No, I will follow the wake in the air, the trail on the water, the mirage in the pupil . . . I wish to hunt myself down, to struggle with myself.
Claude Cahun, Disavowals
The first time I saw a photograph of Claude Cahun, I was reading the London Review of Books on a plane, and I mistook the woman in the photograph for Kathy Acker. It was the shaved head, the full mouth, the “go fuck yourself” look in the eye. As a teenage girl, I had collected all the Grove paperbacks of Acker’s novels, each featuring a different author portrait on the cover, but all with the same stance, the same attitude. All leather boots and red lipstick, a punch to your face and a hand down your pants.
My first introduction, then, was conflation. The Cahun version of Acker had the shaved head, but angled to look frail and sickly, near death, a pre-Holocaust vision of the Auschwitz survivor. And yet a defiant lip, a gaze too furious to meet the camera directly. The power of it, the shock of it. And yet the first thing I thought was All of us girls have been dead for so long. But we’re not going to be anymore, a line from Acker’s Pussycat Fever. It may as well have been captioned in red lipstick underneath.
Cahun was like Acker’s sexless twin, because while there was the same aspect of performance and identity- and gender-fucking, and the use of the body to convey a message, Cahun’s body remained closed off in her photos. It was like the picture of her dolled up in a grotesquerie of the coquette, a message scrawled on her chest that says, “I am in Training. Don’t Kiss Me.” All of her work gave off that message, the gendered, but not sexed, display.
Maybe there’s something, then, to the fact that I found Acker as a virgin and Cahun in the throes of my slut days. Here is something else you could do, they suggest.
Koestler theorized there was a special department of divine providence that ensured the intersection of the right person and the right book. When I was fifteen, the gods sent me Kathy Acker’s Pussycat Fever. I prefer to think of it as a divine act, because it was such an unlikely intersection for a teenage girl in rural Kansas, in a town without a bookstore, in a home without the Internet, in a school without one of those kindly mentors who see the child’s potential despite her raised-by-wire-monkeys attitude and take her under a protective wing and feed her intellectually and emotionally I am always seeing in movies and television. But I have always believed in the gods, and the gods have always expressed themselves to me with books.
So at fifteen I came across a review of Kathy Acker’s Pussycat Fever in a magazine called huH, which I think existed for approximately eight issues. Angelic choruses, unconscious drives, I don’t know, for whatever reason because of a four-paragraph review, I sent a SASE to AK Press distro, requesting their catalog. When it came I circled the items that I wanted, including the Kathy Acker book. I counted up money from my after-school job at my father’s pharmacy and purchased a money order at the local credit union and mailed it. In return, a large stack of books that rewired my brain arrived in Lincoln, Kansas.
I was ready for these books. I had filled up on the Brontës. I had experimented in self-harm. I had decided that there was no way forward for me, that I probably was not going to make it. And then Kathy Acker arrived. To say, here is something else you could do.
Not that she offered a cheery view of the world. Her stories are not stories of rosy recovery and spiritual awakenings and gentle lovemaking on a yoga mat. That wouldn’t have connected. I didn’t know how to enter the world as this bloodied, carved-up, traumatized amphibious creature. I didn’t know we were allowed in, because I didn’t have access to those stories. Acker’s books, violent and sexual and profane and wonderful, those books knew me. Knew the bilious contents of my head and said yeah, over here too. Said that being alive and aware is yes, the worst thing ever. But death is too easy, too predictable. Put down the knife, honey. Or at least turn it on someone else.
When someone says a song or a book or a poem saved their life, this is what they mean:
it took me out of my brain for the one second needed to get back onto the planet
it shot out a spark into the distance that I could then build a path toward
it opened something up in my imagination
Because suicide is the result of the death of the imagination. You forget how to dream up other possible futures. You can’t picture new maneuvers, new ways around. Everything is just the catastrophic present and there will never be a time this is not so. That is what kills you.
What saves you is a new story to tell yourself about how things could be.
I was wrong about Claude Cahun, because she was not the solitary genius creating brilliant self-portraits that somehow captured the entirety of the soul of the twentieth-century individual that I had assumed she was. Had I stopped to think about it for a second, I guess it would have made sense to ask, Who physically took the pictures? If Cahun is both the model and the artist, who is it actually pressing that little button on the camera?
Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore were stepsisters, collaborators, lovers. They had met as teenage girls and became sisters when their parents married. By then they had already fallen in love, which did much to vex their family. Claude and Marcel were originally Lucy and Suzanne, but the androgyny suits the work better and it suits the people in the photographs better. Claude had been taking pictures of herself, experimenting with identity and gender and body, from a young age, but she thought of herself primarily as a writer. In Paris they worked together on the page and in the theater, with Claude as the flamboyant center of attention and Marcel always a little off to the side, drawing.
They moved to Jersey Island in 1937, leaving behind the surrealists and avant-garde of Paris. They remembered Jersey from childhood holidays, and maybe Jersey seemed like an escape from the madness of a Europe crawling toward war. The war and the madness would follow them. Perhaps it was also an escape from their peers. Androgynous or not, they were still women in an artists’ clique tightly controlled by André Breton, and fellow surrealist outcast Leonor Fini reports that women who wanted to think and create, rather than just model and nod heads, were not welcome in Breton’s gang. Or maybe it was just that shoreline, which sticks in your throat and makes you want to walk into the sea arms outstretched. Why meditate and fast to reach your ecstatic state when all you have to do is look out your window?
Cahun and Moore came to Jersey Island, and here they took photographs in their garden and on the shore. Cahun in front of the camera, Moore behind the camera. But: collaborating. The ideas bloomed in the space between these two women. And those ideas were recorded on film, allowing us to see them years later, despite the photographers’ lack of interest in posterity.
I have rented a little room in a little house with a window that looks out to sea. The room receives no direct sunlight, and the cold sea air blows in and it is freezing despite the Indian summer. The woman who runs the place, tall, imposing, sings Whitney Houston songs around the house in the voice of a turkey that was taught human speech and is now being stabbed to death, does not care and refuses my requests for a space heater or at least an extra blanket. I must warm myself with scotch.
And anyway, it’s worth it, I tell myself as I start putting on all the clothing from my suitcase the moment I wake up. I walk outside and I am under the hot sun. Two blocks and I am at the sea. At low tide it looks like an alien landscape, with sharp rock structures revealed and the strange coils of the remnants of lugworms dotting the sand. And at high tide it is crashing and roiling and all drama-queen natural beauty. I suddenly want it to be autumn so I can walk along here with an oversized cardigan, drinking hot coffee spiked with whiskey while the wind blows the salty mists through my hair, also then if it were autumn maybe they would turn the heat on in my room.
It is a two-mile walk from the little house into St. Helier, and then a bus to get to where Cahun and Moore lived. But at least the walk can mostly be done along the shore, so I don’t mind. The beaches on this side of the island are quiet, and there is almost never anyone at the market. Outside my window, magpies play at destruction. Three of them land on the roof and start tugging at the shingles with their beaks. They do not seem to be trying to get at something under the rooftiles, they are simply being willful little hooligans. They manage to pry one off and toss it around between them, before flying off with their wicked cackles.
And I mean, it’s kind of a great story. That’s part of why I am here, for the story. Here are these two middle-aged lesbian artists hanging out on an island, and then here come the Nazis. And these two women, instead of just keeping their heads down or trying to rally the inhabitants of the island to revolt, they decide they’ll go after the Germans themselves. Not all of the Germans can be rabid Nazis, they think. They write hundreds of leaflets in German — which apparently they don’t speak so much, as I discover when I start to translate the surviving documents with a Berlin friend over Skype: “They write German like you write German,” she tells me — in the voice of a German soldier, der Soldat ohne Namen, who urges his comrades to mutiny.
Being skilled pickpockets and socially invisible, they slip the propaganda into the pockets of the occupiers. They write letters as the ghosts of dead soldiers. They particularly like pamphletting the funerals of dead German soldiers, writing in the voice of the recently deceased. Their house is right next to the cemetery, and yet no one suspects them. They dress up in costumes and take on new identities to sneak around the island. They try to wake up the Germans to what they are really doing and how this will all end badly. Some Germans start to desert and disappear off the island.
The Germans in charge start to get nervous. They figure that this must be a well-organized movement of dozens of people. And not, you know, two ladies who live by the sea. The Germans start searching for this resistance movement, and meanwhile the two ladies sit and write their propaganda: The Allies are making headway, Berlin is burning, there is no hope for you, get out while you can. They get away with this for four years.
And then they are arrested and sentenced to death.
The thing I can’t figure out is why this story is not more often told. When I mention Cahun to associates, their eyes are blank. When I start to tell this story, the story of what she and Moore did during the war, they lean forward and get excited. “But that is amazing, why have I never heard of her?” I can’t figure it out. I wonder, if she painted harmless little watercolors of the sea, maybe she would have her own Spielberg biopic by now. He could turn her straight, or Moore would be Sister, not Lover. A heroic woman standing up to bullies? While her own peers collaborate or at least turn a blind eye to the occupying force in Paris? (There is Coco Chanel’s German lover, there is Jean Cocteau’s kind words about Hitler’s friends, there is Gertrude Stein being an unbelievable fucking monster.) Surely there is an American actress ready to accept the Oscar just waiting for this role.
Or maybe it’s that Cahun is a cipher, her inner world a mystery to us. What we know of her is her outer self, these pictures where she’s playing hide-and-seek with the camera. And for a story to travel, it needs to be relatable. People need to imagine they can step into that place, occupy the narrative. Genius trans-everything lesbian outsider approximately a hundred years ahead of her time with an inexhaustible source of compassion and courage . . . No one is going to read that and say, Oh yes, just like myself.
But also, treating German Nazi soldiers as if they have the potential for compassion and rational thought, no one wants to watch that.
I walk into St. Helier, taking the route around the castle, to meet with Louise Downey, the Jersey Heritage’s art curator. I’ve seen the island’s collection. It is some nice society portraits, a few striking Victor Hugos from his time spent here in exile, and then the exploding weirdness of Claude Cahun. Here her face is gold, here her body is painted. Here her face is replaced by flowers. Here her body is emaciated and curling. Here it is folded to fit into the drawer of a cupboard. Here she is a man, here she is a young girl. Here she is a god.
“They were thought eccentric,” Louise tells me, referring to everyone else on the island. It wasn’t the lesbian thing. “They were thought to be sisters more than lovers.” But they would walk their cats on leashes, they invited artists over to the island for parties. No one really knew about the photographs, except the shop that developed the negatives. They kept to themselves.
She uses the word sisters to describe the couple so frequently that I am beginning to wonder if I made up the lesbian thing in my head. I say lovers, she responds with sisters. In the museum’s collection, the materials refer to them as “The Surrealist Sisters.” Even the little booklet I picked up about the German war cemetery uses the word sisters. It’s not something I can account for easily, as downstairs from the Cahun collection the museum has in its historical section the tuxedos of the first gay couple to be legally married on the island. I can’t point a finger and scream HOMOPHOBIA. Perhaps it’s the combination of stepsisters and lovers, that incestuous whirl. Maybe they had to choose one, and the sisters thing has a paper trail and is more difficult to deny. But as emotionally tied in to one another as they were, it’s a nasty bit of erasing.
“And then of course,” she continues, “it was someone from the island who turned them in to the Nazis. We think. It would make sense if it was someone from the stationery shop. They wrote their propaganda on this very thin paper . . .” Her voice trails off, and I can imagine the rest.
We drink our coffee out in the glorious sun, and I ask her if Cahun is very popular at the museum. “Oh yes,” she says, rattling off the major city museums that have requested loans of her materials. That’s not what I mean. I mean, with the visitors. She pauses and looks into her coffee. “We have people who come specifically to see her work, like yourself. But the people who come to Jersey for vacation are not the type of people who would be generally interested in her work.” She circles around the implication, that even fifty years on she’s still the wild one, that after Cindy Sherman is turned into postcards and even my parents have seen the Marina Abramovic documentary, Cahun has not been incorporated.
The ugly, if popular enough, becomes beautiful. The shocking becomes mundane. As much as I want to keep these photographs covered, to protect them from familiarity, from that yawn of recognition when we see a van Gogh, from all of those Jersey Islanders who somehow don’t spend every minute of the day on their knees, arms lifted in a hallelujah to that shoreline, I also want to protect her from the academy, the only place where she seems to be recognized at the moment. When I try to research her life and work, I get an eyeful of links to academic journals, thousands and thousands of words written by gender theorists. But god save us all from identity politics. Cahun was exploding her identity, not defining it.
Cahun still inspires revulsion, and perhaps that is why I can’t stop looking at her. I want to give her image to every teenage girl taking selfie after selfie, trying desperately to convince herself she is not ugly, every teenage girl wanting to take a knife to the source of the image. Trying to find the one angle they won’t recognize themselves in, so they can sneak up on themselves as if for the first time and see their own face through a different lens from disgust. Yes, I want to say. But here is something else you can do.
Excerpted from The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries by Jessa Crispin. Copyright (c) 2015 by Jessa Crispin. Reprinted with permission of The University of Chicago Press Books.