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Sertraline Surrealism: After Claude Cahun by Juliet Jacques

Juliet Jacques 2 November 2016

Image for blog post entitled <i>Sertraline Surrealism: After Claude Cahun</i> by Juliet Jacques

Sertraline Surrealism: After Claude Cahun is a short prose piece by Trans: A Memoir author Juliet Jacques, commissioned by Daniela Cascella and Natasha Soobramanien for Smarginature.

is a series of events this Autumn 2016 at Lydgalleriet in Bergen, Norway, with accompanying work online. Aimed at everyone interested in exploring the ways in which language and languages can elude definitions and trespass boundaries, the project is inspired by Elena Ferrante’s use of the Italian term ‘smarginature’, translated into English by Ann Goldstein as ‘dissolving boundaries’. The works and events in this series confront the question of fixing meaning in language, and reflect on Ferrante’s use of the word as technical printing term (‘outside of the margins’).

Jacques explores the dissolving of boundaries in a lively and detailed re-telling of her lucid dreams in the text. The boundary between narratives dissolve just as those between Jacques’ real-life and dreamt encounters borne out of her experiences with antidepressants. The boundary between author and reader dissolve in the raw intimacy of her experience as it is read.

Image: Claude Cahun, detail from self portrait (Jersey Heritage Collection)

I read somewhere that the Romantic poets ate rotten meat before they went to sleep so that they would have more intense dreams. I can’t remember where – I’m always memorising facts and quotes, but never where I saw them. It might have been in that Hugh Sykes Davies essay, Biology and Surrealism, where he argues that Surrealism, rather than being a bold new movement – or even a fusion of Dada, Freudian psychoanalysis and revolutionary Marxism – Surrealism was actually a continuation of Shelley, Byron, Coleridge and company, rendering it traditional and domestic, but probably not.

It doesn’t matter: I have Sertraline.

‘Abnormal dreams’ are listed as an ‘uncommon [side] effect’: 0.1-1% of users experience them, but I am in that minority. I tried everything to manage my depression – radical politics, psychotherapy, gender reassignment, reading and writing – but nothing shifted it. Aged 34, with my first book – a memoir, which brought catharsis, but also plenty of worries about how to represent myself and the ‘transgender community’ – behind me, I felt I had no option besides SSRIs.

The effect that it would have on me would be revealed within a few weeks. Things that once induced panic now seemed manageable; the futility of life now felt like something I could address creatively, rather than meet with despair. For years, I worried that my mental health issues and artistic impulses were intrinsically linked – a precept fuelled by reading the Romantics with their fixation upon the neglected genius, as well as Breton’s Nadja, René Crevel and other Surrealists, with their celebration of convulsive beauty. But not Claude Cahun: I didn’t hear your name, or that of any Surrealist women who shaped their own worlds, until much later. My anxieties dissipated; I found it was easier to write with a clearer head. But as the drug kicked in, my frantic neural activity manifested itself in sleeping visions, which felt more real than anything in my waking life.


I’m outside the Pitié-Salpêtrière in the 13th arrondisement in Paris. After months of talking online, I’m meeting N. for the first time. N. translates the plaque on Jean-Marie Charcot’s work on hypnosis and hysteria into a language that I understand; I take a moment to think about those women, and what might have driven them into such a condition, before we go into the garden. On a bench sits a blonde woman. A tarot reader shows her cards. I want to see them, but as I get close, the images turn into silver holograms. I request a reading but neither of them pay attention to me, and N. leads me inside the church.

I look for Charcot, but he cannot be found. Hysterical women line along the pews, laughing spasmodically as N. and I walk up the aisle in matching outfits, white shirts with black ties and long, white, laced skirts with petticoats. As we reach the altar and pose for some photographs, they kneel. The statues of saints tell them to demand a cure – from N. and me. The congregation stand and march towards us: N. and I race through the park to a network of abandoned tunnels beneath the hospital. I read the graffiti – Front National slogans and Anti-Fascist stickers – before we come out by a derelict building, its windows smashed.

We enter through a red door with Joyeux noël daubed across it in white paint, and step into the corridor. We see Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, but God has breasts and a penis. S/he touches a naked woman – ‘Adam’? – with his fingertip. They are surrounded by faces that look familiar, but I don’t recognise: maybe they are Artaud, Breton, Péret, Soupault et al. It is dated 3 October 1999, the day I turned eighteen, but it looks like the building was disused long before the end of the 20th century. Didn’t Claude Cahun write that ‘the year 2000’ would be ‘the end of the world’? I remember about the Millennium Bug, which passed without incident, and the apocalyptic events in New York, twenty-one months later, and all that came after.

Next, we see two dining rooms. The one on the left is painted white, the walls bare, its windows barred: this must have been for the patients. The right-hand room is mustard yellow, with Klimt and Courbet on display, the window looking at the park and the hospital in the distance. Both rooms are set up for Christmas dinner, with fine china and cutlery on pristine tablecloths, with crackers and tinsel, but there is nobody in sight.

Unnerved, we return to the corridor. The mural has vanished. Only the date remains: 18 July 2012, the day of my sex reassignment surgery. A stern man with white hair and thick eyebrows grabs me. You do not fit, he says. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me, I reply, before N. asks, I thought you preferred ‘she’ and ‘her’. He lunges at N. I reach for N.’s hand and watch as my companion vanishes into thin air. Your voice is male, he insists. How do you know? He strips me, and then forces a needle into my left breast. As a group of men – medics or psychiatrists – rush through the door and drag me out, I wake, sweating.


ME: That dream. It’s not real.
N: Of course it’s not. The symbolism is too convenient.

ME: No, I mean, it actually happened.
N: Nonsense.

ME: You took me to the Salpêtrière and told me about Charcot. Last autumn. It was a dream- like experience, sure, but we did go to the hospital and the church, and through those tunnels to that abandoned building.
N: Maybe so, but I’m a composite of several of your friends, you’ve changed lots of the details and none of those other people were there.

ME: Perhaps I dreamt them.
N: No, you wrote them.

ME: What is writing, if not lucid dreaming?

N: But when you write, you’re in complete control.
ME: It’s true that I create characters and put them in situations, often drawing on ‘real life’ ... after that, I never know what’ll happen. If I did, I’d have no interest in writing it. Sometimes they do things I don’t expect, or even that I find abhorrent. It’s not quite the same as a normal dream where you’re a spectator in a scenario that your subconscious throws at you, I admit. Years ago, I had a period of lucid dreaming. They never lasted long, maybe just a few seconds. But at some point, I’d know I was in a dream, and could make decisions. If it was a nightmare, I could make myself wake up.

N: Did you keep a diary of them?
ME: Only occasionally. I felt that writing them down would change them. I might misremember or embellish them, or even influence them in advance.

N: Did you enjoy them?
ME: Yes – my job at the time was unbearably dull, so it was the best form of escapism.


I was always bored easily, even as a child – especially as a child – trying to make mundane suburbia more captivating. Anything that created its own world interested me: video games; music; movies; novels. All that I consumed formed sediment in my mind, and it became impossible to tell which became cornerstones and which evaporated. I knew that Dada and Surrealism, Futurism, transgender theory and lived experience were important to me, whilst Romanticism, rationalism and religion were not – but none of them transformed my days into anything transcendent, or raised my dreams above reflections of my anxiety and frustration.

Gradually, I realised that being a neglected artist or convulsive beauty was not what I’d been sold. The numerous rejections may not have been because I was ahead of my time, but because I wasn’t good enough; being desirable to men attracted to transgender women usually resulted in objectification, or molestation. Before I turned thirty, it had worn me down so much that I asked my GP for anti-depressants, and left with a prescription of 20mg of Citalopram per day.

The suicidal thoughts lifted, as did the initial headaches and nausea. I lost my appetite and often felt exhausted, but was terrified of sleeping as I had such awful nightmares. Old friends who I’d alienated with my refusal to tolerate anything I thought mediocre, returning to reproach me ... Victorian ailments ... hysteria ... elephantiasis ... public humiliation at the hands of a mistress ... On waking, I reoriented myself, but when sleeping, lines between dream and reality became indistinguishable. This, however, was not what I’d intended. I came off the medication, my appetite returned, I had more energy and my dreams calmed down. I decided to try again to manage my depression through my material world – but eventually the cycle turned me back to the pharmaceutical. This time, maybe, the side effects have been manageable – or perhaps, five years older, I’m willing to accept more of them if there is an overall improvement.


Staying sane is a lifetime’s work.


I knew your name, Claude, but hadn’t read Disavowals (or: Cancelled Confessions) when I was documenting my gender reassignment (first for a newspaper, then as a memoir). If I had, maybe I would have seen parallels between your declaration that ‘neuter is the only gender that always suits me’ and my conclusion that ‘there are as many gender identities as there are people; all unique, all constantly being explored in conscious and unconscious ways’. My articles were fragments, although they had to be realist, transparent like a windowpane, written against myself and the literature I loved. Appropriately, it seems, your work came to me in pieces, an oblique self-portrait in a Queer Art and Culture volume here, a taster of Sarah Pucill’s film Magic Mirror, which turned passages and images from Disavowals into tableaux, there.

I finally encountered your work in its fractured whole when a friend from Jersey who identified with your subversion of the local Nazi occupation curated an exhibition of your photos with Magic Mirror and asked me to speak about your writing. It was hard to gather my thoughts on something so disparate: I admired that you could write for yourself and not bend your style into something sellable (even if your literary family background gave you all the intellectual and financial support that one could ever need). But what of that book that you assembled over nearly a decade, and finally published in May 1930, in an edition of five hundred copies, that wasn’t translated into English until 2007 – long after the point in my life when I most needed it?

I found ten sections, fronted by photo-collages that reminded me of Hannah Höch, a mixture of self-portraits, familiar-looking faces (Breton and his friends?), disconnected bits of women’s bodies, and my favourite, the chess board under an ominous shadow that reminded me of Dada, Duchamp, Sélavy. Most of them were titled with acronyms, private jokes decipherable only to you, but one stood out: ‘Myself (For want of anything better)’.

Then, instantly, you turned towards and away from yourself, cloaking yourself in metaphorical prose-poetry, opting out of that autobiographical pact by giving ‘False impressions’, before asking: ‘Express oneself: humiliate oneself? Yes, but for the right reason.’ But what are the right reasons? Is it the Narcissism, the ‘Non-co-operation with God’ and ‘passive resistance’ that you wrote about so nakedly, Lacanian before Lacan; the need to record one’s existence, or subjectivity, before leaving the stage? Was it a realisation that ‘the personal is political’ avant la lettre, and that documenting your games with gender and identity might inspire others to make themselves into works of art? Or was it just that there was so much pain, in being Jewish, female and queer in an anti-Semitic, misogynist and homophobic world that you had to get these words out, and throw them at someone, even if (as you knew) it wouldn’t be many people, at least not in your lifetime?

‘Trample on this, this flesh of my flesh. Draw on remorse, weigh on my memory, on my obese statue, the only springboard that doesn’t give way under me.’ This sentence: I understood why you would cancel your confessions, the nightmare of being in a position where readers, critics, editors demand that you give more away to keep them coming back, the hope that external validation might fix your sense of self receding ever further. They will define you, and then you won’t know how or where you are. Nonetheless – I don’t regret putting my life on a page, and I don’t get the sense that you did either.


Even if you weren’t quite a part of the Surrealist group that so intrigued me – and given how hostile they were to anything besides heterosexuality, and how women were rarely more than obscure objects of desire for them I can understand why – your writing and self-portraits felt so phantasmagorical, and so resonant, that I hoped we might meet in the very eye of night.

I’m back at school, in Surrey. I have this dream all the time, and it’s always unbearable. I don’t want to be here, and I don’t need to do my GCSEs again. Nonetheless, I walk through the gate, past the bike shed and the basketball court, past the playground where I spent every lunchtime kicking a tennis ball around in my itchy trousers. I stare up at the five-storey tower block and then wonder why I keep coming here when I could just bunk the train to Brighton and ...

I enter by the English rooms and go past the library. There is a sign: ARTISTS’ SALON. Anyone seen there will get their heads kicked in, I think, and then decide that I’m sick of having my life choices dictated by a small gang of bullies, and nervously enter.

Behind the door, there is a beach, and it is night-time. I look up at the stars, and then at two men climbing into sailboats. The boat on the left has no name; the one on the right, smaller, has an inscription reading ‘Ocean Wave’. They set off – I wade into the water to try to stop them, but a voice stops me, telling me to let them complete their own legends. I turn: a person is sat alone, a chequered shirt and a shaved head. As I sit and watch the men drift over the horizon, oblivious to each other, the sea turns into a mirror, and we stare at our reflections – neither of us recognisably male or female.

CLAUDE: Hi, I’m Claude. I’m your Careers Officer. Nice to meet you. [Silence.] What do you want to do after you leave school?
ME: Become a woman.

CLAUDE: No – I mean for work.
ME: I don’t know ... Well, I want to be a writer. Everyone keeps telling me to forget it.

CLAUDE: I write. I just don’t obsess about being famous for it.
ME: Lucky you.

CLAUDE: You said you wanted to become a woman. Write about that. ME: I’m not sure.

Claude pulls out some tarot cards. I imagine that these will confirm whether or not I will reach my goal, but once again, I cannot see what is printed on them. Claude grins, and returns them to a shirt pocket. I look at Claude, frustrated.

CLAUDE: It would be boring to write about something if you knew what was going to happen. (I shrug.) The destination never matters – it’s the journey. Write about the clothes you wear, the labels you give yourself, and the sex you have with people of many genders, or no gender. Your mutilated victories and your brave defeats. The dreams you have and the body you inhabit in them. Write because you want to, and because you have to, not because of what you think it might bring to you. And only show it to people if you think it will free them. Or you.

I nod, and leave the room. I step outside, and the school has turned into the hospital where I worked as a cleaner when I was 16. The wards are named after towns and villages in Surrey: Ashtead, Earlswood, Horley. I walk along the sterile corridors, listening to the sounds of women screaming from the single rooms – doctors pull the curtains as I pass.

I go back outside. Instead of the playground and basketball court are lakes, and the tower block has been replaced by a grandiose Victorian building, redbrick with large windows and pillars, with a perfectly ordered garden leading up to it. I walk along the path to enter, and see Claude, sat in the waiting room. As I reach the reception, a surgeon takes me into a laboratory, and injects me with anaesthetic. At the moment I fall asleep, I wake up.


That wasn’t a real dream either. Nor, of course, was it reality. The symbolism is too convenient, too obviously an encounter that I’d have liked to have had, when I had no possibility models (Laverne Cox’s phrase, which I prefer to ‘role models’) in life or in literature. If it was a dream, I doubt the dialogue would have been that clear, or that memorable – normally, I can only recollect fragments of conversations held in my dreams, and those who have shared a room or a bed with me in this state tell me that I either mumble something incomprehensible, or utter just a couple of distinct words, usually ones that embarrass me.

My Sertraline dreams far outstrip normality, as I am a spectator to long conversations that play out with friends and acquaintances, heroes and villains, the living and the dead. These must happen during my deepest sleep: a friend says that lucid dreams are a stage between that and waking, but these visions elude my control. I sometimes wonder what Charcot would have made of them; I hope that Cahun would have told me to embrace them, and draw upon them by day and night. Even when they’re nightmarish, I could tell Claude, I want to turn them into poetry and prose, and poetry, as a weapon against reality, or what I am constantly told to accept as ‘reality’ – usually by those who have the most invested in upholding the world as it is.

For more information and for other works in the series, visit the Smarginature site here.