Sex and the Surrealist Image

What is your definition of beauty? Have you got a favourite line of poetry that describes beauty by using an image to suggest it? If you have, it’s probably not this often-quoted Surrealist simile:

“As beautiful as the chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table.”

The author is Isidore Ducasse (the self-styled Comte de Lautréamont) and it’s from The Songs of Maldoror, a prose poem of 1868. Lautréamont’s work, and this line in particular, was so popular and important to the development of Surrealism that Man Ray created a ready-made inspired by it.

Man Ray EnigmaI thought it might be interesting to “unpack” Lautréamont’s simile, and see if it could be used as a model for creating new Surrealist images.

First of all, how does it work? A conventional simile would try to find some commonality or similarity between the thing being described and the thing it’s compared to (such as the moon and a silver coin, which are both round and sort of the same colour) but likeness was not the criteria for Surrealist images, neither was appropriateness (and it was most definitely not good taste!).

The Surrealists (whether visual artists or poets) were not interested in reproducing the world as it is, the idea was to plumb the unconscious and use words to produce “unremembered, previously non-existent realities,” as Anna Balakian helpfully explains in The Road to the Absolute.

So the principle of the Surrealist simile or metaphor is the dramatic clash of unlikeness; an impossible meshing of opposites. In fact, writes Robert Short, “the power of an image was in direct proportion to the incongruity of the entities which it brought together”.

So this is all fine and dandy, but Robert Belton, in an essay from 1990, has a very specific reading of Lautréamont’s simile and large claims for its influence on later Surrealist poetry:

“The coincidence of a man’s phallic accessory and an unthinking domestic instrument on a ‘bed’ designed for bloodletting was simply too potently, aggressively, and violently sexual to be avoided…Ducasse’s simile, as the archetypal act of collage, virtually ensured that other juxtapositions would connote sexual violence for the male surrealist.”

Now I was rather taken aback by this reading of the sewing machine and umbrella as a sort of rape scene because it had never occurred to me, but the image does have a lasting power which means it is very likely to have a sexual subtext (why else do we remember that Cadbury’s Flake ad of the woman lying in the boat going through a waterfall rather than countless other television images involving chocolate bars?). But is Lautréamont’s simile really an encoded image of a pierced woman on a bloody bed?

It’s often been remarked that a lot of Surrealist visual iconography is of women in pieces: women beheaded, dismembered, partitioned, bound, gagged or blinded. Whitney Chadwick ponders this phenomenon in Surrealist art by men at the end of her book Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement:

“the link [between the unconscious and reality] was often a woman…onto whose image could be projected the secret, and often forbidden, desires and obsessions lodged in the unconscious […] The erotic violence that does exist in the work of woman artists tends to be absorbed into their images of themselves rather than directed out into the world and lodged in an image of the Other”.

I’ve often wondered if the ruined umbrella and draped material in Leonor Fini’s painting of 1940 called L’Ombrelle, (The Parasol) is a reference to Lautréamont’s simile. There is a woman’s eye peering out from behind one of the slashes in the umbrella which, now I have it in my mind, rather supports Belton’s interpretation and Chadwick’s point too.

The UmbrellaSurely it’s possible to draw on the power (which Balakian describes as a sort of electricity) of Surrealist opposition without promoting sexual violence or even being restricted to the predictable territory of male heterosexuality.

Of course not all Surrealist poetic images draw on the abuse of women’s bodies. For instance, Robert Desnos’ “I have so often dreamed of you that you become unreal” must be one of the tenderest love poems written (and it’s almost unbearable to know that Desnos died in Terezina concentration camp at the age of 45).

Perhaps my favourite image in Surrealist poetry is the final line of André Breton’s 1948 poem “They tell me that over there”, which describes a mythical paradise and ends with a line describing the absence of evil:

“All the flowering appletree of the sea”.

This metaphor splices two things together so perfectly that you can’t see the join. I’ve spent hours enjoying this image and repeating it to myself: it never loses its magic and suggestibility! Is the sea flowering with surf the colour of apple blossom? Is the tree like a sea of flowers? Is the apple tree from the Garden of Eden or is the sea suggesting the origin of life? It’s all of these, and all at the same time!

Joyce Mansour is a poet I’ve recently discovered. She was an athlete with Egyptian parents and joined the Surrealist group in Paris in 1954. In her poem “Remember” written the following year, she is addressing a lover and conjuring memories of their time spent together:

“Remember…
When we heard the rats jingling around
Eating poppies
You and me.”

As Mary Ann Caws (the translator) says, we do not know who is eating the poppies, the rats or the lovers, because the poem is “constructed for both possibilities”.

So why not try this yourself? Make up a simile beginning “As beautiful as…” and make sure the elements are as unlike as possible but somehow joined at a deeper level. Or create an image that has a “double” movement like Breton’s or Mansour’s, vibrating between meanings.

And watch out for that subtext!

Leonora Carrington at Liverpool Tate: hit or miss?

Major solo exhibitions of women Surrealists are extremely rare so when I first heard that Liverpool Tate were putting on an exhibition of work by the painter and writer Leonora Carrington, I was excited. The Giantess

This would be the first British exhibition for 20 years and, after her death in 2011, it felt like a summing up. Before going, I had heard that there was very little information about her in the exhibition, and no catalogue. Well, I thought, this is perhaps a good thing. Every article I have ever read about Leonora begins with a journalistic account of her extraordinary life from Lancashire debutante to muse of Max Ernst in Paris, then mental breakdown in Spain and finally dramatic escape to Mexico where she lived into old age, continuing to paint and write. The story is irresistible and I, too, am guilty of exploiting it by selecting parts to dramatise in my own novel, Swimming with Tigers. But I was hoping that for once a woman artist might be presented as an artist first, and that biography, in the form of the perennial obsession with women’s sex lives over and above their artistic practice and influences, would be of secondary or minimal importance.

So I went to Liverpool full of high hopes and there were indeed very little details. Of any kind. Worse still, apart from perhaps half a dozen paintings, it felt as though her best work was missing and instead there were many of the more pale, fanciful, schematic pictures plus a lot of juvenile work, some interesting but not particularly gripping theatre artefacts and a frankly embarrassing film that she’d designed costumes for in the early 1970s. It was wonderful to see The Giantess (1950) and have the opportunity to study the tiny figures at the base close up, to see the scale of the magnificent Temptation of St Antony (1947) and the compelling Oval Lady (1942) (well annotated, as an exception). Also there was the entrancing And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur (1953), whose dancing figure on the right is perhaps my favourite piece of Carrington iconography.

Daughter of the MinotaurBut in the three rooms of the exhibition there was none of that fizz of energy, excitement and transgression that a good Surrealist exhibition has, and that the Manchester Art Gallery’s exhibition of 2009, Angels of Anarchy, had in spades (Carrington’s The Inn of the Dawn Horse, 1937, was a highlight in Manchester and noticeably absent from Liverpool). I blamed myself. Perhaps I was not in the right mood? Then I started to blame Leonora! Could it be that her life’s work didn’t really add up to much after all?

At home I looked again at Susan Aberth’s excellent book Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art (2004) and began to suspect that it was the selection, as well as the curation, of the Liverpool exhibition that had let her down. I know next to nothing about putting together an exhibition of this kind but I did notice how the overwhelming majority of the work was described as belonging to private collections. This is not unusual for Surrealist work, I know, but was it part of the problem? The difficulty of gathering Carrington’s strongest work from individuals across the globe must be immense. But the minimal commentary was not excusable. I know from many years of working on women writers and teaching classes about them that readers have to be given the tools to understand and enter into unknown work. It was good to avoid the “superstar” or tabloid gossip approach but information about Carrington’s intellectual and artistic context was sorely needed. Surely it would have been better to fill one wall with ideas and references than with the series of paintings she did at art school, age 16!

The critics have been fairly neutral. Alice Spawls in The London Review of Books remarked on the curious lack of humour in a show about one of the wittiest of the Surrealists, (although I did revel in the delightful bronze Albino Hog (2003), which was black!). The best newspaper review is by Alastair Sooke in the Telegraph and although it is negative overall, he does try to assess Carrington on her own terms, suggesting she was less of a Surrealist than part of a British tradition of fairy painters. I hope there will be a further, better, show of her work before too long and would encourage everyone to go to Liverpool (the exhibition is on til the end of May) and decide for themselves!
I’m extremely glad that Tate Liverpool have put the spotlight on her and I hope it will send interested people (perhaps including Alastair Sooke?) to seek out Abeth’s book which demonstrates what a unique, fascinating and gifted artist she really was. Carrington’s literary work: hilarious, politically subversive and truly surreal, will be the subject of another post.

Things That Have Inspired Me Part 2: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Lamott

One of my favourite books about writing is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

It’s full of cheering jokes and really useful advice from a startlingly honest writer. One of the best chapters is about how an editor’s rejection of a re-written manuscript sent her into complete mental meltdown. “Luckily, I was still drinking then,” she writes and I hoot at that line every time (no, I know alcoholism isn’t funny, but even so).

Anyway, although Lamott doesn’t mention freewriting as such, her recommendation of starting out with “shitty first drafts” is in very similar territory, because Anne Lamott knows all about the terrors of the blank page. Here’s her description of the writer sitting down to write:

“You turn on the computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again…and you try to quiet your mind so that you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind… They are the voices of anxiety, judgement, doom, guilt.”

This is where freewriting can really come into its own. By enforcing just one requirement, namely writing continuously for an agreed length of time, freewriting makes it possible to bypass these voices. What you write probably won’t be usable as it stands and it certainly won’t be perfect but it will be a start (a “shitty first draft”). It’s a triumph of creativity over negativity.

Anne Lamott passes on another suggestion for dealing with negative, inhibiting, critical inner voices. A hypnotist recommended to her that she imagined each of her inner voices as a speaking mouse. Then she was to imagine picking up each mouse by the tail and dropping it in a jar. Next, the lid goes on and the voices get turned right down to nothing by a volume control button. “Watch the frantic mice lunge at the glass,” says Lamott, “and get back to your shitty first draft”.

I recently had one of the most immovable writer’s blocks of my nearly eight years of fiction-writing. The cause? I taught creative writing at a university. All of a sudden I was an authority on writing! It froze me stiff, and every approach to the blank page was drowned out by voices telling me that unless I was a naturally and genuinely gifted writer I had no business claiming to be able to teach others. Without freewriting I’d have made no progress at all on my new novel that was straining to get into the light but punched back every time by the voices of perfectionism.

So it makes sense to separate writing into two processes. First there are the early, freewritten, drafts. This is where you do whatever it takes to create a permissive zone into which no judgement, no assessment, and no authority figures can gain access: it’s the playground, the sandpit, the colouring book. Then, with plenty of messy, generous, rubbishy writing you can invite back the critic, the editor, the one who knows about genre and structure and dialogue and plot and find the beginnings of a viable piece of writing. Then you edit. And you rewrite (and maybe you freewrite some more). Then edit again and eventually, after the third, tenth or hundredth draft, you’ll have something that retains the wildness and the “you-ness” of the first, free, “shitty” draft and it will be worth reading. It might even be publishable. But that’s another story.

Things That Have Inspired Me to Write, Part 1: Baking bread

bread

I have a friend who runs a microbakery from home and this week I did a short course in sourdough baking with him.  We made ten different types of bread: white, wholemeal, with black olives, with sunflower and sesame seeds, round-loaves, long loaves, flat loaves, plaits, rolls and baguettes. One was studded with candied fruits, another was dimpled with tomatoes, but all were created from the humble mix of flour and water.

I brought home a tableful of bread to share and store.  It’s made me want to bake, of course, but surprisingly I came back full of enthusiasm (sorely lacking in these bleak January days) for the process of writing and the making of written forms.  As much as anything else it was the array of “things” he owned and used to make these edible creations that inspired me: the scrapers and scoops and brushes and bowls and boxes and baskets and tins and racks and the whole fragrant space of the kitchen warmed by the two ovens that were on all afternoon.

Coming back to my writing room, I have a child’s desire for felt-tip pens and coloured inks.  For card and rolls of that old printer paper with perforations at the side.  For big blank drawing books and coloured A4 sheets, even for scrapbooks of grainy grey sugar paper.  For pin-boards and postcards, and index cards in pastels colours.  For thick vanilla paper with flourishes embossed on it.

Notebooks are my usual diet and like the sliced bread of supermarkets they can usually satisfy, especially a certain brand of floppy black ones that has somehow got linked up with Hemingway and a European, expatriate glamour.  Now, after the messy dough and the flour-strewn countertop, I’m more interested in the sort of writing that comes from forgotten scraps of paper or cut-ups or splurges in a diary.  But I want order, too.  Thinking about the wooden handles of the dough-cutters, the gleaming, waist-high rack for cooling, and the steel peels that slide in the pizzas, I am craving box files and hanging files and pigeon-holes attached to the wall so that each individual idea has space to breathe.  I want boxes for card indexes and in-trays that slide and detach for bringing to a desk.  I want anything with drawers.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, the experiences of shaping and kneading and weighing and combining ingredients calls up in me the primal desire for the making of image and line; character and story.  First to introduce a dry name and then add the bubbling ferment of incident, dilemma and crisis.  To mix together a stream of picture-words onto a white sheet of paper like pouring water into airy white flour.  Then to mix it all, with a pen or with the fingers on the keyboard, and leave it to rise in the dark warmth of my mind.  Next day, to lift up the cloth and shape it, ready for the final tempering by the heat of honest critique.  And to hope, hope that it grows and expands and splits its sides and becomes a thing of beauty, and sustenance.

The writer and the baker (using all the skill and equipment they can muster and cherish) both create new forms.  My appetite for words was renewed by the bread I baked in such an inspiring, creative place.

Freewriting is Surrealist!

Most creative writing guidebooks, even when they recommend freewriting (or whatever they call it) don’t mention its origin in Freud’s theories and Surrealist practice.  Knowing where it came from might enlarge the way we do it.  If freewriting is magic then going back to the origin might be where the magic is strongest.