Max Ernst (1891–1976) was a Surrealist by birth. In the pattern of a mahogany panel in his boyhood bedroom, he saw a “huge bird’s head with thick black hair.” Bedridden with the measles, he had a fever dream in which “two children are threatened by a nightingale,” a hallucination that would inspire his 1924 painting of the same name. When the birth of his sister coincided with the death of his cherished cockatoo, correlation, in the logic of the unconscious, became causality: “birds and humans got dangerously mixed up and confused in my mind,” he recalled years later. (Birds haunted Ernst’s imagination; like the crows massing on the jungle gym in Hitchcock’s thriller, they’re a brooding presence in numerous works.)
The dreamlike conjunction — the fusion or juxtaposition of unlike elements whose collision makes perfect sense, in a free-associated way—turned the ignition key of the Surrealist imagination. Nowhere is this device employed with greater mastery than in Ernst’s trailblazing “collage novels.” Black bibles of blasphemy and depravity, they’ve influenced artists as disparate as Wilfried Sätty, known for his psychedelic posters in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and Edward Gorey, whose sensibility is steeped in Surrealism (though with a camp-Gothic twist) and whose hand-drawn “engravings” reference the 19th-century illustrations that were Ernst’s source material.
The best-known of the collage novels, Une Semaine de Bonté (“A Week of Kindness”) (1934), has been available to English-language readers since Dover published it in English in 1976, but English editions of the other two, La Femme 100 Têtes (“The Hundred Headless Woman”) (1929) and Rêve d’une Petite Fille Qui Voulut Entrer au Carmel (“A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil”) (1930), haven’t been reprinted since George Braziller issued them in ’81 and ’82. Now, after renewed negotiations with the Ernst estate, Dover has brought La Femme and Petite Fille back into print in compact editions, with translations by Ernst’s wife Dorothea Tanning, a noted Surrealist painter in her own right.
More than three-quarters of a century on, the collage novels still cast an unsettling spell, plunging us into a gaslit Victorian underworld of the unconscious, part magic lantern show, part séance, all Freudian uncanny. Armed with scissors and glue, Ernst performed meticulous surgery on 19th-century engravings— illustrations from Gothic romances, penny dreadfuls, mail order catalogues, and scientific texts — to create disquieting tableaux. Marrying hallucinatory visions to hard-edged realism, true crime horror to black humor, they flicker in the mind’s eye like scenes from a silent movie — a melodrama based on Jack the Ripper’s dream journal, perhaps.
Even now, after countless knockoffs in ads and album-cover art, Ernst’s collage novels pack a wallop. “They are still sinister, disturbing, and marvelous in their unrelenting power of suggestion,” Robert Hughes observes, in The Shock of the New. “The peculiarity of Ernst’s world never lets up or lapses into cliché, and its apparitions are always suddenly there, as if stumbled on.”
By no coincidence, birds and birdmen proliferate in all three books: a bird-headed pope prophesies doom in A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil (“Baldness awaits you, my child … ”); a man-sized eagle “speculates on the vanity of the dead” in The Hundred Headless Woman; in A Week of Kindness, rooster men run amok, desecrating tombs; exult over victims in puddles of gore; hang themselves from four-poster beds. Ernst’s alter ego, “Loplop, Superior of the Birds,” was a mysterious birdman, poetic and portentous. In The Hundred Headless Woman, he plays a supporting role to the titular deity, a plenipotentiary from an avian planet.
Hughes reads A Week of Kindness and its companion volumes as mordant satires of the piety and stuffy respectability of the artist’s turn-of-the-century childhood. As Freudian readings go, it’s as good as any, but it forgets the books’ historical backdrop. Late Victorian pulp fictions are the stuff Ernst’s dreams are made of, but their true subject is the lengthening shadow of the Nazi nightmare. Ernst composed Kindness in 1933, the year Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, the year the Nazis abolished a slew of civil liberties and rounded up the political opposition, the year they led a boycott of all Jewish-owned businesses and expelled all “non-Aryans” from the legal profession, the year they staged public book burnings and legalized eugenic sterilization. Branded a “degenerate” artist by the Nazis, Ernst fled France for New York in ’41 with the Gestapo on his heels. In that context, the ironically titled Week of Kindness, with its lion-headed men brandishing guillotined heads and savagely caning cowering women, looks less like Hughes’s “revenge on childhood repression” and more like a premonition of the Nazi terror.
Perhaps Ernst has a message for our moment, too. Drawing back the stage curtains of the unconscious, he shows us a world where laws are flouted and norms are trashed, where senseless violence is rampant and the id has the upper hand. Is his absurdist horror show so different from Trump’s America, where a rage-tweeting troll sustained by fulsome praise and Diet Coke is our Ubu Roi? The severed heads casually dumped in the gutters of Ernst’s streets; the frantic-looking chap fleeing the scene with a severed limb strapped to his suitcase (“Open your bag, my good man,” the caption reads); the bearded gent tucking into his soup, oblivious to the roof collapsing around him: Ernst’s images rhyme with the moronic awfulness of our age. Ours is a time when neo-Nazis taunt liberal “snowflakes” by adopting Harambe, the gorilla killed at the Cincinnati Zoo, as an ironic mascot (“Dicks out for Harambe”); conspiracy-addled leftists swell the ranks of the 9/11 truther and anti-vaxxer brigades; and the far-right Twittersphere weaponizes memes like #PizzaGate to troll the “shitlib” media and enflame the lunatic fringe. “Those … who are merry sometimes turn their behinds toward the sky and cast their excrement in the face of other men,” proclaims the epigraph to A Week of Kindness‘s “Thursday” chapter. It reads, in the light of recent events, like a mission statement for trolls.
The only sane reaction to the waking nightmare of our times is mordant laughter — a kind of post-traumatic hilarity. Of course, Ernst got there first: Thursday’s reigning “element,” in his occult symbolism, is “blackness”; its first example, “the rooster’s laughter.”
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