The Unconscious (and Surrealism), Part Two

In his 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism, André Breton writes:

We are still living under the reign of logic: this, of course, is what I have been driving at. But in this day and age logical methods are applicable only to solving problems of secondary interest. The absolute rationalism that is still in vogue allows us to consider only facts relating directly to our experience... Experience itself has found itself increasingly circumscribed. It paces back and forth in a cage from which it is more and more difficult to make it emerge. It too leans for support on what is most immediately expedient, and it is protected by the sentinels of common sense.
... It was, apparently, by pure chance that a part of our mental world which we pretended not to be concerned with any longer - and, in my opinion by far the most important part - has been brought back to light. For this we must give thanks to the discoveries of Sigmund Freud... The imagination is perhaps on the point of reasserting itself, of reclaiming its rights (9-10).

What reason, I ask, a reason so much vaster than the other, makes dreams seem so natural and allows me to welcome unreservedly a welter of episodes so strange that they would confound me now as I write? And yet I can believe my eyes, my ears; this great day has arrived, this beast has spoken (13).

With this, Breton hearkens the coming of the surreal. But is his "beast" the same as Anzaldua's "Shadow Beast"? Is his rejection of the rational as liberating as he believes?

What I want to briefly sketch out here is why I think Breton's anti-rationalism - and he is anti-rationalist - is not feminist; in other words, how this idea of anti-rationality can be (like any other artistic/ideological framework) be manipulated. This ties in very closely with work I'm doing on Breton's Arcane 17 and its relationship to a short story by Gisèle Prassinos, so I'll be skating a very thin line between going overboard and holding back too much!

Breton, and many other Surrealists, privileged the idea of the femme-enfant, the woman-child, as the ideal surrealist figure. Halfway between psychological maturity and childlike innocence, the femme-enfant was considered to have the greatest access to the unconscious realm. Breton compares her to a fairy in his Anthologie de l'humour noir, and to a mermaid-like figure in Arcane 17. The connection between Breton's femme-enfant and Anzaldúa's mestiza is actually not a far-fetched one to make: both inhabit liminal spaces, traversing the boundaries between the real/unreal/surreal, or between real life and the spirit realm.

The trouble with this comparison is not necessarily the concept in and of itself, but the use to which Breton puts it. In Arcane 17, Breton frames the femme-enfant as the ideal of female agency and power but also as a state which, more than empowering women, reflects back on men:

Qui rendra le sceptre sensible à la femme-enfant? Qui déterminera le processus de ses réactions encore inconnu d'elle-même, de ses volontés sur lesquelles est si hâtivement jeté le voile du caprice? Celui-là aura dû l'observer longtemps devant son miroir et, au préalable, il lui aura fallu rejeter tous les modes de raisonnement dont les hommes sont si pauvrement fiers, si misérablement dupes, faire table rase des principes sur lesquels s'est édifiée tout égoïstement la psychologie de l'homme, qui n'est aucunement valable pour la femme, afin d'instruire la psychologie de la femme en procès contre la première, à charge ultérieure de les concilier. Je choisis la femme-enfant non pour l'opposer à l'autre femme, mais parce qu'en elle et seulement en elle me semble résider à l'état de transparence absolue l'autre prisme de vision dont on refuse obstinément de tenir compte, parce qu'il obéit à des lois bien différentes dont le despotisme masculin doit empêcher à tout prix la divulgation (A17, 64).

Who will attune the scepter [authority] to the femme-enfant? Who will determine the process of her still-unknown reactions, of her desires which are so hastily covered with the veil of caprice? ... It will be necessary to reject all the modes of reasoning of which men are so proud, ...to clean the slate of the principles on which we've built the psychology of man, which is not at all valuable for women... I choose the femme-enfant... because it seems to me that in her and only in her, in a state of absolute transparency, resides the other prism of vision which we obstinately refuse to acknowledge, because it obeys completely different laws which male despotism tries to keep hidden at all costs. [sloppy, short-cut translation mine.]


Sorry, I know this is a mouthful, particularly in my brilliant 5-minute translation/hack job...! The point is this: I don't want to accuse Breton of outright misogyny here, since - for a book written in the mid-1940's - this is quite liberated. On the other hand, there is a clearly paternalistic impulse here, particularly in attributing a certain form of transparency to the femme-enfant. Asking who will help the femme-enfant, Breton has very little faith that a woman can achieve a state of liberation on her own. And as it turns out, his idealization of the femme-enfant leads to some uncomfortable parallels to an instrumentalized and fractured body (which I will be discussing in my upcoming paper on Prassinos).

Without going to deeply into the ways in which the femme-enfant becomes (to Breton) a fractured consciousness, I think it's sufficient for blog purposes to just reiterate the problems that arise when the unconscious is mishandled. According to Breton, men are the keeper of the keys to a certain form of consciousness. Even though he would like to promote what he sees as "female" consciousness, he does this through the lens of a dominant male ideology, not acknowledging that a) this consciousness may be able to blossom without a man's help, or b) this consciousness may have existed already without Breton's knowledge. In other words, it is quite presumptive of him to assume that he is exposing a certain new knowledge to the world, when the only world he is addressing is the world of men.

Can Breton's "beast" or the "femme-enfant" still be useful to women? I think they certainly can; however, I think the idioms need to be re-appropriated in a context that grants women more agency in the formation of this type of consciousness (a move that Anzaldúa - whether or not she is conscious of her reflection of Breton - seems to start to make).

And... for a female point of view (indirectly) on this issue, you'll just have to read my paper on Prassinos (once it gets written), since she deals with the whole issue of fragmentation which I've avoided talking about here.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Sophie published on March 26, 2010 3:57 PM.

Tackling the Unconscious was the previous entry in this blog.

Women's Ways of Knowing: a Foray into the Social Sciences is the next entry in this blog.

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