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| Automatic Woman: The Representation of Woman in Surrealism - Book by Katharine Conley; University of Nebraska Press, 1996
As often happens when writing a book, i wrote my introduction last, and in rewriting it, I realized that in some ways the book was as much about myself as it was a scholarly investigation into what I thought I had set out to write. I first realized I was writing an autobiographical text, in fact that all my scholarly writing was autobiographical, in a moment that could be described as a comic epiphany. I was sitting in the lounge of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania, where I did my graduate work, sipping a glass of wine and listening to an assistant professor of Spanish tell an assembled group of friends about his research experience in Oaxaca completing his dissertation. His story was interesting to me because at the time I too was writing my dissertation, a much earlier version of this book. He described his decision to alleviate some of the tension and frustration he felt writing the dissertation by starting a journal in which he recorded his thoughts and feelings about the writing process. It was only after he had been composing these two documents side by side for months that he realized they were mirror images of each other, that they were in many respects the same document. He delivered this insight with panache, a delightful punch line to a good joke, and everyone laughed with him.
I too laughed after a moment's delay, but my laugh was at my own expense. Until that moment, I had never recognized the provenance of a healthy part of my interest in the importance of the figure of the Virgin Mary in surrealism, to which I was devoting a chapter based on L'Immacule Conception, an automatic text by Andr Breton and Paul luard. I laughed out loud at my thinking that this was a purely academic interest, when, in fact, in my own family the Virgin Mary had played a significant role for years. It had been a family joke that if anyone had a need or wish-such as my uncle's hope to become a partner in his law firm-all that person had to do was to ask my grandmother to pray to the Virgin and it would come true. For a while it seemed to be true. My uncle did, in fact, become the youngest partner in his law firm's history.
My Irish Catholic background had prompted me to latch onto the Virgin's role in Breton and luard's text just as it had probably created in me the conditions that would cause me to feel drawn to the inherent mysticism in a lot of surrealist thinking in the first place. As a lapsed Catholic I may have seen grace in objective chance, and I could also see the humor in the blasphemy-both to Catholicism and to surrealism-of making any comparison between the two. I had been trained from childhood to believe in the impossible. Like the surrealists, though, when I became an adult I felt a need to distance myself from the ideology of the church.
Going back to my recent experience of rewriting the introduction, I felt that I learned something new, both about the nature of scholarly work and about myself. Ideas can take a long time to develop. I no longer find this threatening. I have loved the way my intellect has plodded along behind my intuition and shown me, slowly, the articulations of my thoughts. The process has not been unlike that of automatic writing, of the "phrase that was knocking at the windowpane" described by Breton in the first Manifesto of Surrealism. I seize an image, a link, a juncture, and write it down. Then, sometimes years later, I understand why it came to me. As a case in point, I entitled my first chapter (now chapter 4) "Women Swinging Doors" from Breton's description, in Nadja, of how he likes books "that swing like doors" ( "qu'on laisse battant comme des portes" ) ( Ouvres comples [hereafter abbreviated as oc] 1:561). In the dissertation I never explained to my own satisfaction why this image was emblematic of my entire argument; I just knew that it was so. It wasn't until a year and a half later, when I was working on the writing of the Qubecois novelist Nicole Brossard, that the bridges in my "swinging door" argument suddenly became clear and I was able to rewrite the chapter on Breton, and to see better what had caught my imagination about this image in the first place.
Please read the rest of the book at Questia online library
| With my introduction, I was completing a five-year-old idea and considering how impossible it would have been five years earlier for me to express just why I wanted to write about the work of certain women surrealist artists-namely, Leonora Carrington and Unica Zrn-in conjunction with that of one exemplary male surrealist, Andr Breton, other than to say that I felt haunted by it. I was seeking to identify the nature of the intersections and diversions between the work of the women and that of Breton. I did not then realize that I was also pursuing clues to my own identity. In effect I was following along with Breton's own line of questioning from the opening of Nadja, in which he asks, "Who am I? I could, exceptionally, quote an old adage: in effect does not everything come back to the question, Whom do I frequent [qui je 'hante']?" ( OC 1:647). As Marguerite Bonnet points out in her notes to the Plade edition, the adage reformulated by Breton, "Tell me whom you spend your time with, and I will tell you who you are," comes down to a question of relational identity, to a meditation on "that deep and unknown self, such as it is defined in its relation to the Other" ( OC 1:1523). Breton's others included Nadja ; mine included Breton; both of us haunted by the presence of those whose company we sought.
At the time, very little had been published about Carrington's En bas ( Down Below ) and Zrn's L'Homme-jasmin ( The Man of Jasmine ), and I wanted those texts to be recognized as works of art, as they now have been by Susan Rubin Suleiman, Rene Riese Hubert, and others. But there was more to my interest than that. I believed, an impression confirmed for me when I came to read Suleiman's Subversive Intent, that surrealism itself as an avant-garde movement anticipated some of the tenets of French feminism, a 1970s avant-garde movement in its own right. I wanted to explore how the writings by women came to play into that notion, to study what happens to the image of Woman when the verbal portraits of women in surrealism by the men became verbal self-portraits by the women. Whereas Bre ton 's Nadja portrays a woman in a mental institution, both En bas and L'Homme-jasmin are accounts of time that their authors spent in mental institutions. Carrington and Zrn invest their writing with a much greater awareness of their bodies as inextricable components of their mental experiences. I became convinced that their work serves as a steppingstone between surrealism and 1970s feminism. Their writing makes sense out of a juxtaposition of the avant-garde writing projects of crititre automatique and criture fminine.
But initially I wanted to discover why, as a feminist scholar, I was attracted to surrealism in the first place, a movement that has been well documented by recent criticism as frequently misogynistic. Was I a masochist? If so, then I was in good company, since I could not help noticing how many scholars of surrealism, both in the United States and in France, are women. This was my private riddle...