The Hundred Headless Woman

The Hundred Headless Woman

by Max Ernst

ISBN: 9780486819112

Publisher Dover Publications

Published in Comics & Graphic Novels/Art of Comics and Manga, Arts & Photography/Graphic Design

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The splendid illustrations of novels and children's books like Rocambole or Costal the Indian, intended for persons who can scarcely read, are among the few things capable of moving to tears those who can say they have read everything. This road to knowledge, which tends to substitute the most forbidding, mirageless desert for the most astonishing virgin-forest, is not, unhappily, of the sort that permits retreat. The most we can hope for is to peek into some old gilt-edged volume, some pages with turned-down corners (as if we were only allowed to find the magician's hat), sparkling or somber pages that miglit reveal better than all else the special nature of our dreams, the elective reality of our love, the manner of our life's incomparable unwinding. And if such is the way a soul is formed, how would one view the ordinary simple soul that is daily formed by sight and sound rather than texts, that needs the massive shock of the sight of blood, the ceremonious blacks and whites, the ninety-degree angle of spring light, the miracles found in trash, the popular songs; of that candid soul that vibrates in millions and that on the day of revolution, and just because of that simple candor, will carve its true emblems in the unalterable colors of its own exaltation. These colors that are all we want to remember of the anthems, golden chalices, gunfire, waving plumes and banners, even when they are absent from these pages, pages forming a luminous bouquet above a far-away phrase ("Shoking cried: Peace, Sultan!" or "His half-open coat disclosed a lamp hanging from his neck" or "All seized their swords in the same instant") suspended from a phrase waking the echoes of the passé definí — for some reason ever more mysterious — are, for better or worse, from birth to death, the colors that dye our enchantment and our fear. Spoken or written language cannot describe an event in the way it brings about the highly suggestive and furtive displacements of animate or inanimate beings, and it is patently evident that one can't give even a hint of a character while trying to lend him some interest without revealing his full portrait. How not to deplore then the fact that until now only rather flat adventure stories have been the object of the kind of inquiry that occupies us here, and that even now most of the artists charged with giving greater value to tales which, without their intervention would remain ephemeral, have not hesitated to deflect attention from that which occurs by the author's intention and instead bring it to focus on their "style"? Thus one can proclaim the genius of those anonymous illustrators of The Chronicle of the Duke Ernst and Fantômas in their wholehearted submission to the faintest caprices of a text or their enthusiastic search for the tone to which a work aspires.

It remained to examine these grid-covered pages, out of a thousand old books with all kinds of titles, of forgotten identity — by which I mean that they are no longer read. These illustrations, unlike the impossibly boring texts they refer to, represent for us a plethora of such disconcerting conjectures that they become precious in themselves, as is the meticulous reconstruction of a crime witnessed in a dream, without our being in the least concerned with the name or motives of the assassin. Many of these pictures, full of an agitation all the more extraordinary for its cause being unknown to us — and the case is the same with diagrams from, say, some technical work, providing we know nothing of it — give an illusion of veritable slits in time, space, customs and even beliefs, wherein there is not one element that isn't finally a risk, and whose use, to fulfill even the elastic conditions of verisimilitude, would be unthinkable for any other purpose: this man with white beard coming out of a house holding a lantern, if I cover the rest with my hand, might find himself face to face with a winged lion; if I cover his lantern he might just as easily, thus posed, drop stars or stones to the ground. Superposition, if I am not careful, and even if I am, operates moreover, if not strictly speaking before our eyes, at least very objectively and in a continuous manner. This marvelous array, that skips pages as a little girl skips rope or traces a magic circle to use as a hoop, roams day and night the warehouse where all those things we involuntarily accept or reject are stored in the greatest disorder. Each one's special truth is a game of solitaire in which he must quickly choose his cards from among all the others and without ever having seen them before.

Everything that has been written about, described, called fake, doubtful, or true, and above all, pictured, has a singular power to touch us: it is clear that we can't possess it all and so desire it all the more. The wisest of men tends to play with some grave science or other almost as with the evanescent images of a flickering fireplace. History itself, with the childish impressions that it leaves in our minds — more likely of Charles VI or Geneviève de Brabant than of Mary Stuart or Louis XIV — history falls outside like snow.

One awaited a book that would take into account the drastic exaggeration of those salient lines emphasized by the attenuation of all the others, a book whose author had the drive needed to bring him to the top of the precipice of indifference where a statue is far less interesting on its pedestal than in a pit, where an aurora borealis reproduced in the magazine Nature is less beautiful than in any unexpected elsewhere. Surreality will be, moreover, the means of our wish for total evasion (and it is understood that one can go so far in dislocating a hand from its arm that the hand thereby becomes increasingly hand, and also that in speaking of evasion we are not only referring to space). We awaited a book that avoids all parallels with other books aside from their mutual use of ink and type, as if there were the slightest need, in making a statue appear in a pit, to be the sculptor! I would add, besides, that in order to be truly displaced, the statue had to have once lived a conventional statue-life in a conventional statue-place. The entire value of such an enterprise — and perhaps of all artistic enterprise — seems to me a question of choice, of audacity and of the success, by one's power of appropriation, of certain transformations. One awaited a book that refused at once the mysterious, the troubled qualities of many universes that are similar by virtue only of a rather meaningless physio-moral principle and are, to say the least, undesirable in any sense of grandeur (let's take a bottle: they immediately think we are about to drink, but no, it is empty, corked, and bobbing on the waves; now they've got it: it is the bottle on the sea, and so on). Everything has a use other than the one generally attributed to it. It is even out of the conscious sacrifice of their primary usage (to manipulate an object for the first time not knowing what is or was its use) that certain transcendent properties can be deduced, properties that belong to another given or possible world where, for example, an axe can be taken for a sunset, where the virtual elements are not even admissible (I imagine a phantom at a crossroads consulting the road sign), where the migratory instinct usually attributed to birds, encompasses autumn leaves, where former lives, actual lives, future lives melt together into one life; the life utterly depersonalized (what a pity for the painters: never to be able to make more than one or two heads; and the novelists! Only human beings do not resemble each other). One awaited, finally, The Hundred Headless Woman because one knew that in our day Max Ernst is the only one to have severely refused those considerations that for other artists refer to "form," in regard to which all compliance leads to chanting the idiotic hymn of the "three apples" perpetrated, in the final analysis, all the more grotesquely for their manners, by Cézanne and Renoir. Because one knew that Max Ernst was not the man to draw back from anything that might widen the modern field of vision and provoke the innumerable illusions of true recognition that we alone must choose to see in the future and in the past. Because one knew that Max Ernst's is the most magnificently haunted brain of our day, by that I mean the one that knows it is not enough to send a new boat into the world, even a pirate ship, but instead to build the ark and in such a way that, this time, it is not the dove that returns, but the raven.

The Hundred Headless Woman will be preeminently the picture book of our day, wherein it will be more and more apparent that every living room has gone "to the bottom of a lake" with, we must point out, its chandeliers of fishes, its gilded stars, its dancing grasses, its mud bottom and its raiment of reflections. Such is our idea of progress that, on the eve of 1930, we are glad and impatient, for once, to see children's eyes, filled with the ineffable, open like butterflies on the edge of this lake while, for their amazement and our own, fall the black lace masks that covered the first hundred faces of the enchantress.

1929 — André Breton (Translation by Dorothea Tanning)

To Max

Here is La Femme 100 Têtes, The Hundred Headless Woman, rendered into English. I know you would be glad to see it brought, with its trail of dazzling light, and dark, to all those who never saw it before. That means a whole world full of new people. They will make an intoxicating discovery of surreal experience which, contrary to the general notion that surreal rhymes with dream, will reveal a quite undreamlike toughness of muscle, a tide of metaphor incised like the engraver's lines on our copper days and noisy nights; an experience that will whip the mind into a shape of resistance to our human quagmire.

When I first saw The Hundred Headless Woman I was not prepared for such a banquet. It took several meetings to savor it fully and even now there is no use pretending that I have plumbed it all.

As Loplop, Bird-Superior, you hatched her in Paris in 1927. "Perturbation, my sister," "she keeps her secret," "the torpid train," are talismanic phrases that chart the gazer's progress through this easy, liberated world where everything is possible.

The Hundred Headless Woman has a hundred heads and no head at all, and we are certain that nothing could be more fitting. Levitation is the order of the day. She knows no boundaries, no gravity, no laws. I see her in the turmoil of phenomenal rooms and tangled silences, or out there in the vastness with you and the other comets, crossing the sky, on friendly terms with the universe. Alas, we cannot join you. But we can guess at your course.


Excerpted from "The Hundred Headless Woman" by Max Ernst. Copyright © 2013 by Max Ernst. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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