Knock hard. Life is deaf.
Although the first women of surrealism have been almost entirely overlooked in the historical and critical literature, clearly they were a bold, imaginative, and remarkable lot. Even before surrealism's first Manifesto appeared in Paris in 1924, women were active in the movement, and they have been expanding and illuminating its universe ever since. In all the arts and major genres of writing, women helped develop surrealism's radical poetic/critical outlook and thus helped make it what it was and is. To ignore their contributions is to ignore some of the best of surrealism.
This book seeks to bring to light as much as possible the quality, range, diversity, and vitality of women participants in the international Surrealist Movement. Although the contributions of women have been acknowledged and in some cases celebrated within the movement itself, they are hardly known outside it. In the United States, the few books devoted to the topic of women and surrealism are narrowly concerned with a dozen or so "stars"—mostly painters and photographers whose work has finally, and most often posthumously, attained some standing in the art market. As a result, women surrealists whose principal vehicle of expression is the written word have been especially neglected. This neglect, in turn, has perpetuated old stereotypes and other misapprehensions of the surrealist project. Generalizations about surrealism based entirely on painters are bound to be misleading, because surrealism has never been primarily a movement of painters. Indeed, if the evidence of surrealism's numerous women poets and thinkers has been suppressed, how could the prevailing conceptions of surrealism be anything but false?
I hope that this gathering of poems, automatic texts, dreams, tales, theoretical articles, declarations, polemics, games, and responses to inquiries will help correct this distortion by revealing,some of the many ways in which women have enriched surrealism as a ferment of ideas, an imaginative stimulus, a liberating critical force, and a practical inspiration to poetic, moral, and political insurgency.
Unlike most twentieth-century cultural and political currents, the Surrealist Movement has always opposed overt as well as de facto segregation along racial, ethnic, or gender lines. From the very first issue of La Révolution surréaliste, movement publications have featured writings by women alongside those of their male comrades. Works by women artists were regularly included in surrealist exhibitions. As one perceptive commentator has pointed out, "No comparable movement outside specifically feminist organizations has had such a high proportion of active women participants" (Short 1980, 56). Moreover, until very recently most of the literature on women surrealists was written by other surrealists, male and female. If these women remain little known to the larger reading public it is because critics and scholars have been shirking their responsibilities.
Rebelling against the exclusion of women from patriarchal institutions, including art and the recounting of intellectual history, the women's liberation movement of the sixties and early seventies stimulated wider interest in the women of surrealism. More recently, in the absence of mass-based radical social movements and in keeping with the rightward trend in U.S. and international politics, the focus on individual women artists has sometimes taken a conservative or reactionary turn. Certain critics and curators have attempted to isolate women surrealists from the Surrealist Movement as a whole, not only by reducing their work to the traditional aesthetic frameworks that surrealists have always resisted but worse yet by relegating them to a subbasement of the art world known as "Women's Art." Ironically, the old (mostly male) critics who ignored or minimized women in their studies of surrealism are not that different from these newer (often female) critics who ignore or minimize surrealism itself in their studies of women who took part in it. Each of these one-sided and erroneous views reinforces the other, and both prop up the insidious fiction that surrealism is yet another "Men Only" movement. Those who perpetuate such misunderstandings are missing much of what is most unique and momentous in surrealism.
Women who never renounced their youthful commitment to surrealist egalitarianism—Meret Oppenheim, Toyen, Anne Ethuin, and others—have strongly opposed this tendency toward segregation and have expressly refused to take part in books or exhibitions that sanction it. As Ethuin has written, declining to contribute to one such "No Men Allowed" collection, "I'm sorry, but not being a Moslem I have no taste for harems. Moreover, I have never thought that art and poetry could have a sex. On days when I feel the urge to write or create images, I do not decide before I begin that I am going to make 'a woman's work.' I have lived and worked for forty-seven years in a perfectly mixed milieu and I have no intention of changing now."
The orientation of the present anthology has nothing in common with the divisive agendas that Ethuin rejects. My aim here has not been to separate the sexes or to exclude men, but rather to include more women than have ever been included before in an anthology of surrealism. The fact is, apart from the rare anthologies issued by the surrealists themselves, women have almost always been left out. Well over two-thirds of the women included here have never been represented in any anthology; many of these writings have never been reprinted since their original publication. In all but a few of the hundreds of works on surrealism in English, women surrealists are barely even mentioned. The exclusion of women from the existing compilations warrants—indeed, compels, if only for the sake of historical accuracy—an attempt to restore balance by emphasizing what so many others have denied.
It is essential, moreover, that the recovery of surrealism's lost voices not do violence to the ideas and inspirations that motivated them. Unfortunately, the few books that do acknowledge, to some extent, women's activity in surrealism tend to be less than scrupulous in their accounts of surrealism as a body of thought and an organized movement. My intention in putting together this mass of heretofore inaccessible material has not been to project fashionable new theories, much less to subject the recent literature on surrealism to a detailed critique, but simply to try to learn what the many women involved in surrealism have had to say for themselves.
What is different about this anthology is that here, for the first time, an unprecedentedly large number of surrealist women are allowed to speak in their own voices and in a specifically surrealist context—which is, after all, the context they chose for themselves. This anthology is thus the opposite of isolationist, for its guiding purpose is rather one of reintegration. By making these writings available at last, I hope to make it impossible—or at least inexcusable—for students of surrealism to continue to ignore them. I want first of all to call attention to an impressive number of important surrealist writers who for various reasons have not received the attention they deserve. The fact that they happen to be women helps explain why they have been ignored outside the movement, just as it also affects what surrealism has meant to them. I try to show not only what they took from surrealism but also what they gave to it; how they developed it, used it for their own purposes, played with it, strengthened it, and endowed it with a universality it could not have attained without them.
This anthology is arranged chronologically in six sections, covering (1) surrealism's beginnings as an organized movement, 1924-1929; (2) its rapid internationalization, 1930-1939; (3) its further internationalization, despite severe handicaps, during World War 11, 1940-1945; (4) its postwar regroupment and survival as a radical "underground" during the Cold War, 1946-1959; (5) its worldwide resurgence, starting in the early 1960s; and (6) surrealism today. Each section includes a short introduction tracing the history of surrealism in that period, focused on the evolving role of women in the movement. Each individual represented in the book is in turn introduced by a brief biobibliographical headnote.
With this general introduction, I first attempt to provide some necessary background, beginning with a summary of surrealism's basic aspirations and principles—a summary which I hope will help clear up widespread misperceptions. Next, I set forth the criteria used in preparing this anthology, explaining who is included in it and why, as well as why others have not been included. A survey of surrealism's precursors—concentrating on women, who as usual have been slighted in the critical literature—is followed by a brief examination of the sexual politics of the first, largely male generation of surrealists in Paris in the 1920s. Finally, after considering some of the many ways in which the recovery of surrealism's lost voices profoundly challenges the "conventional wisdom" about surrealism—especially in the United States, where uncomprehending hostility to the movement has been entrenched for so long—I conclude with some observations on the contemporary significance of these writings.
Surrealism: What It Is and What It Is Not
Can one explain the magic of life to someone who cannot perceive it in the smallest everyday things?
All through this book women speak of surrealism in vibrant images: as natural process, great bear skin, voyage, tightrope of our hope, potlatch, and festival. Surrealism has never let itself be locked up in the dungeons of narrow definition. It has neither dogma nor catechism. Before one can grasp what is at stake in surrealism, one must first perceive that the many cages in which journalists, critics, and its other enemies keep trying to confine it are in fact empty and that surrealism is elsewhere.
To start at the beginning, with what is perhaps the single most common misperception, surrealism most emphatically does not signify unreality, or a denial of the real, or a "refusal to accept reality." It insists, rather, on more reality, a higher reality. Heirs to a profoundly radical poetic countertradition that includes the French-language writers Lautréamont, Alfred Jarry, and Jacques Vaché (none of whom, by the way, were widely read in the early 1920s), surrealists were also among the first in France to welcome the liberating significance of Freud's theories. These two distinct inspirations—poetry and psychoanalytic theory—came together when André Breton and his comrades (several of them medical students, as he was) attempted to draw conclusions from their revelatory experiences with automatic writing and hypnotic trancespeaking, experiences that called established notions of "reality" into question.
Surrealism begins with the recognition that the real (the real real, one might say, as opposed to the fragmented, one-dimensional pseudo-real upheld by narrow realisms and rationalisms) includes many diverse elements that are ordinarily repressed or suppressed in exploitative, inegalitarian societies. Based on the dialectical resolution of the contradiction between conscious and unconscious, surrealism indicates a higher, open, and dynamic consciousness, from which no aspect of the real is rejected. Far from being a form of irrationalist escapism, surrealism is an immeasurably expanded awareness.
The social diffusion of this radical awareness is what the first surrealists called the surrealist revolution (which was also the title they gave their journal, La Revolution surréaliste). Their chosen method for its realization was the affirmation of the Marvelous—the production of disquietingly antirational images that disrupt positivist and other restrictive ways of thinking and being, thereby provoking all who behold them to come to grips with their own "inner reality" and its relation to the external world.
Affirmation of the Marvelous, which is also the negation of all that rationalizes misery, is the key to all forms of surrealist research, also known as the "practice of poetry." For surrealists, poetry is always discovery, risk, revelation, adventure, an activity of the mind, a method of knowledge leading to revolutionary solutions to the fundamental problems of life. Poetry is therefore the opposite of "literature"—a term which, in surrealist discourse, signifies a benumbing distraction that serves only the needs of repression and conformity. "It is not the technique of painting that is surrealist," as Joyce Mansour points out, "it's the painter, and the painter's vision of life." Surrealists have always been hostile to literary and artistic values—so-called technical mastery, rules of versification, talent, good taste, aesthetic merit, and all the rest—because they regard such values as part and parcel of the institutions of unfreedom. Similarly, they have always rejected what they consider to be the militaristic label "avant-garde," which critics like to apply to every cultural novelty. Surrealism is an impassioned revolt against all these deadening secondhand notions—an insurrection of the imaginary to overthrow all limitations imposed on the real. As the "integral liberation of poetry," surrealism is also the integral liberation of life (Breton 1970, 127).
This surrealist revolution was at first viewed by the surrealists themselves in nonpolitical terms, as a revolution of the spirit or mind. It took the first Surrealist Group only a few months, however, to perceive the limits of its original idealist premises. Politicized by the 1925 uprising of the Riff tribespeople in Morocco, surrealists began to see that surrealism's revolution requires the revolutionary (and material) transformation of society as a whole. Their early passion for Berkeley and Fichte led to a deeper study of Hegel and eventually to Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky. The surrealists' approach to Marxism, however, was always at odds with prevailing orthodoxies. Their reading of Hegel and Marx was close in many ways to that of some of the Frankfurt School theorists (Marcuse, Adorno), and they had a lot in common with such other maverick Marxists as Walter Benjamin, Raya Dunayevskaya, and C. L. R. James.
By boldly identifying themselves with the cause of working-class self-emancipation, the surrealists demonstrated their utter scorn for capitalism's cultural elitism. They also avoided the trap of "mysticism," another means by which poets are converted into innocuous comforters of the existing order. Surrealism's atheistic and materialist conception of poetry vigorously rejects the consolations of organized religion—that "impoverished magic," as Joyce Mansour called it—whose ideologies it regards as inherently authoritarian and imagination-stifling (Breton 1991, 310).
By freeing "the practice of poetry" from the confines of literature, religion, and other forms of idealism—that is, from society's received ideas and other debris of the past—surrealism restored to poetry the prophetic voice that most of those who called themselves poets had long since renounced in favor of artifice, mystification, and other literary vanities. All that surrealists have done in poetry and the arts can be seen as a prophetic warning in regard to what Breton called the "extreme precariousness" of the human condition and at the same time an incitement to do something about it. In a nutshell, the surrealist argument goes like this: If civilization persists on its disastrous path-denying dreams, degrading language, shackling love, destroying nature, perpetuating racism, glorifying authoritarian institutions (family, church, state, patriarchy, military, the so-called free market), and reducing all that exists to the status of disposable commodities—then surely devastation is in store not only for us but for all life on this planet. Effective ways out of the dilemma, however, are accessible to all, and they are poetry, freedom, love, and revolution.
Following Spinoza and the poets, via Freud, the basic principle of surrealism's revolutionary ethic is desire. Opposed to all that reinforces what Herbert Marcuse termed the Performance Principle—the dominant historical form of the Reality Principle—surrealism is the expansion of life's possibilities in the service of the Pleasure Principle (Marcuse 1962, 32). Freeing the imagination is the heart of the process by which everyday life becomes the realization of poetry itself. To effect this liberation, to overcome the repressive apparatus of logic, common sense, faith, law, bureaucracy, obedience to authority, militarism, and all closed systems, surrealism has always proceeded by "multiplying the ways of reaching the most profound levels of the mental personality" (Breton 1978, 149). The surrealist revolution draws freely on the most powerful elixirs in desire's laboratory: mad love, psychic automatism, analogy, chance, humor, play, games, and all forms of free association.
From its first day surrealism as an organized movement was itself a free association. A lot of nonsense has been written by crotchety critics about its splits and "purges," and especially about Breton's so-called "authoritarianism." Interestingly, such charges have virtually never been made by those who split, or who are supposed to have been "purged." Indeed, the best refutation of the myth of surrealist "authoritarianism" is to be found in the reminiscences of former surrealists who broke with the movement, sometimes bitterly. Nearly all of them, including the few who remained adversaries of the movement throughout their later years, convey unmistakably in their memoirs that surrealism as they lived it and as they left it was fundamentally a free community which practiced collective decision making and encouraged the active participation of all. One would be hard pressed to name any radical current of our time that concerned itself more with the mutually conditioning effects of means and ends, individual and collective, the personal and the political.
Few poets have demanded so much of poetry—or of themselves. The intensity of the surrealist life, its extremism and "fanaticism," seems to have disoriented many critics, who prefer poets and artists to be more easygoing and manipulable. Those who fail to recognize the primacy of revolt in surrealism will never grasp what the whole adventure is all about. Precisely because surrealism is playful, poetic, free-spirited—in love with love, dreams, and the Marvelous, and rich in extravagant antirationality and the most outrageous humor—its support for revolt and revolution has always been unequivocally serious, "as serious as pleasure," as Jacques Rigaut once said.