The response to the barrage of rape threats targeting some feminist Twitter users this week has been poor, or ‘inadequate
‘ to quote the shadow home secretary. I happen to be reading Luis Buñuel’s memoirs
, and I was struck by his account of the response to an abusive letter penned by surrealists Georges Sadoul and Paul Caupenne. I couldn’t help but notice the difference in the way punishment was meted out to those writing abusive missives at the time. I’ll quote the entire story, as Buñuel tells it best:
“During this period, there were so many surrealist capers that it’s difficult to decide which to describe, but I remember well the day in 1930 when Sadoul and Jean Caupenne were sitting reading their newspapers in a café somewhere in the provinces. One of the items in the paper concerned the results of a contest at the military academy of Saint-Cyr. The first-prize winner was someone named Keller, and as they read, both were struck by the same notion. There they were, totally at loose ends, all alone in the country, bored to tears with nothing to do, and suddenly they heard themselves saying, “What if we write this idiot a letter?” No sooner said than done. The waiter brought pen and paper, and our two surrealists composed one of the most eloquently insulting letters in the history of the movement. It included such unforgettable lines as: “We spit on the tricolore. With your own soldiers in revolt, we’ll spill the guts of every officer in the French army. And should they force us to fight, we’ll serve under the glorious pointed helmets of the Germans.”
When the prize winner received the letter, he turned it over to the director of the academy, who in turn gave it to General Gouraud. At the same time, it was published in Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution. The scandal rocked the country; Sadoul was expelled from France altogether, while Caupenne was hauled off to jail. The fathers of both men had to apologize to army headquarters in Paris, yet even this wasn’t enough. Saint-Cyr demanded a public apology. Sadoul left France (the ever-generous de Noailles gave him four thousand francs), but rumor had it that Caupenne got down on his knees and begged forgiveness in the presence of the entire student body. When I think back on this story, I can still see the sadness and vulnerability in Breton’s eyes when he told me so many years later that no one could be scandalized anymore.”
The threat of physical brutality in the surrealists’ letter, the attack on innocent people for simply being part of a movement, the writers’ pretence at allegiance to those most despised by the victims – they’re all there in the rape threats too. The only thing missing is the sexual aspect, but pretending allegiance to the Germans in 1930 would have been of the most despicable pranks one could have played on a soldier in the French army. The official response – to one letter – seems extraordinary today, compared to the failure of Twitter or the police to take decisive action in response to thousands of written threats.
In spite of what Breton thought, a lot of people have been scandalised by the rape threats on Twitter this week, even though it seems that they were written by pathetic youths
“totally at loose ends and bored to tears with nothing to do”. The difference with Buñuel’s story is that today neither the publishers of these threats (Twitter) nor the forces of law and order seem to have taken proper action to stop the perpetrators. Abusive tweets should rank among the most minor of today’s problems – they’re just words after all, right? There are a lot of worse things going on. Except that they are part of a much wider problem, a widespread backlash against feminism, which Suzanne Moore wrote about here
and which has repercussions far beyond the written word. What is an adequate punishment for this kind of abuse? I don’t know. But the “sadness and vulnerability in our eyes” today is about the fact that no one in a position of authority can be bothered to figure out an adequate and active response to the widespread and insidious sexism, of which the Twitter rape threats are but a nasty symptom.