In bed with the Surrealists

David Sylvester

  • Investigating Sex: Surrealist Research 1928-1932 edited by José Pierre, translated by Malcolm Imrie
    Verso, 215 pp, £17.95, November 1992, ISBN 0 86091 378 3

This book presents good translations of verbatim reports of 12 organised discussions on sex between members of the Surrealist group in Paris and some of their acquaintances. Seven meetings were held between January and early May 1928, five between November 1930 and August 1932. The first two reports were published at the time in La Révolution surréaliste; the other ten were unknown until a French edition edited by José Pierre appeared three years ago. This translation has an Afterword by Dawn Ades, characteristically learned, limpid and illuminating. Incidentally, Pierre’s use of the word ‘transcripts’ to describe the reports of the discussions may not be quite valid. There were no recording machines in use, nor were the notes taken by professional stenographers. It may be that at times they summarise rather than transcribe. That is a minor problem, though, compared with the absence of any indication if and where there was laughter. That absence leaves us constantly wondering as to the mood of the discussions. The other unknown factor is how scrupulously the speakers are playing the truth-game.

The number of participants in each meeting ranged from four to 15; the average number was eight. Forty people in all made at least one appearance. They included (with the number of their appearances in parenthesis) Breton (12), always in the chair, Aragon (2), Artaud (1), Eluard (5), Péret (5), Prévert (6), Queneau (4) and Pierre Unik (10); and Max Ernst (1), Man Ray (1) and Yves Tanguy (7). The eldest, Ernst and Man Ray, were nearing 40, the youngest, Unik, was 19, but generally they were in their late twenties or early thirties. And almost all of them were writers. Of the artists, Tanguy alone was a regular participant; Ernst and Man Ray appeared once and Arp, Miró, Masson, Magritte, Giacometti and Dali – every one of whose work has a strong and interesting erotic component – not at all. Tanguy is one of the most sympathetic of all the cast. Possibly as the lone artist among a gaggle of scribes, possibly in keeping with his facial appearance, he resolutely plays the Fool – a Harpo Marxian figure, easy-going, easy-coming, ready for anything, anytime, win or lose.

Women were all but absent from the 1928 discussions: one, identified by an initial, was present at the last of them. But several took part in the three sessions held in November 1930 which resumed the series. None of them was or became a well-known writer or artist: they were mates, muses, molls.[*] These discussions, then, essentially give the opinions of young male writers. French writers. The artists – or indeed Buñuel – would have made things more cosmopolitan, as all but two of them were foreigners; the one who did take part regularly was French.

The first discussion is between eight members of the group itself – seven writers and Tanguy. Breton’s opening move is: ‘A man and a woman make love. To what extent is the man aware of the woman’s orgasm?’ So anxiety shows at once: underlying the question is an awareness that if man’s weapon against woman is violence, woman’s weapons against man are mystery and mendacity. But the main reason for putting that question turns out to be that it approaches the topic which is going to be the most recurrent in the entire research and which is first broached by Breton in the final question of the first session: ‘To what extent and how often can a man and woman making love reach orgasm simultaneously?’ The responses are strikingly melancholy as to the frequency of that event.

Various other topics have been touched on in between: homosexuality, female and male; masturbation; heterosexual sodomy; preferences in positions; simultaneous masturbation and mutual masturbation; exhibitionism; three in a bed; brothels; preferences as to performing in the dark or in the light; thoughts about performing in a church or with a nun; preferences in the age and cleanliness of partners; and ‘Would you find it pleasant or unpleasant to make love with a woman who didn’t speak French?’

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[*] Marguerite Bonnet’s life of Breton includes some fascinating letters between Surrealist wives on the subject of these discussions.