The Belgian Surrealists and Sade: A Criminal Affinity

The Belgian Surrealists and Sade: A Criminal Affinity  
Author: Stacy Fuessle
Published: November 2005

Abstract (E): In this essay I argue that the Belgian Surrealists looked to the Marquis de Sade as a model for their subversive activities. For Sade and the Belgian group, the notion of the criminal is central to their understanding of cultural revolution and entails a discussion of vision and spectacle, darkness and secrecy, and the role of the accomplice. In addition to criminality, I discuss the ambivalent insistence on rationality and structure in the writing of Sade and of the Belgian Surrealists. Finally, I point to some of the ways in which the Belgian group differed radically from the French Surrealists (Breton's group). Within this essay I am referring to the Brussels Surrealist group as the Belgian Surrealists in general. I do this to emphasize my differentiation of them from Breton's group centered in Paris . I am not disregarding the Hainault group, but placing them alongside Breton's group due to their loyalty to Breton and to his conception of the movement.

The Belgian Surrealists and Sade: A Criminal Affinity  
The Surrealists, following Apollinaire's lead, reclaimed the Marquis de Sade from the Enfer , and christened him in the First Surrealist Manifesto "surrealist in sadism," thereby placing him within the movement's lineage. Paul Eluard in L'Evidence poétique , described Sade's legacy: "Sade wanted to restore to civilized man the power of his primitive instincts; he wanted to deliver the amorous imagination from its own objects. He believed that out of this, and this one, true equality would come" (cited in Breton 1997:21).

For them, Sade embodied radical freedom, in art, in life, in love; they saw him as a precursor to Freud and even a political revolutionary. The Belgian Surrealists, however, did not openly champion Sade as Breton and his group did. The relationship between Sade and the Belgian Surrealists is a more subtle and exciting one, one of affinity. Affinity was a central concept for Magritte and by it he meant that unique but obscure connection between objects or ideas. The connection is known, but hidden in the back of one's mind, and must be revealed somehow, as Magritte explains in his 1938 lecture "La Ligne de vie" (Sylvester V: 9-22). This concept of affinity is key not only to Magritte's methodology, but also because it allows for differences in degree, in historical contexts, and in audiences and reception of Sade and the Belgian Surrealists. I am not equating the atrocious and extreme acts Sade writes about with the activities of the Belgian Surrealists, nor am I arguing that their aims and intentions were the same; I am suggesting that the Belgian Surrealists, like Sade, had an interest in the criminal and exploited it as a strategy for their subversive activities.

What the Belgian Surrealists shared with the Marquis de Sade is the use of the criminal, the secret, the systematic, and rational in order to subvert social norms of thought and behavior and upset mental complacency. Paul Nougé, the group's theorist up to the war, wrote tellingly: "the circumstances, the mediocre circumstances of my life, have required that anything I've done of worth had been under the sign of subversion, of criminal action" (Ceuleers 78). By criminal, I mean activity that is illicit, transgressive, harmful to public welfare and morals, activity that threatens the social and political order and not exclusively activity that defies written law. In both Sade's writings and in the Belgian Surrealist's writing, photographs and painting, activities and gestures, the criminal is carefully staged and enacted. It entails a discussion of vision and display, darkness and secrecy, and the role of the accomplice.

Outside of the contents of their works, the Belgian Surrealists consistently show a kind of discretion and self-effacement both in their everyday lives and in their publishing practices. They understood themselves, first and foremost, as accomplices engaged in clandestine, often sardonic, and ultimately disruptive activity. In the preface to a January 1928 Magritte exhibition catalogue, Nougé describes and really introduces the group to the public:

"The inertia of habit gives way to an urge towards some sort of adventure, some sort of collective enterprise, to a sense of dangers and opportunities equally shared. It will perhaps be said that it represents a kind of complicity. For this very reason we have no reservations about declaring ourselves here and now the accomplices of René Magritte" (Sylvester I: 82 and Nougé 1965: 264-5).

The preface was signed by the core of the group: Marcel Lecomte, E.L.T. Mesens, Camille Goemans, Paul Nougé (for he is not designated as the author, but only one of the signatories), Louis Scutenaire, and André Souris. This statement not only indicates their dedication to collective activity, both artistically and politically, but also to their discretion and depersonalization, their willingness to facilitate Magritte's visibility while the others remained in the background. They carefully maintained a façade of respectability, as Sarah Whitfield describes, they "adopted the disguise of their own background, the bourgeoisie, and settled into ordinary jobs" (25). Nougé was a biochemist, Lecomte was a schoolmaster, Scutenaire was a lawyer working for the government, Goemans was the Deputy Director of the Belgo-Lux Tourist Office, and so on. Their creative activities remained clandestine- often publishing anonymously or under pseudonyms, with the exception of those things written in support of Magritte's work. In a letter to Breton, Nougé emphasizes their desire to remain inconspicuous, writing "I would like it if those of us whose names are beginning to make their mark were to erase them. The world still offers us some admirable examples-the names of certain thieves, certain murderers, those of political parties dedicated to illegal action..." (Nougé 1956: 79 and Whitfield 25).

Sade's existence was a covert one on several levels: in his twenty-seven years spent in prison; in the nefarious activities of his heroes and heroines; in his writing style, which for all its clarity and logic, remains elusive; in his literary career and publishing practices; and even in death with his accessibility. He published numerous works anonymously, perhaps out of necessity in order to protect his publishers and escape the censors. Sade began writing while in prison (placed there by a letter de cachet and later for political reasons) and because he remained in prison for most of his life, it begs the questions what he really stood to lose by publishing under his own name and what his real professional pretensions were. Perhaps his elusiveness was entirely intentional. In his last will and testament he requested that he be laid to rest without ceremony in the woods on his property in Malmaison. Upon his grave he wished for acorns to be spread "in order that the spot become green again, and the copse grown back thick over it, the traces of my grave may disappear from the face of the earth as I trust the memory of me shall fade out of the minds of all men . . ." (Sade 1965: 155-57). In his lifetime relatively few of his works were published, among them were those not claimed by him: Justine , Philosophy of the Bedroom (written by the author of Justine ), and The New Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue followed by the Story of Juliette, her Sister , and those he did acknowledge as his own: Aline and Valcour , Oxitern , The Crimes of Love and various political tracts and letters. Strange that one who became so championed in the twentieth century wrote mostly for himself, certainly any reader, who manages to get their hands on his writings, he pushes away with the extremity of their content.

In Sade's writing, the criminal is intimately linked to dark, enclosed, hidden, or remote locations: the isolated country chateau, the bedroom, convents and monasteries, fortresses, underground chambers, even Vesuvius. These locations act as stage sets, for the individual or actual locations are meaningless surface. They serve as class and power signifiers and are important for the threatening nature of their isolation. While events take place in obscurity, they are not kept there, for Sade reveals everything to us. Sade eliminates all distance, his practice of allowing the reader to be privy to everything, in explicit detail, is precisely the staged quality I am suggesting renders the criminal possible. He flaunts the criminal and it is the criminal that undermines the established order, both the social-political and the literary-artistic orders. Although the style of his writing lacks elegance, one might even argue that it lacks style, Sade uses the vulgar as a means of provocation. Both of these strategies, the use of the vulgar and a lack of style are also used by the Belgian Surrealists in their more scandalous tracts, in Nougé's amateur photographs, and even in Magritte's images. Sade's use of the vulgar within the context of classical French, which Marcel Hénaff refers to as "the Scrambling of the Codes" (7), renders his writing all the more disruptive and conflicting because Sade maintains the language's syntax. In a similar vein, Sade uses logical argumentation to the point of absurdity, unveiling reason's weaknesses.

His characters are superficial. Sade's is a position of self-interest that redefines notions of freedom and equality, as Blanchot argues: "the equality of beings is the right to make equal use of all beings; freedom is the power to subject each person to his own will and wishes"(11). Individuals are bound only by similar desires, they necessarily become accomplices because they depend on a tentative assurance of discretion. They are bound to one another to ensure that they will be allowed to continue their own pursuit of pleasure. Sade's narratives consist in a long series of scenes, it is not the development of individual characters, relationships, or the plot that is important, but the presentation of every imagined excess. Not only are staged scenes enacted within the stories, but throughout, his characters use the language of spectacle, calling attention to the exaggeration and cliché of the drama in which they are involved. Just as nothing is left unsaid, nothing is left unseen and everything is performed.

Quelques Écrits et Quelques Dessins was published as a parody by Nougé and Magritte in the fall of 1927 and is typical of the group's rebellion. Clarisse Juranville is named as the book's author. Juranville was the well-known author of the grammar textbook La Conjugaison enseignée par la pratique , first published in Paris around 1880 (Sylvester I: 75 and Mariën 17-18, 147-48). In the preface to Quelques Écrits Nougé explains, however evasively, that this notebook was recently found by Magritte. Having been neglected, it was in a horribly dilapidated state and would have surely been lost forever, had they not found, deciphered and restored the text in print (367). The book consists of five full-page drawings by Magritte and eleven poems by Nougé. They maintained the original grammar text's outward appearance, its clear typography and rather institutional cover design, frustrating the reader's expectations. They replaced verb conjugation charts with poems that challenge language usage and syntax, thereby uprooting the very meaning of the grammar text and the enculturation into language and society that it represents. The images impart no clear information nor do they teach any sort of language concepts.

The forward works to frame or set the stage for Nougé's assault on language and grammar, on pedagogy, and on the reader as well as setting forth the Belgian group's aims. He begins explaining that the writings of Clarisse Juranville have tended to be ambiguous (he uses the word équivoque , which may also indicate dubiousness as well as ambiguity) and that this text is as well (367). Her motivation is to evade habitual judgment (367). Nougé then tells us of her integrity as an author (she had never given into literary vanity), she loathed pleasure, and she wrote deliberately and out of necessity (379). In using Juranville as the false author and in creating this narrative around her and her work, Nougé and Magritte achieve several of their aims. They distance themselves from the work, which adds to its radical nature while simultaneously maintaining their respectability. They appropriate a legitimate, conventional and banal object, the grammar primer and its author, a grammarian, the very sources of enculturation and subvert them all. It is an example of Nougé's theory of disturbing objects ( objets bouleversants ), the idea of which is to take the most everyday object and change its function and meaning and by extension, the reader's relationship to it, thereby uprooting conventional knowledge. Quelques Écrits also further separates the Belgian group from the French Surrealists in that this practice of deliberate, even didactic rewriting of an existing text is absolutely irreconcilable with automatism.

The poems within read almost like grammar lessons in the way that Nougé employs various verb tenses in very simple phrases. In construction the phrases are simple, but that is not to say that their meanings are clear. No punctuation is used and capitalization is not consistent. He upsets both semantics and syntax. The language of the first poem reads like an analysis of the gaze:

It is me who looks at you
but you who looks at me
tonight your brother will speak to you
you will speak (respond) to him about your work
and nothing more (369, trans. is mine). [1]

In the last phrase can be felt a slightly threatening tone, especially when read along with some of the other pieces, for instance:

They resembled everyone else
They forced the lock
They replaced the lost object
They shot guns
They mixed drinks
They sowed handfuls of questions
They retired modestly
while erasing their signature (374, trans. is mine). [2]

An exercise in the past tense, this poem also underlines secrecy, collectivity, potential violence, and stands as a self- representation the Belgian group.

Subversion des Images is another book consisting of text and photographs taken by Nougé between December 1929 and February 1930, but published posthumously by Mariën in 1968. Its aims are similar to those of Quelques Écrits , but its emphasis is on the visual. Within it there are nineteen carefully staged, unmanipulated, straight photographs. They literally illustrate the text, which consists again of simple language that is highly systematic in structure. The photographs are numbered, not titled and the text which explains them is correspondingly numbered. The photographs are not important as images, that is, as objects of aesthetic contemplation. They need only to be legible because they function as evidence or as illustrations of object lessons. They are taken within the space of a commonplace bourgeois home and the members of the Belgian group are the actors within the scenes.

The frontispiece is a photograph of a bedroom cluttered with stacks of papers and books, clothes and baskets, which continue beyond the frame. The door is in the corner of the room, its lock clearly displayed and wallpaper is apparent on both sides. Atop a pile of papers is a small picture of Nougé himself, marking the absent- or the one time present presence of the author. Behind the picture is a partially seen, cheap picture frame which only frames the wallpaper and draws our eyes to Nougé's face. To the left of the picture is a rifle that leans in the corner. This element, combined especially with the wallpaper is strikingly similar to Magritte's painting The Survivor . Where these two differ though is significant. Nougé's rifle is merely one object, however loaded, among the clutter of many others whereas Magritte's painting isolates the object, rendering it iconic. Nougé's mess not only reinforces the banality of the scene, it also works to undo the image's tendency to isolate and elevate the object. Throughout the book, Nougé's photographs, for all their clarity, balance and theatricality, are full of clutter, they are meant as reproductions of the everyday, however scripted, threatening and skewed.

As in Quelques Écrits , the intention in Subversion des Images is "giving to beings, to objects, a function, a usage different from the conventional" (1968: 10, trans. is mine). [3]

Photo 1 is of a normally dressed woman sitting in a chair at a small round table in the corner of the room. To the right of the table hang heavy striped curtains and to the left and slightly behind the woman is the corner of a marble fireplace. The woman is sitting at an angle to the picture plane, her head is turned away with one hand covering the viewer's side of her face, as if to deflect our gaze. Her other hand is splayed approaching or pulling away from a bundle of string lying on the table, it draws the viewer's attention to the string by literally pointing it out. Here is a common bourgeoisie interior with an ordinary woman, what is unusual is her relation to the string. The textual description of the photograph is: "a tangled mass of string in the middle of a bare table provokes a gesture of terror in the woman sitting at this table: a familiar object, indifferent, provokes an unexpected reaction, exceptional, awakes an unforeseeable feeling" (13-14, trans. is mine). [4] Nougé continues by methodically asking what feeling and what kind of reactions are provoked in us by numerous other common objects. Then he asks what sort of effect will seeing this specific event have on the viewer, what is the consequence of seeing the woman so disturbed by the string? With pseudo-logical language and organization, Nougé suggests three possible effects of the unexpected reaction on the onlooker. Possibility a) is that we may identify with the woman and ourselves become terrified by the string, becoming a victim with her. If we fully identify with her, the subversion is successful because reality has been transformed to the point of affecting us. B) We may sympathize with the woman, but without suffering as she does. Here the subversion is partly successful because we are receptive to being asked to see our surroundings differently. We are curious and begin to wonder how a string could cause terror (already accepting that a string could in fact be terrifying) and begin to understand objects and our relationships to them differently. The third possibility c) is utter indifference to the woman and her distress. Subversion here has no effect, it is a failure, but we may perhaps be made an accomplice with the author, in on the deception but not prey to it. Nougé argues that all measures must be taken so that the spectacle grabs our interest, that it should somehow convince us of its truth or potential truth, and that it cause a sympathetic response. In order to achieve these aims a maximum of familiar elements must be maintained in the scene, any modifications must be discreet; only the most necessary subversions should take place (15).

The visual, staged and highlighted by the photograph, is central to the disruption. Nougé uses the medium with the understanding that here the photographic is capable of recording with some amount of fidelity, the real. The photograph provides the evidence of the subversion because it gives us an index of the event rather than a constructed reality. The naivety of this position is not at issue here because Nougé is playing to the contradictory work of the medium. Photography is capable of reproducing reality, but that reality is determined by our cultural conventions. At the same time, the objective characteristics that can be exploited in the medium undermine this constructed reality, through various techniques and ideas that are being used within Subversion des Images , like substitution, juxtaposition, the use of text, and the notions of the straight photograph and the snapshot (implied here too, the amateur photographer). We are convinced of the subversion because of the visual evidence, because of the photograph.

To return to the notion of affinity that I am using, I want to suggest some historical connections that existed between Sade's revolutionary France and the Belgian group's World War II experience. Rampant censorship, the feeling that the Enlightenment promise (or modernity's promise) was somehow deficient, the urgency with which people felt the need to overturn the established order of things, and literal and extreme violence were the conditions that Sade and the Surrealists both experienced. The Marquis de Sade and the Belgian group both directed their creative production towards revealing these social and political problems and in their own ways, rectifying them. Nougé in Images Defendues , explains his goals: "the rejection of the established order, the determination to destroy current values or to introduce new ones, and the essential subversive intention must make use of all means according to circumstances" (Sylvester II: 102). This statement is from the essay "Of means and ends," which had been published in 1933 in Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution , was excluded from Images Defendues when it was published in October 1943. The essay was deemed inflammatory. In 1944, Nougé, using the pseudonym Paul Lecharentais, published an exhibition catalogue preface for Magritte's show at the Galerie Dietrich. Nougé was from Charentais, so the pseudonym was not wholly used to protect his identity, he might have been goading the censors. But the danger was real, an earlier showing of Raoul Ubac's photographs for which Nougé wrote the catalogue's preface was closed down by the German authorities. The 1944 preface and the exhibition (it happened to be the public debut of Magritte's "impressionist" paintings) were attacked by the group's former ally, Marc Eemans, now a supporter of the Nazi campaign against "degenerate art" (Sylvester II: 102-4). Eemans had been a signatory of the 1928 text that announced the presence of the Belgian Surrealist group. Their output for public consumption had seriously declined during the war. Magritte illustrated several books during this time (a rather safe kind of production): for Les Chants de Maldoror (not appearing until 1948), a reprint of Eluard's Les Nécessités de la vie et les consequences de rêves precedes d'Exemples (1946), Bataille's Madame Edwarda and for a book on Sade by Gaston Puel (Sylvester II: 110-13). The last two never materialized.

With the end of the Occupation, the group's publishing exploded with some especially shocking tracts. Important for its political and cultural significance and typical of the group's derisive tone is Mariën's tract Hommage du groupe surréaliste de Belgique à Saint-Just . It was published in December 1945 and contains two photomontages by Magritte. The first is placed between the title and an extract from Saint-Just's 1792 Discours à la Convention and is entitled "L'exécution de Louis XVI," it is especially ironic given Belgium 's own problems with their king Léopold III. The second image is of a crucifix facing (with its back to the viewer) and blasphemously overlapping a Man Ray nude. An homage indeed, Louis Antoine Saint-Just was a strong adherent of Rousseau's philosophy and a major proponent of the Terror. He argued that "a patriot is he who supports the Republic in general; whoever who opposes it in detail is a traitor" (Camus 126). For him, any transgression, any form of protest, was detrimental to society and the scaffold became the means to ensure rational harmony and social unity (Camus 125-8). He is an example of rationalism's failure and following his close friend Robespierre, went to the scaffold in July 1794. He was a contemporary of Sade who Camus characterizes as an anti-Sade and we can also characterize him as an anti-Surrealist. This tract was followed by three others: L'Imbécile , L'Emmerdeur , and L'Enculeur , written by Magritte, Nougé and Mariën. They were published anonymously on single sheets of colored paper (like the earlier Correspondance ) and sent by mail to various individuals. Black humor when read in light of Saint-Just, L'Imbécile begins: "Good patriots are imbeciles; good patriots shit upon the fatherland" (Mariën 368 and Sylvester II: 121) and continues to call the reader an imbecile as well. The other tracts continue in this confrontational vein. They not only offended the reader, but also other Surrealists. Achille Chavée of the Hainault group absolutely disapproved of them. To continue the joke, Magritte and Mariën sent him a letter defending L'Imbécile . They wrote "Nougé, who can hardly be suspected of having any weakness for facile jokes is of the opinion that, since the Discours de la Methode and the Manifeste du Surréalisme , there has appeared no achievement of human thought to equal in clarity and virulence of expression this leaflet in which the fundamental demands of mankind are formulated plainly and bluntly in the avenging spirit of ancient human fanaticism" (Sylvester II: 122).

For the Belgian Surrealists, revolution would not and could not occur through love, through the public provocation of insulting a priest, through organized politics, or through a dependence on the irrational and unconscious, dreams, or myth. They did not make Sade out to be a literary martyr, paying dearly for his defense of freedom and desire to the detriment of morality, family and religion. If we take them at their word, the Belgian group would be very satisfied that Sade spent most of his life in prison, because it is a testament to the potential power literature has to harm the established order. In their manifesto La Poesie Transfigurée , which was a response to the Aragon Affair, particularly Breton's defense of the poet, they argued that Aragon being charged criminally for a poem worked to reveal the hypocrisy of the bourgeois notion of freedom. It argues that not holding Aragon responsible for the poem's social or political meanings and its effects works to neutralize the poem. Of course, it does not discuss the responsibility or the effect of the poet who publishes anonymously, but it does warn that "the most subversive thing is not always the one you expect, but it is not without reason that the bourgeoisie feels itself really threatened by certain poetic texts" (Richardson and Fijalkowski 149). For the Belgian Surrealists, the cultural revolution would be accomplished illicitly, behind the façade of bourgeois respectability, behind closed doors and among accomplices.

[1] "C'est moi qui te regarde
Mais toi qui me regardes
Ce soir ton frère te parlera
Tu répondras de ton ouvrage
Et rien de plus."

[2] Ils ressemblaient à tout le monde
Ils forcèrent la serrure
Ils remplacèrent l'objet perdu
Ils amorcèrent les fusils
Ils mélangèrent les liqueurs
Ils ont semé les questions à pleines mains
Ils se sont retirés avec modestie
En effaçant leur signature."

[3] "Il s'agit de donner aux êtres, aux objets, une fonction, un usage different de l'habituel."

[4] "Un entrelacs de corde au milieu d'une table nue provoque un geste de terreur chez la femme assise à cette table: un object familier, indifférent, provoque un réaction imprévue exceptionnelle, éveille un sentiment imprévisible."

Blanchot, Maurice . Lautréamont and Sade . Stuart Kendall and Michelle Kendall (trans.). Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Breton, André. Manifestoes of Surrealism . Richard Seaver and Helen Lane (trans.). Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, 1969.

---. Anthology of Black Humor . Mark Polizzotti (trans.). San Francisco : City Lights Books, 1997.

Camus, Albert. The Rebel . Anthony Bower (trans.). New York : Vintage International, 1991.

Ceuleers, Jan. René Magritte, 135 Rue Esseghem, Jette-Brussels . Gus Triandos (trans.). Antwerp: Petraco-Pandors, 1999.

de Naeyer, Christine. Paul Nougé et la Photographie . Bruxelles: Didier Devillez, 1995.

Hénaff, Marcel. Sade: The Invention of the Libertine Body . Xavier Callahan (trans.). Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Mariën, Marcel. L'Activitié surréaliste en Belgique (1924-1950) . Bruxelles: Lebeer Hossman, 1979.

Nadeau, Maurice. History of Surrealism . Richard Howard (trans.). Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1989.

Nougé, Paul. René Magritte ou les Images Défendues . Bruxelles: Les Auteurs Associés, 1943.  

---. Histoire de ne pas rire . Bruxelles: Les Lèvres Nues, 1956.

---. Subversion des Images . Bruxelles: Les Lèvres Nues, 1968.

---. "Quelques Écrits et Quelques Dessins." L'Expérience Continue . Éditions L'Age D'Homme et Cistre, 1981: 367-380.

Richardson, Michael and Krzysztof Fijalkowski (eds. and trans. ). "The Aragon Affair" and "Poetry Transfigured." Surrealism Against the Current: Tracts and Declarations . London : Pluto Press, 2001: 143-150.

Sade, Marquis de. Justine, Philosophy of the Bedroom & Other Writings . Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse (trans.). New York : Grove Press, 1965.

---. The 120 Days of Sodom & Other Writings . A. Wainhouse and R. Seaver (trans.). New York : Grove Press, 1966.

---. Juliette . A. Wainhouse (trans.). New York : Grove Press, 1968.

Shattuck, Roger. "Rehabilitating the prophet." Salmagundi . Summer 1996: 123-143.

Shattuck, Roger. Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography . New York : St. Martin 's Press, 1996.

Sylvester, David. René Magritte, Catalogue Raisonné. 5 vols. Antwerp : Fonds Mercator and the Menil Foundation, 1992-1997.

Whitfield, Sarah. "Magritte and his accomplices." Magritte . London : The South Bank Centre, 1992. 

About the Author
Stacy Fuessle is currently working on a Ph.D. in the Department of Art History at the University of Illinois on Belgian Surrealism. 

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