Review: Recovering Surrealist Women

Against the Current, No. 79, March/April 1999

Bertha Husband

Surrealist Women: An International Anthology, edited with introductions by Penelope Rosemont. With 45 illustrations. Austin: University of Texas Press. $24.95 paper, $50 cloth.

EVERY MOVEMENT COMMITTED to revolutionary change has its internal wars and its external detractors. For seventy-five years the international surrealist movement—whose conception of revolution embraces social and economic revolution, but goes beyond these, aiming at “the freedom of the Marvelous” and “the realization of poetry in everyday life”—has been no exception.

Penelope Rosemont’s Surrealist Women is distinctive in that it is written not by an outside critic of surrealism, but from within, by one who has been an active participant in the movement since 1966.

This anthology is in part a response to certain feminist art historians, whose critique of male representations of women in the visual arts as objectifications for the consumption of the male gaze has singled out surrealism as particularly misogynist.

Hans Bellmer’s dolls are often cited as the epitome of this hatred of women. And yet, if his images were placed alongside Cindy Sherman’s photographs of mannequin parts, it would be impossible to detect which were the creations of a male and which of a female. As surrealist filmmaker Nelly Kaplan told an interviewer, “If I cut off the credits from my films, people wouldn’t be able to tell if they were made by a man or a woman.”

The idea that all creation is androgynous unites the writings of women surrealists. And it is precisely this that presents problems for those academics who have constructed a view of surrealism as a male-dominated movement that included only a few token women artists.

In response, women artists such as Meret Oppenheim and Toyen, who were active in surrealism for decades, refused to participate in women-only exhibitions and anthologies. Both, however, are represented in Surrealist Women.

Passion and Solidarity

Truly global in scope, Surrealist Women includes the work of important surrealist poets and theorists from Africa, the African diaspora, the Middle East, Central and South America, Eastern and Western Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States.

The anthology features numerous women writers whose work was originally published in French, Arabic, German, Czech, Spanish and other languages, and has not been translated into English before, as well as writings by women whose native language is English. The great majority of these women have been completely ignored by U.S. critics.

The book’s 300 selections—essays, poems, stories, diatribes, and games—explore every aspect of the surrealist adventure, and relate it to such currents as Marxism, feminism, anarchism, psychoanalysis, Pan-Africanism and ecology. Surrealist critiques of capitalism, white supremacy, organized religion, Patriarchy, imperialism, colonialism, Stalinism, fascism, ecocide, the work ethic and other aspects of what they call “miserabilism” are much in evidence throughout.

The surrealists’ passionate, sympathetic interest in the indigenous cultures of the world, and their active solidarity with revolutionary anti-colonialist struggles—from the 1920s Rif uprising in Morocco to the Los Angeles Rebellion of 1992—are also amply documented.

Here, restored at last to the history and context of surrealism, “which, after all, was the context they chose for themselves,” these women are allowed to speak in their own voices.

Three In One

Surrealist Women is a massive book, almost 600 pages. And it has to be, because it assembles the writings of ninety-seven women. But lovers of slim volumes, amongst whom I count myself, should not be daunted, for it can be read as three separate books: Rosemont’s history of the movement; the biographies of the women surrealists; and the actual texts.

These three books are interwoven in six chapters set out in a historical timeline covering the decades from the 1920s to the present. But the reader obviously doesn’t have to follow the order and can leap around in a collagelike reading that becomes an absorbing game of following strange connections.

A curiosity about the present led me to start with Chapter 6, “A Challenge to the 21st Century.” Here Rosemont lists the miseries of this “depressingly prolonged historical moment of global reaction,” but is hopeful that “surrealism, the living negation of all these horrors, not only has refused to evaporate, but is actually enjoying a promising renaissance.”

This optimism became the key to my route through the book. Surrealism as it emerges from this reading holds as its central task the winning of total freedom.

The means to this end is imaginative play with language: “Surrealism started with poetry, and poetry remains its central nervous system.” Surrealism proceeds, as André Breton put it, “by multiplying the ways of reaching the most profound levels of the mental personality.”

Rosemont’s selections show that many major surrealist poets have been women: from Valentine Penrose, Mary Low and Joyce Mansour to Carmen Bruna, Rikki Ducornet and Jayne Cortez.

Recovering the Word

Perhaps the greatest challenge to surrealist poets today is the banality of language in late capitalism—not the erasure of meaning, but the destruction of the power of the word. The word “free” has never seemed so unfree, nor “hope” so hopeless, nor “risk” so safe.

The catalog of horrors of our time includes the victory of a complacent form of democracy shared even by the left, marked by its rosy moralizing about safety and our concern for future generations, and where even the word “evil” loses its power.

In the last essay in this book, Nancy Joyce Peters writes, “To exorcise the dualist curse has always been a first priority of surrealism” (she is referring to the central binary male/female). But one cannot simply declare that dualities are gone, and maybe the organization of pessimism in the face of too much optimism is again the call of the hour.

With this in mind, I leap back to Chapter 4, “Women in the Surrealist Underground in the 1950s,” a time with strong parallels to our own: the Cold War years when, as Rosemont writes, “Cynicism ruled, culturally and politically,” and “Apathy was one of the watchwords of the age.”

Here I discover the essays of Nora Mitrani (beautifully translated by Myrna Bell Rochester) and it is love at first sight. Against the smugness of good, we find a revolutionary evil. “Since man carries evil in his heart, long live the magnificent evil that can destroy him, the passion of love, and the innumerable crimes it has generated.”

This was written with reference to the Marquis de Sade in a discussion of love, eroticism, and scandal. In her biography I notice that Mitrani also wrote about her friend Hans Bellmer. Her essays reveal a return to surrealism’s profane origins—to Sade, Lautramont, Rimbaud, Nietzsche and Bakunin.

As Walter Benjamin put it, “Since Bakunin, Europe has lacked a radical concept of freedom. The surrealists have one.”

From Revolt to Action

Benjamin wrote this in 1929, when the surrealist movement was going through a crisis emerging out of the move from purely individual revolt to the demands of mass revolutionary action. Poets will be poets, but surrealist poets have always been responsive to the call of the moment (which might account for the longevity of their movement).

This may be the time to turn inward, a time of intensified poetic theory, or what Nancy Cunard in 1927 called “a moral questioning of all that is in life, anarchically, poetically expressed.” Of course, as Cunard goes on to say, poetic theory—if it is to be more than rhetorical—must also face its “material consequences,” i.e. the need for revolution.

The prose pieces in Surrealist Women—many of them essays in theory and/or polemic—are also poetic. These essays by Claude Cahun, Mary Low, Suzanne Csaire, Ikbal El Alailly, Leonora Carrington, Jacqueline Johnson, Nelly Kaplan, Jacqueline Senard, Annie Le Brun, Haifa Zangana, Eva Svankmajerova, Hilary Booth and others are, for me, highlights of the book.

Listen to Claude Cahun, in 1933, arguing that surrealism “can and should serve the cause of workingclass emancipation. Only when the proletariat has become conscious of the real meaning of the myths that uphold capitalist culture —indeed, only when the proletariat has destroyed these myths and revolutionized this culture—will working men and women be able, as a class, to proceed to their own self-development. The positive lesson of this experience in negation—that is, the dissemination of the surrealist experiment among the working class—is the only valid revolutionary poetic propaganda in our time.”

And here is Martiniquan Suzanne Césaire, writing in 1943:

Surrealist activity [is] a total activity: the only one capable of liberating humankind by revealing the unconscious, an activity that will help free the peoples of the world. . . . Far from contradicting, diluting or diverting our revolutionary attitude toward life, surrealism strengthens it. It nourishes an impatient strength within us, endlessly reinforcing the massive army of refusals. And I am thinking also of tomorrow. Millions of black hands will hoist their terror across the furious skies of world war. Freed from a long, benumbing slumber, the most disinherited of all peoples will rise up from plains of ashes . . . . Our surrealism will enable us to finally transcend the sordid antinomies of the present: whites/Blacks, Europeans/Africans, civilized/savages . . . . Surrealism: tightrope of our hope.

And this from Leonora Carrington, in Mexico, 1970:

Since civilization is rolling quickly toward absolute destruction for Earth, blind inane mass suicide for all living beings, the last hope is an act of will to step out of the mechanical trap and refuse. . . . The idea that “Our Masters” are Right and must be loved, honored and obeyed is, I think, one of the most destructive lies that have been instilled into the female psyche. It has become most horribly obvious what these Masters have done to our planet and her organic life. If women remain passive I think there is very little hope for the survival of life on this Earth.

Freedom, Revolt, Imagination

“I tell myself all kinds of stories,” said Nadja, the real-life heroine of Breton’s most popular book. “And not only silly stories: actually I live this way altogether.”

Through his encounters with this enigmatic woman Breton himself discovered that it is the intense, lived moment of poetic inspiration that is most truly to be desired. And the whole experience of surrealism shows that this inspiration can be achieved by all, whether they take pen to paper or not.

With its emphasis on freedom, revolt, and the urgency of the unfettered imagination, Surrealist Women is not only a major work of scholarship—it is also vital reading for anyone involved in struggles for radical social change. And for those who live their lives at the point where art and revolution intersect, this book is indispensable.

ATC 79, March-April 1999