Review of Surrealist Women
by Allan Graubard || Author's Links
Dear Exquisite Corpse,
I just read the interview you feature with Penelope Rosemont, editor of the book on women surrealist poets. Perhaps you would be interested in a more critical view of that impossible book? I have attached a review I originally intended for the surrealist journal published by the Prague surrealist group, Analagon -- but which, for many technical reasons, was not published. At any rate, I am a surrealist, and I have to say I collaborated in the surrelaist group with the Rosemonts for a few years in the 1970s, and worked on the World Surrealist Exhibition, 1976, in Chicago that she mentions in the interview. I left that group in 1977. Currently, I participate with many noted creators, including the Paris "SURR" surrealist group and the Prague surrealist group.
Penelope Rosemont, ed.
Texas University Press, Austin.
I have never really understood the reason for anthologies beyond an invitation au voyage. That being said, it is most helpful for the editor of any anthology to image the terrain, whether by sufficient history, interpretation, a mix of the two, or any other means that satisfies the need.
Of course, the misfortune of anthologies is this: too many provide a means, however prefatory it may be, with too few adding enough reason or passion for a reader to take the cue and begin packing.
And despite its title and theme, or because of them, Surrealist Women falls into the second camp. As edited by Penelope Rosemont, this hefty volume is a ticket, no doubt, but where to and how is still uncertain.
Doesn't the book make available to the English-speaking world a selection of texts by surrealists, some known, many more barely known or unknown, and all of them women? Isn't this a compelling enough reason to accept what you wish, forgo what you don't and leave it at that?
I wish it were.
I wish that Penelope Rosemont were not a surrealist or a principal animator of the Chicago Surrealist Group. If that were the case, I could simply fault her for seeming not to understand the kind of rigor that surrealists have been known for in the past, and should be expected to sustain in the present. I could even find greater pleasure in the works offered within the book, no longer having to avoid the editor's facile introductions to the book entire and to each chronological section.
No, I am no fan of the literary tourist brochure. When dates, names and numbers proliferate, I more often yawn than applaud. When the grand concepts that animate surrealist revolt appear as banal noun clusters without enough depth or resonance to give them life as provocations, I'm perplexed. And when an editor who wishes to enhance her readers' interest has only marginal success, I wonder why.
The answer isn't far off.
Her variegated journalism, however much buoyed by her enthusiasms -- for revolt, poetry, ecart absolu, love, etc.-- simply does not convince in the letter or in the thought.
There is another, even more disturbing constant to Rosemont's editorship: a lack of critical consciousness to producing a book based on gender difference.
Yes, she is quick to tell us:
Unlike most 20th century cultural and political currents, the Surrealist Movement has always opposed overt as well as de facto segregation along racial, ethnic, or gender lines.
Thanks for reminding us of surrealism's exceptional value in this regard. But it's not one that Rosemont takes to heart. And as if to rationalize the point, she adds this apology:
My aim here has not been to separate the sexes to exclude men, but rather to include more women than have ever been included in an anthology on surrealism….The exclusion of women from the existing compilations warranted - indeed compels, if only for the sake of historical accuracy - an attempt to restore the balance by emphasizing what so many others have denied. (p. xxi)
Why Rosemont should feel it necessary to "balance" a historical injury done to a movement of revolutionary expression that repudiates gender difference as a measure of distinction between people by reinstating that difference is beyond me.
Sorry, your sexism in the service of history does surrealism little justice.
At the same time, I find nowhere throughout this anthology any comment on the subversive character or quality of previously acclaimed surrealist discoveries and techniques, beyond her noting them in a spray of superlatives. Surely, the "what worked then, works equally well now" fad has little place within any discussion of surrealist proclivities. It seems even less coherent when focused exclusively on women.
This is not to say that Rosemont misunderstands what she's about here. I only doubt that she recognizes the attending confusion.
And that's the rub to the entire effort.
For perspective though let's turn to two women that Rosemont cites: the first a former surrealist and wife of Breton, the second a contemporary surrealist.
Jacqueline Lamba, as she describes her encounter with Breton and her attraction to the surrealism of the late 1920s and early 1930s, put it this way:
These [surrealist] writings offered a definitive response to certain problems that are extremely difficult to resolve individually.
No doubt! and with Lamba the risk involved grows quite clear. It was, it remains, the pre-eminent reason to consider surrealism a route out of the maze of misery of daily life. Yet nowhere do I find such simplicity of expression, and its concomitant honesty, in Rosemont's introductions except for her ardor, based on her own trajectory, but veiled by a wooden rhetoric emblazoned with surrealist concerns.
In this same regard, we can turn to Annie Le Brun. In her brief on Le Brun, Rosemont concludes this way:
She [Le Brun] also proved to be among the most prolific, uncompromising and individualistic, adamant in her refusal to be "recuperated" either by the apparatus of repression or its reformist pseudo-oppositions.
What Rosemont does not add here is Le Brun's consistent refusal to be "recuperated" by those who consider themselves animators of contemporary surrealism, and which would include Rosemont, the Chicago Group and others around the world. At the same time, in reading Le Brun's introduction to Lache tout, which Rosemont does provide us with, I find here again everything that Rosemont lacks: preciseness of expression, poetic clarity, verve, embodied thought. Of course, Le Brun's call for dissertion is quite real. It is not limited to everything other than surrealism, and is definitely not a literary device.
All right, I'll shut up and tip my hat to those exceptional poems and texts scattered through the book.
For those of you who can forgive an editor the indiscretion of her confusions, this book is for you, as they say, from cover to cover. For those who require clarity and provocation, and whose need for reality is greater than any wish fulfillment can provide, I suppose we're left with taking our pick between the covers.
One final caution: Should you love maps of elsewhere, and wish to use this book as a guide, keep your senses about you. You'll be walking into an erotic-magnetic night with your sunglasses on!
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