The Strange, Irreverent Worlds of “Down Below” and “The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington
The Strange, Irreverent Worlds of “Down Below” and “The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington”
By Emily Wells
MAY 18, 2017
WHILE LEONORA CARRINGTON is best known for her gothic Surrealist paintings, her writing is no less enchanting and luminous. Carrington’s autobiography, Down Below, is the latest release from New York Review Books Classics, while the small press Dorothy, a publishing project, houses her collected short fiction. Both texts are striking introductions to her dreamlike world, and complement each other well when read together. The Milk of Dreams, Carrington’s book for children, has also just arrived.
Born to a highbrow family in Britain, a young, rebellious Carrington envisioned a different life for herself. As a 19-year-old art student in London, she fell in love with Max Ernst at a dinner party, and subsequently ran away with the Surrealists. Carrington and Ernst created a world of painting together at a farmhouse in Provence, until Ernst was arrested and taken to a concentration camp in 1940.
Down Below follows Carrington’s psychotic break following Ernst’s arrest and her own imprisonment in an insane asylum. When she wakes up at the asylum, she is not told where she is or what is to be done to her, and she assumes that she too must be in a concentration camp. She suffers sadistic and cruel treatments, often denying her own experience in the world; as a result, she creates her own to inhabit in the confines of the hospital. “I have no delusions,” she says. “I am playing. When will you stop playing with me? He would stare at me in amazement at finding me lucid, then laugh. And I would say: Who am I, while thinking: Who am I to you? He would leave without answering, completely disarmed.”
André Breton encouraged her to write the book, believing that her plummet into madness demonstrated one of the most desirable forms of Surrealism. This was apt, as the book is a marvelous reworking of the frequently too-romanticized Surrealist female madness narrative.
After unsuccessfully begging for Ernst’s freedom, Carrington developed an intense connection with the society, despite her having been removed from it. “I had realized the injustice of society,” she writes, as means of explaining the external’s impact on her internal state. “I wanted first of all to cleanse myself, then go beyond its brutal ineptitude.” Even more so, she holds the belief that she is intimately connected to the earth, and that the goings-on of her body carry a direct affect on the physical world: “I was not aware of the importance of health, I mean of the absolute necessity of having a healthy body to avoid disaster in the liberation of the mind,” she writes, later adding that “the dysentery I suffered from later was nothing but the illness of Madrid taking shape in my intestinal tract.” The line between surrealism and pathology is blurred, as is the line between the real and the surreal.
Perhaps the most striking element of the autobiography is the precision with which Carrington describes abstract, hallucinatory experiences, especially when one considers that this account was dictated. Though there is no self-pity in the story, Carrington’s journey is, first and foremost, one of studying herself. She vomits compulsively to cleanse herself of evil. Time and history smother her: “My ancestors, malevolent and smug, are trying to frighten me,” she writes. Often, those who are smothering her are father-like figures. The last line of the volume reads, “I never saw my father again,” an apt resolution. Like other woman-in-madness narratives such as The Bell Jar, Carrington’s despair at being misunderstood prevails.
The complete collection of Carrington’s delightful, dark short stories display — if possible — an even more irreverent, strange universe. Several are available in English for the first time, and many were formerly published in French or Spanish. They read like ominous fairy tales, presumably influenced by Carrington’s Irish mother and Irish nanny, both of whom she gravitated toward. In a story called “The Debutante,” nodding to Carrington’s own upbringing, the protagonist tells us that she has “always detested balls, especially when they are given in my honor.” To avoid one such ball, she befriends a hyena at the zoo and convinces her to take her place at the event. In another, a woman undresses down to her skeleton. A woman kills all the boars of a litter but the one that most resembles its father. Another visits a nearby house, finding that her neighbors are dead, and likely vampires. There are nuns, suicidal vegetables, Aztec gods, and a family from the union of a wild boar and a wild woman. Hunters are punished by God for their flatulence in church. Somehow, the scenarios of malleable reality read as entirely logical; Carrington is a masterful guide through her odd world. She manages to seamlessly braid whimsy, terror, and humor.
“The Debutante” is far from the only story focused on appetite. In the book’s excellently crafted introduction, Kathryn Davis points out that Carrington held a particular fascination with eating and being eaten, which is a motif that frequently reveals itself in her memoir as well. In the stories, the protagonist pushes a queen into a hungry lion’s cage after being asked to by government ministers, showing little reflection or remorse. An orgy is held in the middle of a feast. Characters are warned about getting “roasted in hot fat, stuffed with parsley and onions.” Vegetables are whipped in order to be prepared: “One’s got to suffer to go to Heaven,” they are told. “Those who do not wear corsets will never get there.”
The collection is filled with this sort of memorable, precise one-liners, giving the impression of being invited into a game of Surrealist Exquisite Corpse. “I don’t drink, I don’t eat. It’s a protestnagainst my father, the bastard,” says a woman called “The Oval Lady.” A conversation, with characters essentially ignoring one another, repeatedly asserting their own reality, feels typical:“You can’t love anyone until you have drawn blood and dipped your fingers and enjoyed it,” she writes. I believe her. It seems that Carrington’s exposure to the horrors of life in the asylum, coupled with the Irish folklore of her upbringing, equipped her to capture surrealist reality disruptions in fiction. Perhaps this is why the books are so thrilling to read together: we see both the vastness of Carrington’s imagination, and the very real cruelty and horror that led her to be able to describe her mental landscape with such precision. Her memoir contains many of the similar fairy-tale qualities, but we know that Carrington is writing from a place of concrete physical trauma. In this way, a shadow is cast over her short fiction — as a reader of both volumes, one knows that for much of the subject matter, Carrington is drawing from an actual experience. The characters are coping with the dream-logic of their fairy-tale world similarly to how Carrington coped with the nonsensical chaos of the asylum and being kept away from Max Ernst.
Carrington’s The Complete Stories contains 25 stories, and finishes at just over 200 pages; Down Below is less than half this length. It is manageable, and desirable, to devour them both simultaneously. Both books also thrive in a place of dichotomy: between the real and the surreal, the mind and body, society and the body, lightness and darkness, and madness while insisting on the validity of one’s sense of things. Carrington and her characters hold similar concerns for their bodies, their minds, and society. A friend and curator of Carrington’s, Chloe Aridjis, once described her as someone who had “no inner peace.” The fruits of her internal chaos, as well as her insuppressible spirit, are on full display in these two volumes.