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Surrealism and the Politics of Eros 1938-1968

by Alyce Mahon
Thames & Hudson, Inc., New York, 2005
240 pp., illus. 180 b/w, col. Trade, $50.00
ISBN-10: 0-500-23821-9.

Reviewed by Allan Graubard
2900 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20008, USA


Why are we still interested in surrealism as a medium for revolutionary poetic action? How is it that a movement, now 82 years old, continues to shadow our intimate passions and anxieties about the body, the emotions, the intellect, and how we configure them?

This book examines such questions from a central motif——Eros——largely by way of four exhibitions launched by the Paris surrealist group: the "Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme" (1938), "Le Surrealisme en 1947," the "Exposition InteRnatiOnale du Surrealisme, EROS" (1959), and the "L’Ecart absolu" exhibit (1965). Taken within the context of the cultural and political tensions extant during those three decades, there is every reason to accept the author’s final words: that the "legacy of Surrealism . . . must surely follow artists, writers, thinkers and activists…committed to the power of the unconscious and to the imagination of other possible worlds" (p. 215).

The core issues that animated surrealism in France then, while certainly transformed now, surely have not disappeared by virtue of time, despite our inclination to believe so. In fact, they may have reached, or will soon reach, an unprecedented historical crisis as globalization exacerbates the tensions we face as individuals, cultures, and nation states.

As such, the author performs a service by recalling, in broad outline, how the Paris group sustained its provocations against a repressive apparatus rooted in the family, religion, and work, and how such provocations evolved just prior to and during WW II, and the two plus decades that followed. And while the author avoids the most common misrepresentation of surrealism (that the movement was artistic by effect if not by definition), she imports others into her discussion: that by 1969 events had overtaken surrealism and dissolved any reason for a group and her near exclusion of surrealist activities other than in France and the US (during the war years). This constrained reading of the movement thus seems in retrospect something of an obituary, even if offered as an appeal: for readers to take heed of an exceptional force that locates our humanity in how we embody a desire for liberty.

Nonetheless, whether traced through Sade and Fourier, by way of heterodox traditions that exalt love over marriage, elective affinity over family, erotic magic and sexual allure over received identity, and active mythopoesis over religious convention, surrealism invokes the accents of a need we cannot evade; a need to "re-enchant" the world rather than accept as final Max Weber’s recognition of our profound "disenchantment" that the technocratic orders of expropriation have returned to us regarding the world and its resources——orders that seem ever the cause for turmoil and war.

And it is to this end, I believe, that the author discusses uniquely vital moments for the Paris group during the years of concern——from Helen Vanel’s dance "L’acte manqué (The Unconsummated Act) performed for the opening of the 1938 exhibition to Jean Benoit’s epochal "Execution of the Testament of the Marquis de Sade," done in concert with the EROS exhibition of 1959.

I mention Vanel and Benoit for two reasons: They have little entered into our general perception of surrealism, and they use the body as a primary source here. For Vanel, it is the body in movement (the dance), associated with hysteria as a subversion of sexual repression. For Benoit, it is the body as locus of a radical desire: to purge him of pathos and of all ties to nation, family, and religion through symbolic evocation, historical vindication, and self-mutilation in a secret ceremonial for a selected audience. This use of the body——with all its sexual and erotic energies focused precisely——marks a turning point that surrealism has yet to refine, save in isolated events during the near three decades that follow the author’s temporal closure to her discussion. That the book opens with a full-page photo of Benoit in costume for his "Execution of the Testament of the Marquis de Sade" also underlines Benoit’s significance.

Other discussions in the book that may interest readers unfamiliar with previous documentations and analyses include the disposition of surrealism in France during the Nazi occupation; the lead that the surrealists took in mounting protest against the Algerian war; their ideological support for the Cuban revolution; their crucial divergence from centers of cultural power post WW II; and the inspiration they offered to those who set the stage for the events of May 1968, which placed into question the survival of the Fourth Republic.

Through it all is the body, the state of the body and the imagination born in the body, which both refracts and reflects the world, the world we face each and every day of our lives.

Surrealism and the Politics of Eros 1938-1968 is a resource more than a gloss that should prompt further consideration of the subjects discussed within the terms that surrealism advanced internationally.




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