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  • Surrealism and the Art of Crime
  • Steven Ungar (bio)
Surrealism and the Art of Crime. By Jonathan P. Eburne. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008. 344 pp. Cloth $35.00.

The accounts of Parisian surrealism of the 1920s and 1930s in histories and critical studies I first encountered as a student some forty-five years ago were typically of two kinds. Some traced its impact on literature, theater, graphic arts, and visual arts from photography to film. Others linked it as a movement or aesthetic to politics, philosophy, and psychoanalysis. In France, Maurice Nadeau's 1944 History of Surrealism and Jean-Paul Sartre's 1948 What is Literature? were among early postwar assessments of surrealism's evolving role within an avant-garde whose revolutionary ambitions spawned detractors as well as supporters. Studies since the 1966 death of the initial group's leader, André Breton, have fashioned a more complex object of study by tracing itineraries of dissidents who moved across the group in its various configurations. Jonathan P. Eburne's remarkable new book is a reminder that there is still much to be said about surrealism some eight-five years after the 1924 Manifesto first appeared.

Surrealism and the Art of Crime studies the role of violent crime in the writing, art, and political thought attributed to members of the Parisian group from the 1920s through the late 1950s. Eburne's major claim is that the composite body of knowledge fashioned by surrealist writers and artists in response to the problem of criminal violence can account for even the most complex of surrealist acts, ranging from the group's ongoing rifts and affiliations to various attempts to fuse philosophy, psychoanalysis, ethnography, and art with a commitment to political action and a transformation of lived experience. In such terms, Eburne takes his cue from Walter Benjamin ("Surrealism, the Last Snapshot of European Intelligentsia" [1930]), Theodor Adorno ("Looking Back on Surrealism" [1956]), Helena Lewis (The Politics of Surrealism [1988]), Margaret Cohen ( Profane Illumination [1993]), and others who have considered the revolutionary [End Page 107] potential of surrealism increasingly equated by Breton with political action as serious rather than frivolous. For Eburne, this equation is central to understanding the group's activities throughout its history because it discloses surrealism's commitment to a "public intellectualism that confronted the most fundamental principles of revolution and avant-gardism" (7).

Individual chapters of Surrealism and the Art of Crime set analyses of texts by Benjamin Péret, René Crevel, Philippe Soupault, and Robert Desnos alongside informed comments on precursors and contemporaries Raymond Roussel, Pierre MacOrlan, and Georges Bataille as well as on period journals including Documents, Minotaure, and Détective. Of special note are three case studies of violence, each of which prompted a public stand on the part of the surrealists and each of which centered on one or more women. Germaine Berton was twenty years old and a self-styled anarchist when she killed Marius Plateau, a cofounder of the neo-Royalist Action Française, in January 1923. A composite photo in the first issue of La révolution surréaliste (1924) featured a portrait of her surrounded by those of twenty-eight surrealists and a brief passage from Charles Baudelaire's Les paradis artificiels extolling the ability of woman (la femme) to project the greatest amount of shadow and light onto the dreams of men. Soon after Christine and Léa Papin were arrested for the February 1933 murders of the wife and daughter of the Lancelin family for whom they had worked as cook and housekeeper in Le Mans, "before and after" photographs of them reprinted in the fifth issue of Le surréalisme au service de la révolution provided media coverage that contributed to what Eburne terms "Papinorama." In August of the same year, the arrest of the eighteen-year old Parisian lycéenne Violette Nozière for the poisoning death of her father and attempted poisoning of her mother prompted seventeen members of the group to publish a small book. Eburne notes in each case how a violent crime elevated these "criminal muses within the surrealist pantheon of revolutionary heroes" (183). In addition, he broadens his scope...