- Reading Claude Cahun’s ‘Disavowals’by Jennifer L. Shaw
Claude Cahun (1894—1954) — essayist, photographer, poet, poised between symbolism and surrealism — has become a cult figure. Marginalized by the surrealists and forgotten by art historians, then rediscovered in the 1990s, she has been repeatedly celebrated as a pre-postmodernist anticipating the work of artists such as Cindy Sherman or Sophie Calle. Her strategies of masking and masquerade resonate with contemporary work in gender studies and queer theory by Judith Butler and others. She used photography and (photo)montage as privileged modes of aesthetic composition to materialize the constructedness of identity, in which the self is both masked (through role-playing, masquerade) and unmasked (exposed as fiction). With the help of her companion Marcel Moore [End Page 257]she photographed herself in overtly anti-naturalistic poses (‘que d’artifice en moi, si peu de primitif’, Écrits(Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 2002), p. 291) in a series of hyper-codified roles: vamp or vampire, weightlifter, Buddha, or oriental prince. In her texts multiple voices parallel the many roles played out in the photographic self-portraits. The most important is Aveux non avenus, first published in 1930 (Paris: Éditions du Carrefour), republished in Écritsin 2002, and translated as Disavowals, or, Cancelled Confessions(trans. by Susan de Muth (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008)). It is a complex literary collage, part-autobiography, part-manifesto. In it she rejects control by a single authorial voice, creating an intertextual space where multiple and contradictory voices are heard (voices of revolt, poetry, commentary, reflection), as well as divergent styles (friendly pastiche, ferocious satire, automatism, self-quotation), and references to classical and contemporary literature. Jennifer L. Shaw’s study is the first monograph on this difficult text. Shaw’s aim is to read Disavowals‘as a sort of guidebook’ (p. 5), contextualizing it within 1920s debates on identity, gender, and aesthetics. Basing her analyses on the photomontages at the head of each chapter, she clarifies the complex dialogue between image and text, and beyond Disavowalswith Cahun’s other texts, as well as contemporary texts by Gide, Ellis, Freud, and others. Shaw analyses the ways in which Cahun critiqued moral and social conventions associated with the post-World War I return to order, traditional codes of heterosexual romance, paradigms of femininity, and gender roles. She shows how Cahun explored the possibility of alternatives, in the notion of ‘neo-narcissism’ (p. 85) as a form of intersubjectivity in a loving lesbian relationship uninhibited by social conventions, and in new paradigms of creativity and desire (‘inciter les amateurs aux perfides harmonies’, Écrits, p. 305), informed by surrealism’s liberatory ideals. Shaw contributes to our understanding of a text that appears at times intriguingly exploratory, at others frustratingly elliptical. The strength of her study lies in the detailed analyses of the photomontages and their relations to the text, which order Cahun’s multiple voices as a coherent whole. In doing this, however, she tends to bypass other key aspects of the text: its materiality and heterogeneity, its diverse and divergent voices, ludic rewritings, parodies and pastiches, its humour, hesitations, and repetitions. In this optic Disavowalsremained a work in progress, proof that for Cahun writing was primarily an exploratory instrument, a montage used to experiment the multiple voices of the self; a practice at the centre of her search to ‘s’indéfinir’ ( Ecrits, p. 199).