• Email
  • Print

Ernst’s Elephant

In response to:

Beyond Real from the May 26, 2005 issue

To the Editors:

Here is a footnote to the fine review of the Max Ernst show by John Updike [“Beyond Real,” NYR, May 26]. It is tempting to make pronouncements such as “Celebes needs no help from words, and is beyond them.” Yet for so literary a form as Surrealist art, and for an attempt at interpretation that crosses formidable cultural boundaries, here moving into the German folk id-ioms, that particular dictum might be too strong. By chance a few years ago, I heard an elderly German woman playfully reciting a childhood rhyme:

Der Elephant vom Celébes

hat ‘was hinten gelébes….

[accented syllables added, as spoken]

The little rhyme plays with scatology—the yellow thing on its behind might be emerging dung or perhaps the beast’s enormous genitalia. Either image would appeal to the Surrealist Ernst, as comic in a bawdy sense, as shocking to a correct, middle-class audience—in the Dada/Surrealist mode, and, as evocative in a Freudian spirit, of repressed meditations on the afterparts and on the ithyphallic form of the elephant itself. The larger question is one of locating the actual cultural fabric into which so personal a work is woven, that of delineating the “transtextuality,” or “intertextuality,” as Gérard Genette would put it (vide Palimpsestes, 1982).

Glenn F. Benge

Department of Art History

Temple University

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

  • Email
  • Print