Let's talk about modernism, shall we?
“Make it new,” Ezra Pound famously enjoined his fellow modernists.
Although this phrase is often taken as an urging to create something new (that is, something which did not previously exist), the inclusion of the pronoun "it" clearly implies the existence of something old that is being made new– this element of "remaking" characterizes much of modernist literature. Pound, Eliot, Yeats, Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence, Barnes and many other modernists delighted in incorporating classical, primitive, medieval, and Renaissance references, among many others, into their work.
Myth is incorporated into the modern novel on a structural level. The meter and language of modern poetry is infused with archaic and exotic languages. Examining these influences has always been an important part of studying modernism, but an analysis of the inherently intertextual energies operating within the heart of this movement-that-is-not-a-movement ought perhaps to take account of this remaking as a theoretical problem.
Claude Cahun (1894-1954) is one artist who answered Pound’s call. Cahun is a slippery artist to categorize –is she a writer? Photographer? Installationist? Performance artist?—but any familiarity with her work will reveal that this is entirely due to her refusal to allow herself to be placed in any one category. Her biographer, François Leperlier, characterizes her strategies as "inversion and deviation, reversals and hijackings"; Cahun adopts these in her writing, her photography, her object-making, as well as in her attire and her personal relationships, in order to elude classification in any of these areas.
Cahun, who lived in Paris from 1922 to 1938 with her partner (and step-sister) Suzanne Malherbe, had a similarly unsettled relationship to the avant-garde groups with whom she was associated, notably the Surrealists, as well as the expatriate circle of lesbians in Paris who gathered around Nathalie Clifford Barney’s salon.
The different facets of Cahun, public and private, artistic, literary, and personal, conspire to create the portrait of a fully-engaged artist whose work indicates a conception of gender as a construction, an idea which places her way ahead of her time. Cahun’s work anticipates Simone de Beauvoir, Cindy Sherman, and Judith Butler; however, given that Cahun’s work was lost to us after her death and only rediscovered by Leperlier in the late 1980s, and only begun to appear in museum exhibitions in 1992, we cannot claim Cahun as a forebear for these women. She is so ahead of her time and ours that she must be characterized as being at the avant-garde even of the avant-garde.
Which is fitting, considering Cahun wrote that she wished always to remain “at the prow of myself,” au proue de moi-même. I have argued elsewhere that Cahun exercised an avant-garde du moi: an avant-garde of the self. The self, for Cahun, is inherently multiple and mobile, recreated and reinvented from moment to moment, and gender is a mask which can be put on or taken off according to whim or necessity. We try to “delineate our roles,” she writes, “according to our changing moods. It is only after many attempts […] that we can firm up the moulds of our masks” (119).
But it is not her relationship to those writers who came after, but rather, those who came before, that I wish to explore: the intertextual echoes which inform this refusal to let herself be categorized on the basis of her gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or artistic production. Recently, critics have begun to sift through Cahun’s writing for echoes of other writers. Gayle Zachmann has written on echoes of Mallarmé in Cahun’s work, as well as the impact of the Dreyfus Affair; Lizzie Thynne is currently working on the influence of Wilde on Cahun’s work, which is most explicit in her rewriting of Salomé; Mary Ann Caws reads Cahun within the context of other "eccentric" women artists such as Judith Gautier, Dora Carrington, and Emily Carr.
For our purposes, we will concentrate first on Cahun’s collection of short narratives, Héroïnes, which first appeared in 1925 in the Mercure de France and the Journal littéraire, and then in Aveux non avenus (“Disavaowed Confessions,” 1928), her longest published work, which in spite of its autobiographical nature is unclassifiable as such (the closest genre for it could perhaps be Lynda Barry’s "autobificionalography"). We will examine in particular the influence of Marcel Schwob, Cahun’s uncle, and look twice at Cahun’s response to Ovid and Swinburne in “Sappho l’incomprise” and “Salmacis the Suffragette.” Cahun found in their work the themes and motifs which would allow her to pose questions concerning autobiography and perspective, creation, reproduction, virginity, and gender, stealing form from Schwob and Ovid, and content from all three. We will examine in more depth the way the theme of childhood serves for Cahun as a conduit to the power of the primitive and archaic, and which gave her access to Surrealist ideals and themes.
But all that for another day.