With their traditionally masculinist articulations of revolutionary ideals, avant-garde movements pose a special challenge to feminist scholars. On one hand, by conceiving their activities in terms of the reassertion of a virile creative power, many of the male founders of movements such as modernism and surrealism paint themselves as warriors against the feminization—and attendant bourgeoisification—of culture; the feminine, therefore, comes to represent that which has rendered art inoffensive and flabby. On the other hand, by privileging the subversive, the radical, and the new, the avant-garde shares many of feminism’s central ideological tenets and would seem a congenial fellow-discourse. The primary task for feminist critics, therefore, has been to locate textual moments when the emancipator’s potential of the avant-garde may be harnessed for explicitly feminist ends. While modernism has proved fertile ground for such scholarship, surrealism has not; addressing this gap, Katharine Conley elaborates a feminist rereading of literary surrealism in her book, Automatic Woman, examining the ways in which women figure within the movement as both the objects and agents of representation. As Conley points out, those feminists who have addressed surrealism tend to dismiss it as an unremittingly patriarchal practice; with its mannequins, machines, and other lifeless representations, surrealism has been charged with objectifying women in particularly literal ways. Questioning this critique, Conley examines the ways in which surrealism’s women writers were able to find within the movement sources of support and inspiration. While the book is focused on the feminist potential of surrealism, however, its evocative portrayal of feminine suffering and madness—the painful underside of life for female surrealists—complicates and threatens to overshadow its optimistic stance.
Conley coins the term “Automatic Woman”—which conjoins femininity with automatic writing, the major method of surrealist writers—to describe the female muse who appears so often in surrealist works. As Conley shows, the founding fathers of the movement saw Woman as the embodiment of beauty, danger, mystery, the intuitive, the irrational, and the mad—that is, all the qualities and capacities that [End Page 499] they themselves wanted to access. Juxtaposing the ways in which male surrealists employed and women inhabited this muse figure, Conley uses Luce Irigaray’s question—“Does woman have an unconscious or is she the unconscious?”—to focus her examination of women as both the primary icons of surrealism (its unconscious), and its flesh-and-blood subjects, who attempted to appropriate and reformulate the ubiquitous invocation of themselves.
Beginning with an examination of the female muse, Conley explores the ambivalent messages about the role of women in surrealism generated by this figure. Focusing on an exemplary representation of the Automatic Woman, the Virgin Mary in André Breton and Paul Éluard’s “automatic” text, L’lmmaculée Conception (1930), Conley argues that, while the Virgin is clearly a generative and subversive symbol for the authors (who believed that “the marvelous was gendered feminine”), she is also pure abstraction, lacking any sort of subjectivity. As the intermediary between the earthly and the divine, the rational and the irrational, the willed and the accidental, the Virgin embodies the surrealists’ characteristic attempts to bridge such realms and, as such, is a powerful source of inspiration. Conley claims, however, that Breton and Éluard so fully appropriate the Virgin that they fail to render “any hint of her own experience”—a task left, therefore, to women writers.
Turning to the work of two female surrealists, Leonora Carrington and Unica Zürn, Conley spends the core of her book exploring the ways in which these authors approached their role as surrealism’s speaking Other. Probing their movement’s conflation of femininity and irrationality, both women explore the implications of the fact that—perhaps because of their glorified linkage to the unconscious—they ultimately become mad: each had a psychological breakdown, was hospitalized (Carrington recovered, while Zürn ultimately committed suicide), and left an artful account of her madness. Focusing on these autobiographical texts (Carrington’s En bas [Down Below ] and Zürn’s L’Homme-jasmin [The Jasmine Man ]), Conley...