Citizen Czech, or, the Dialectics of Genderlessness in Czech Surrealism

Malynne Sternstein, University of Chicago

In 1923 at the age of twenty-one, the painter Marie Cermimová was reborn in a café in Prague. She left the building as Toyen. Karel Teige, her cohort and friend from 1923 and throughout the surrealist days of the 1930s wrote of the moment: “we christened her at a café table within a pseudonym as indeclinable as her art.” The mythologies around her very un-Czech name also point out its Francophone core. Citoyen, some speculated, was the full reference the enigmatic Toyen invokes. In that anarchic moment of naming, the avant-garde created a Toyen – out of a subject inscribed in symbolic language, they forged a citizen of the real as it seethed irresistibly in her art.

More than a protest against grammar, and much more than a metaphorical serendipity, the transformation of Cerminova to Toyen created a new rule of identity beyond gender, but within sexuality. As Teige notes, her new identity was indeclinable–masculine perhaps in modifiers, but, posing the incorrigible problem of a word referring conceptually (signatum) to a sexual female with a symbolically masculine mantel (signans), nominally immovable.

If, for the Czech surrealists, gender plays the institutional game, sexuality undoes it. Toyen dressed as a man, spoke like a man, smoked like a man. Toyen refused to marry. With Toyen, Jindrich Styrsky, Karel Teige, Vitezslav Nezval and other Czech Surrealists, including the accomplished psychoanalyst Bohuslav Brouk, made sexuality beyond gender the groundwork of human being-ness and citizenship. In an essay that resonates emotionally and intellectually with the essays of Hermann Broch on kitsch and Kitschmenschen, Brouk accounts for the cleavage in society between the philistines, or prudes, and the pornophiliacs by exposing their identity, with members of both factions indictable by the statement: “People who hide their sexuality despise their innate capacities without being able to rise above them.”

And this sexual knowledge of the self could produce a new society, one based not on the bourgeois institutions of marriage and the home, not on family and marriage (those “canonized forms of prostitution; mechanisms for the murder of revolt and love; mechanisms for the production of spiritual wretchedness”) but on the erotic and political individual, capable of fully experiencing bliss.

In this paper I argue that the Czech surrealists’ gesture to desexualize social politics and to politicize sexual society pivots on the dialectical paradox, the negation of the negation if you will, constitutive in the degendering of the social subject. Taking away the subject’s social identification as man or woman results in the cannily uncanny (hyper-)sexualization of the subject. Removing gender bequeaths sexuality, and the thus dialecticized and sexualized subject becomes the ideal citizen of Czech Surrealist revolutionary society. Not a rejection of the female, or the male, or their conglomerate in montage, for that matter, Czech surrealist art cancels the feminine and the masculine. It exposes legs in fishnets supporting a packaged ham (Styrsky), it whispers about floating corsets in primeval forests (Toyen), it mechanizes the sacred nude (Teige). Prefiguring Jacques Lacan’s famous work on sexuality and on woman, Czech surrealist art places veils in the desert, hiding the full social non-existence of woman.

Indeed, the democratic government of the First Republic in a large scale industrialization and a boost in production needed women workers and so had staked its claim on reform, promising increased rights for women and a rehaul of outmoded and chauvinistic cultural norms around marriage and wife ‘ownership’. Yet the Czech avant-garde, coalescing in the 1930s as the Czech surrealist movement, reproached the democratic government of the First Republic for promising reform and equality, but delivering in rhetoric only: “…working class women […] know that in spite of all the laws that gave them voting rights, marriage reform, etc., a woman is still a servant in her home, debilitated by household chores, tied to the kitchen and the children’s room, exploited and drained by grotesquely sterile, picayune, irritating, and exhausting work.” The new Czech healthy society is one that is inspired by the great unifying and creative potential of human sexuality and the productive individual, not of gendered chores. Such a social unification rests on true equality between men and women not as gendered subjects, but as sexual ones.

This is all to say that the Czech surrealists, in a commitment to socialist ideals and ideologies, engender a new citizenship for a new society, one that reveals itself in the rejection of gender as a right and rite of full subjectivity. The Czech surrealists look to forge new citizenship not by equating subjects sexually, or even in indulging in aesthetic sexual bliss, as the French surrealists may be said to have done, but in de-gendering subjects to ‘christen’ them as fully sexualized beings. To paraphrase the concerns of this volume, the politicized de-gendering at the center of the Czech avant-garde is itself a significant, if not the most significant way the avant-garde’s text of selfhood attempts to “institute ideal or alternative speech communities, most notably in their forms of address.”