The Gothic, Violent Intervention of ‘Une Semaine de bonté’

The Gothic, Violent Intervention of ‘Une Semaine de bonté’
© Photograph by Daniele Ferrero

In the year that ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ came out, as I have indicated, another novel featuring a murder on a train appeared. ‘Une Semaine de bonté’, first published in Paris by Jeanne Boucher, is an anti-novel composed of one hundred and eighty-two captionless collages in which perfectly respectable depictions of nineteenth-century bourgeois life, taken from cheap publications picked up in flea-markets and second-hand bookstalls, are rendered shocking, phantasmagoric.

The subtitle that Ernst provided for the German edition of this book was ‘A Picture Book of Kindness, Love, and Humanity’, but these values are in fact vindictively absent from its pages. For ‘Une Semaine’ is not some innocuous testament to the philanthropic values of his father’s generation, as this subtitle sarcastically intimates. Instead, it is a violent intervention in the pictography of the nineteenth-century that pitilessly reveals the unconscious urges that the Victorians themselves repressed.

Indeed, Ernst sought to portray nothing less than the unconscious of the nineteenth-century, taking melodramatic images from cheap romances and exposing them, in spite of their innocuous appearance, as so many prurient attempts to conceal the aggressive drives that threatened to tear apart polite middle-class culture.

As U.M. Schneede has remarked, in this work the “secret impulses” that Ernst habitually exposed in his paintings “are no longer his own but those of a society in which he has grown up”; he proceeds in these collages “like a scientific observer analysing his father’s generation, and setting out, like Freud, to demonstrate the effects of sexual repression in human life” (Schneede 139).

In ‘Une Semaine’, extending the collage techniques he had used some five years before in ‘La Femme 100 têtes’, Ernst took wood- and steel-plate engravings from popular novels, scientific periodicals, and advertising catalogues dating from the late nineteenth-century, and then cut and pasted them in order to generate shocking visual effects. Images cut out of journals like ‘La Nature’ or encyclopaedias like Bulfinch’s ‘Mythology’ (1881) are for instance pasted onto the surface of illustrations from romantic fiction, so that minutely detailed insects or fabulous beasts sit like a silent threat at the feet of sentimental heroines, and men with the sightless stone faces of the Easter Island statues engage in sinister acts of voyeurism.

Many of the collages are centred on heavily upholstered bourgeois drawing rooms in which strange, hallucinatory acts of violence are being committed. The gothic and melodramatic devices of the nineteenth-century novel are in this book given a final, devastating turn of the screw. Ernst thus conducted a kind of immanent critique of Victorianism, collaging its everyday icons in order to reveal the exotic fantasises to which it could not admit.

Four of the pages of ‘Une Semaine de bonté’ centre on trains (the word coupé, in this context, might refer not only to the compartment, and to the specifics of the crime that could have been committed in it, but to the form of the collage itself, constructed by a process of slicing and incising).

They radicalize Zola’s critique of bourgeois respectability, both formally and politically; and appear too to attack the backward-looking model of inter-war European society so elaborately, so artificially reconstructed by Christie. In ‘Le Lion de Belfort’, the first of the five pamphlets that comprise the book, there is a double page of pictures that reproduce the interior of a train compartment.

The protagonist in both of these is a man with the head of the lion of Belfort itself (a sculpture by Frédéric Bartholdi, completed in 1880, which commemorates French resistance to the Prussian invasion). In the image on the left, he counts out banknotes he has taken from a bald, bearded passenger who lies stunned or dead on the seat before him. A terrified woman, her mouth roughly gagged, stares pitifully out from the foreground (Ernst, Une Semaine 18). In the image on the right, a man is imprisoned in a first-class compartment, trapped in his seat and tightly tied up between the familiar leonine man, whose arms are implacably folded, and another, unfamiliar animate statue. At their feet, on the floor of the carriage, an almost naked woman is strapped to a diabolical machine built from planks, ropes and cogs (Ernst, Une Semaine 19). In the fifth and final section of the book, entitled ‘Le Rire du Coq’, another collage featuring a train appears. Here, five men with the heads of cocks forcibly remove five women from a train, presumably in order to rape them. A battered hat and an umbrella lie on the ground beside the tracks, trampled symbols of the bourgeois respectability that these men have divested (Ernst, Une Semaine 158).

Finally, in the section or chapter entitled ‘L’Oedipus’, there is another engraving of a crime scene in a railway compartment. In this particularly traumatic image, the rigid legs of a dead or violated body, probably that of a woman, obtrude into the immediate foreground of the picture frame from the right.

Indeed we can not avoid stumbling over them as we discover the scene of the crime. Ernst seems to be reminding us that in Oedipus Rex, as David Grossvogel has emphasized, Creon recalls that the Sphinx, who poses a riddle about feet to a man whose name signifies a ‘swollen foot”, asks us to turn “from the obscure to what [lies] at our feet” (Grossvogel 37). On the left, a stiff, hatted bourgeois, either dead or catatonic with shock, stares at us with unseeing eye-sockets. His head is that of a mythical bird — familiar from many of Ernst’s paintings — in a state of putrefying decay.

On the surface, it looks as if this too is a case of some random killing by a psychopathic outsider who has escaped directly from the compartment. Outside the train carriage a neo-classical landscape can be discerned in the distance. And a monumental statue of the sphinx looms up in the centre of the composition. This too, then, is an Orient Express. But there is nothing picturesque about the view onto which the compartment’s missing door opens. The sphinx, its neck and face gnawed by rat-like dogs, looks coldly into the compartment. Its right eye stares directly at us in spite of the angle at which its head is turned. This is because its left eye is obscured by the door frame, so that its sight is partially impaired. The collage mimes Oedipus’s blindness by compromising the sight of everybody included in the picture frame.

And this induces a sense of blindness in the spectator too. No doubt it is not an accident that Ernst projects the blood vessels visible on the inner surface of the eyelid onto what is in English called a window-blind. Puns, often multi-lingual ones, are of course a typical characteristic of surrealist painting. ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ also puns on the word “blind”: the open window in the murdered man’s compartment — it “was pushed down as far as it would go and the blind was drawn up” (Christie 79) — is referred to as “a blind”, a false clue (Christie 63).

The mood of blind frenzy in which Cassetti’s murder was supposedly conducted — “as though somebody had shut their eyes and then in a frenzy struck blindly again and again” (Christie 65) — is also a blind, since the murder has actually been conducted as a decorous execution. The open door in Ernst’s portrait of the scene of the crime is also perhaps a kind of blind. It is possible that the murderer is still on the train, even that he is standing behind us.

The picture therefore positions the spectator as the detective. It also, potentially at least, positions the spectator as the perpetrator of the crime — like one of the characters on board the train in Christie’s exactly contemporaneous novel. Perhaps, instead of entering the compartment, the spectator is backing awkwardly out of it, as if abruptly conscious of the part he has played in committing this act of violence.

The spectator is in other words interior to the space of the composition as well as exterior it. In aesthetic terms, the one-eyed sphinx stands for what Hal Foster, in an extremely useful discussion of de Chirico and Ernst, has called “a returned gaze that positions the spectator both in and out of the picture, that makes him […] both master and victim of the scene” (Foster 81-82).

The title of this chapter of ‘Une Semaine de bonté’ indicates that the compartment should be interpreted as a modern setting for the Oedipal drama; that is, because Ernst “use[d] psychoanalytical texts as ready-made material in his collages”, it should be interpreted specifically as a Freudian setting for it (Adamowicz 119).

Ernst, who had read Freud avidly from at least 1911, repeatedly and almost programmatically portrays the primal scene in his pictures. As Foster has pointed out, “for Ernst the primary trauma is the primal scene; it is this coupling that his collage aesthetic works over” (Foster 81).

In this particular collage, if the spectator is identified as Freud’s Oedipus then the man on the seat can be identified as his dead father; and the woman at his feet, slumped against the upholstered seating, can be identified as his mother. The posthumous and the post-coital are thus intertangled. And they are knotted even more closely together in the image of the sphinx (whose name derives of course from the Greek σφίγγειυ, signifying “to draw tight”): according to the Hungarian anthropologist Géza Róheim, who published The Riddle of the Sphinx or Human Origins in 1934, the sphinx is ‘the father and mother in one person, and a representation of the two fundamental tendencies of the Oedipus situation which are awakened in the child when he observes the primal scene’ (Róheim 22).

Staging the primal scene as a crime scene, Ernst dramatically recapitulates the family romance that is, according to Freud, the precondition for the formation of the subject. He symbolically punishes his father for the traumatic effect of the primal scene and assumes his role in the sexual drama.

In a retrospective of surrealism that momentarily makes allusion to “the late nineteenth-century illustrations that belonged to the world of the parents of Max Ernst’s generation”, T.W. Adorno emphasized that “the affinity with psychoanalysis lies not in a symbolism of the unconscious but in the attempt to uncover childhood experiences by means of explosions” (Adorno 88).

The collage of the train compartment in “L’Oedipus” detonates Ernst’s childhood experience of the family romance. As I have intimated, Freud’s mythopoeic conception of the self was of structural importance to Ernst’s understanding of his identity both as an artist and as a man, and his attack on Victorianism therefore finally has to be understood in relation to his representation of his father — though it should not of course be reduced to that.

Max Ernst’s relationship with his father Phillip, who was himself an amateur painter, became especially troubled at the end of the First World War, when the young artist vehemently rejected the imperialist values in whose name he had been recruited to fight in 1914. After the dada exhibition staged in Cologne in the revolutionary year of 1919, which he had helped to organize, his father disavowed him, accusing him of shaming the family name.

In his autobiographical reflections, then, Ernst subsequently identified his father as an emblem of the generation that in his art he set out to destroy. As Elizabeth Legge has commented, his father “assumes dimension as the personification of the whole archaic Kaiser epoch, with its values of hard work, duty, and filial and patrial piety, that had, for Ernst, ironic enactment and apotheosis in the war” (Legge 9-10).

In ‘Beyond Painting’ (1937), Ernst recorded a hypnagogic dream that he experienced as a five- or six-year old child, in which a painter “whirls the contents of the vase [that he has been decorating] by stirring it, faster and faster, with his fat crayon.” He continued: “The crayon becomes a whip. Now I realize that this strange painter is my father. He wields the whip with all his force and accompanies his movements with terrible gasps of breath, comparable to the snorts of an enormous and enraged steam engine.” (Ernst 3)

This highly schematic image of the primal scene, in which the crayon is made to symbolize his father’s penis and the vase his mother’s womb, is not so much significant because of what it informs us about Ernst’s psychic development as because of what it informs us about what Ernst wanted to inform us about his psychic development. This half-dream functions as a self-consciously mythopoeic framework for representing his Oedipal development.

The gasps of his father, though, “comparable to the snorts of an enormous and enraged steam engine,” add a historical dimension to this mythological fantasy. The presence of the steam engine in this narrative is symptomatic of Ernst’s repulsion not only for his father’s familial role, for his personality, and for his propensity to paint, like the crayon that metamorphoses into a whip, but for the epoch of which he was representative.

In the silent compartment depicted in ‘Une Semaine de bonté’, the train has come to an abrupt stop, the snorting of its engine has been replaced by an eerie silence, and his father, like the set of values that he embodies, has with exquisite care been defaced by a knife used like a scalpel. The pictures in Ernst’s collage novels, as Breton claimed, “give an illusion of veritable slits in time, space, customs, and beliefs” (Breton, “Foreword” 8). They conduct an autopsy — at once artful and brutal — on the characteristic time, space, customs and beliefs of his father’s generation.

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