Le Déjeuner sur L'Herbe", she does not gesticulate, she does not even prop herself up. The movement of the curtain in the background indicates a light breeze, which, however, seems to be stronger than even the slightest movement she can muster up. If clad in the insignia of culture, all she can do is sit still. She has been put into the framework of culture but does not seem to belong to it.

This contrast between nature and culture is not only central to gender relationships but also forms the basis for much of the ideology woven around the European imperialism of the nineteenth century. The colonies, frequently feminized, stood for a nature that had to be tamed. Therefore Duval becomes a double victim of the nature vs. culture dichotomy: as a woman and because of her ethnicity. Here, Carter shows the working of a myth in the sense of Roland Barthes (Barthes 1957: 215), because a historical construct (the equation of women = nature, dark skin = nature) is justified as being supposedly natural. Carter makes this issue clear, though not in an explicit manner, voicing her protest by playing with the elements of the myth. Like other intertextual allusions, the reference to Manet evokes a certain image of femininity in the reader, who may then reconsider his or her perception of this painting, that so far may have seemed apolitical to him or her. Carter refers to a variety of artists and writers throughout her texts, pointing out the oppressive potential of many 'great' works of art, thus unmasking their ideological background.

One of her demythologising strategies consists in the way in which she takes everyday life into her texts, thereby reducing the poet and his muse to normal human beings. Jeanne Duval's thoughts about the economic side of their relationship, her physical unwellness due to the syphilis with which she has been infected through Baudelaire (BV 15) and her consumption of alcohol and tobacco (BV 10) stand in ironic contrast with the poet's feverish erotic desires. Carter changes Duval from a mythic figure back into woman with ordinary needs. Another playful kick against Baudelaire's shin results from the fact that through the whole of the text, Duval appears as being rather bored (BV 9). The great poet of the ennui, the frustrated boredom, seems to have been particularly efficient at instilling this emotion into his lover.

Carter also refers to the wider historical context. As Baudelaire has stolen her individuality, so French imperialism has stolen her history:

This loss of historicity makes it even easier for Baudelaire to regard her as "nature", as opposed to the French and male "culture".

Carter not only gives Duval her individual human features back but she also completes her biography, re-inventing her life before and after her time with the famous poet, thus again emphasizing that Duval is more than an exotic supplement (the historical Jeanne Duval died before Baudelaire). Before meeting Baudelaire, she had had to fight her way through "the School of Hard Knocks" (BV 12), without the prospect of gaining a social position which would allow her to determine her own life. Thus her life as "a kept woman" (BV 20) does not appear as a deliberate choice but rather as the result of economic necessity. Therefore, emotional warmth is only peripheral to her relationship with him (BV 13). The lack of feeling of which he accuses her in some of the poems seems only too understandable.

In Carter's version, Duval builds up her own life after the poet's death. Biographies mention a possible brother (Pichois/Ziegler 1987: 403), with whom, in this tale, she returns to Martinique. Through selling some manuscripts of Baudelaire, she has made enough money to lead a secure life:

Whereas the story begins with the deconstruction of the myth of Baudelaire's Jeanne Duval, it ends with a new construction of this woman as an ordinary human being.

In "Black Venus", Carter not only deals with the construction of exoticism and womanhood, she also moves on to a metapoetic level, questioning the role of men and women in the business of literary production. The polarisation between nature and culture also has its repercussions as far as the production of art is concerned. Women are frequently assigned the status of inspirational source, of muse. By declaring Jeanne Duval his muse, Baudelaire robs her of her individuality:

Duval only partly conforms to the stereotype of the muse as the messenger of transcendence. To Baudelaire she is the opposite of a spiritual being - to him she is little more than an animal. The myth of the female muse constitutes not only a individual problem for Duval, who is not taken seriously by Baudelaire, but also serves to keep women away from the production of literature. Consequently, Duval does not admire her lover's poems but takes a rather distanced stance: Female speechlessness is not a woman's natural fate but imposed on her. Carter describes this situation, that makes it impossible for Duval to be creative, by resorting to the poet's own imagery. In 'L'Albatros" he compares his situation as a poet to that of an albatross. Although this bird is regarded as a masterful navigator in the air, it is derided as clumsy when captured: Through this metaphor, Baudelaire expresses that his contemporaries' lack of understanding keeps him from fully developing himself. Carter, however, points out that the "albatros" Baudelaire actually suppresses another person's freedom of expression: "[...] there isn't room for two albatrosses in this house." (BV 19). As an alternative to the albatross, the text ironically suggests a penguin, a bird that cannot fly: Carter suggests that Duval could be a happy person, and even a productive artist if Baudelaire followed a more down-to-earth existence. The comparison between the poet and the plump penguin constitutes an ironic comment on his animal imagery, which Duval had recognised as inadequate earlier on. Carter also hints at the possibility that in a work of art produced by Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire would not have the same elevated status which he has in his own. Women's literature thus becomes an answer to and a revenge on male writing. In this story, Carter herself has taken the place of her older and muted sister.

Towards the end of the story, Jeanne Duval travels back home: "Her voyage back was interrupted by no albatrosses." (BV 23) The production of art, which had dehumanized her, no longer holds any power over her. The muse has turned into an ordinary human being. Baudelaire's literary production has had a positive effect in as far as it has secured her material existence. But his heritage does not escape Carter's sardonic humour, as the final sentence of the story shows:

The words "at a not excessive price", "veritable", "authentic", "true" could also refer to a manuscript or a painting. This irony undermines the admiration usually shown to great, male and dead poets. By making syphilis part of his heritage, Carter puts it on the same level as his artistic production. As his writing has muted Duval's personality, his disease has destroyed her physical existence. Thus the myth of the muse is completely debunked: if a muse is incompatible with human features, she is even less so with a venereal disease. This passage also lets Duval appear as an avenger, who in turn destroys the health of the usurpers. In "Black Venus", Carter deconstructs two aspects of nineteenth-century images of women: firstly, she questions the male opinion that exotic and erotic women do not possess any individuality. Secondly, she moves on to a metapoetic level. "Black Venus" is also a rewriting of male-defined literary history. Carter's Jeanne Duval moves from the object to the subject position and is no longer restricted to being a muse. By telling the story of Duval's relationship with Baudelaire from her point of view, Carter gives her back her voice. At the same time, she distances herself critically from Baudelaire. This rewriting is only part of a greater project undertaken by women writers: also Emma Tennant, Jean Rhys, Margaret Atwood, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Sara Maitland have taken up well-known male literary texts and have rewritten them, thus not only criticizing a predominantly male literature but also conquering a place for women as writers and as subjects.


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comprehensive bibliography