Angela Carter, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman

December 19th, 2012 § 0 comments

I remember everything.
I remember everything perfectly.
During the war, the city was full of mirages and I was young. But, nowadays, everything is quite peaceful. Shadows fall only as and when they are expected. Because I am so old and famous, they have told me that I must write down all my memories of the Great War, since, after all, I remember everything. So I must gather together all the confusion of experience and arrange it in order, just as it happened, beginning at the beginning. I must unravel my life as if it were so much knitting and pick out from that tangle the single, original thread of my self, the self who was a young man who happened to become a hero and then grew old. First, let me introduce myself.
My name is Desiderio.

I saved The Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman until last because it is probably my favourite of her novels. Carter uses fabulous surrealist imagery, the Romanticism of the picaresque and Continental philosophy themes to explore, as always, a wide range of social issues from post-modernism to society’s obsession with images, feminism and the dichotomy of the rational and that which we desire.

The plot revolves around a war that has broken out in an unnamed city in a South American town because of the experiments of the titular Doctor Hoffman, a scientist who has found a way to create images through the power of desire. While most people are unable to deal with the strange things that they now see every day, defence of the falls to the Minister of Determination, Desiderio’s boss, a stoic man who believes in the importance of the rational so strong that anything that Doctor Hoffman throws at the city is unable to trick, or for the most part even phase him.  Desiderio is also not concerned with the images as he has a fairly unpassionate life and he finds them rather boring, he doesn’t seem to have any desires and as a result he is not affected. The pair spend their days working on schemes to stop the Doctor, although Desiderio admits he is not particularly interested, until one night Desiderio dreams of a black swan, Cygnus atratus, both ugly and majestic, with a look described as evil. Dying, her swansong is a savage erotic contralto and around her neck is a collar bearing the name of Doctor Hoffman’s daughter, Albertina, who becomes the focal point of all Desiderio’s desire and who he must eventually kill.

After a meeting with a spy for Hoffman, Desiderio is sent away to a town by the sea to investigate, beginning a long journey that will eventually lead him to the Doctor’s hidden castle itself. At the town, he learns the mayor has gone missing and discovers a strange peep show on the pier run by the professor who taught Hoffman. The show contains a number of boxes that show strange and grotesque images combining sexuality and death that call to mind the paintings and sculptures of surrealists artists like Salvador Dali. He discovers that these are the Doctor’s samples and remain a very important part of his schemes as it is by using the samples that he is able to create the image through the composition of the different elements that make up a thing. Unfortunately, he has to flee the town after being framed for the murder of the mayor’s daughter, a young sexual somnambulist, seeking refuge with the river folk, with whom he shares a common Indian heritage.

In each of the chapters that follow, Desiderio experiences a different kind of life that provides both different pleasures and different dangers. For the first time in life, with the river folk he is not bored of life but interested in it and almost marries into a family that he befriends before he begins to suspect they intend to eat him as they believe old myths about the transfer of knowledge through anthropophagy.  Returning to the seaside town, he joins the travelling show with the old professor, serving as his apprentice on the orders of the Doctor. He makes friends with a number of the other performers and learns a lot from the professor about the Hoffman’s past and the metaphysics behind the doctor’s samples, but these happy times too end, this time with the arrival of nine acrobats who rape Desiderio. Afterwards, Desiderio leaves the camp for the night and the circus and the samples are destroyed by a landslide (nature is a reoccurring theme in the novel, particularly the force of nature, which is so strong and so primal that Hoffman cannot conquer it) leaving him as the only survivor.

Shortly afterwards he meets the Count, one of the most interesting characters in the novel and is clearly influenced by Lautréamont’s Maldoror. The Count believes that he himself is a very act of negation, a libertine dedicated to debauchery, self-deprivation and evil. He is on the run from a black pimp who is chasing him on account of the murder of a prostitute in Louisiana, but in reality the pimp is his dark half, a being willed in reality as a form of self-abuse.  The two travel together while the Count tries to indulge his baser instincts, leading to a brothel where in a room of bestial whores that seem as much animal as they are human, Desiderio meets Albertina who is disguised as the madam. Throughout the novel Albertina uses her father’s machines to travel beside Desiderio, first as the Count’s servant Lafleur and later as herself. Attempting to flee the pimp by sailing to Europe, the three end up captured by pirates and then on the African coast where they again encounter the Count’s nemesis, this time as a chief of an African tribe. The Count meets his end, but Desiderio and Albertina continue on into the nebulous time, the world of the doctor’s images, that has become unstable with the destruction of the samples.

In the nebulous time, they meet a strange race of centaurs and the chapter brings to mind something from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. On the first night that they arrive, each of the town’s males rape Albertina and the experience almost kills her. Even in the world of images rape culture still prevails, but despite this, Carter does not represent her as a victim. Even the horrific act cannot rob her of the fact that she is a strong and beautiful woman and perhaps more importantly, it cannot rob her of her desire. When they learn she is Desiderio’s mate, they punish themselves (as their religion is big on self- flagellation) and they spend some time as part of the society until they learn that the centaurs intend to put them through a religious ceremony that will no doubt kill them. Through seemingly sheer will alone, Albertina is able to immolate the area around them and summon one of her father’s helicopters to take them to his castle.

In the end, Desiderio has to choose between the world of the rational and that of desire, to either consummate his love with Albertina or kill her. Faced with the final deciding act of the war, he has to choose between Descartes’ cogito and the Doctor’s own, I desire, therefore I exist. It is not clear why he makes the choice that he does and it seems that maybe he does not know himself. Perhaps it is out of some old sense of duty towards the Minister, or perhaps because like Dorothy he has learned that behind the curtain the wondrous is really just mundane, but in the end logic wins out as he considers that it is for “the greater good”. Whether or not he made the right choice is left to the reader to decide, after all, Desiderio is the ablative of desiderium, which can mean both “desire” and “regret”. His life without Albertina is a life without love, and I am sure we can all recall what Browning has to say about that in Fra Lippo Lippi.

In a world where we constantly bombarded by impossible images on all sides, whether it is airbrushed men and women on the covers of magazines or fantasy worlds in online MMORPGs, we too find ourselves faced with the same problem as Desiderio. How long before we cannot tell the difference between that which is authentic and that which is fake, how long before we have our own set of samples that allow us to blur reality with the unreal? When that happens, how can the mundane reality of our lives compete with the fantasies of our desires? What is to stop us all from surrendering to the totality of images, to that nebulous time?

Originally posted on Empty Your Heart Of Its Mortal Dreams on July 30th, 2010.

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