Can the Madwoman Speak?: A Comparative Surrealist Perspective

EDITH BENAVIDES

It is almost uncannily convenient for Nadja to be mad: she serves as a Surrealist muse to Breton’s artist narrator.

Edith Benavides, Featured Image

Societal conceptions of madness are constantly shifting, and madness’s literary representations vary as much as its societal perceptions over time. For instance, during the first half of the twentieth century, the aftermath of World War I and the founding of the Surrealist aesthetic movement introduced dramatic changes in how we perceive madness. The medical notion of shell shock was developed to describe battlefront trauma experienced by World War I veterans, while the Surrealist ideology lionized the madman as a revolutionary instrument capable of normatively rationalized social conventions. Through Surrealism’s genesis after World War I, Western Europe saw rising contradictions in how we understand madness. In my research, I compare André Breton’s Nadja (1928) and Leonora Carrington’s “Down Below” (1944), two pivotal texts in Surrealism that provide distinct representations of madness as a social condition.

In Breton’s Nadja, the first and most renowned Surrealist novel, mental illness is portrayed as an inadvertently debilitating condition. A young, wealthy, heterosexual and sane Surrealist narrator becomes infatuated with Nadja, a mentally unstable woman who grows increasingly elusive. The narrator, André, develops into a nuanced character, while Nadja’s identity beyond her own madness is muted. The narrator frames Nadja as an extra-rational woman with no real race, sexuality, socioeconomic status and national origin. It is almost uncannily convenient for Nadja to be mad: she serves as a Surrealist muse to Breton’s artist narrator. Once declared insane and institutionalized, however, Nadja can no longer be André’s muse because she endangers his mental well-being. André abandons her for the sake of self-preservation, believing he will fall over the edge of reason if their relationship continues. Here, the madwoman has no potential of living a meaningful life past institutionalization, and madness does not have the revolutionary qualities the Surrealists ascribed to it. The artist is vanguard in his flirtations with madness, but mentally endangered should he completely fall over the edge of reason.

Leonora Carrington’s “Down Below” extols madness as a socially revolutionary condition. In this short story, an anonymous narrator recounts her traumatic experiences as an asylum patient. Like Nadja, Carrington’s narrator is mentally unstable. Unlike Nadja, however, she gives insight to extra-rational thought processes from a madwoman’s perspective. Before her internments, the narrator meets with a Dutch gentleman on her way to Spain in 1944. After their encounter, she deludes herself into believing that his gaze is a hypnotic weapon that started World War II, and consequently deems herself the destined liberator of Europe. The narrator operates under this pretense throughout her internment in various asylums, facing daily physical and psychological torment. Her priority as an institutionalized madwoman becomes medical discharge for the sake of European liberation. The narrator’s pretense gives her social and political potential beyond her torturous confinement. Although we do not know what happens after receiving her discharge, Carrington’s narrator remains hopeful for a meaningful life beyond the institution. Moreover, “Down Below” venerates madness by showing the possibilities of moving forward after being declared incurably insane, while also portraying the nuances of madness and institutionalization.

These representations of madness address the politics of exploiting marginalized groups for aesthetic purposes. In Nadja, Breton’s narrator exploits the mentally ill for artistic development. He misconstrues the harsh realities of mental illness during a time when notions of madness are becoming more complex. In the end, he sees little hope past Nadja’s institutionalization. In “Down Below”, Carrington’s narrator is a madwoman who speaks for herself and captures madness in an optimistic light—all without ignoring the real-world complexities of mental institutionalization.

Edith Benavides is a Brevia contributor. She can be reached at edith_c_benavides@college.harvard.edu.