For Walter Benjamin Surrealism embodied the radical possibilities of modernism and in his famous 1929 essay, he locates the energies of Surrealist poetic practice within the rhetoric of civil rebellion at a point of historical crisis. In “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia” Benjamin invokes the motif of “the snapshot,” that ubiquitous mode of recording everyday life, in order to define the movement’s relationship to modernism. “[F]ed on the damp boredom of postwar Europe and the last trickle of French decadence” (1978: 177), Surrealism occupies a position, Benjamin argues, that is at once “anarchistic fronde” and “revolutionary discipline,” a position that attempts to push “poetic life to the utmost limits of possibility” (178). But here “anarchistic fronde” becomes as much a description of Benjamin’s own methodological approach and eclectic interests—as one who could never conform to the “revolutionary discipline” of the communist party, a movement he sympathized with but would never join—as it is of Surrealist aesthetic and political practice. Benjamin obliquely writes himself into this piece as the German observer who understands and is sympathetic to the intellectual crisis of modern Europe and the revolutionary spirit of Surrealism:
The German observer is not standing at the head of the stream. That is his opportunity. He is in the valley. He can gauge the energies of the movement. As a German he is long acquainted with the crisis of the intelligentsia, or more precisely, with that of the humanistic concept of freedom … . (177)
Benjamin’s insight into Surrealism is predicated upon his position as an outsider. As someone who shares the movement’s spirit of rebellion but can critically examine its effects from a distance, Benjamin tracks its impetuous rush through the valley of history without being caught up in the intoxication of its idealism. In his Surrealist inspired work, One Way Street, Benjamin turns away from the mysterious in itself, what he saw as the overly ecstatic and transcendent nature of Surrealist poetic imagery, instead creating aphoristic, prose snapshots that reveal the illuminating and extraordinary paradoxes of the everyday. Reading this work, Cohen suggests that Benjamin “consistently turns an ironic discourse valorizing askesis and reason against Breton’s capricious and elusive praise of unconscious inspiration” (1993: 178). In spite of his reservations about unconscious inspiration, Benjamin’s fascination with Surrealism was indeed predicated on its expansion of the field of experience into the domain of culture’s marginalia; by pushing the aesthetic to extreme limits Surrealism dissolved the conceptual parameters between art and the everyday, between dream and waking life, mapping out a psychic materialism that opened up the revolutionary effects of desire. If One Way Street and the Arcades Project establish the legacy of Surrealism in Benjamin’s work, these works nevertheless proceed through a productive ambivalence that establishes Benjamin’s dialogic relationship with Surrealism.
It is in the paradox of the participant/observer (rhetorically elaborated by Benjamin as the paradox of anarchistic revolt and revolutionary discipline) that I want to locate the work of the subjects of this book; primarily that of Leonora Carrington and Claude Cahun but also that of Georges Bataille and then through the relationship of modernism and postmodernism that of Cindy Sherman and Hans Bellmer. Like the Benjamin of One Way Street, their work at particular moments is informed through the twin modes of active participation and detached observation, establishing a structural dynamic of complicity and resistance, homage and critique in relation to many of the central tenets of Bretonian Surrealism. Although this kind of relationship in many ways formed the modus operandi of a movement that continually redefined both its constitutive and substantive orthodoxy, their affiliation entails a critical distance that elaborates and expands many of the ideas and practices by which the movement conceived itself, and in ways that go beyond the often reductive materialist/idealist binary relationship between Bataille and Breton.
While it is a given that Surrealism proposed a broader conception of the political, aesthetic and psychical possibilities of culture, we might also ask with what lacunae has this expansion been made possible? What are the tropes, ambiguities, blind spots that haunt a Surrealist rhetoric and praxis? In locating the movement’s historical and critical position at a point of crisis within a European intellectual tradition, Benjamin paved the way for a reading of Surrealism as the radical other of modernism. While such a configuration rested on Surrealism’s sublation of art into contexts outside it, one that for Benjamin represented an illumination of “the crisis of the arts” that had yet to be as radically presented (184), it also entailed a subsequent tendency to reduce a conception of modernism to a high modernist literary defence of the aesthetic as the privileged domain of a highly-individualized critical voice. In the last ten years or so the terrain of modernist studies has of course been remapped alongside the various cultural and theoretical revolutions that have engendered a necessary reconfiguration of the artefacts that bear its sign. In the reshaping of this landscape new works and voices have emerged to challenge not only existing interpretations of modernist cultural production but to expand the very premise of a singular modernism with its oppositional framing of modernism and the avant-garde. Although it is now given that the boundaries of Surrealism and its relationship to modernism are less certain than we once thought them to be, the very contestation of those limits record the historical ambiguities and conflicts that mark any kind of artistic movement and its subsequent institutionalization within the academy. In framing my reading of these texts through their dialogical relationship to Surrealism, I am interested in the process by which certain avant-garde texts refuse, then and now, to be so easily accommodated within the normalizing narratives that inevitably come to inform a movement’s place in history.
If Benjamin locates in Surrealism a critical turning point, he also reveals how Breton’s Nadja
, through its “moral exhibitionism,” its “intoxication” achieves this by opening up the autobiographical self to the errant logic of what we might call a material and psychic flânerie
; so that the traces of memory, both historical and individual, and the traces of the material presence of revolutionary and Bohemian Paris and its inhabitants, create what Benjamin calls “the true, creative synthesis between the art novel and the roman-à-clef
” (180). But what is perhaps most astute about Benjamin’s observation here, at least for my analysis, are the terms in which he frames Breton’s fascination with Nadja herself. Defining the relationship between Breton and Nadja as akin to the relationship of the gentleman and his beloved in courtly love poetry, Benjamin observes, “The Lady, in esoteric love, matters least. So too for Breton. He is closer to the things that Nadja is close to than to her” (1978: 181).1
In other words Benjamin points to the central paradox of woman
within the movement; the tension between Nadja as inspired crazy muse and real life embodied subject, a tension that has come to haunt a feminist reading of Surrealism. While this tension stages both the fantasy and erasure of the female subject, it also opens up a debate—central to both Surrealism and feminist theory—between experience and theory, between artistic practice and interpretation.
Although the title of Breton’s book, Nadja suggests that it is about the woman who goes by this name, we soon learn in the opening paragraph that the book is not about Nadja herself but about Breton, specifically Breton, the confessional writer haunted by the past:
Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I “haunt.” I must admit that this last word is misleading, tending to establish between certain beings and myself relations that are stranger, more inescapable, more disturbing than I intended. Such a word means much more than it says, makes me, still alive, play a ghostly par, evidently referring to what I must have ceased to be in order to be who I am. (1928/1960: 11)
While the autobiographical subject in Breton’s narrative is transparently opened up to the psychic and material manifestations of the everyday, as though living in a “glass house” night and day (18), the figurative constitution of the autobiographical subject as “ghostly” simultaneously renders it as amorphous and impermeable, one that refuses full knowledge or a unified self-contained subject. So we might ask, how does Nadja fit into Breton’s narrative, what purpose does she serve? As Benjamin suggests Nadja is really the prop, akin to the lady in esoteric love or even the analysand in the “talking cure,” which will assist Breton in uncovering the ghosts of his past. As a woman of the déclassé streets of Paris, one whose madness heroically ignites the surreal tenor of the narrative but whose eventual institutionalization brings about Breton’s abandonment of his muse and a diatribe against psychiatry, Nadja serves as a prop to reunite Breton with the collective social past represented by Parisian revolutionary history and Breton’s own individual past as a psychiatric intern during the war. In other words Nadja brings Breton closer to the key intellectual and social paradigms of his life up to this point—communism and psychiatry (and psychoanalysis). But if Breton’s abandonment of Nadja uncannily re-enacts his earlier abandonment of a career in neuropsychiatric medicine, his quest for self-knowledge, as experimental and revolutionary as Benjamin claims, is nevertheless haunted by the spectre of Nadja’s real-life incarceration.
If Breton poses the question “Who am I?” as central to the subject’s crisis of representation, in the work of Leonora Carrington and Claude Cahun the process of self-revision is pivotal to the way in which they position the female subject in relationship to the wider goals of the Surrealist movement. In examining Carrington’s early and late literary production (in the “The Debutante” and The Hearing Trumpet
), we can gauge the transformation of her work, from her initial involvement with the Surrealist group in France during the 1930s to her later years in Mexico City, and her collaboration with Remedios Varo. Reading work from across this period demonstrates Carrington’s changing relationship to the movement and the development of her own artistic and intellectual authority. These texts emerge out of the profoundly disturbing contexts of war, emotional and psychic crisis, and emigration, and reveal a series of revisions to the construction and representation of the self in narrative form that elucidate an important response to Breton’s seminal exploration of subjectivity in relation to literary narrative. Although I concentrate on Carrington’s writing, the fact that she is also a visual artist bears strikingly on the written work, in particular, the way in which visual forms and techniques are often transformed into writing effects. Of course this is significant within much Surrealist aesthetic practice where the interplay between visual and verbal language is central to its project of aesthetic innovation and its radical reconfiguration of the value of content over form.2
In her writing, however, Carrington takes up a Bretonian interrogation of the self, increasingly expanding its terms of reference within and against the grain of a Surrealist construction and representation of the female subject. In reading “The Debutante” and The Hearing Trumpet
as two different responses to the representation of the self, I have sought to provide a number of contextual and apposite readings that situate these works within the complex discursive and cultural fields from which they emerge. Invariably critical analyses of Carrington’s work and other women Surrealists are disengaged from the larger debates within modernism; debates about genre, gender, class, race and politics, as well as questions of institutional and artistic affiliation, which are often taken for granted in readings of more canonical work. As such, in Chapter 2
I read “The Debutante’s” thematic development of the cross-cultural exchange
and commodification of women’s bodies alongside Riviere’s psychoanalytic examination of the newly professional intellectual woman’s negotiation of the public sphere, outlined in her essay, “Womanliness as a Masquerade” (1929). The autobiographical context implicit in both these pieces unfolds what I call a complex dynamic of resistance and complicity, formed in relation to their respective negotiations of the Surrealist and psychoanalytic coterie structure. A feminist rediscovery of Carrington’s writing and Riviere’s essay in the 1980s and 1990s reflects the degree to which the themes taken up in their work have increasingly become important to contemporary feminist hermeneutics and theory.
In Chapter 3
I investigate the role of transgression and subversion in Carrington’s late, Surrealist novel, The Hearing Trumpet
, suggesting that it forms a precursor to contemporary feminist experimental writing. While this work suggests an allegiance to both feminism and Surrealism, its use of parody also undermines, or at least curbs, the ideological investments of these movements through a rereading of the Grail legend, one that draws on feminist and Surrealist derivations of the quest narrative theme. Reading the novel alongside Bataille’s Story of the Eye
and its own critical engagement with a Bretonian ficto-critical subject, I argue that both texts combine autobiography and a burlesque excess and fantasy to critique the quest narrative theme—the principal structuring device in Nadja.
While Bataille turns to eroticism to examine the relationship between order and disorder that underlies all transgression, Carrington employs the categories of the hybrid and the grotesque to critique a Surrealist celebration of femininity as erotically transgressive. In de-eroticizing feminine transgression, Carrington replaces the figure of the femme
with the maternal figure of the crone whose abject and culturally marginal status signifies a reworking of female spectacle as politically and aesthetically disruptive because of its failed transcendence. In Chapters 4 and 5 I shift the focus on Surrealist writing to the photographic self-portraits of Claude Cahun (Lucy Schwob) in the context of her different writing projects: journalism, translation, political tracts and experimental prose. Cahun’s commitment to both Marxism and psychoanalysis in many ways makes her an exemplary Surrealist practitioner. And yet in using the photographic self-portrait to reveal what Susan Sontag has defined as the innately surreal capacity of photography to reveal the “fantastic disclosures” of the subject (1977: 53), Cahun signals the indeterminancy of gendered and sexual identity in a way that implicitly foregrounds the limitations of a Surrealist political and aesthetic investment in desire. In transposing Breton’s question, “Who am I?” into “What do you want from me?” staged as a question internal and external to the subject, Cahun radically extends a Bretonian Surrealist investigation of the self, by foregrounding the psychic and social constraints that impede the revolutionary possibilities of desire. In self-consciously fashioning a lesbian subject, a subject in which gender and desire are seen as flexible as well as constrained, Cahun implicitly critiques Breton’s often-homophobic idealization of heterosexuality.
In striking ways the work of Carrington, Cahun and Riviere pre-empt many of the critical concerns in contemporary feminist theory. If the central problem for
feminism in its most recent past has centered around the possibility of a political feminist subject that does not preclude or assume to dissolve the differences between women, it may be that feminism must pull back from its sweeping political vision. If the cost of accountability means qualifying feminism’s claims of unity and coming to terms with the instability of its subject, then it may also require a recognition of its own complicity in circumscribing what counts as feminist work; without indiscriminately diminishing its material and political gains. The central paradox for contemporary feminism is therefore not dissimilar to the paradox of positionality that informs the work of Carrington, Cahun and Riviere.3
In moving from the modernist work of Carrington and Cahun to the postmodern work of Cindy Sherman, and then very briefly Judith Butler, I have attempted to map the continuity between both the past and the present, not simply in terms of how the present revisits the past, for example in terms of Sherman’s engagement with Surrealism, but how the past pre-empts the present. In this sense Cahun’s self-portraits stage an uncanny knowingness of the trajectory of the modern subject as it comes to inform queer and feminist readings of gendered and sexual identity. If Sedgwick argues that difference has become so fetishized within contemporary theory that theory itself no longer provides a cogent articulation of its effects, what, we might ask, do Cahun’s images offer us in terms of a theory of the subject conceived within the rubric of a radical otherness before the advent of its material vaporization (1990: 23)? Given the uncanny currency of Cahun’s work, how do we read the past from a moment of the over-determination of difference in the present? Although this risks a certain anachronistic projection, what Cahun’s work nevertheless provides for a contemporary audience is an emerging dialog around the representation of sexual an...