Book review: Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis by Natalya Lusty

Leonora Carrington, “Green Tea (La Dame Ovale),” 1942

Natalya Lusty takes on three major and somewhat disparate topics in her book Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. However, she brilliantly ties them together through their very disparateness: as a marginal movement (or at least that is how it was regarded/it regarded itself during the throes of Modernism), Surrealism positioned itself to examine other areas of marginality, i.e. the people outside of the bourgeoisie. Politically, feminism was originally a marginal movement and prided itself on being on the outside, as being in such a position allowed a more thorough critique of the (masculine) “norm.” Psychoanalysis, while at the heart of Surrealism, did not necessarily “jibe” with Surrealism (Freud once expressed to Andre Breton that he did not get what the genre wanted), and Surrealism’s tie to psychoanalysis was often tenuous. According to Lusty, “… Surrealism found in psychoanalysis a model on which to develop a theory of creative bound up in the mystery of unconscious desires and associations, a move which sealed the trope of the enigmatic woman as its most potent erotic symbol” (13). Unsurprisingly, feminism outright rejected psychoanalysis. So how does she tie everything together? She looks through the lenses of social and artistic inquiry to find common themes such as violence, parody, and transgression. It is through the tension between these areas that we see their relationships and how they analyze one another.

The book does not limit itself just to the years in which Surrealism was predominant, but rather spans the line dividing Modern and Contemporary art, which inevitably highlights the on-going feminist debates. Lusty spans her arguments from Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) to Cindy Sherman (1954- ), and though feminism did not officially exist when Carrington was creating much of her work, Lusty declares Carrington’s book The Hearing Trumpet as a precursor to feminist revisionist literature. Sherman’s work, which is believed to contain Surrealist overtones and references, has been both admired and chastised by feminist scholars for its treatment (objectification?) of the female body. I did not spend too much time reading about Sherman, as she is outside my area of study. I also did not spend too much time on her discussion of Claude Cahun’s photographic work. I instead focused on Lusty’s chapters comparing The Hearing Trumpet to our favorite work by Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye; I also looked at her analysis of psychoanalyst Joan Riviere’s essay, “Womanliness as a Masquerade,” to Carrington’s story, “The Debutante.” 

Lusty poses the following major question: if Surrealism was not good with women, is it possible that it has been good for women, particularly in recent years? As has been previously discussed, Surrealist women have been able to use the aesthetic and ideas to come to terms with their own issues and ideas. However, Surrealism has/had a very uneven relationship with women, as has been discussed by many scholars over the last 25+ years, as well as on this blog. Breton and many others involved in the movement regarded women to be useful as muses and not as capable of being active participants. As Angela Carter once said, voicing the concerns of many women artists of her time, “The Surrealists were not good with women. That is why, although I thought they were wonderful, I had to give them up in the end.” Leonora Carrington was embraced as a femme-enfant by the Surrealists because of her rebelliousness against her upper-class upbringing. However, Carrington did not just rebel against her family, she rebelled against the Surrealists in a very masked way. In her short story “The Debutante,” which was originally written in overly-simplified French and featured a talking hyena (which is considered symbolic of sexual transgression and hybridity because its sex is difficult to visually determine), Carrington examines herself– as she was once a debutante– in a darkly humorous way that challenged the normative bourgeois culture. This was readily embraced by the Surrealists. As Lusty succinctly stated, “… the Surrealists’ glorification of these crimes also illustrates the problematic nature of the figure of the ‘ruined’ woman as a metaphor for, and embodiment of, Surrealist revolutionary ideology… Carrington’s narrative presents a scene of adolescent violence and rebellion that evokes a Surrealist celebration and eroticization of female violence” (20).

However, the story was in fact much deeper than rebelling against the bourgeoisie than the Surrealists were willing to acknowledge. Carrington had to mask her intelligence within the movement by aesthetically (or, in the case of her written work, literally) fitting into the Surrealist standard. Lusty ties this in to Riviere’s study, which claimed that women masked their intellectuality so as not to seems so “masculine.” Humor serves as a masking tool: satire twists things, therefore transforms what is considered real. In “The Debutante,” Carrington’s use of a simplistic French vocabulary also served to mask her personal intentions with the story, as it was initially laughed at by the French because her knowledge of the language was (at that point) limited. Lusty writes: “… Carrington’s use of masking strategies and hybrid configurations, together with the modes of irony and satire, betray the problematic nature of artistic authority for the Surrealist woman artist or writer: they also suggest a desire to disrupt and mock any such hierarchy of authority” (41). This mockery is implicit in the hyena, with its raucous and unnerving “laughter.” Thus, Surrealism gave Carrington a visual and literary vocabulary to express herself whilst not avoiding limitation, at least inwardly, by Bretonian constraints.

Leonora Carrington, “The Giantess (The Guardian of the Egg),” c. 1947

Lusty’s chapter on Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet and Bataille’s Story of the Eye was an interesting critique on Bretonian Surrealism, as both stories pushed Surrealist literature beyond its prescribed limits, and was very informative for my research on Bataille. Both of these works were considered marginal to Surrealism for decades– which is kind of funny, since Surrealism itself was considered marginal to Modernism for decades as well– but both are clearly indebted to Surrealism, which has become especially apparent in recent re-evaluation of the genre. Carrington, as we have previously discussed, was an all-around rebel, and Bataille too was very anti-authoritarian, hence the sheer repulsiveness of Eye. I particularly enjoyed the following evaluation by Lusty: “Only through the unmediated affirmation of waste, expenditure and destruction ‘to the point of shame’ could one find ‘the uninterpretable truth of existence’: against the marvelous Bataille would institute an absolute affirmation of the monstrous, one stripped of any consoling idealism” (48). He debased himself, the all-knowing, all-powerful author, in order to critique the author’s voice (which is in direct contrast to Breton, specifically with Nadja, in which he made himself a hero). His pushing of the Surrealist limits, in which he used eroticism to examine order vs. disorder, made him an important figure in post-structuralism.

Both Trumpet and Eye combine parody, autobiography and fantasy to examine Surrealism’s own aesthetic violation of the body as an anti-institutional and anti-bourgeois statement. Transgression serves to supplement systemic knowledge, exposing excess and non-productive expenditure as parts of being human (in the case of Eye, eroticism, like death, opens oneself to be vulnerable). In terms of psychoanalysis, writing served as a therapeutic tool, particularly for Bataille, who used Eye to come to grips with traumatic childhood memories. Freud saw such fantasy and creativity as a substitute for childhood play.

I rather enjoyed this book, though at times I got lost in her efforts to nicely tie everything together. Sometimes it felt like she went off on tangents that were related to her central argument but did not directly deal with the subject at hand. I believe she did this to reinforce her desire to tie together Surrealism, feminism, and psychoanalysis, as they are difficult to come to terms with in relation to one another. I’ll be very interested to see if I can tie her arguments in to my thesis topic, though if I can’t, I think that will say a lot about where my artist stands in the grand scheme of Surrealism.

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3 thoughts on “Book review: Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis by Natalya Lusty

  1. Your posts raises and critiques some very interesting ideas. Although no “art” related in the standard sense of the word I studied Women’s Writing at Uni and would suggest you get hold of Gobblin Market by Christina Rosetti (her brother’s contribution to the world of art so not be underestimated) and so seeing her feminist approach is eye opening. I would also suggest Feminist Fables, a collection of very short stories. Many thanks for liking my “A Study of Being Women”.

    • Thank you so much! Suggestions for related literature are appreciated, as feminism is one of my areas of focus for my minor. And thank you for liking my post!

  2. Love your posts. Critical, enticing, and beautifully written. I am a super fan of surrealism and am starting to delve into the problematics of surrealism and the women associated with it. I was not aware of Lusty’s book, found it through your review of Chadwick’s book. Thank you! I am also doing my thesis on Remedios Varo. Although I feel i have a good grasp on the literature on her, any recommendations are welcome!

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