I read Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography in the early ’90s, well after it was written in 1978, which was itself perhaps a while after the more vehement season of feminist critique. Today, I still find it to be one of the most enduring works in its genre, not least because of its readability and its no-nonsense style. Here, for example, is a great snippet where Carter takes issue with an idea that would, over the next decade, degenerate into a New Age platitude.
If women allow themselves to be consoled for their culturally determined lack of access to the modes of intellectual debate by the invocation of hypothetical great goddesses, they are simply flattering themselves into submission (a technique often used on them by men). All the mythic versions of women, from the myth of the redeeming purity of the virgin to that of the healing, reconciliatory mother, are consolatory nonsenses; and consolatory nonsense seems to me a fair definition of myth, anyway. Mother goddesses are just as silly a notion as father gods. If a revival of the myths gives women emotional satisfaction, it does so at the price of obscuring the real conditions of life. This is why they were invented in the first place.
Deadpan demystification pervades the book and lends it a humorous, down-to-earth quality:
The truth of the womb is, that it is an organ like any other organ, more useful than the appendix, less useful than the colon but not much use to you at all if you do not wish to utilise its sole function, that of bearing children. At the best of times, it is apt to malfunction and cause sickness, pain and inconvenience. The assertion of this elementary fact through the means of a fictional woman [Juliette] involves an entire process of demystification and denial in which far more than the demystification, the secularisation of women is involved.
The book is primarily about the works of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), but has a lot more going for it: Michel Foucault, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Guillaume Apollinaire, Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein all make appearances throughout the text. It is full of insight into the cultural construction of human nature, and somewhat hopeful about the “cruelly divisive” state of relations between men and women in our common struggle to understand the world. Yet, today, it seems to me that a door that was briefly opened at the end of the eighteenth century, and then again at the end of the twentieth, is locked shut again; something that, if Carter were alive today, would disappoint her, and frankly disappoints me, too.