Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 20, 2002
David Lomas The Haunted Self: Surrealism, Psychoanalysis, Subjectivity Yale University Press, 2000. 280 pp.; 40 color ills.; 85 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (0300088000)
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David Lomas’s meditative study is a résumé of the role of psychoanalytic theory in Surrealism in several ways: as the writing of Sigmund Freud and others was consciously adapted by the Surrealists for their various intellectual ends; as psychoanalytic theory was used to produce the iconographic art history of Surrealism; and as contemporary psychoanalytically-inflected theory (that of Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, and Judith Butler) elucidates, and implicitly retroactively legitimates, the projects of Surrealism. Lomas has adopted a focused format: each chapter addresses one artist’s work as a way into one psychoanalytic term or problem (automatism, hysteria, the uncanny, the abject, and the Lacanian construction of the self, for example), which is taken through its intellectual pedigree and historical contexts within and beyond the movement. Running through the operative metaphor of the unconscious as binding and unbinding, there is a loop proble, insofar as post-Surrealist theoretical and critical writing grounded in the intellectual concerns of Surrealism is used as a filter (although it is tempting in view of Lacan to say two-way mirror) through which Lomas looks back at Surrealism. If there is one summing up in The Haunted Self: Surrealism, Psychoanalysis, Subjectivity, it lies in Lomas’s recognition of this loop: “History, like psychoanalysis, is a transferential process in which we redefine ourselves in the course of renegotiating our relationship to the past. It is an analysis interminable” (214). Lomas also undertakes some of his own persuasive psychoanalytic readings of given works. That is, the artist’s and the art historian’s self-construction is read both into and out of these works.

The principal thread of the book deals with the construction of the “self” within Surrealism and consequent intellectual history. The “haunted” in the book’s title attaches to the self constructed within one’s “haunts” (the social and intellectual circles of Surrealism) and also to “being haunted” by the spectre of a self originating in the hypothesized unconscious. Lomas widely engages philosophical and psychological theories that have taken issue with the Cartesian self considered as a fixed set of coordinates—there is no “global positioning system” for the self. If the notion of a decentred self today has become familiar and unthreatening, it is to Lomas’s credit that he comes up with so many new and unsettling Surrealist “selves.”

Lomas draws an analogy between his own approach and the prelapsarian psychoanalysis that consisted of free association without preconceived models. Throughout, the author dryly interjects observations and qualifying statements beginning with the authorial “I,” which is at the same time ruthlessly exposed in its problematic linguistic status as “shifter” that is, as a leaky vehicle for containing one’s subjectivity within language. Lomas’s engaging first-person avuncular tone of shared rumination is in fact an ironic blind for the Lacanian conceptions of language that inform the entire text. Lomas quotes a remark by André Breton in the service of the conception of language as preceding the self: “After you, my beautiful language” (21). (It is worth noting that Breton retains the possessive “my” and thereby retains a grip on his own authorial authority.) In reality, the Surrealist tactics of automatism and simulated hysteria had an aspect of allowing a hypertrophy of the self, as Lomas fully recognizes. The author invites the reader to “view together” some surrealist works “of my choosing,” not in the expectation of “dispelling their enigma,” but rather of responding to their “interrogative” voice (1). That is, he promises no iconographic heroics or iconomancy, no pulling of Oedipal rabbits out of Freudian-symbolic hats, and no comprehensive accounts of the meaning of a given work. But, having said that, Lomas often delivers those gratifying things—new sources, unexpected influences—with great bravura and intelligence.

There is a paradox addressed by Lomas, in that Lacanian psychoanalysis precludes access to any self originating in the unconscious: it is something other than oneself. This in turn raises the spectre of dehumanization, of automatism as automaton. For Lomas, automatism and hysteria are the sullied countermeasures to any Taylorist valuation of sanitation and scientific method written about in the journal L’Esprit Nouveau. The labyrinth faces down mere plumbing, and unbridled drives foul Purist mechanics. It is automatism that offers the authentically redemptive antihumanist position, however much Purist machine logic might seem to make that claim. This argument is part of Lomas’s larger legitimation of Surrealism situated as the ancestor of current critical thought. Lomas touches on the old sore points: Surrealism as literary, campy, or anecdotal as opposed to proper Greenbergian modernism and the Museum of Modern Art’s architectonic rigor. In making the case that Surrealism was truly subversive (and not, say, an antifeminist sex shop for academics), Lomas offers a great deal of new material and makes original connections. The Surrealist engagement with the mismatch between desire and reality is construed as having a social and ethical utility. The quest for the uncanny moment is not just thrill-seeking; it is also a shattering of the Althusserian ideological face of reality and assault on bourgeois capitalism. As support for this political defense of Surrealism, Lomas rethinks its major artists.

While the hypothesis of the unknowable unconscious makes obsolete the quest to know oneself, yet the Surrealists did try and know themselves; or, at least, tried (competitively) to imagine what such an unknowable self might look and talk like. It is to these “self” representations that Lomas turns in each of his chapters: to actual self-portraits by Joan Miró and Max Ernst, and, beyond that, to works in which figuration is construed as self-construction (such as when André Masson embedded himself in his Massacres, for more reasons than assonance.) Within a narrative of the self there is a tendency to see everything as a “self” portrait.

Lomas reinstates Salvador Dalí as a serious intellectual who was able to be authentically and subversively disgusting. Since the artist can seem both histrionic and comic (Lomas remarks on phallic limbs sliced “like garlic bread”), it is refreshing and provoking to consider him as deeply scrutinizing the “haunting of the subject by the death drive” (159). Lomas’s Dalí is a brave and plain-speaking unpacker of things that squeamish Surrealism will not speak the name of. Butler’s reading of Kristeva’s reading of Lacan’s reading of Freud is used to winkle out homosexual wishes in Dalí’s meditations on Isidore Ducasse Lautréamont’s Maldoror. Here Dalí, Georges Bataille, and Lacan exist in reciprocal intellectual importance, and Dalí is further laundered in Lomas’s account by the legitimating discourse of filth, from Bataille through to Kristeva. Lomas is measured in his avoidance of conventional accounts of “influence,” preferring the more flexible “concurrence.” In the context of the Kristevan association of abjection and the maternal, Lomas wonders about Gala Dalí as an idealization of an idealized externalized portion of Dalí’s ego. Here, Lomas slips—deliberately—into his role as psychoanalyst, observing that “what he projects before him as his ideal is the substitute for the lost narcissism of his childhood in which he was his own ideal” (185). (Gala, we venture, was the Kristeva Dalí never had.)

To consider Masson through the vertigos of Bataille, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Roger Caillois as well as shell shock from WWI, or to interpret Ernst as “hysteric,” is not entirely surprising, but Lomas derives rich new material and strategies from these relations. Pablo Picasso, like Dalí, is implicitly rehabilitated after years of ricocheting off various accounts of his relative political engagement. Lomas argues for Picasso’s classicism as de-composition having implications for the cultural, and hence political, field. Evidence of Lomas’s conviction is that, in the context of this discussion of Surrealist selves, Picasso’s neoclassical compositions of the early 1920s figure prominently. The brown of his neoclassicism is not so much a recapitulation of a dour old-master palette; it is, rather, abject and fecal, saturated with the melancholy of the death drive. Lomas proposes that Picasso’s figural deformations in fact make a stand against Aristide Maillol’s anodyne classicism championed by the reactionary Waldemar George. On this account, Picasso’s Family by the Seashore is inserted in a tradition of trenchant radical antihumanism, on a trajectory with Michel Foucault’s erasure of the human image at the edge of the sea in Les Mots et les choses: une archéologie des sciences humaines (Paris: Gallimard, 1966).

The final chapter, amusingly called “Making Faces” (perhaps a displacement of “faces” and “feces” is in play), deals with self-portraiture and the impossibility of apprehending one’s authentic self through “speculation.” Lomas proposes an "accord between Miró’s self-portraits and Lacanian theory of the subject as dependent on the Other. Lomas’s liberating preparedness to find congruences allows him to relate, for example, Miró’s Bataille-inflected drawing as sadistic destruction of the image to the logical geometry of Lacan’s “L-schema” diagram. When Lomas concludes that “the subject ‘Miró’ subsists in a radically dependent relation to the O/other” (209), it may seem to be a safe bet—the only possible conclusion to which such an analysis might lead, given the Other as leitmotif of our own intellectual predispositions. But the richness of the reading comes from Lomas as psychoanalyst, and as such, yet another portraitist of Miró.

If there is a hidden agenda in our fascination with Surrealism, it surely has to do with its congeniality to art history and to its not entirely repressed desire for iconographic method as disciplinary “father.” Lomas observes that Dalinian paranoia bears “more than a passing resemblance to psychoanalysis itself” (151). Both interpret the unconscious and claim to speak its truth. If Dalí’s delirium leads to Lacan’s affirmation of the paranoiac structure of all knowledge, then Lomas can wryly say, “It is on that firm understanding that I venture an interpretation of my own” (154). That is, Lomas recognizes his several subject roles as psychoanalyst, paranoiac (“inveterate interpreter who sees every minor event as filled with significance” 6), and, thence, iconographer/art historian absorbed in texts and details of coincidence and concurrence. Art history, as much as Picasso’s painting, has its own ambivalence about the tracing back of a given image to predecessors, of melancholy confrontation with the weight of all art as a kind of ancestral portrait. That is reflexively present in Lomas’s important consideration of Surrealism and its interpretations.

Elizabeth Legge
Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art, University of Toronto

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