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?’

On beginning to read the second discussion it becomes clear that Breton has done some thoughtful planning. Two of the writers present at the first are absent; there are seven new participants, including Aragon and, by accident or design, two of the group’s official photographers (two of the greatest photographers of all time) – Man Ray and Boiffard. And they all immediately get down to considering ‘the three or four most important questions’, as Breton puts it, touched on at the first session. But this time the chairman is less in control, because Aragon shows the will and the force of personality to stand up to him and sometimes bend things his own way, even provoking Breton to say things like: ‘I protest at the flippant nature of that answer.’

But on the whole Breton had the considerable charisma needed to remain in charge. He clearly loved that position and assumed it without inhibition. The standard metaphor for Breton’s authoritarian ways has always been to call him a Pope. But a Pope was exactly what Breton was not: he was far too idealistic, far too incorruptible. And as I write this I suddenly remember that when I once asked Charles Ratton, the great ethnographic dealer, who knew the Surrealists well, his opinion of Breton – and Ratton, while the most creative of art dealers, was a shrewd French businessman with no illusions about anyone and no tendency to hyperbole – he replied: ‘C’était un saint; c’était un saint; c’était un saint.’

And Breton’s attitude to women was saintly in its mixture of idealism and male chauvinism. He holds that failure during lovemaking ‘can only happen with a women one loves’. He asserts that consulting the woman about her preferences as to positions is ‘absolutely extraordinary’ and ‘quite out of place’. He is ‘completely against’ going to bed with two women at once. He longs to close down the brothels, ‘because they are places where everything has a price, and because they’re rather like asylums or prisons.’ He feels ‘diminished’ if a woman touches his penis when it is not erect. He categorically disapproves of libertinism, ‘a taste for pleasure for its own sake’. He believes it is impossible to be interested in two women at the same time. ‘Under no circumstances would I enter the presence of a woman who was likely to find suspicious stains on my trousers.’ ‘Contemplation of a woman’s physical beauty is the most important thing in the world. A woman can be a genius, can embody all the mental qualities I hold dear, yet all it takes is one single physical detail which displeases me for me to lose all interest.’

Breton’s most famously dictatorial behaviour in the realm of the erotic – and especially in these discussions – resides, of course, in his violent condemnation of homosexuality. ‘I accuse homosexuals of confronting human tolerance with a mental and moral deficiency which tends to turn itself into a system and to paralyse every enterprise I respect.’ This was at the first session, in which his bigotry was strongly supported by Unik (always a frightful prig) and Péret. Queneau opposed with his customary laconic humanity, and Prévert and Tanguy sided with him. In the second session Breton got a rougher ride. Marcel Noll ranted like the 8th Marquess of Queensberry but Aragon, Baron, Boiffard and Duhamel were entirely tolerant of homosexuality, while Man Ray said sagely: ‘I don’t see any great physical distinction between the love of a man for a woman and homosexuality. It is the emotional ideas of homosexuals which have always separated me from them: emotional relations between men have always seemed to me worse than between men and women.’ Breton’s reaction to their tolerance was: ‘I am absolutely opposed to continuing the discussion of this subject. If this promotion of homosexuality carries on, I will leave this meeting forthwith.’ Our general uncertainty about the mood leaves us guessing whether he was altogether in earnest or whether his tongue was slightly in his cheek.

While Breton was shocked by homosexuality, his own tastes in heterosexual love were not unsophisticated. He repeatedly speaks with pride of his ‘depravity’. He longs to make love in a church. He condemns no heterosexual perversion, though he’s squeamish about sex in ‘the presence of any third person’. His favourite positions are ‘the woman sitting upright astride the man facing him, sixty-nine, sodomy’. And sodomy between man and woman is something of which he has ‘the very highest opinion’. Sodomy was much in fashion at that time. It provided the most passionate coupling enjoyed by Mellors and Lady Chatterley, and their story was being written at the very moment these discussions were going on. Breton’s revulsion at the thought of sexual congress between males was certainly no simple gut reaction, whatever unconscious motives he may or may not have had for it. It was very much in line with the Surrealist principles which made him regard the interplay of opposites as the source of all that was good. Sexual relations between beings who were not heterogeneous but homogeneous, beings attracted to their mirror-image rather than their complement, meant a sad waste of human love and energy.

All the material I’ve mentioned so far is from the two reports published long ago in La Révolution surréaliste, apart from a couple of quotes extracted from the third discussion. This took place in the first half of February 1928 between five Surrealists who had all participated in one or both of the preceding sessions, and nothing much emerged that was new. But on 15 February seven of the previous participants were joined by Jean Genbach, a Jesuit who had been unfrocked after falling in love with an actress. He wrote a couple of books attempting to reconcile Christianity and Surrealism but was finally to denounce Breton as the incarnation of Lucifer and his acolytes as demons incarnate. The session begins with Genbach throwing down a gauntlet: ‘I am astounded by the fact that you are concerned with the sexual question on a physical level, that you can separate it from love.’ Breton of course replies that there has never been any such separation and that he ‘dominates’ the question of sex in the name of love.

The most interesting part of the meeting is about having children. Breton raises the question and the unanimous response is predictable. Genbach ‘must avoid having them at all costs’. Prévert, if he had one, would ‘kill it on the spot’. Breton asks him: ‘Why? If he was nice?’ Prévert replies: ‘he wouldn’t have time to be nice, I’d kill him before he had the chance.’ And so forth. Breton says: ‘If it ever happened to me despite everything, I would make sure I never met the child. Public Welfare has its uses. The sad joke which began with my birth must end with my death.’ However, he reserves the right to change his mind in deference to the wishes of a beloved. He was, of course, to become the father of a daughter, Aube, during his second marriage.

The fifth session, held on an indeterminate date in February 1928, had 11 taking part, three of them for the first time: Max Ernst, Maxime Alexandre and Georges Sadoul. It was not a very fruitful session. Perhaps the most interesting thing said is Ernst’s avowal that he believes simultaneous orgasm occurs only once in 2000 times.

At the sixth session, held in early March, seven of the regulars were joined by Antonin Artaud, and he dominated the occasion. ‘Sexuality in itself I find repulsive. I would gladly do without it. I only wish all mankind had reached that point. I am sick and tired of being a slave to these filthy urges.’ Later, in answer to Queneau’s question whether he believes there is a woman who is his destiny, Artaud replies: ‘I’ve never believed anything else. I think it’s highly probable that I’ll never meet her.’ Questioned, he modifies this to: ‘I will necessarily meet her, but perhaps not in this life. I would add that I have a very low opinion of this woman!’ After Artaud has asked whether anyone there finds the idea of masturbation loathsome, the discussion lapses into comparisons of personal experience on the subjects of how many times a night they can make love, how long they can keep it up, on what part of a woman’s body they like to ejaculate when not doing so in the vagina, what they feel about seeing a woman urinate and about hearing her fart (Breton is ‘appalled by it’). Finally:

Raymond Queneau: What do you think of rape?

Benjamin Péret: Absolutely opposed to it.

Yves Tanguy: Very, very good.

André Breton: Absolutely hostile to it.

Raymond Queneau: It’s the only thing that appeals to me.

Marcel Duhamel: It doesn’t appeal to me.

Jacques Prévert: I find it legitimate.

Pierre Unik: I am against it.

The seventh and last of the 1928 sessions includes a speaker identified as ‘Y’: an editorial note says that ‘it seems very likely that Y is a woman.’ The first female intervention in the series of discussions happens as follows:

Y: How do you become aware that you want to make love with a woman, Prévert?

Jacques Prévert: I become aware that I want to make love with a woman, but I don’t reflect on it at the time. Seeing a woman in slippers makes me want to make love.

Marcel Duhamel: Yes, I find slippers and dressing-gowns exciting.

André Breton: I object to the way Duhamel’s response seems to have been influenced by Prévert’s. It is impossible for two men to share a taste for something as particular as slippers.

Marcel Duhamel: Breton has no right to claim what I say is false. How could he know?

Y: Breton, when do you become aware that you desire a woman?

André Breton: I desire a woman when I love her. This is certainly not accompanied by an erection. If you love a woman, it is absolutely impossible to masturbate while thinking of her, except in very special circumstances. If it happens all the same, there will be interference; other women will come to mind and intervene. There is only one exception, where there has been a formal agreement between the man and the woman. If for example it’s been agreed that you’ll both masturbate at five o’clock!

The session ends with a short discussion of the clitoral/vaginal question to which Y contributes nothing, perhaps because she feels it is too amateurish.

But when the discussions are resumed in 1930, it’s togetherness-day. Tanguy and Unik are there with their wives, Eluard is there with Nusch, Albert Valentin is there with his friend Simone Vion; André Thirion and Breton are odd men out. When Eluard after a time suggests to general approval that a woman should ask a question, the proceedings go on:

Nusch: How do you like to make love?

Albert Valentin: You mean one sex inserted into another?

Paul Eluard: As you know very well, to make love means to ejaculate.

Albert Valentin: What does making love mean? Confused interruptions

André Thirion: At present, I love someone: no a priori representation. At other times, I had preferences.

Yves Tanguy: I can make love in every way. I prefer sodomy.

Nusch: Sitting astride the man.

Jeannette Tanguy: On my own.

Simone Vion: I’m not going to answer. I don’t attach any great importance to it, especially at the beginning of a relationship.

André Breton: Taking everything into account, it is sodomy which seems to me to have the greatest possibilities, although I don’t like it.

Paul Eluard: All positions where the woman is active.

André Breton: That’s just laziness.

The ninth session, also held in November 1930, was more like a conference than a committee, with a few core members surrounded by outsiders, some of them women. The occasion was mainly a pretext for reminiscence and for allowing the men to question the women lasciviously about their masturbatory and lesbian experiences. Two days later Breton, Eluard, Unik and the Tanguys had a session in the course of which Eluard said ‘for me sexual preoccupation is the basis of all mental activity’ and Breton came back at him: ‘I consider sexual love as something which empties the mind of almost all ideas.’ In the next session, two months later, Breton, Eluard and Unik had Sadoul and Valentin with them, but nothing very interesting was said. But when, two years later, Breton, Eluard and Tanguy were reunited and joined by Gui Rosey, they had a short discussion which recaptured something of the verve of the initial two sessions.

Paul Eluard: How do you reconcile your love for the woman and your taste for sodomy? (A taste for sodomy being generally homosexual, the woman only being distinguished by her genital difference and not by her similarity in the rear.)

Gui Rosey: I like women with small buttocks between which the organ can be inserted as easily as into the vagina. In these cases, I double my pleasure by the tightness of the anus and at the same time it enables me to stroke the woman’s clitoris.

Yves Tanguy: Sodomy isn’t homosexual. It’s because it’s a woman that it appeals to me. No explanation.

André Breton: [The question of] reconciliation doesn’t arise. I prefer sodomy first and foremost for moral reasons, principally non-conformism. No child with a woman one doesn’t love. With a woman I love, her self-abandon seems to me infinitely more moving in this form.

Paul Eluard: Why?

André Breton: From a materialist angle, in the case of the woman I love, it is infinitely more pessimistic (law of shit) and consequently more poetic.

Paul Eluard: Why, for example, does the idea of conception through coitus not seem to you more pessimistic than shit?

André Breton: Because it conforms to the idea of becoming which for me is indistinguishable from the idea of good.

Paul Eluard: In the moment of coitus the two beings, for me, are an end in themselves and reproduction represents evil.

André Breton: A very Christian idea of the question.

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