Discussed in this essay:
Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman, Shelley Rice. MIT Press. 180pp, $38.00.
Heroines, Claude Cahun. (available in Inverted Odysseys)
Disavowals: or Cancelled Confessions, Claude Cahun. MIT Press. 256pp, $29.95.
Les paris sont ouverts, Claude Cahun. Out of print.
In the mid-1980s, when the French poet and writer François Leperlier was researching a book on Surrealism, he started tracking mentions of an obscure artist named Claude Cahun on the fringes of the movement. This Cahun had signed some political tracts in 1932 and 1936 and had participated in a Surrealist show at the Charles Ratton Gallery and the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936. No one seemed to know who he was, and with good reason. A some point in Leperlier’s research, it emerged that Cahun was a woman—a lesbian writer and photographer who had produced an impressive amount of work until her death on the Channel island of Jersey in 1954, a figure whom André Breton called “one of the most curious spirits of our time.” On the strength of the photographs Leperlier uncovered, Cahun became an icon for feminist art historians, and before long she was getting shows of her own at the Musée d’art Moderne in Paris and the Grey Art Gallery at NYU. Yet only now, 20 years later, is she beginning to receive the same recognition as a writer.
The photographs for which she is best known depict Cahun in a range of costumes: a coy, effeminate weightlifter with barbells, sporting spit curls, a heart-shaped mouth and pasties, the words DON’T KISS ME I’M IN TRAINING scrawled across her chest; an aviator with camera lenscaps in place of goggles; a dandy in a suit and white silk scarf, one hand perched on a hip, a white handkerchief emerging from a pocket; a sailor; Little Red Riding Hood; a little girl, asleep in a cupboard. In one photograph she dresses as her own father; in another, as a judge. Cahun slips from one gender to another, often sporting a shaved head, adapting to each character with theatrical flair (she did dabble in acting in the 1920s), enacting a mise-en-scène of the self that calls the viewer into an uncomfortably active relationship with the work. “Is that a woman dressed as a man dressed as a woman?” we want to know. Cahun foils us every time, offering up our need to assign identities as the only answer to our questions. Her photographic oeuvre is a collection of revolutionary acts whose target is the concept of stable gender, identity, and a traditional way of viewing art.
When these photographs became public in the early ’90s, Cahun was immediately heralded as the ancestor Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin didn’t know they had, a forerunner of the gender theories of Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler. “Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.”
Her playacting amounts to a total rejection of identity—the self—for Cahun, is inherently multiple and mobile, recreated and reinvented from moment to moment, and gender is a mask which can be put on or taken off according to whim or necessity. We try to “delineate our roles,” she writes, “according to our changing moods. It is only after many attempts . . . that we can firm up the moulds of our masks.” We can firm up our identity, she suggests—but it will only ever be a mold, or a mask. Deeply influenced by Rimbaud, who declared that “Je est un autre” (“I is another”), Cahun replies, “Je est un autre—un multiple toujours”—”I is another—and always multiple.”
Since the photographs are so astounding, Cahun’s literary career has fallen by the wayside in comparison. She was in fact a prolific writer, and some of her works rank as masterpieces of modernist writing. These works are available in a thick tome in French, edited by Leperlier, though it by no means includes everything she ever wrote. However, only two works are available in English—Héroïnes, or Heroines, which was published in Inverted Odysseys, Shelley Rice’s study of Cahun, Sherman, and Maya Deren, and Aveux non avenus, or Disavowals, which has just been released from MIT Press. But the bulk of Cahun’s work, including the provocative attack on Louis Aragon, Les paris sont ouverts (Bets Are On), remains untranslated.
Her evasion of literary genre is coextensive with her evasion of sexual genre, and for this reason alone Cahun’s writing deserves more critical study that it has received. It resists classification, as Cahun dances around the short story, the confession, the epistle, the journal. At all times Cahun is acutely aware of the slipperiness of language, the possibilities of collage, and resorts to the bait-and-switch of propping up one version of herself only to swap it out for another, and another, and another. “I’ll never finish taking off all of these masks,” she writes.
Cahun, née Lucy Schwob, was born into a prominent Jewish intellectual family in Nantes in 1894. Her great-uncle Léon Cahun was a famous explorer and Orientalist. Her father, Maurice Schwob, was the proprietor of the newspaper Le Phare de La Loire, the largest newspaper in Western France. Her uncle, the Symbolist writer Marcel Schwob, was the author of Coeur double (Double Heart, 1891), Le Roi en masque d’or (The King With the Golden Mask, 1892), and Le Livre de Monelle (The Book of Monelle, 1896), a co-founder of the Mercure de France, and a collaborator, with Pierre Louÿs, on the French translation of his friend Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé.
She experienced some of the effects of the Dreyfus Affair in the form of schoolyard harassment in 1906, and was consequently sent to school in England for two years. When she came back to Nantes in 1909, she met Suzanne Malherbe, an illustrator, whose mother would later marry Cahun’s father. Suzanne became Cahun’s life partner, and the two began almost immediately to collaborate on artistic projects. In 1914, Cahun published Vues et Visions (Views and Visions) in the Mercure de France, under the pseudonym “Claude Courlis” (a courlis is a kind of a bird with a long, curving beak—a curlew, in English), with Beardsley-esque illustrations by a certain Marcel Moore—Suzanne’s nom de plume. By the time Vues et Visions came out in book form, its author had changed her name to Claude Cahun—Cahun for her maternal grandmother, Mathilde, who looked after her when her mother was committed to an insane asylum; Claude for its androgynic quality, being the name of either a man or a woman.
In 1918 Cahun and Malherbe moved to Paris, where they befriended Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier. (It was Monnier who suggested, ten years later, that Cahun write her autobiography—the manuscript would become Disavowals.) Cahun met Philippe Soupault at Monnier’s bookstore, Les Amis du Livre, in 1919, and he proposed that she collaborate on the revue Littérature that he was launching with André Breton—the journal that would lead to the founding of the Surrealist movement. Cahun, intimidated, declined. It would take another ten years, and the interceding of her friends Henri Michaux, Robert Desnos, and Jacques Viot, before Cahun would meet Breton and become officially affiliated with the group. Affiliated—but never an official member. Her work shares many of the preoccupations of Surrealism—including an intense interest in dreams and the unconscious, a view of childhood as a powerful concentration of the “real” and the primitive, and, in the 1930s, a serious commitment to political action. But to cast herself in the role of the Surrealist artist would mean subsuming herself to the group—and this she simply could not do. For Cahun, mere affiliation would have been the only possibility; total commitment would be a fraud—a travesty of identity.
She published her writing widely while the photographs remained private, apart from one she called “Que me veux-tu” (“What do you want from me?”) that was reproduced in the magazine Bifur in 1929. She took pictures of her friends—several of Robert Desnos, Henri Michaux, and Sylvia Beach, and of Jacqueline Lamba, all alone, with her daughter, Aube, or with her husband, André Breton.
After a period of intense political activity in the 1930s, Cahun and Malherbe elected to retire from the increasingly stressful scene in Paris to the island of Jersey, where the two had often spent their summer vacations. They bought a house, named it La Ferme Sans Nom (“the Farm Without a Name”), and lived there happily in all their eccentric glory, photographing themselves all the while. Cahun’s favorite activity was to put a leash on the cat, blindfold herself, and let the cat lead her where it would.
When the Nazis invaded the island in July 1940, the sisters (for that is how they were known there) sprang into action, and began to apply Surrealist techniques to a covert resistance operation designed to confuse and demoralize the Germans into renouncing war and leaving the army. The two would slide anti-Nazi tracts into the French-Catholic newspapers for sale at the kiosk, stick them under the windshield wipers of Nazi vehicles, and leave cigarette cartons full of tracts in alleyways. Over time, the Nazis grew convinced that there was a full-scale resistance group in operation on the island, and when they finally apprehended Cahun and Malherbe, they were embarrassed to find the whole operation had been carried out by two middle-aged ladies. They were imprisoned and sentenced to death, but were released at the end of the war in 1945.
In her memoir, Confidences au miroir (Confiding in the Mirror), written after her imprisonment during the Second World War, Cahun writes of her longing for affiliation and her simultaneous inability to ally herself with any one group. It seems clear she is speaking of her disillusionment with the Surrealists, their constant exclusions, and the deaths of René Crevel and Robert Desnos when she writes of her indignant feelings at the fact that “the most sensitive and sincere lose their spirit or their lives. . . . [I have always] reacted by abstaining, opposing, resigning, by maintaining friendships with the solitaries or the ones who have been excluded—this attitude is obviously harmful to the participation which I desired above all else.” We can detect here a certain wistfulness, inspired not only by the past, but by the inevitability of the past: it could not have been any other way. Cahun being Cahun, she could only ever operate on the margins, and embrace those she found there beside her. She refused all pre-existing labels—feminist, lesbian, Jewish, French, writer, artist, photographer, radical, actor—these were all identities she put on and took off at will, like costumes for her portraits. The photographs and the writings amount to at once a search for the self and an acknowledgement that some “key self” (to use Woolf’s term) does not exist.
Such is the nature of autobiography. Linda Anderson has written, citing George Gusdorf, “The autobiographer can never write the ‘image-double’ of his life; instead of referring to himself he creates himself at every moment afresh within the text. . . . The autobiographical self is a fictional construct within the text which can neither have its origins anterior to the text nor indeed coalesce with its author.” To admit to the narrative conventions of the genre is to admit to the mythology of the self that is being constructed: this is Cahun’s great achievement in Disavowals. Cahun refuses any pre-established narrative conventions, and employs a modernist, Surrealist, fragmented technique to tell her own story.
The invisible adventure.
The lens follows the eyes, the mouth, the wrinkles, dusts the surface of the skin . . .
The facial expression is violent, sometimes tragic. That is, calm—the conscious, developed calmness of acrobats. A professional smile—and voilà!
Reappearing in the handmirror, rouged, eyes powdered. A space. A period. New line.
I’ll start over.
Thus does the book begin: with the writer regarding herself through a lens, thorough a mirror, and finally, through the veil of narration—”A space. A period. New line.”—taking the reader into the act of composition. The composition of the features before the camera. The composition of the self before the text. And then, a fresh start; a fresh line.
But how, she goes on to ask, to represent all of one’s past—”the obstacles, the abysses, the distance covered . . . the whole apparatus of fact, rocks, cords tenderly cut, precipices. . . . All that just isn’t interesting.” “No,” she decides. “I will follow the wake in the air, the tracks on the water, the mirage in the pupil.” Cahun rejects a more conventional, recognizable narrative in favor of a deliberately Surrealist means of representing her past.
What can I do? In a narrow mirror, display the part for the whole? Mistake the aura and the splatterings? Refusing to throw myself against the walls, throw myself against the windows? While I wait to see all this clearly, I want to hunt myself down, to thrash myself out.
Without waiting for a vision or divine revelation, she will track herself down, and the process of self-reflection will furnish her with the key to escape the prison-house of identity. Finally, she articulates the avant-garde statement of the century:
I want to stitch, sting, kill, with only the most pointed extremity. The rest of the body, whatever comes after, what a waste of time! To travel only at the prow of myself.
The manuscript that follows explores many of the themes dear to the Surrealists—sleep, madness, life, death, alienation, and violence; Cahun recounts her dreams and confesses ambivalence when it comes to her sanity: “madness is no less vain than reason.”
Each chapter of Disavowals is preceded by an illustration, a heliogravure assembled by Cahun and Moore, composed of Cahun in her costumes, often emblazoned with Cahun’s writing, and featuring disembodied hands, legs, eyes, and other parts of the body. For a chapter that deals with narcissism, we find a shadowy background, a lady’s hand holding a handmirror in which we see a woman who hides behind a sort of a fan or a shawl. The central image of the mirror is surrounded by fragmented legs and women’s shoulders; we count at least five hands and three legs, and if we tried to reconstitute a body we’d have a few too many members. And below it all is Cahun’s eye, immediately recognizable by the diagonal line of the eyelid. The pupil reflects an upside-down image of Cahun, as if reflected in a concave surface, indicating that the perceptions received by the eye must be processed by the brain in order to create an image or an impression. The superfluous body parts, the eye, and the face inside the pupil suggest that there are many points of entry from which to discover a woman, and that she is more than the sum of her significations.
Cahun admits to being a narcissist—”It’s my best quality”—then tells us “I’m lying anyway. I’m too scattered for that.” “My soul is fragmentary,” she writes, and her autobiography is a series of the writer picking up the pieces, turning them over, and watching them vanish as soon as they are written: “We change at the same time as ourselves.” In other words: no sooner has she pinned down who she is than she has changed again, eluding her own understanding.
Although it is undoubtedly her masterpiece, Disovawals is not for the casual reader; it is at times infuriating—we are never on solid ground, and Cahun can be vague, imprecise, constantly interrupting herself or undermining what she has just said. It would be tempting to fault her for this, but we cannot: from the beginning she is upfront that there is no other way to track the self than this. It would be pretentious were she not so self-deprecating, so at the ready to anticipate the frustration and disbelief of her readers.
Heroines is a much more readable text; originally published in Le Mercure de France in 1925, it consists of 14 monologues told from the point of view of famous women of history: Eve, Delilah, Judith, Penelope, Helen of Troy, Sappho, Cinderella, the Virgin Mary—they’re all here and speaking like no storyteller allowed them to before Cahun. Each chapter overturns the traditional narrative associated with these women—Cahun reads women’s history against the grain. Eve is tempted not by an apple but by modern-day advertising (“Pep-tabs: . . . Make your sex life a joy!”). Helen begins her tale saying “I know I am very ugly, but I try to forget it. I play at being this beautiful young girl.” Cinderella’s prince has a shoe fetish. The monologues are devastatingly funny, but cut deeply.
Salomé is perhaps the most emblematic. She is recast as a present-day actress playing the part of the original femme fatale; no doubt the idea for this chapter came from Cahun’s experience reporting for Le Mercure de France on the Billing trial in 1918.
Reporting from London for Le Mercure de France, Cahun recounted how the actress Maud Allen had brought a lawsuit against an MP called Pemberton Billing for having written a defamatory article on the actress’s performance of Salomé in a spectacle she choreographed called “Vision of Salomé.”
Billing’s article was called “The Cult of the Clitoris,” and the offending section ran as follows:
To be a member of Maud Allan’s private performance in Oscar Wilde’s Salomé one has to apply to a Miss Valetta of 9 Duke Street, Adelphi, WC. If Scotland Yard were to seize the list of these members I have no doubt they would secure the names of several thousand of the first 47,000 [list of alleged British homosexuals].
Allen testified that her dance was not based on Wilde’s play, but on the Biblical story: Billing, acting as his own counsel, tried to establish that Allen was enacting in her performance the perversions she did not dare commit in real life. Eventually, the judge found in Billing’s favor.
Cahun’s Salomé may be read as a redress of this injustice, as well as a statement on the impossibilities of mimesis. “I understood right away the horrible trap,” says Salomé,
painters, writers, sculpters, musicians even, they copied life. Instead of cheating on her, the eternal wife! to whom they were most faithful. How could I admire their chromos, I who so disliked the model. The “losers” pleased me more, those whose portraits never managed to resemble a likeness. . . . But others, so-called lovers of the Ideal, made sure they deformed with each drawing the features of the heroine (of course! They were bragging!) Make her up, add rouge, give her a false nose—scratch, the grimace will reappear; the woman is always underneath!
Salomé, for her part, discovered the falseness of it all in the theater, when someone brought her “in a silver bowl a head painted on cardboard, dripping with rouge—looking like a slab of pork fresh from the butcher! My religion forbids me even to look at it.” Herod, on the other hand, is more interesting to her, “for he is interested in my sleep, and makes me explain my dreams.”
In her dreams, her dance becomes reality, and she is no longer an actress but Salomé herself, asking for “the head of Whatshisname.” “Why did I ask that?” she wonders. “It’s even more sliced-off, even uglier and worse-made than in the theatre. It would seem I’m suppoed to touch it, take it in my hands and kiss it. . . . Why? Oh! Of course! They think I’m in love. Good lord, if it amuses them. I never knew they had so much imagination.”
To appease her audience, she allows herself to kiss the head, but when she does, she finds its blood “is the same as mine. (This is not good theatre.)” The play is no longer imitating the Biblical story; it is the story. “What does that prove?” she asks. “Merely that I was right: art, life: it amounts to the same thing. It belongs to the one who goes the farthest in the dream—or in the nightmare. I admit there are some idiots on whom that has an effect. As for me— it leaves me cold. If I vibrate to other vibrations than yours, must you conclude that my flesh is insensitive?”
Is Salomé dreaming or awake; has the cardboard head transmogrified into a real head, the blood to real blood? The Surrealist truth is that the difference is unimportant. Surrealist sight, as Mary Ann Caws writes in her introduction to André Breton’s Mad Love, consists of a certain way of seeing a metaphor. “For example, instead of removing the wings from a dragonfly to call it a red pepper, in a subtractive or reductive move, we should affix wings to the red pepper, in an additive or augmentative mood, to have it become that dragonfly.” This is the characteristic attitude of Surrealism—the joining of disparate ideas to create a marvelous, unforeseeable relationship.
In Cahun’s writing, there is a real social and philosophical rigor behind the indeterminacy of the Surrealist “marvelous.” Cahun shows us not only that the artist can carve out who she is by identifying what she is not, but that in her games, her moves, her evasions, she can create a searing Cahunian marvelous that is just as revolutionary, if not more so, as anything her Surrealist counterparts produced.
Lauren Elkin is a writer, literary critic, and Ph.D. candidate in English literature. She writes about books and French culture on her blog, Maîtresse, and lives in Paris.
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