The Beribboned Bomb: The Image of Woman in Male Surrealist Art
Book by Robert James Belton; University of Calgary Press, 1995
Surrealism is often approached primarily as a preoccupation with au- tomatic techniques and the exploration of the unconscious. The results of such investigations tend to neutralize the significance of Surrealist iconography by subordinating it to formal experiment or by assuming it is an expression of unalterable psychic truths. This study begins with the assumption that Surrealist images of Woman were produced nei- ther as formal experiment nor as psychic truth but as things to be used by men for a purpose peculiar to men.
There is no uniform image of Woman in Surrealist art. The startling variety of apparent female types represented is a sufficient refutation of that notion. Nevertheless, it would not be historically correct to assert with the more extreme deconstructionists of today that all root mean- ings are transcendental — that is, that one cannot fix the particular mean- ing of an utterance at the time of speaking. 1 Indeed, the Surrealists may not have had a single definition of Woman, but they certainly subscribed to a temporally and ideologically limited set of conventions that anchored the shifting parameters of meaning in spite of all their claims to liberation.
The mechanics of this unbidden construction or determination of Woman can perhaps be best understood first by allusion to Chomsky's concept of generative-transformational grammar. Chomsky proposed that all competent speakers of a language have intuitively learned a set of simple archetypal sentences which serve as a deep structure, a frame- work of sorts that allows speakers to generate entirely new sentences through a group of transformational rules. The new surface structures thus remain meaningful to other speakers, despite their unfamiliarity and novelty. 2 It is only the surface structure of the male vision of the Surrealist Woman that is apparently infinite. The deep structure is composed of a surprisingly limited set of propositions, most of which are descendants of cultural — that is, unnatural, learned, or socially encoded — misapprehensionsabout what Woman is and wants. All of these are complicated networks of allusions and connotations which can be understood as a horizon of expectations determined by identifiable historical and cultural conditions.
The literary theorist Hans Robert Jauss developed the notion of the horizon of expectations to indicate that a text will have meaning to a particular set of readers in a given social formation, even though it may have no ultimate, absolute, or objective significance. The meaning — a kind of implicit contract between the reader and the text — is spun upon the aesthetic, economic,linguistic, moral, political, and other values brought to it. Jauss called his theory a reception-aesthetic because meaning is conceived of as a function of the ways in which a text is received. This idea alone, without its subsequent critical embellishments, is very close to the Surrealist attitude in its original context, which also placed the final responsibility for meaning on the shoulders of the onlooker, not the author. One writer, closer to the Surrealists, put it this way:
Comments to this effect can be found in nearly any Surrealist's biography, allowing what appears to be a remarkable freedom of interpretation. A notable example was the investigation entitled "Sur les possibilit6s irrationelles de pntration etd'orientation dans un tableau Georgio [sic] de Chirico:"L'nigine d'une journe (11 fvrier 1933), in which a number
of respondents wilfully read completely unanticipated meanings into a painting. 5 Yet the range of their responses was disappointingly limited. Undoubtedly, this was partly due to a number of leading questions, but it is just as certainly due to the fact that the respondents were also Surrealists, constituting too narrow a sample for the investigation to have any statistical value. This is not to say that the men were all of one opinion. Andr Breton, for example, was appalled by brothels, whereas Louis Aragon loved them. 6 Nevertheless, they were all partly formed by conventions and cultural fashions that were widespread in both bourgeois society and its antitheses. Not the least of these was that pride of place was given to men within Surrealism, so the Surrealist horizon of expectations exhibited a significant degree of uniformity.