The Mirage in the Pupil

On January 17, 2016 by admin

Born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob, Claude Cahun (1894-1964) tried on several pseudonyms including Claude Courlis, referencing the Curlew bird, and Daniel Douglas, after the British literary Lord Alfred Douglas.  Cahun purposefully chose sexually ambiguous names for herself which further complicated the projection of her image to not only the public as they viewed her art but to her peers and colleagues as well.

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In 1909, Cahun met an illustrator, Suzanne Malherbe who would become her life-partner. Malherbe worked under the name Marcel Moore, and she and Cahun shared an intimate collaboration throughout the rest of their careers.

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In 1940, the island where the two lived became invaded by Nazi troops and as if Cahun’s Jewish roots didn’t put her in danger as it were, both she and Moore became intensely politically active in a self instigated anti-German movement (The Guerilla Girls 63). Cahun created surrealist flyers, often interpreted as works of art themselves, which she then distributed in mass amounts into bystanders’ coat pockets, open car windows, discreetly left on tabletops and crumpled and thrown into buildings. Her actions were not only political but artistic as well. Cahun and Moore’s operation was so successful and on such a large scale that troops were actually convinced of a secret resistance group operating on the island.  When the two were eventually found out, they were imprisoned and though it was never actually carried out, sentenced to death.

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She published her writing widely while the photographs remained private. Cahun met Philippe Soupault at Monnier’s bookstore, Les Amis du Livre, in 1919, and he proposed that she collaborate on the revue Littérature that he was launching with André Breton—the journal that would lead to the founding of the Surrealist movement. Cahun, intimidated, declined. It would take another ten years, and the interceding of her friends Henri Michaux, Robert Desnos, and Jacques Viot, before Cahun would meet Breton and become officially affiliated with the group. Affiliated—but never an official member.

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“I will follow the wake in the air, the tracks on the water, the mirage in the pupil.”

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“I want to stitch, sting, kill, with only the most pointed extremity. The rest of the body, whatever comes after, what a waste of time! To travel only at the prow of myself.”

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One of Cahun’s most cutting literary works is Heriones, originally published in Le Mercure de France in 1925, it consists of 14 monologues told from the point of view of famous women of history: Eve, Delilah, Judith, Penelope, Helen of Troy, Sappho, Cinderella, the Virgin Mary—they’re all here and speaking like no storyteller allowed them to before Cahun. Each chapter overturns the traditional narrative associated with these women—Cahun reads women’s history against the grain.

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In many of her essays and letters one can see how Cahun undertook her passionate, sophisticated analysis of the relation between politics and poetry. Place Your Bets, published in 1934, brilliantly critiques the assumptions of a crudely propagandistic art, as advocated by Aragon, and defends the practice of the avant-garde. In particular, it anticipates many subsequent Marxist debates on the nature of artistic production and reception in its complex understanding of the ways in which the meaning of a text is beyond the conscious awareness of either the author or the reader.

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“Instead of removing the wings from a dragonfly to call it a red pepper, in a subtractive or reductive move, we should affix wings to the red pepper, in an additive or augmentative mood, to have it become that dragonfly.”

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“Poets act in their own way on men’s sensibilities. Their attacks are more cunning, but their most indirect blows are sometimes mortal.”

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In her memoir, Confidences au miroir (Confiding in the Mirror), written after her imprisonment during the Second World War, Cahun writes of her longing for affiliation and her simultaneous inability to ally herself with any one group. It seems clear she is speaking of her disillusionment with the Surrealists, their constant exclusions, and the deaths of René Crevel and Robert Desnos when she writes of her indignant feelings at the fact that “the most sensitive and sincere lose their spirit or their lives. . . . [I have always] reacted by abstaining, opposing, resigning, by maintaining friendships with the solitaries or the ones who have been excluded—this attitude is obviously harmful to the participation which I desired above all else.” We can detect here a certain wistfulness, inspired not only by the past, but by the inevitability of the past: it could not have been any other way. Cahun being Cahun, she could only ever operate on the margins, and embrace those she found there beside her.

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Cahun employs a very dark satire in a post-war document beginning: ‘Have you had any dealings with the Nazis? Did you notice that they have a certain sense of humour? Is it different from yours?’ François Leperlier notes how in this piece Cahun contrasts ‘l’humour non objectif nazi (l’humour nihiliste)’ with ‘l’humour noir.’49 Lacking a sense of contradiction, desublimated nihilist ‘humour’ manifests itself in the brutal reality Cahun evokes at the Matthausen concentration camp. Here, among other grimly farcical events, a gypsy orchestra is obliged to play the popular French song ‘I will wait’ (‘J’attendrai’) whilst the inmates watch three of their comrades being hanged for trying to escape.

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“Under this mask, another mask. I will never be finished removing all these faces.”

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“A man thought he had photographed the hair of the woman he loved, strewn with bits of straw as she was sleeping in a field. When the photograph was developed a thousand arms, shining fists and weapons appeared, and he saw that it was a riot.”

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In a 1936 document addressed to a meeting of Contre-Attaque, Cahun condemns patriotism, because, according to her, even where it is supposedly proletarian, it leads only to its adherents becoming ‘marionettes des impérialistes’ (‘puppets of imperialism’).This was what she and the others judged the Communist Party, in its endorsement of the French Soviet pact, to have become. Cahun (and Moore’s) series of photographs, entitled Poupée was produced the same year and shows a small mannequin with a skin comprised of newspaper cuttings.

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