by Leonora Carrington
introduction by Marina Warner
NYRB Classics, 112 pages
reviewed by Justin Goodman
A hundred years after Leonora Carrington’s birth, her painting and writing seems, to the modern viewer, as defamiliarized and spontaneous as it did when it first appeared under the Surrealist banner. The surrealist label, however, is at best an oversimplification of Carrington’s legacy—and a label that she, herself, rejected. As she said in an interview with editor Paul De Angelis,“The closest thing that came to convincing me [that her work references spiritual associations] was Tibetan Buddhism.”
Carrington was no Buddhist nun; however, she lived singularly and peculiarly, often at the border of stability, the pinnacle of which was her institutionalization in Santander from 1940 to 1941 following a severe nervous breakdown at the age of twenty four. Once out, she would go on to write a memoir of the experience in English—subsequently lost—then dictate the experience in French to the wife of a friend of the Surrealists, from which it was translated into English and published in 1944. Then reprinted in 1988. Then reprinted this year, to celebrate Carrington’s 100th birthday. Writing in the introduction to the 1988 edition, novelist and mythographer Marina Warner notes that Down Below is “apparently rationally composed and lucidly recalled, about recent, hair-raisingly unhinged behavior.”
As a literary work, Down Below is as approachable and naive as Carrington’s paintings are for their viewers. The book is slim, personal, and bold. It’s cover image is the center of Carrington’s Crookhey Hall in which a terrified spirit (white as a sheet) flees from the titular childhood home. The book’s opening is directed towards “you, whom I consider most clear-sighted of all,” establishing itself, that is, as nothing more than a possibly colorful rendering of struggle and personal growth. And even though the “you” here is the aforementioned friend’s wife, it strikes the reader as just as intimate.
The narration quickly becomes complicated, descending into disarming obscurity and adopting a seance-like tone. Carrington “believes that you will be of help in my journey beyond that frontier.” This intimacy seems reflected in the panicked expression of the spirit, itself a reflection of Carrington’s own flight from home that readers—wishing to mirror Carrington—might attempt themselves after a first glance at the memoir.
This is largely due to a pindrop descent that begins with mid-bulimia epiphany: “my stomach was the seat of that [unjust] society, but also the place in which I was united with all the elements of the earth. It was the mirror of the earth, the reflection of which is just as real as the person reflected.” There is no bang of madness, just a sudden whimpering.
In Down Below, one takes the scenic route through the uncanny valley. Look at the transformation of the institution nurse, Frau Asegurado. Early on, she “looked like an enormous bottle of lysol.” A coherent albeit peculiar image that ultimately gives way, during her mania, to Frau Asegurado “as a telephone cable who transmitted the will of [the doctor] Don Luis.” Less cogent—a telephone cable that transmits will involves leaps in logic—it also gives way to the ostensibly clear “she felt to me like a vacuum cleaner.” Subtly, warmly, Carrington produces an insanity with the semblance of sanity. Unlike the interpretations that can be drawn from the lysol analogy, there is little to explain why at this moment she is like a vacuum cleaner. This is representative, if nothing else, of the visceral descent into madness.
Although it is easily confused with absurdity, Surrealism was used to political and anti-authority ends and often its adherents became Communists. Benjamin Perét (expelled from Brazil for his Communist beliefs), for instance, wrote the ambitiously sacrilegious “Joan of Arc”:
Then Joan realized she was right in front of God
and she swallowed the cowpie as if it were a relic
so God immediately crystallized into hemorrhoids
and all the dogs from Dormémy licked her ass
We’d be wise, in fact, not to underplay the political significance of Leonora Carrington’s work. Her legacy may be the determination to incorporate feminist ideas into her writing, conscious of the objectifying tendency of Surrealists to see women as muses. Or, as Perét did, use them as the butt of their jokes. All of which would go mostly unnoticed until the renaissance of feminist theory in the late-1960s and early 1970s, when interest in her work exploded. A permanent resident of Mexico then, she designed a poster, Mujeres Consciencia, for the Mexican Women’s Liberation movement, which she cofounded in 1969. All this immortalized her as an early feminist icon.
But, as Susan Aberth states in her book on Carrington’s development, “one must resist the temptation to decipher these compelling fragments into a unified narrative.” Down Below warns similarly. As much as it functions as a memoir about growing up, however abstractly, it functions moreso as a memoir pursuing a new vision of the world. It is in part a vision inspired, as many before and since, by drugs.
This drug, unfortunately for Leonora Carrington, was a stimulant called Cardiazol that was popular for treating mental disorders. Convulsive therapy (purposefully inducing seizures) was at its peak. Injected, Carrington refers to the experience as “the Great Epileptic Ailment,” describing its effect with a visceral “I grimaced and my grimaces were repeated all over my body.” Then, after a second injection: “Thereupon I organized my own defense.” She closed her eyes in order to avoid “the advent of the most unbearable pain: the stare of others.” Our brain, in filtering what we see, organizes the world into a visually unified narrative. The furthest reality from the truth, Carrington works to “open doors in the chambers of the mind,” as Marina Warner writes in the introduction to the 1988 edition. It is only after closing her eyes that she enters her “Paradise” and “Jerusalem,” the “Down Below.”
In Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet, Marian Leatherby is sent by her meek son and officious daughter-in-law to a mysterious nursing home called the Well of Light Brotherhood. There is an equally mysterious tower. After discovering its secret, the befuddled Marian Leatherby enters and follows a staircase down. In the room at the bottom of the stairs she meets herself. When asked what this place down below is, the doppelganger explains, “‘Hell. But hell is merely a form of terminology. Really this is the Womb of the World whence all things come.” Just as Carrington’s paintings were memoiristic, so too is The Hearing Trumpet, and her art not merely a coming to terms with herself, but a coming to the fullest understanding of the feminine nature of the world.
When entering her Santander Down Below, Carrington says she would enter as “the third person of the Trinity…through the agency of the Sun, I was an androgyne, the Moon, the Holy Ghost, a gypsy, an acrobat, Leonora Carrington, and a woman.” Gnostically, she meditates on these images of self. The objects she sees are mundane: “two stout pieces of wood,” “a number of laboratory saucers,” “..a metal disk and a medal of Jesus.” Yet, by the time she exits the Down Below, having shuffled the objects and opened the windows, she leaves having completed “the Work.” To any ordinary rendering this would be nothing more than a person cleaning up an unused room in their house. To Carrington, every object is imbued with symbolic power—the stomach is the earth and a mirror, the windows are opened “as I would have opened those of consciousness”—that goes unseen in our daily lives. Or, as professor Susan Aberth says in her history of Carrington’s painting, her work gives “a look into a parallel dimension where mundane domestic activities are infused with the sacerdotal.” Consider the nurse as a vacuum cleaner.
After her final shot of Cardiazol, Carrington is taken to Down Below to recover. When she wakes up, she is advised not to return to her parents. At this moment, she writes, “I regained my lucidity. My cosmic objects, my night creams and nail buff, had lost their significance.” Shortly after, a man by the name of Etchevarriá arrives and explains that her delusions were in fact delusions. This man, she says, “‘demystified’ the mysteries.” Carrington opens this lengthy remembrance by revealing that is she tells her story to Jeanne Megnen, she will able “to put on and take off at will the mask which will be my shield against the hostility of Conformism.”
Always a nonconforming feminist, she most certainly despises a man telling her what is the truth. But, ultimately, Down Below is disturbing precisely because it suggests that we need one another to stabilize a reality that is misleadingly coherent. It is the “necessity that others be with me that we may feed each other with our knowledge and thus constitute the Whole.” Instead of the social-pariah mindset of Perét’s Surrealism or an individualist feminism pulling itself together by itself, Leonora Carrington’s feminist Surrealism seems to be an act of collaborative self-making.
Madness is merely a “form of terminology” for vision. Perhaps a well-worn trope, but no one makes it quite as disquietingly real as Leonora Carrington does. Celebration ends where self begins, however. The aura which she exuded for the male Surrealists following her institutionalization was a heavily romanticized image. For her, the journey to wholeness was macabre as hell. Marina Warner says it clearest in her introduction to Down below when she claims that Leonora Carrington “set riddles not to confound or mock but to provoke laughter and open doors in the chambers of the mind.”
The halls of Santander are mystical and miserable and a kind of fun tempered by disturbance we associate with deranged laughter. The memoir is an attempt to piece together reality, one’s own and the one we share, while avoiding the crude notion that one’s stomach is in fact a mirror and the earth. It is coming to terms and coming home. I, however, gave the word home a broader meaning, which was represented by the number six,” Carrington asserts. If home is the land of sixes, Satan’s number, does that mean she’s home in hell? Perhaps so, especially if we call it the Womb of the World.
A recent graduate from Purchase College, Justin Goodman is working to establish a career and develop knowledge of the literary scene. His writing has been published in Submissions Magazine and Italics Mine.