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Reviewed by:
  • Surrealism and the Art of Crime
  • Chris Coffman
Jonathan P. Eburne. Surrealism and the Art of Crime. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2008. xi + 324 pp.

Jonathan P. Eburne’s Surrealism and the Art of Crime offers an original and compelling reevaluation of the history of the fractious surrealist movement. By tracking the surrealists’ fascination with and reworking of depictions of crime across a wide variety of media—from mainstream and tabloid journalism to art, literature, and pulp fiction—Eburne probes the implications of the surrealists’ broader preoccupation with physical and rhetorical violence. Situating all surrealist forms of cultural production as interventions within the political field and stressing the proliferation of overlapping but often conflicting theories within the movement, Eburne reads surrealist texts less for their contents than for their efficacy in disrupting bourgeois discourses. This approach makes Surrealism and the Art of Crime a major contribution to surrealist studies—an engagement with ideas from the recent past that is also an act of cultural and political theory in its own right.

Eburne’s exposition emphasizes the twenty-five year period that saw the most surrealist activity, from the movement’s initiation in France in the early 1920s to its transatlantic dispersal during World War II. Especially important in the opening chapters are Eburne’s careful parsing of the stakes of political differences within the surrealist movement (such as the eventual expulsion of Philippe Soupault and Louis Aragon) and his emphasis on the critical value of René Crevel’s work as a challenge to André Breton’s argument for the liberating force of violence and celebration of Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror. For Eburne, Crevel’s work in the 1920s confounds the “escape into pure poetic language” that enables the surrealists’ “collusion” with Maldoror, forcing them to [End Page 454] “face—rather than simply to marvel at—the violence of individual instincts and unconscious desires” (73). In later chapters, Eburne will go on to position Crevel’s 1930s writings as reworkings of the young Jacques Lacan’s theories of paranoia that emphasize the way in which the disease—while far from efficacious as a means of achieving revolution—nonetheless exposes “the social forces of repression that both unite and divide the subject as a social being” (189). The book contains chapters that trace the surrealist questioning of the ethics of politically motivated violence and that connect the surrealist fascination with gang war photographs to their theoretical and artistic deployments of violence. The middle portion of the book includes an especially important chapter that locates their response to the 1925 anti-colonial uprisings in Morocco as a crucial turning point in their theorization of violence.

The final three chapters of the book—”Surrealism Noir,” “Persecution Mania,” and “The Transatlantic Mysteries of Paris”—likewise break new ground in their approach to the movement’s transformations in the 1930s and 1940s, and it is in these portions of the analysis that Surrealism and the Art of Crime is most impressive in its engagement with the surrealists’ sometimes troubling depictions of gender, sexuality, and race. Questions of misogynist content in surrealist cultural production first crop up earlier in the book in a discussion of Benjamin Péret’s disturbing 1920 aestheticization of the acts of serial child rapist Marcel Pénisson. If Péret’s valorization of Pénisson as an example of intellectually engaging, convulsive beauty risks disavowing its violence against the female body, “Surrealism Noir” demonstrates that the surrealists’ 1933 published response to the arrest of parricide Violette Nozière contrasts sharply. Eburne observes that in the 1933 collaborative volume Violette Nozières, the contributing writers and artists “dismantle the press’s litany of justifications and obfuscations in order to argue that it was incontestably clear that Violette Nozière was raped by her father” (205). Violette Nozières thus stretches the field of the political to include questions of abuse based on gender and sexuality, extending the surrealists’ critique of the bourgeoisie as an economic and political class to an attack on the bourgeois family as a potential source of gendered and sexual oppression. Eburne’s naming of the surrealists’ attack as one on the bourgeoisie’s “patriarchal ‘family...


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pp. 454-457
Launched on MUSE
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