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  • Eclipsing DesireMasculine Anxiety and the Surrealist Muse
  • Marcella Munson

J'ai pris, du premier au dernier jour, Nadja pour un génie libre [. . .]. Elle, je sais que dans toute la force du terme il lui est arrivé de me prendre pour un dieu, de croire que j'étais le soleil.1

André Breton, Nadja

When Louis Aragon, in his 1928 text Traité du style, posits surrealism as "l'inspiration reconnue, acceptée, et pratiquée [. . .] non plus comme une visitation inexplicable, mais comme une faculté qui s'exerce,"2 he deftly articulates several of the deep paradoxes subtending the surrealist literary project while simultaneously signaling its tangled gender politics. Not only must the (male) writer receive ideas and make aesthetic, political, and literary connections whose origins lie beyond the rational (and indeed often arrive only through the female muse), but he must seek a way to articulate these through language. Further, the surrealist author must let down his rational guard and allow the Other to enter him in order to receive these signals and reflect on his own subjective process while still remaining in active control of his own text, his own pen, his own muse.

The privileged surrealist muse was, of course, woman—woman as image or rhetorical trope, to be sure, herself displaced by the act of writing. But understanding this place of "privilege" held by the woman as muse demands analysis of the deep anxiety which the privilege given to the feminine provokes in surrealist models of masculine subjectivity. For literary surrealists, desire for, but especially of, the female disrupts the authorial body and challenges the status of the authorial text. And whereas this anxiety surrounding woman is readily seen in [End Page 19] the overwhelming variety of surrealist artistic images where the creative and destructive, active and passive roles woman is to fulfill are on display (woman as muse, femme-enfant, femme-folle, and dévoreuse), this anxiety can also be clearly traced in many foundational surrealist texts.3 I will consider three in particular: Aragon's Traité du style (1928), Breton's Nadja (1928), and Eluard's "L'amoureuse" (published in Mourir de ne pas mourir, 1924). In each of these texts, woman as figure makes reflective apprehension of masculine subjectivity possible and yet simultaneously provokes crisis by highlighting the insufficiency of literary form and its close ties to male creative activity. Aragon's Traité du style, with its aggressively polemical presentation of the writer's relationship to female visitation and its role in the act of male production, will set the stage for a reading of gender anxiety in two particular surrealist texts: Breton's Nadja and Eluard's "L'amoureuse."

I. Sténographies de l'angoisse: the Traité du style

If the fundamental paradox of surrealism as articulated by Aragon pits chance and inexplicable truth (visitation) against determination and assigned meaning (faculté), it also opposes the feminine to the masculine by positing man as writer and interpreter of signs and woman as muse and text, she who indicates or bears signs. Aragon's term "visitation" implies no less, connoting as it does the arrival of a mysterious (and therefore neither controllable nor predictable) feminine Other—specifically the Virgin Mary—who will allow the male surrealist subject access to that which lies beyond reason.4 Katharine Conley has shown how, despite the surrealists' virulent anti-religious stance (and we might add, perhaps because of this), the Virgin becomes a privileged, if troubled, symbol of creative activity for many of them. Both anti-symbol and "straightforward" symbol, the Virgin represents both those repressed (feminine-sibyl) aspects of the male author himself and the creative act or text itself. Her body thus functions as polyvalent sign precisely because of its unpredictability and liminal status, inhabiting as it does the realm of the surreal (disrupting chronological time) and the "real" (participating in chronological time) (Conley, Immaculée 607). Seen in this light, Aragon's term "visitation" resonates with other aspects of the surrealist project, such as L'Immaculée Conception. By invoking the encounter of the Virgin and John the Baptist while the latter [End Page 20] was still in his mother's womb, the term...


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