Joyce Mansour

Female Violence as Social Power: Joyce Mansour’s Surrealist Anti-Muse

In 1953, three years before Joyce Mansour left her native Egypt with her husband and two children to settle in Paris, she published her first collection of poems entitled Cris. [1] She had sent a copy to the leader of the French surrealist group, André Breton, to whom the collection was dedicated. Several epistolary exchanges, where Breton expressed his support of her work, led to the meeting of the two poets on January 27th, 1956, at the Etoile Scellée, an art gallery under his direction. Breton and Mansour developed and cultivated a friendship that was to last until the Surrealist leader’s death, ten years later. They would have extensive conversations about literature and spend time engaging in prototypical surrealist activities, like trolling the St. Ouen Marché aux Puces for ostensibly insignificant objects that had special aesthetic value to surrealistic perceptions. [2]

Mansour also dedicated many of her poems and short stories to Breton. Despite a durable friendship and mutual admiration, Mansour’s Surrealism differs from that of Breton and his colleagues. This paper focuses on how female violence, a theme that permeates her oeuvre, engages in a feminist and social discourse that empowers women and gives them a distinct voice within a traditionally male-dominated clique. Violence is not particular to Mansour’s Surrealism, but was always an important theme for artists associated with the movement. In the Second Surrealist Manifesto, Breton famously proclaimed that the most Surrealist act was stepping into the street with a revolver in hand and randomly taking fire. For the Surrealists, acting outside of social norms and civic laws, haphazardly, and without logic or reason, constituted a life of freedom and spontaneity, something they strived to attain.

Various publications, especially recently, reiterate the important role violence played in Surrealist thought. Elizabeth Roudinesco in her influential work Histoire de la psychanalyse en France (1986) and Jonathan P. Eburne in Surrealism and the Art of Crime (2008) both study the influence of real-life crimes or faits divers, including those perpetrated by women, on Surrealist art and literature. [3] For example, Breton and his colleagues championed the cause of Germaine Berton – not to be confused with Breton – who in 1923 assassinated a conservative journalist at the ultra-right-wing newspaper Action Française. [4] They also supported Violette Nozière, a teenage girl who attempted to poison her parents and succeeded in killing her stepfather. [5]

According to Roudinesco, the Surrealists saw in these female criminals “la folie passionnelle,” something that enabled individuals to defy bourgeois and patriarchal laws (Roudinesco). Eburne explains the surrealist standpoint when he writes that these crimes “challenged accepted categories of public order, motive, and criminal taxonomy” (Eburne). Thus crimes, especially violent ones, emphasized the boundaries of social order and acceptable public behavior.

Female criminals were not the only symbols of individual freedom. The Surrealists also believed that individuals suffering from madness and other psychological illnesses had the potential to act outside of the confines of social norms. Breton’s fascination with such alternate states led him to Nadja, the protagonist of his eponymous novel. Although the Surrealist leader never labeled her as mad, he was fascinated with Nadja, and she became the object of his book. He describes her rootless, itinerant existence in the streets of Paris, which underscore her tenuous mental condition and should have warned Breton of her eventual breakdown – we learn from him, in an arguably remorseful tone at the end of the récit, that she finished up in an asylum. But the Surrealist leader was more captivated by her behavior than concerned for her mental health and physical safety, which is why some critics consider Breton’s impassiveness concerning her fate an act of violence in itself. Mark Polizzotti, in his biography of Breton, takes this stance and explains:

Joyce Mansour & André Breton, 1960

Breton, although he admired transgression and those who transgressed, rarely followed suit. It was as if he were forever standing at the edge of a precipice: applauding those who had jumped or had had the good fortune to fall; scorning the ones who held back; himself unable to take the final step. (Polizzotti)

Breton’s lack of insight concerning Nadja’s mental health is the kind of attitude that marks most Surrealist work concerning women: for male Surrealists, women were more interesting as muses, or worse, as objects to be examined.

Just as Surrealist literature failed to depict women as intellectually complete and whole human beings, Surrealist visual art demonstrated this attitude by illustrating isolated and fetishized female body parts. Examples of mutilated, disembodied, and dehumanized female bodies are present in the works of Surrealist artists such as André Masson, Hans Bellmer, or Pierre Molinier, among others. All of these violent, criminal, mentally ill, or dismembered, depictions of women contribute to a fragmented, incomplete idea of female identity. What the Surrealists failed to see, insists Roudinesco, is the possible social and familial alienation of which these women were victims. Mansour, however, brings the social and familial context into relief in her prose and poetry works, which often develop in a domestic milieu. She explores the roles of mother, daughter, and wife over and over again in an effort to deconstruct typical surrealist images as well as traditional ideas about women and their place in society.

Mansour herself held a unique place within the surrealist circle, affecting not only her position within the movement, but her ability to develop a poetics of feminine violence. It is important that her connections to Surrealism extended beyond her friendship with Breton, something that established Mansour as a bona fide member of the group. Her professional and personal relationships with other Surrealists, particularly her publications that incorporate the illustrations or photographs of artists like Hans Bellmer, Nanou Vialard, Roberto Matta, Pierre Alechinsky, and Jorge Camacho, among others, demonstrate Mansour’s collaborative career with a wide variety of avant-garde and surrealist artists.

Few women, if any, established and maintained such an intimate connection with the usually exclusive Surrealist movement. The avant-garde, as Susan Suleiman points out in Subversive Intent, not only excluded women, but also treated them differently than their male counterparts. Their doubly marginalized status, as avant-garde artists, and then as women, rendered a successful artistic career within the movement difficult. This was especially true for the Surrealist circle during its peak throughout the inter-war period. The predominantly male members of the group during these years glorified women, especially childlike and innocent ones, as objects and muses to be admired, but rarely admitted them into their ranks as equals. [6]

One such example was Gisèle Prassinos, introduced to the group by her older brother when she was fourteen-years old. The photographer Man Ray captured the young and demure Prassinos reciting her poems, surrounded by a group of mesmerized and pensive older men, providing the prototypical image of the femme-enfant role. Although admired and even endorsed by the Surrealists – Paul Eluard lauds her poems in the preface of their publication in 1935 –, Prassinos was only briefly associated with the group and later avoided being labeled as a Surrealist. [7] Another important female artist who had some links to the movement but later chose to distance herself was Meret Oppenheim. She resented the limitations of muse and femme-enfant roles and said in a 1984 interview: “The [Surrealist] women were loved, but only as women.” [8] Oppenheim, like many of the surrealist women, felt that the male members did not consider the women artists in their own right and consequently stifled their artistic expression. [9]

Mansour’s experience with the Surrealists was different for several reasons. The most important among these was, as Suleiman explains, the timing. Suleiman writes that women who had positive experiences, with Surrealism were often associated with the group after it reached its peak. Such is the case with Mansour, who joined in the late fifties when many of its adherents, who had not already left because of constant infighting and authoritarian leadership, dispersed at the onset of the Second World War. [10] Alain Bosquet, a Surrealist and good friend of Mansour, describes this period: “[…] le surréalisme prit les apparences d’une arrière-garde querelleuse ou même mesquine. Son dernier sursaut lui vient avec la publication d’une mince plaquette de poèmes, Cris, en 1953.[11] Surrealism’s weakened state inevitably left it receptive to opportunities that would arrest its decline. Mansour’s first collection of poetry promised to do just that.

In addition to crying out for fresh perspectives at a time when Surrealism desperately needed it, the title Cris also suggests the passion and hostility that mark Mansour’s oeuvre. Her violent imagery begins to mature with the publication of her first collection of short stories in 1958 entitled Les Gisants satisfaits. Soon afterwards, in 1960, she published her third collection of poems entitled Rapaces. It is at this point that Mansour established her reputation as an important poet in the après-guerre literary scene. It is also a moment, according to Stéphanie Caron, when Mansour turns away from automatic writing to a more controlled and premeditative style – something that the markups and changes in the manuscript of Rapaces, absent in Cris, make apparent. [12] Caron also points out that, with the publication of Rapaces, Mansour’s poetry becomes more descriptive and story-like. This allows for precise and poignant narratives of violence. For these reasons, this study focuses on Mansour’s prose and poetry published in 1958 and afterwards. The following examples, which attempt to illustrate feminine violence in Mansour’s oeuvre, can be divided into two main categories: sublimated violence and performed violence.


Sublimation of Violence

Throughout her poetry and prose, Mansour writes about women in violent domestic situations. The response to their surroundings varies, but they never run away from or escape the violence entirely. In this section, we will look at examples where female characters sublimate, change, turn around, reshape, reuse, or redirect the violent acts aimed at them into something positive. Julie, in the short story “Napoléon” from the collection entitled Ça, published in 1970, provides an example. Julie lives in a challenging domestic situation. All of her family members mete out acts of violence against her: her husband, her Siamese twin sons, her father-in-law, and the maid. She uses the acts of violence against her to form a narrative and writes about it in her personal letters and in her diary. When, for instance, the twins intercept some of Julie’s letters or steal her diary and vandalize it, she continues to write about her feelings and perceptions. Writing counteracts the constant assaults on Julie’s authority by emphasizing her subjectivity and underscoring her ability to think independently.

Julie’s dreams can also be seen as proof of her creative agency, and at the same time are a means of undermining the violence of which she is a victim. In one of the more distressing scenes of this story, during which the Père Armand, Julie’s father-in-law, rapes her, there is ambiguity concerning the facts of the crime. The surrealist imagery and vague description point to the possibility of it all being a dream, and the reader cannot distinguish between reality and nightmare. In this particular example, the dream state mixed with reality creates a surreality that blurs the lines between true and false, suffering and sublimation. There are other examples where Mansour clearly indicates that Julie is having a dream, as is the case when Julie dreams of violently killing her children. Instead of actually carrying out the violence, Julie, who suffers from the abuse and cruelty of the twins, redirects it into a dream. In both instances, violent acts are turned into something else.

In addition to writing and dreaming, a third example of sublimated violence is its transformation into sexual pleasure, which is clearly illustrated in the short story entitled “Marie ou L’Honneur de Servir,” from Les Gisants satisfaits. Marie, the protagonist, lives in a small apartment with her grandfather and sister, and is at their mercy and beckon call. A possibility of escape presents itself in the form of a man referred to mysteriously as “the assassin,” with whom Marie has a tumultuous and violent relationship that reshapes her destiny and eventually leads to her death. Their first meeting takes place at the beach. Swimming in the ocean with her hair and clothes billowing in the water around her, Marie looks like Medusa. Mansour’s reference to the symbolic female character from Greek mythology whose gaze turned men to stone also evokes Hélène Cixous’ trailblazing article Le Rire de la méduse,” [13] which declares the power of women, who, despite history’s bias, have the potential to remove the mystery and darkness that shroud them. The reference to the Medusa and feminine power foreshadows Marie’s imminent struggle and ultimate victory against her male attacker. Mansour writes:

En maillot de bain sur la plage, télescope en main, l’assassin, par un heureux hasard, repéra Marie et sauta dans une barque de location. Il approcha à grands coups de rame, les yeux globuleux de plaisir… Marie crut qu’il était envoyé de Dieu. ‘Je me noie,’ gargouilla-t-elle… Elle flottait entre deux eaux, les membres mous, résignée à une mort précoce. ‘Je me noie,’ répéta-t-elle faiblement aux mains de l’assassin qui erraient sur son corps comme des crabes. ‘Je te tuerai,’ dit-il, car les seins de la femme se dressaient sous ses doigts. Une main glissa le long de sa cuisse et elle valsa dans l’eau comme une souris savante. Elle mordit le nez ponctué de pores dilatés, elle enfonça son genou dans le ventre moelleux, appela au secours, puis sombra dans une féroce jouissance sous l’œil de l’assassin. Son sexe éclairait les sables mouvant où tremblaient des bizarreries moustachues. Elle gémit d’abord, puis sa voix monta.

Not only does Marie survive, her struggle culminates in a strange moment of jouissance, which subverts the assassin’s intentions. Like Cixous’ Medusa, “beautiful and laughing,” Marie has the last laugh as she succeeds in undermining the violent objective of the assassin and ultimately satisfying her own desires. For some critics, it is problematic that the female protagonist turns violence into a pleasurable experience, as in this last example. According to Marilyn Gaddis Rose, in her introduction to the English translation of Rapaces, this juxtaposition of violence and pleasure can be disturbing and troublesome. Rose points out that the title of the collection echoes this problem. She writes:

From ‘rapax/rapaces’ come ‘rapaciousness, rapine, and rape.’ It is a word that always signifies ‘taken by force.’ Mansour adds what readers now consider a chauvinist accretion: ‘being taken by force with complicity.’ The persona takes the initiative in rape often enough to enjoy being raped in return. This is probably why feminist readers, initially attracted by her excoriations of man the artichoke, realize that she is not one of them. [14]

Marie herself is aware of this conflict. The narrator explains the protagonist’s perspective, “Marie était une femme curieuse, non contente d’être victime et complice de l’assassin dans ce royaume cruel du faux-semblant, elle voulait encore improviser”. Athough the fictional female character expresses the same dissatisfaction that critics like Rose point out, there are many examples in Mansour’s oeuvre that propose different and perhaps more effective ways of dealing with male violence.


Performed violence

As opposed to sublimated violence, which deflects it in some way, performed violence is an unequivocal act of violence, and something Mansour employs as another type of response to male violence. In these instances, the mansourian female protagonists act out violence, becoming the accomplice and occasionally the sole perpetrator. Their active participation in the violence means that the female characters have a chance of actually changing their situation.

This is the case in the poem entitled “Pericoloso Sporgersi” from Rapaces, where Mansour paints a sordid picture of the female-male relationship. Both the title of the collection, which connotes violence and aggression, and the title of the poem, which is an Italian phrase meaning “it is dangerous to lean out,” and commonly posted in public transportation vehicles to warn against tilting towards the window, suggest danger and peril. In this instance, the female character is not the victim, but the perpetrator of the violence. Surrealist metaphors in conjunction with violent images reinforce the idea of female power underscored throughout this collection. The following excerpt demonstrates these ideas poignantly:

Noyée au fond d’un rêve ennuyeux J’effeuillais l’homme L’homme cet artichaut drapé d’huile noire Que je lèche et poignarde avec ma langue bien polie 14 Rose, Marilyn Gaddis, Introduction, Birds of Prey, by Joyce Mansour, Trans. Albert Herzing, New York: Perivale, v-ix, ix. L’homme que je tue l’homme que je nie Cet inconnu qui est mon frère Et qui m’offre l’autre joue Quand je crève son œil d’agneau larmoyant Cet homme qui pour la communauté est mort assassiné Hier avant-hier et avant ça encore Dans ses pauvres pantalons pendants de surhomme

The narrative quality of this poem helps paint a vivid picture of the female “je” stabbing and killing a weaker and submissive male, whose tearful lamb-like eye and ridiculous pants render him pathetic and comical.

The protagonist from “Marie ou L’Honneur de servir,” who in previous examples had sublimated the assassin’s violence, can also be violent herself. In one particularly surreal scene, she helps the assassin kidnap, torture and kill a group of children. The narrator describes the assassin carrying the children in burlap bags to a hilltop olive grove, while Marie pricks them with a needle or delivers a kick to quell their crying. Once arrived at the top of the hill, they plant the children headfirst into the ground, and they watch their limbs sway in the wind. Mansour’s Surrealist style and phantasmagorical imagery, which cannot be done justice in the brief synopsis above, change the meaning of the violence by muting the shock. The dreamlike and surreal descriptions of dead children planted upside down in the ground and undulating in the breeze is so unrealistic that it becomes vaguely humorous and mutes the scandalous act of infanticide. The combination of violence and horror with the strange and unexpected is what the Surrealists called l’humour noir, or black humor, defined by Breton as: “la bêtise, l’ironie sceptique, la plaisanterie sans gravité, […] l’ennemi mortel de la sentimentalité…” [15] Mansour’s work stands as an example of black humor, something Breton states in the preface of the 1966 edition of his Anthologie de l’humour noir, where he expresses his regret for not being able to include her in the Anthologie due to lack of space and not knowing her at the time of the original publication in 1939.

For critic Johathan Eburne, black humor is more than an aesthetic device that changes one’s understanding of violent, brutal or shocking matter. Eburne claims that the Surrealists used black humor as a political statement. With the hindsight of over seventy years, he observes that Breton’s Anthology of Black Humor “was intended as a kind of coping mechanism for France’s political situation in the late 1930s” (Eburne). Eburne explains that black humor signals an awareness of the “real conditions of life” and consequently asks the reader or observer to reconsider those conditions. “Refusing to adhere to a code of immediate political use-value or, for that matter, to champion a politics of subversion, Breton’s black humor in its very latency sought an alternative mode of reaction to the contemporary world” (Eburne). For Breton and the poets he praised in his anthology, black humor was a subtle means of suggesting the possibility of a different world.

Mansour’s writing also seeks to change reality, but not in a political sense. Mansour shied away from politics, ceasing to attend the daily Surrealist café meetings in order to avoid the street protests and the political discussions in May of 1968 (Missir). If there is an underlying message in Mansour’s black humor, it is a social one. Mansour’s use of black humor in domestic situations where the roles of women are limited by social constraints and family violence compels the reader to rethink those situations. In this particular example, Marie, who is powerless in an abusive relationship and who succumbs to her abuser and lashes out on those even more powerless than she, becomes problematic and complicated in the light of black humor. The reader, tempted but ashamed to laugh at such a grotesque picture, is forced to reconsider it and perhaps understand differently the situation of a powerless female in a restrictive patriarchal domestic situation.

Another example of female violence in a domestic context juxtaposed with black humor imagery is the poem “Crème fraîche” from the collection Carré Blanc published in 1965. This poem, presented below, begins by describing a grim family situation, then makes a reference to the whitening effect of toothpaste – reinforcing ideas about the color white and the possibility of becoming clean and pure –, and concludes that devouring one’s family is better than doing anything else:

Ma mère me mange Me torture Et pour m’empêcher de la suivre Elle m’enterre Je mange ma famille Je crache sur leurs débris Je hais leurs maladies funambulesques Et leurs hallucinations de l’ouïe Prenez garde au dentifrice Qui blanchit sans détruire Mieux vaut s’égayer en dévorant les siens Que de marcher à quatre pattes Boire Ou essayer de plaire Aux filles.

This desperate and destructive attitude toward the family reflects Surrealism’s general critique of bourgeois institutions. Here, Mansour illustrates the psychological struggle and violence resulting from a frustrating domestic situation. The action “manger,” linking mother and daughter, suggests Freud’s oral stage, but Mansour describes oral fixation as an act of devouring, and both mother and daughter participate in it. The resulting violence played out among the family members, described in black humor style, suggests a multi-directional oral psychology where no one family member is safe from the others. Another departure from Freud is the total absence of the father figure. Because Mansour does not mention the male (whether lover, husband or son), she suggests that the source of violence is not always a product of the male/female relationship.

Mansour describes violence acted out between mother and daughter in another short story entitled “Infiniment sur le gazon,” from the collection Ça. Here, the female protagonist decides to eliminate her mother because she is threatening to destroy her relationship with her lover. The circumstances surrounding the mother’s death are ambiguous. We know that she meets with her daughter’s lover privately, and dies soon thereafter. The daughter then uses an ax to chop up her mother’s body. The acts of this female first-person narrator are violent and graphic. She writes, “Je fis tant de bruit avec ma hache que l’on me mit au cachot”. Although the black humor is apparent, the imagery of death and the performance of violence are very real, unlike the previous examples, where a killer was described as having a sword-like tongue, or where murdered children were compared to swaying tree trunks. This is another critique of bourgeois morality through acts of family violence. This example of performed violence, more realistic and with fewer metaphors and comical images than previous examples, demonstrates how Mansour’s writing can also be violently graphic.

These instances of female-on-female violence are shocking in the framework of social norms, and as we have seen above, subvert and alter perceptions about women and violence. Such behavioral patterns are also distinct within the Surrealist context, as they underscore the idea that violence is not necessarily related to heterosexual love. As we saw above, the Surrealist fascination with the female criminal, whom they praised for her anti-social behavior, points to an idea about females that is at best inaccurate, at worst, misogynistic. This idea is typified in the image of the female praying mantis, an insect capable of killing and eating a male during mating. Roger Caillois, a literary critic associated with the group in the thirties, and interested in the power dynamics of sexual relationships, published two articles on the praying mantis in the Surrealist journal Minotaure. [16] The Surrealists’ fascination with this female insect highlights their understanding of violence as intimately linked with sex.

There are many pictorial images of the praying mantis in Surrealist graphic. [17] Perhaps the most interesting and revealing manifestation of the female praying mantis in Surrealist literature is Simone, the licentious heroine of Georges Bataille’s 1928 Histoire de l’œil, who, along with the narrator, proceeds on a killing spree where murder and sex are intrinsically linked, and which culminates in Simone’s institutionalization. This text, like many of the other Surrealist texts mentioned here, presents a disturbing and, in this instance, pornographic image of female violence. It emphasizes not only the heterosexual nature of violence in Surrealist thought, but Surrealism’s inability to recognize a need for help, or provide any escape from the confines of patriarchal society.



Mansour’s discourse about women and violence challenges the Surrealist discourse, dominated by a narrow vision of women as man-eating criminals or demure femme-enfant muses. By presenting numerous  JOYCE MANSOUR’S SURREALIST ANTI-MUSE 213 examples of female subjects rebelling against social, gender, and sexual norms, Mansour insists on alternative roles for females. Annlaug Bjørsnøs, in her analysis of Mansour’s oeuvre, argues that the state of “permanent revolt” in which the Mansourian subject finds herself over and over again helps dislodge stereotypes like the ones mentioned above. [18]

We first looked at examples of sublimated violence, where Mansour’s feminine subjects subvert, transform, or alter in some way violence directed against them and use it to their own advantage. These examples of sublimation are powerful feminine images. The sublimation of violence into writing, for example, is something that theorist Hélène Cixous advocates: “[…] il faut que la femme écrive la femme” (Cixous 40). She explains that female writing is like soaring over masculine discourse, allowing women to supersede and rewrite the structures and laws of patriarchal society. Mansour writing about Marie, who in turn writes about herself in her diary is a prismatic image of two women writing about women, reflecting and reproducing the important act of female writing.

The images of écriture féminine in Mansour’s poetry can also be violent. We saw from the excerpt from “Pericoloso Sporgersi” a pertinent example. The word “langue” in the fourth line, which can be translated as tongue or language, is stabbing the male antagonist. The image of a dagger-sharp female tongue (or language) attacking the weak and defenseless male character suggests the potential power of female language and feminine writing. Sublimating or metamorphosing violent acts into literature, and depicting the act of female writing as a violent act in itself, are two ways in which Mansour promotes female agency.

The sublimation of violence into dreams is another way of empowering the female subject, as the previous example attests. It is also a way of countering the traditional Surrealist idea of women as merely the objects of male dreams, exemplified by the well-known René Magritte photomontage which depicts the drawing of a naked woman separating the two phrases, “je ne vois pas la” and “cachée dans la forêt,” and framed by the photographs of closed-eyed Surrealist men, insinuating that she is the “hidden” – mysterious or concealed – an of their dreams. [19] Mansour, by allowing her protagonist to dream, establishes her as a subject capable of having her own inner world and thoughts.

The third and final example of sublimation is also important in the Surrealist context. Female sexual pleasure eluded the Surrealists, as the conversation between André Breton, Yves Tanguy, Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prévert and others, published in the 1928 issue of La Révolution surréaliste, attests. Their lack of awareness and complete ignorance concerning the details of the female orgasm is astonishing. [20] Not only does Mansour’s protagonist experience her own sexual pleasure, she is capable of generating it as a byproduct of a violent male attack against her. In these examples, Mansour sublimates male violence into female sexual pleasure, demonstrating a heretofore elusive – within the surrealist discourse – feminine experience and further proving female agency.

Sublimation, however, is not the only way Mansour’s female characters manifest their authority and engage with violence. In the second part of this study we saw the sublimation of violence give way to the realization of violent acts. By acting, these females stop being a victim. Their participation and sometimes instigation of violence allow them to escape the social constraints and abuses of a patriarchal system.

But the patriarchal society reflected in Mansour’s writing leads some feminist critics to question the effectiveness of her social critique. They wonder if the social situations in Mansour’s work were too closely parallel-entrenched gender stereotypes of real life. Xavière Gauthier, in Surréalisme et Sexualité, points out that Mansour does not present alternatives to the dependent wife, the devoted mother, and the subservient daughter roles, all of which reinforce restrictive negative masculine ideas about women. [21] Judith Preckshot, in her article “Identity Crises: Joyce Mansour’s Narratives,” agrees that Mansour does not portray a positive image of these traditional female roles. [22] Mansour, however, gives less importance to the roles themselves, highlighting instead the methods used to challenge them. Using violence to act outside of social norms, Mansour’s female protagonists not only contest the limitations of patriarchal society, they attack Surrealism’s limited idea of woman as a heterosexual, exotic femme fatale. Symbolized by the praying mantis, the dangerous Surrealist female commits crimes mostly against male lovers, and is usually depicted in an eroticized way. Mansourian violence, on the contrary, affects men, women, children, peripheral figures like the homeless and mentally ill, and also her half-animal half-human characters. Mansour gives a voice to these otherwise powerless members of society, something that historical Surrealism never did. Despite the ever-present violence, Mansour never normalizes it. She may undermine it or subvert its meaning, but she does not eliminate the horror and scandal it engenders. Her abundant use of black humor, on the contrary, propels the reader to carefully reflect on its meaning and social consequences. Mansourian violence and the resulting “permanent revolt” of her female characters provide women with an otherwise inaccessible strength, allowing them to be subjects in their own right, and giving them an important place as social beings of power and authority.


1 Mansour, Joyce, Prose & Poésie – OEuvre Complète, Paris: Actes Sud, 1991, [PP].

2 Missir, Marie Laure, Joyce Mansour: Une étrange demoiselle, Paris: Place, 2005.

3 Roudinesco, Elisabeth, Histoire de la psychanalyse en France. 2, 1925-1985, Paris: Fayard, 1994; Eburne, Jonathan P., Surrealism and the Art of Crime, Ithaca: Cornell U.P., 2008.

4 See Louis Aragon’s poetic notes in support of Berton on La Révolution Surréaliste, no 1, Paris: Gallimard, 1924; also Mark, Polizzotti, Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton, New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1995.

5 See the collection of poems and drawings published by the Surrealists in 1933 entitled Violette Nozière: poèmes, dessins, correspondance, documents, Paris: Terrain Vague, 1991. For a detailed account of the crime and trial, including the Surrealists’ reaction, see Laura Maza, Violette Nozière: A Story of Murder in 1930s Paris, Berkeley: California U.P., 2011.

6 Suleiman, Susan Rubin, Subversive Intent: Gender, Politics, and the Avant-Garde, Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1990.

7 Cottenet-Hage, Madeleine, Gisèle Prassinos ou le désir du lieu intime, Paris: J.-M. Place, 1988.

8 Oppenheim, Meret, with Robert J. Belton, “Androgyny: Interview with Meret Oppenheim,” Surrealism and Women, Caws, Mary Ann, Rudolf E. Kuenzli and Gwen Raaberg, eds. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1991.

9 Some examples are Leonora Carrington, partner of Max Ernst, Remedios Varo, wife of Benjamin Péret, and Lee Miller, Man Ray’s lover and apprentice.

10 See Rosemary Sullivan, Villa Air-Bel, New York: Harper Collins, 2006, for an account of the persecution of artists and their flight from France during WWII.

11 Bosquet, Alain, “Une innocence monstrueuse,” Le Figaro littéraire, 24 juin 1991.

12 Caron, Stéphanie, Réinventer le lyrisme: Le Surréalisme de Joyce Mansour, Geneva: Librairie Droz S.A., 2007.

13 Cixous, Hélène, “Le Rire de la méduse,” L’Arc, 61 (1975).

14 Rose, Marilyn Gaddis, Introduction, Birds of Prey, by Joyce Mansour, Trans. Albert Herzing, New York: Perivale.

15 Breton, André, dir. & préface, Anthologie de l’humour noir, Paris: Jean-Jacques

Pauvert, 1972.

16 Caillois, Roger, “La Mante religieuse,” Le Minotaure, (1934) : 23-26; “Mimétisme et psychasténie légendaire, ” Le Minotaure, (1935).

17 See Ruth Markus, “Surrealism’s Praying Mantis and Castrating Woman,” Woman’s Art Journal, 21.1 (2000).

18 Bjørsnøs, Annlaug, Jumelés par l’angoisse, séparés par l’extase: une analyse de l’œuvre poétique de Joyce Mansour, Paris: Société Nouvelle Didier Erudition, 1998.

19 Magritte, René, cover photomontage, La Révolution surréaliste, no 12, December, 1929.

20 See “Recherches sur la sexualité,” La Révolution surréaliste, no 11, March 1928.

21 Gauthier, Xavière, Surréalisme et Sexualité, Paris: Gallimard, 1971.

22 Preckshot, Judith, “Identity Crises: Joyce Mansour’s Narratives,” Surrealism and Women, Caws, Mary Ann et al. eds..

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