From Fantômas to the murderous delirium of the Papin Sisters, the criminal imaginary of modern Paris formed the basic cultural material from which the surrealist movement first stitched together its political and intellectual priorities. The surrealists established many of the basic coordinates of their poetic universe according to the images of violence and atrocity that formed the dramatic and often documentary core of modern popular culture. Ardent readers of the press and active consumers of popular culture, the poets and artists of the surrealist movement were also champions of real-life killers, particularly women: this included the anarchist Germaine Berton, who gunned down the managing editor of the reactionary right-wing newspaper L’Action Française in 1923, as well as the patricide Violette Nozière, who poisoned her father in 1933 in retaliation, she claimed, for a lifetime of sexual abuse. Such figures were criminalized by the popular press, yet for many surrealists their violent acts were counterstrikes against pervasive structural violence, which the surrealist group extended to colonialism, bourgeois morality, and, most of all, the rise of right-wing nationalism in Western Europe. Understanding crime—and distinguishing systematic violence from sudden, perverse outbursts— was fundamental to the surrealist movement’s responses to pressing political and intellectual events of the twentieth century.
Jonathan P. Eburne teaches at the Pennsylvania State University (USA), where he is Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French and Francophone Studies. He is the author, most recently, of Outsider Theory (2018), which received the James Russell Lowell Prize from the Modern Language Association in 2020, and is completing a new book titled The Great Surrealist Bargain Basement.
Image: Man Ray (uncredited), Cover photograph for Violette Nozières (1933)