The title Aveux non avenus does not lend itself to facile translation. While "Aveux" may be clearly understood as either "avowals" or "confessions," the addition of the phrase "non avenus," which indicates that which has "not happened," renders the formulation opaque. Most English-speaking scholars choose to translate "non avenus" loosely as "disavowed," which contains both "avow" and its negation. This play on words captures the spirit of the title, which references, with the word "confessions," an entire autobiographical tradition while canceling it out in the next breath. The book's cover graphic prepares us visually for the project's critical thrust, creating out of the self-contradicting title a canceling "X"--with the palindrome "NON" reiterated at its crux [fig.26, cover Aveux non avenus]. 19
Golda Goldman, the Paris correspondent for the Chicago Tribune who interviewed Cahun and Moore in the 1920s, translated the book's title more simply: "Denials."20 Certainly "denials" (as in "no, not interested") sums up the way most reputable Paris publishers responded at this time to requests to consider the publication of "women's writing," with its putatively confessional character. But, even more pointedly, "denial" offered a backhanded way of affirming the literary and personal choices that had marginalized Cahun with respect to Paris's vanguard literary society--where she nevertheless sought sympathy.
"There are times," she confessed to Adrienne Monnier, "when I suffer so much from this isolation, of which my nature and all kinds of other circumstances are the cause, that...," her words trailed off.21 Monnier, in whom Cahun had hoped to find an ally, pressed the aspiring author to try her hand at the journal intime. Cahun's response?
You have told me to write a confession because you know only too well that this is currently the only literary task that might seem to me first and foremost realizable, where I feel at ease, permit myself a direct link, contact with the real world, with the facts.22
"Don’t get your hopes up," Cahun added in closing.23 The format that Monnier had recommended must have seemed impossibly burdened with both gendered connotations and testimonial truth-claims. Two years later, in 1928, she presented Monnier with the manuscript of Aveux non avenus, an anti-realist (indeed, surrealistic) critique of autobiography. Would Monnier consider publishing the book? Or would she write the preface? Both requests met with firm and painstakingly explicated denials. "What ever I may do, never could I avoid your objections, too profound, which address the very essence of my temperament," Cahun ultimately conceded to the woman whose recognition she had sought.24 Monnier's rebuff, however anticipated, must nevertheless have stung. Cahun and Moore had, after all, championed Monnier's enterprise, La Maison des Amis des Livres, from its earliest days, borrowing books from the lending library, making purchases, supporting publications, attending the events that transformed the bookstore into an ad hoc cultural center. Cahun paid homage to the spectrum of Monnier's activities in a piece she published in La Gerbe in 1919.25 She was among the first volunteers to staff the English bookshop that Monnier's lover Sylvia Beach opened across the street [fig.27, Sylvia Beach portrait, mount inscribed by Beach reads "photograph by Lucie Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe." (Princeton Libraries, MSS Sylvia Beach Papers, CO 108, Bx 241, F, Photos)].
She knew Monnier well, knew her as an unbending taskmaster, an exacting critic, a trail-blazer. She knew Monnier's taste in literature, was aware of her aversion to surrealism (a movement with which Cahun identified). "Denial," then, not only describes Cahun's response to Monnier's editorial suggestions, and Monnier's (inevitable) rejection of Cahun and her book, it also describes Cahun's psychic disposition with respect to the impossibility of Monnier's complicity, which she had nevertheless obstinately courted. It was not in Monnier's literary world, however, that Cahun and Moore would find their community of peers, but in the arena of politics.
In 1932, Cahun joined the Association des Ecrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires, where she encountered the surrealist leader André Breton. She (and more rarely Moore) signed, and helped to compose, many of the political tracts generated by Breton and his supporters during the 1930s. In 1934, Cahun published Les Paris sont ouverts (bets are on) a brilliant defense of poetry's political potential, which earned her Breton's grudging respect (despite his homophobia). Cahun participated regularly in surrealist demonstrations, strategy meetings, publications, and exhibitions during this period, while Moore remained active behind the scenes. The puppets and surrealist objects that Cahun (and Moore?) produced and photographed during the 1930s negotiated between the theater of political opposition and the theatre of dreams, the psyche and the revolution, the two poles, in other words, of surrealist practice.
As the surrealist group--and, moreover, the political left in France more generally--divided into antagonistic factions, Cahun sided with Breton. The acts of puppet theater that she staged and photographed at this time dramatize positions consistent with those that she advanced in collective publications such as Dissolution de Contre-Attaque (1936). In one mise-en-scène, for instance, a tiny German officer whose body Cahun had crafted out of the communist newspaper L'Humanité signals the merger of two totalitarian schools of thought, that of Hitler and that of Stalin [fig.28, Poupée I, JHT/1995/42/i].
In retrospect, it is tempting to view these "puppets" as harbingers of the creative acts that Cahun and Moore would stage on the Isle of Jersey during the German Occupation. However, in 1936, the idea of moving to Jersey--not to mention trepidations about the occupation of Paris--may not yet have broken the horizon of their conscious minds.
A year later, though, Cahun and Moore packed up their affairs and moved to St. Brelades, a remote parish on the isolated Channel Island of Jersey. One can only speculate as to their motives. Disillusionment with the political climate in Paris (the outbreaks of anti-Semitism, the violent schisms that divided the left and broke up their circle of friends) undoubtedly influenced the decision to seek a more harmonious environment. But why the Isle of Jersey? They had vacationed on the island and knew that it would offer them a haven where they could consider their options in relative serenity. But this was also true of Le Croisic, in Brittany, which had the advantage of being more convenient to Paris. The Channel Islands, on the other hand, were a world apart, a world in between--not part of the United Kingdom, closer to the Normandy coast, an historic place of piracy and literary exile. Was it the neutrality, the history of sanctuary, the cultural hybridity and political inconsequence that attracted the couple? They had discussed expatriating to Canada--but Jersey, at least, lay close enough to France's shores to permit the maintenance of bonds of affinity and affection. (Henri Michaux, Nadja, Henri Barbier, Breton and Jacqueline Lamba visited them on the island, for instance.)
Not long after Paris was invaded by German military forces in 1940, Jersey suffered the same fate. Cahun and Moore decided to stand their ground, rather than fleeing to England as fully half of the islanders had. In fact, they launched a two-woman anti-nazi propaganda operation, blanketing every part of the island with handmade tracts. Cahun's war memoir describes how she and Moore succeeded in creating the illusion of a large-scale resistance movement. After several years at risk, they were arrested for high crimes of treason and were subjected to arduous interrogation because they refused to reveal the names of their male collaborators. The investigating officers found it impossible to believe that two middle-aged women had conducted such a daring campaign "all alone." "They were forced, at the end of the day, to condemn us without believing in our existence," Cahun concluded.26 This tour-de-force performance, under fire, represents the end-logic of the couple's career of theatrics: from the photo play of two defiant lovers, to collective acts of cultural subversion, to the (fragile) dream of political community, to acting as one (acting as if they were many) in resistance to military domination.
When I look at Moore's pictures of Cahun [figs.29-30, JHT/1995/31/l, JHT/1995/31/k, JHT/1995/16/v, and JHT/1995/31/m]
taken just after the liberation, when the two returned to their home to dance along the fortifications that the German's had built in their garden, a phrase from Aveux non avenus springs to mind: "Victorious! Sometimes victorious over the most atrocious inhibitions, a last-minute maneuver corrects a shadow, an imprudent gesture--and beauty is reborn."27 I think, too, of the enigmatic pictures that Moore later took of another wall, at the end of a smaller garden, looking out over the same sea from the modest house that she purchased for herself after Cahun's death. There I see a naked stage, haunted by the absent subject of Moore's photographs, life-long object of her devotion and desire [fig. 33, the empty garden wall viewed from Moore's backyard, JHT, print from uncatalogued negatives].
1. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, 31-32.
2. The "self-portraits" attributed to Cahun have figured prominently in several major exhibitions (for instance, Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman at NYU's Grey Gallery) where this work was--not for the first time--compared to that of Cindy Sherman. This exhibition is not the first to compare Cahun's photographic project to that of Cindy Sherman. From the moment of Cahun's "rediscovery" in the mid-1980s, Sherman's oeuvre has consistently provided a point of reference. In a 1986 review, Hal Foster describes Cahun as "a Cindy Sherman avant la lettre" ("Amour faux," Art in America, January 1986, p.127). Cahun's biographer, François Leperlier, makes the same comparison in Claude Cahun: l'écart et la métamophose (Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1992). Katy Kline's essay, "In or Out of the Picture, Claude Cahun and Cindy Sherman," follows this pattern (Whitney Chadwick, ed. Mirror Images: Women Surrealism, and Self-Representation, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998). Although Cahun is often cast as Sherman's precursor "in the continually reedited film of art's history," Shelly Rice points out that "anyone who has seen one of Cahun's tiny, black-and-white prints next to gargantuan, garish color photographs by Sherman knows that there's more to this comparison than meets the eye" (Inverted Odysseys, p.24).
3. Among the many art historians who have explored the art of portraiture from this perspective, I would site Svetlana Alpers path-breaking and still engaging work on Rembrandt's theatricality in Rembrandt's Enterprise: The Studio and the Market (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).
4. François Leperlier, "L'Exotisme intérieur," Claude Cahun, Photographe (Paris: Jean Michel Place, 1995), 10. François Leperlier, "Claude Cahun, La gravité des apparences," Le Rêve d'une ville: Nantes et le surréalisme, eds. Henry-Claude Cousseau et al. (Nantes: Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, 1995), 263.
5. Claude Cahun, Aveux non avenus (Paris: Editions du Carrefour, 1930), 52.
6. "Eve, la trop crédule," "Dalila, femme entre les femmes," "Judith, la sadique," "Hélène, la rebelle," "Sapho, l'incomprise," "Marguerite, soeur incestueuse," and "Salomé, la sceptique" (dedicated to Wilde) appeared in Mercure de France (February 1925):622-643. Le Journal littéraire, 45 (28 February 1925) contained two more pieces, titled "Sophie, la symboliste" and "La Belle." The manuscript of "L'Allumeuse," "Marie," "Cenrillon," "L'Epouse essentielle," "Salmacis," and "Celui qui n'est pas un héros," which were never published during Cahun's lifetime, are preserved in the Jersey Historical Trust collection.
7. Claude Cahun, Vues et visions, dessins de Marcel Moore (Paris: Editions Georges Crès & Cie, 1919), 74-75.
8. Unreferenced clipping, dated 29 December 1923, Bibliothéque de l'Arsenal, Paris, RT 3993 SR97/1984,1923.
9. La Salle Adyar, 4, square Rapp, Paris.
10. Vitezslav Nezval, Alphabet, cited by Matthew S. Witkovsk, "Staging language: Milca Mayerova and the Czech Book Alphabet," The Art Bulletin 86:1 (March 2004), 114. This essay offers a detailed history of the book's production and convincing analysis of its implications.
11. Pierre Albert-Birot, typescript, Fonds Albert-Birot, Paris.
12. Louis Périé, Le Courrier du centre, Limoges (25 March 1929), unpaginated clipping, Fond Albert-Birot, Paris.
13. Interview, Arlette Albert-Birot, December, 2002.
14. Albert-Birot, "Arts dramatiques," Le Plateau, no.1. (March 1929), 7.
15. Pierre Albert-Birot, "Arts dramatiques," Le Plateau, no.1. (March 1929), 12.
16. Albert-Birot also shared with Apollinaire and other members of the Parisian avant-garde an interest in puppet theater as a locus of cultural renewal. He maintained connections with both experimental and traditional puppeteers via two associations--Les Amis de la Marionnette and l'Association nos Marionettes--whose members included Apollinaire, Philippe Soupault, Ivan Goll, Joseph Delteil, Jean Lurçat, Juan Gris, Marc Chagall, and Maeterlinck. Although his own ambitions for exploiting body-puppetry outstripped his technical capabilities and means (he renounced this line of investigation when his body puppets disintegrated in the first minutes of their stage debut), he urged his cast members to subordinate their egos, acting as human marionnettes in the service of a collectively rendered drama text.
17. Claude Cahun, with illustrations by Moore, Aveux non avenus (Paris: Editions du Carrefour, 1930).
18. The Fonds Albert-Birot contains heliographs of the plates that figure Cahun in her theatrical roles as well as a signed copy of Aveux non avenus. Cahun's effusive inscription begins, "To Pierre Albert-Birot, whom I admire and whom I love, to the poet whom I had the honor of serving as a charmed if not skillful interpreter, happy to have been one of his creatures."
19. It would not stretch the imagination to suppose that Cahun and Moore consulted Albert-Birot, a skilled and highly creative typographer, about the layout for this cover.
20. Golda M. Goldman, "Who's Who Abroad: Lucie Schwob," Chicago Tribune, European Edition, 28 December 1929, 4.
21. Letter from Lucie Schwob to Adrienne Monnier, Paris, 2 July 1926. Institut Mémoires de l'Edition Contemporaine [IMEC], Caen. Mais il est des jours où je souffre tant de cet isolement, dont ma nature surtout mais aussi toute sorte de circonstances sont cause, que....
22. Letter from Lucie Schwob to Adrienne Monnier, Paris, 23 July 1926. Fonds Adreinne Monnier, Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques Doucet [BLDJ], Paris, MS 8718 B’ I 11. Vous m'avez dit d'écrire une confession parce que vous savez bien que c'est actuellement la seule tâche littéraire qui puisse m’apparaître tout d’abord réalisable, où je me sente à l’aise, me permettant une prise directe, un contact avec la vie concrète, avec les faits....Mais je crois avoir bien compris de quelle façon, sous quelle forme vous entendiez cette confession (en somme : sans tricherie d'aucune sorte).
23. Letter from Lucie Schwob to Adrienne Monnier, Nantes, 23 July 1926. Fonds Adreinne Monnier, BLDJ, Paris, MS 8718 B’ I 11. N’ayez pas grand espoir.
24. Letter from Lucie Schwob to Adrienne Monnier, Nantes, 2 July 1926. Fonds Adreinne Monnier, IMEC, Caen. D’ailleurs, quoi que je fasse, jamais je ne pourrai éviter vos objections, trop profondes, qui s’adressent à l’essence même de mon tempérament.
25. Claude Cahun, "Aux Amis des livres," La Gerbe (February 1919).
26. Cahun, "Le Muet dans la mêlée," 1948, published in Leperlier, Ecrits, 627, 629-30. La Gestapo chercha quatre ans en vain. Si nous avions pu vivre parées contre toute perquisition, si soudaine fut-elle, ils n’auraient jamais cru, malgré leurs informateurs, qu'il s'agissait de nous. Même toutes preuves en mains ils n'en croyaient pas leurs yeux. Ils restaient persuadés que nous ne pouvions être plus que des comparses, complices de ...X. Pour obtenir qu'ils cessent de nous interroger au sujet de nos affiliations hypothéthiques avec...x, ou avec l'Intelligence Service (!!!), il nous fallut leur démontrer que nous etions pleinement conscientes et capables de nos "crimes." Un peu de patience--de part et d'autre--y suffit.... Constatant que nous étions des femmes, ces êtres inférieurs...; que nous avions à Jersey la réputation de bourgeoises paisibles, qu'il était impossible de nous faire passer...pour des "terroristes"; que, lors de notre arrestation--devant témoins jersiais--nous n’avions fait aucune résistance; que vis-à-vis d’eux-mêmes, ce soir-là et au cours des interrogatoires, nous n’avions qu’une hostilité froide, exempte de toute violence émotive...ils y perdirent leur "aryien": notre "idéalisme" passait leur conception cynique de l'espèce humaine. Cela piquait ce qui malgré tout subsistait en eux de curiosité psychologique....À Jersey, ils durent, en fin de compte, nous condamner sans croire à notre existence. En quelque sorte. Comme à regret.
27. Cahun, Aveux non avenus, 57.