With a head full of the Irish folk stories on which she was raised and her own adept young mind inclined to the metaphysical, to which was added the enchantment of a world filled with all the possibilities wide eyes and an avid sensibility could absorb, it’s no wonder that Leonora Carrington’s imagination and imagery evidenced signs that moved beyond the easily perceived real. But not surreal. Though Carrington shared the surrealists’ contempt for the constraints of bourgeois systems of conduct and thought, and while, as a very young woman, she’d had a rich and generative relationship with the charismatic surrealist artist Max Ernst—“Loplop, Prince of Birds”—she was not content to be anyone’s muse, no one’s femme-infant. Here, as an example, is André Breton’s wish for his newly born daughter, to be realized on her 16th birthday, wishing her readiness in embodying the eternal power of woman. In the introduction to Carrington’s narrative, Down Below (New York Review Books, 2017), recounting the barbaric treatment she received to aid in her “recovery,” Marina Warner quotes Breton and his believing the femme-infant to be a figure of salvation in whom would reside, “in a state of absolute transparency, the other prism of sight” and who would be the “marvellously magnetic conductor, … the only one capable of retrieving that age of wildness.” I think here of a different birthday wish uttered by a father for his daughter on her 16th birthday, one ringing much closer to Carrington’s own ideals for herself. The Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje writes in his poem “To a Sad Daughter,” “You step delicately into the wild world / and your real prize will be / the frantic search. / Want everything.” Carrington did.
It may seem a wish outside the real, today. With misogynist roots that seen eternal, and certainly evidenced in the surrealists’ seeing women as aids by which they would achieve their own bounding transformations, we hear reports heaped on stories of abuse by men in powerful positions, film and broadcast media being the most visible, from one woman after another. But women are resisting and Carrington, too, did resist.
Two books have been published in 2017, marking the 100th anniversary of her birth: Down Below, New York Review Books; and The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, Dorothy Project. In 2013 New York Review Children’s Collection had published The Milk of Dreams, a collection of whimsical short stories and drawings she’d done for her sons.
Carrington’s own story of resistance and the strong spirit that enabled this are clearly seen in Down Below, the narrative she wrote at the concerned insistence of her friend Pierre Mabille, a physician and fellow exile in Mexico, three years after her release from a Spanish asylum for the insane at Santander. While held there, she was subjected to repeated and excruciating injections of the drug Cardiazol, which caused severe epileptic seizures and psychotic hallucinations. I found Carrington’s recounting in Down Below to be lucid and oddly detached. In her introduction, Marina Warner wrote, “As a testament to madness, it is split between visionary illumination and profound psychological distress.” With it, and in the shamanic states of leaving both the body and one’s identity and descending to the depths, she suggests, Carrington has joined the group she identifies as “a constellation of illuminati alongside William Blake, Rimbaud, Aldous Huxley, Bob Dylan and most recently Patti Smith.” For Carrington, however, this temporary madness left a lifelong imprint of fear that it might at some time return, and I wonder if perhaps the madness she was able to observe and report on retrospectively with such cool distance was the aggravated effect of the Cardiazol and her abusive, dehumanizing treatment while confined at Santander in the asylum of Dr. Morales, compounded by her own physical neglect and the effects of a broken heart. With a heart as capacious as hers appears to have been, such a break would have rent continents asunder. In her own telling, after having recovered from her treatment, she said, “It was very clear, I was possessed. I’d suffered so much when Max was taken away to the camp, I entered a catatonic state, and I was no longer suffering in an ordinary human dimension.” Nowhere in the narrative is there rancour or bitterness, or even anger, and it is this equanimity, but now sparked by wit, playfulness and a lovely sense of the perverse and the ridiculous, that colours the stories in the Dorothy Project book, especially the earliest ones.
“The Debutante,” 1937–38, is written in a droll, flat tone. Some things are understood: debutantes and the necessity of their having to dress for, and attend, their own ball—the tedium, I’d-rather-die, or maybe something else would present itself as an alternative. For an answer, she’d thought, I’ll ask my friend at the zoo, the young hyena, the one whom I’d taught to speak French who would love to go, who might recognize her shortcomings in not being able to dance but who could still make small talk. To accommodate, the hyena killed and ate the debutante’s maid, save for her face, which she will wear as a mask. That, in combination with the ball gown, the concealing gloves, instructions and practise in walking in high-heeled shoes, and it’s a tidy switch. Carrington’s close focus on exactly the right details has the reader pause, caught by her cleverness, to wonder for a fraction of an instant about the possibility of what she is presenting, and the sense of the absurd is heightened. The hyena has consumed the maid—an average-sized young hyena, regular-sized young maid—but consuming the feet proved one bite too many and both are left over; “but if you have a little bag,” the hyena suggests, “I’ll eat them later in the day.” To which the debutante with elaboration responds, “You’ll find a bag embroidered with fleur-de-lys in the cupboard. Empty out the handkerchiefs you’ll find inside, and take that.”
As the hyena leaves for the party, the debutante gives her a little kiss and notes that while she looked fine, she did smell very strong. Are we to conclude, then, that it’s all just a matter of diet? The evening, however, hasn’t gone off as hoped for and the debutante’s mother, pale with rage and thwarted convention, confronts her in her room, reporting on the inexcusable social behaviour and subsequent faux pas of the odorous doppelgänger.
“On my way home, I thought to myself that I ought to have asked the horse to dinner,” says the narrator in “The House of Fear.” Conversations with animals seem fine, credible, everything skirting the believable, just a bit off centre, but not so very much if, as a child, you’d read Beatrix Potter or Wind in the Willows or Lewis Carroll. Manners are the subject of parody in Carrington’s stories, which read as social commentary, gently prodding persistent foibles and serving as guides and correctives. “Walking along I met a friend. It was a horse, who, years later, was to play an important role in my life.” Why not a horse friend? So she takes us with her in an easy way, walking us through the stories as a kind of explanatory, non-sequential biography of her life.
In the introduction Warner names Carrington’s familiars, her alter ego figures. Among them, a white horse, and horses feature largely in her stories, and hyenas, painted close at hand in her Self-Portrait, an oil on canvas work circa 1937–38. Here, Carrington is seated on a slipper chair, common in bedroom furnishings, and dressed in what seems to me to be casual riding apparel: breeches and a long jacket but not boots. A rocking horse is suspended high above her—perhaps the beloved childhood rocking horse referred to in her story “The Oval Lady.” In the story it resides in an abandoned nursery at the top of an elegant old house and is finally burned by the father as punishment for the girl’s attachment to it, “burned until there’s nothing left of him.” Another white horse in full gallop is seen from the curtained window. There are unicorns in her coterie, too.
Warner writes about the dreamy hypnagogic state, when the conscious and the unconscious merge, as being a productive source for Carrington’s imagery evident even in her early years. I think of that time of reverie to which we all have access and would have, beginning with our earliest sensate memory. It’s that lovely soft time between sleep and waking when animals talk with us, what Carrington herself referred to as “the imaginal space we all live in.” I’ve been party to those conversations, and while I, myself, am not a unicorn, I live with Deerhounds, their nearest cousins in temperament. Little, in Carrington’s presentations of and conversations and relations with animals, seems odd or forced or even improbable, so engaging and direct is her narrative style.
“Her name is Virginia Fur and she smelled like a mixture of spices and game, the stables, fur and grasses.” Carrington moves readily up and back between states of being, mixing and blurring species as she goes. Virginia Fur has a mane of hair yards long and enormous hands with dirty nails. It’s attractive, I’ve always thought, to have hands that showed signs of their utility in the garden, in the studio, the kitchen, the stable, with the task leaving stained evidence as crescents under the nails. Fur lives in a house that she’s pierced with holes to accommodate the fig tree that grew in the kitchen. With her are 14 cats. Two other women—a mother and her adult daughter from one of New York’s best families—lived similarly in their derelict East Hampton mansion, Grey Gardens—“Big Eadie” Bouvier Beale and “Little Eadie.” Racoons, not cats here, and a fantastic life, of a sort. Carrington’s enchanting story “As They Rode Along the Edge” might be a documentary of human misadventures in all fields. Her parody—as parable—begins with her nighttime hunt for a meal. It’s an even game between her and her supper, with the mountain beasts not offering themselves up and Fur being reduced sometimes to eat a less desirable meal of lost sheepdog or occasionally mutton or child (this only rarely). It is on a hunt that she encounters, first through his foul odour, the very holy Saint Alexander, “an individual of rare filthiness” who seeks to harvest her soul. He persuades her, accompanied by the 50 black cats and the 50 yellow cats with whom she travels, to attend at his church. Interest piqued by the possibility of helping herself to the church silver, she follows him and watches Saint Alexander perform a ritual from his pulpit, sprinkling holy water as he intones. Like a sauna gone wrong, a cloud lifts from the altar, a cloud smelling of sour milk, finally taking the form of a fat lamb with “baneful eyes,” which rose and expanded and finally burst and fell to the ground in pieces to be consumed with alacrity by the cats. Saint Alexander had shown, with great pride, his church garden furnished with his “Flowers of Mortification,” chairs of his own design, some made of wire into which he’d settle and sit, lowering his pious posterior on the white-hot forms, remaining there until the wires cooled, or choosing alternately a seat shaped as underwear made of reinforced concrete and full of scorpions and adders. There were others. The church’s interior, in contrast, was furnished lavishly and for comfort: velvet cushions in ash pink, bas reliefs in amber, books bound in silver and set with jewels. Upon the lamb’s bursting (poor Agnus Dei) and being consumed, Virginia Fur bagged the church silver and rode off on her wheel, followed by her hundred cats.
Being lovely and desirable—her long hair catching small nocturnal animals as she rode with speed through the forest— she came to the attention of a handsome young boar, Igname, a mountain beast she wouldn’t hunt and eat because he knew where the coveted truffles were located. He was irresistible, with his wig made of squirrels’ tails and festooned with fruit, his hind quarters covered in thick russet hair, as Carrington described him. Evil resides in the world and best of all it seeks to interfere with love and pleasure and simple expressions of joy. It’s manifest, for instance, by hunters in their wanton slaughter or in figures like the parodied Saint Alexander, a creep of the first order, cartoonlike in his piety and fervour.
Having courted and loved, Igname preens at his reflection in the lake; hunters directed to his site by Saint Alexander shoot him and sell him to the church for dinner. The badger brought the news to Virginia Fur, who had given birth to seven little boars, six of whom she boiled for herself and the cats as a funeral feast, keeping, “out of sentiment, the one most like Igname.” Sentiment, but not maudlin, and a clear and strangely satisfying symmetry to the tale. As parables should, this one, too, ends with some justice, with all the beasts of the forest breaking down the doors of the church as the roasted boar is carried in.
As an adolescent Leonora Carrington had been sent to a Catholic convent for her schooling. She didn’t remain there long, unnerving the nuns with her ability to write backwards with her left hand and forward with her right at the same time. With her art, and in her writing, she was equally adroit, creating from her two-handed head work that displayed a generous soul and was astonishingly original, and also profoundly human. ❚