Surrealist Women: An International Anthology by Penelope Rosemont

Thursday, June 2, 2011 § 0

Surrealist Women Surrealist Texts from the Painterly/Poetic Avant Garde 

A Book Review by 
David Detrich

Surrealist Women: An International Anthology (1998) by Penelope Rosemont is a collection of Surrealist works by women in translation, and shows that women writers and artists excelled in Surrealism as a genre, after being founded by André Breton, Philippe Soupault, and Louis Aragon. Women novelists have excelled in Surrealism with sensitive portraits of men, often creating characterizations of men that show a subtle humor, while expressing intimate perceptions of the male psyche. Surrealist Women spans the decades from The First Women Surrealists, 1924-1929 to the present Surrealism: A Challenge to the Twenty-First Century, with a representation of Surrealist works by women as an international literary and art movement.

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...
                                                           All My Names 
                                                           Know Your Leap
                                                           Penelope Rosemont 

Penelope Rosemont begins with  Surrealist Text: This Took Place in the Springtime... (1924) by Simone Kahn, who married André Breton in 1921, and in this Surrealist text expresses the unconscious desire to have a man with many sexes.

     "You wish my breast to be a snowball," said the woman. "Very well, I agree. But what will you do for me in return?"
     "Make a wish, my divine! And I hope I can fulfill it!"
     "I wish for you to have, for seven days, as many sexes as you have fingers on your right hand."
     And it happened that the young man was instantly transformed into a starfish. The girl leaned over to him, smiling contentedly.
                                                         Surrealist Text: This Took 
                                                         Place in the Springtime...
                                                         Simone Kahn

The wish to have a man with five sexes is a fantasy that the narrator may express, and we notice variations in genitalia that may occur in Surrealist erotica, with biomorphic dream images that make Surrealism a more sophisticated approach to eroticism. When the young man is transformed into a "starfish," the characterization is similar to other novels in the Surrealist genre, where a starfish becomes the visual representation of a painterly, or film esthetic, with a reference to the film by Man Ray based on a poem by Robert Desnos. 

Next is Denise Lévy whose Surrealist Text: I Went Into a Green Song... (1925) anticipates Zettel's Traum by Arno Schmidt with her use of the word "fieldparadise," and since she is from Strasbourg, represents the two cultures.

From before everything wears a leopard scarf, the elephant image ignored itself from morrow to morrow, always faster, so that finally all that was left was a one and only translucent and burlesque vigil, called "Field-Beige." Cascades of kisses and phonograph cylinders were present; they came to kneel nobly before the strange window tale I just narrated.
                                                          Surrealist Text: I Went
                                                          Into a Green Song...
                                                          Denise Lévy

Denise Lévy's Surrealist text represents a parallel line of narrative development intersecting my novel The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending, as a form of "window tale," where the scene of writing becomes the self-reflexive meta-text: a burlesque as an abstract composition of "Field-Beige." Color field painting theory is a branch of Abstract Expressionism, which is where Surrealism and modern art may meet in the context of an art gallery, or the novelistic space of a window tale.

Dorothea Tanning has written a short Surrealist text called Legend (1949) in which a dialogue describing a "young sinner" occurs, and his relationship with "the three graces."

     A young sinner grew weary of Olympus. He went to the head of the stairs where the three graces sat knitting sweaters for their earthly sons. (Winter was at hand.) Each of them smiled secretly at the young sinner, each believing she was the only one whom he had provided with pleasant memories. But they wouldn't let him pass.
     "It's a cruel place," said one. "How will you nourish yourself?"
     "On destinies," he answered promptly.
                                                           Dorothea Tanning

It is not polite to call someone a "sinner," and the young character seems unfairly treated in this Surrealist text, which describes a young man who has provided "pleasant memories" for the three graces. The hope of a happy ending with the mysterious woman may not happen, instead the plot may continue with the three graces who may find the young man more to their liking.

Elisa Breton has written of the Surrealist games in One in the Other (1954), where the narrator takes on the identity of a butterfly or a sugared almond.

One in the Other

I am a green BUTTERFLY, slender and flexible. Of my three antennas, one points to the ground. I am hunted in the woods in springtime. I provide humankind with an indispensable life-giving element. Although I have been replaced by mechanical butterflies lately, I continue to be wanted by those who have the gift of awakening my powers.
                                                          One in the Other
                                                          Elisa Breton

The Surrealist genre of literature features characters who may identify with butterflies, mermaids, laughing hyenas, or curved lines, creating a more sophisticated painterly awareness of characterization which can be used in a metaphorical approach to innovative fiction. Anneliese Hager has written a Surrealist text in the poetic lines which compose Of the Poison of Dreams (1991):

You are the breath of my dreams, you look back from the hands of a long buried future, and glue your splintered face onto the fluttering world graves. You mirror your plumage in the mirror of nights and bend your head heavily over time's velvet morass. Your eyes are empty, yet birds of paradise come and they are filled with pearly song.
                                                          Of the Poison of Dreams
                                                          Anneliese Hager

In Surrealist Women: An International Anthology Penelope Rosemont has gathered together a large volume of writings by Surrealist women: with poetry, discussions of esthetic theory, and Surrealist texts. This is a monumental book that shows the perceptive literary skills of the Surrealist women who have produced thoughtful writing influenced by the avant garde esthetics of the Surrealist movement.

David Detrich lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where he has just completed The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending, an ultramodern Surrealist novel written in minimal squares. He is working on Dream the Presence of the Circular Breast Starfish Topography, a monumental Surrealist novel written with innovative typographical design. His first novel Big Sur Marvels & Wondrous Delights (2001) is available from Amazon. He is the editor of Innovative Fiction Magazine and Surrealist Star Clustered Illuminations.

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