illustration by Robin Wilson
Published: 13 September, 2012
by KATE WEBB
THAT the Surrealists in their unbridling of the imagination and the subconscious challenged conventional ways of thinking – or preferably not thinking – about sex, will come as no surprise. Less well known is that with the subversions of their art, poetry, drama and fiction, they also undertook scientific research.
Their unique method, combining investigation with collective experience, was derided as unscientific, but as they weren’t aiming to impress the establishment this didn’t trouble them.
What they wanted was to produce a body of counter-knowledge about neglected aspects of everyday life, and to create an archive of the kinds of human experience usually obscured by propriety, censorship or fear.
With this in mind, in October 1924, André Breton, the movement’s founder and principle theorist, together with a group of friends, set up the Bureau of Surrealist Research on the Rue de Grenelle, Paris. It invited the public to drop by with stories of chance and coincidence or ideas about how life might be different. From here they also produced their journal, La Révolution Surréaliste, publishing in 1928 the first of 12 inquiries into the meaning and practice of sex – a subject then so taboo it could land a speaker or writer in jail.
Their recherches took the form of group discussions which proceeded by means of interrogation (Breton was a trained psychoanalyst), testimony and disagreement. As JoAnn Wypijewski notes in her introduction to Investigating Sex: Surrealist Discussions 1928-32, there was “no unity of desire” among the participants, “even on the small matters”.
Taking part in these extraordinary conversations were many of France’s intellectual and artistic élite: Breton, Louis Aragon, Antonin Artaud, Paul Éluard, Yves Tanguy, Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prévert, as well as migrants drawn to the modern scene in Paris such as Man Ray and Max Ernst.
Over the four years between 1928 and 1932 the “small matters” they discussed, placing them on record, included undressing, masturbation, fetishism, homosexuality, voyeurism, prostitution, bestiality, procreation, sodomy, fantasy, first time, third parties, shame, danger, cunnilingus, fellatio, coquetry and libertinism, masochism and sadism, mutualism (or lack of it), orgasm (detecting and faking), revulsion, joy and etiquette, as well as more esoteric activities such as coming in a woman’s ear or licking her eyeballs. Seven sessions took place before anyone thought to ask a woman for her side of the story.
Despite Breton’s best and sometimes bullying efforts to keep the sessions on track, the discussions continually unravelled, collapsing under the weight of prejudice and illogic or veering off into the absurd. It is the dramatist Artaud who observes that the effort to speak openly about sex inevitably involves ostentation – and, he might also have added, in the effort to classify something so unruly and inexhaustible, hilarity.
Yet the Surrealists’ unlikely inquiries point the way to the 20th-century’s major social science projects on sexuality: both Alfred Kinsey and Shere Hite shared their question and answer methodology, though they attempted to structure their research and make it professionally neutral, stripped of the bias and embarrassment so evident here. The Surrealists, by contrast, had no covering context of credibility: they revealed themselves to one another out in the open and through interaction, and it is this that makes these records so fascinating, so three-dimensionally human.
If the Surrealist contribution to science has often been neglected in favour of their aesthetic, so too, Freud’s influence on the movement is more often proclaimed than that of Marx. But more than a quarter of the 40 participants in these discussions were at one time or another members of the PCF, the French communist party, and the larger matter the Surrealists were investigating, about love’s potential to abate alienation, however temporarily, was informed as much by ideas about human liberation that were coursing through Europe in the decade after the Russian Revolution, as by the new Viennese science.
Not that the relationship was untroubled: in her Afterword, Dawn Ades writes that the PCF regarded the Surrealists’ courting of the erotic as “indistinguishable from pornography”. Breton’s aim was to keep a balance between Marx and Freud while defending the Surrealists’ right to extend the dialectic to the exploration of consciousness (“How can one accept…that the dialectical method can only be validly applied to the solution of social problems?” he demands of more “narrow-minded revolutionaries”).
Certainly Marx’s influence can be felt in the Surrealists’ disagreements over whether desire must be reciprocal, and whether love can yield to some kind of materialist proof or is better considered as incarnate mystery.
For all the vanity and prejudice on display in these conversations, what remains most striking is the courage of the participants, their fearless desire to uncover and destigmatise.
Despite our openness today – from feminism’s abstract theorising to the internet’s graphic revelations – it’s inconceivable that a comparable bunch of writers, artists and journalists, without the veil of anonymity, would sit down and talk so frankly together about sexual inclination.
As a later Surrealist inquiry into Erotic Representation noted, people are increasingly willing to discuss the “position of partners’ bodies during the act of love”, but are still largely “silent over the positions of their minds”.
• Investigating Sex: Surrealist Discussions 1928-32. Edited by José Pierre, with an Introduction by JoAnn Wypijewski and Afterword by Dawn Ades. Verso £9.99