Hyenas, Horses, and Rabbits, Oh My! Part IV

A Read Along Journey Through the Leonora Carrington Century

The Bird Men of Burnley (1970) by Leonora Carrington

We finally made it to the end, my friends, and we have a lot to cover. As mentioned in Part 1, in addition to the republishing of Leonora Carrington’s short stories, a novella Down Below and a children’s book, Milk of Dreams, was also released by New York Review of Books Classics, and Virago published The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington by Joanna Moorhead. All are very important books that we are lucky to have available to us. Because we’re covering three books here rather than sections of one, the following reactions are going to be pretty cursory and will hardly do justice to each piece’s depth. Please forgive me.

The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington

The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington is a personal and authorized biography written by relative and Guardian journalist Joanna Moorhead. How Moorhead came to write the story itself is really cool — a curiosity pilgrimage to visit a long-distant, eccentric cousin lead to a decade of visits, conversations, and other explorations within Carrington’s world and surrealist perspective. These conversations are the basis of how Moorhead structures the biography, and as such, it is stripped of heavy academic interpretations that we’ve only had access to before. That doesn’t mean Moorhead doesn’t reference Carrington’s work, but she does so strictly as it pertains to life, including wonderful contextualization of her writing which was immensely enlightening during this read-along. It is pivotal to any and all study of Carrington, and is a must read for those interested in the lives of women artists.

Another aspect I appreciate is the treatment of Carrington’s romance with Ernst. Since the anecdotes were straight from the white horse’s mouth, it is devoid of the usual TMZ-gossip-style it’s often recounted in (or the academic, feminist outrage, however you want to look at it). It’s shown as a simple but seminal affair that Carrington remembers as the beginning of her realized life. While the essence of Carrington’s imagination was already swirling in her 20-year-old mind, Ernst was able to share and expose her to the knowledge she needed to give it shape. It’s not that Carrington wouldn’t have become Carrington without him, but like with any mentor, her relationship with Ernst probably rushed things up a bit. And it also pushed her further along the path towards independence. As integral and inspiring as Ernst was to Carrington, she also knew that any sort of sustained, long-term relationship would usurp her talents and she was smart enough to avoid any renewed vows of love.

While the strength of this biography is its focus solely on Carrington’s life, it also falters somewhat under that mission. Things like Carrington’s notion of free love are glossed over. I also at times wished for deeper readings into her symbology and its duality with her reality and that of the collective conscious. But, I recognize that this can be found in other academic tomes, so perhaps I am being greedy.

Even so, I have a lot of questions about the actual nature of Carrington’s madness as described in Down Below that weren’t exactly answered. Part of that (and of my minor complaints above) might be that Carrington herself refused to talk about it:  “What Leonora endured in the asylum was to be the pivotal experience of her life, with ramifications that continued even in to the long afternoons we shared together….Even in her nineties, Leonora was never comfortable with talking about what happened in Santander in 1940:  a shadow would cross her face if it was mentioned, and she would quickly light another Marlboro, inhale deeply, and suggest a change of subject.” (126). She does explain Carrington’s perception of her madness in Santander as a “fluid boundary,” which she would explore for the rest of her life, and gave me much to ponder while reading her ultimate travelogue of this fluid journey in Down Below.

Down Below

Down Below is an account of Carrington’s internment at the Covadonga insane asylum in Santander, Spain during 1940. She was committed after a slow onslaught of symptoms resulting from Max Ernst’s arrests and her fleeing of France that finally expressed itself as a schizophrenic break.

Algorithmically, Down Below belongs in the same categories that house The Bell Jar, Girl Interrupted, and Prozac Nation, but there are a few things that make it hard to actually classify. Unlike, say The Bell Jar, which is promoted as solely fiction, and Girl Interrupted and Prozac Nation, as nonfiction, Down Below straddles these two genres and rides it straight into a metaphysical horizon. You witness how her imagination overpowers her mind, and how the same surrealistic narrative she crafted to make sense of her life and art crossed over into the terrible, rational reality of  her existence. Because Carrington tells the story through the voice of her madness with very little backtracking to justify its logic, many people have dismissed it as fiction, and within academia great efforts have been made to defend it as fact.

I can see why some people might dismiss it as fiction because Carrington retells the entire account through the filter she experienced it in. From basically start to finish, she relays her visions and hallucinations, not to mention rape and violence, with very little editorial explanation and emotions to what was happening on the other side of reality. Not only does this show she has kept it as part of a personal, psychological belief system, but also that it holds a truth that anyone approaching this book with a rationalist or realistic approach will not be able to understand. She never lets up; the only way to make sense of it is to break with her.

The events in Down Below are recollected several years later, so naturally some things may have been distorted by time and memory, but all in all I believe the entire journey because it is the manifesto of Carrington’s entire artistic vision. I don’t believe she was permanently cured of her mental illness, but I do believe she knew how to harness the power of her imagination enough to stay grounded through episodes that guided her to deeper explorations of her art and life. She even states that writing this account of Covadonga was a way to keep her from relapsing into the madness, even though she worries revisiting it could trigger more hallucinations and disillusionments. I don’t see this as the fulfillment of a surrealist fate (the Surrealists considered madness the highest and most artistic state of mind), or the romanticization of hysteria, but the secret to how Carrington was able to stronghold her life, preserve her personal identity, and steer her own destiny.

Throughout her long life, she was always learning and never turning away from the “fluid boundaries” of fact or fiction. They both co-existed within her world, and as such, she was able to make sense of her life “un-jammed.” As horrible as all of her experiences were in the asylum, this surrender to her imagination ultimately saved her. It shows the power of finding one’s own myth, as Jung would have it, and it’s a lesson we all could use today to stay stable in an ever increasingly disordered world that sometimes feels like 1940 rather than 2017.

Milk of Dreams

If Down Below represents the darkest moment of Carrington’s long-life, Milk of Dreams shows us the light. She loved motherhood and poured her life into raising her two sons as much as developing her canvases or constructing her stories. Naturally, those worlds overlapped and her sons recollect being surrounded by murals she painted to illustrate the stories she’d tell them. This book, published by The New York Review of Books Children’s Collections, is what’s left of that time: facsimile doodles and images lifted from the notebook she kept to formulate these amusements.

As expected, it isn’t your typical children’s book. These tales follow, perhaps even more quintessentially, Carrington’s style of astonishing imagery with terse expressions that is very effective for children’s storytelling. Each sentence is almost an association to the next and thus follows its own logic to its conclusion. Typically, the stories involve the misadventure of wayward children, many of whom lose their heads either because their ears were too big or a mean old lady who hated children separated their bodies from them. Some examples:  a golden child is rewarded with crocodiles, and another named “Little Angel” entertains himself while recovering from the flu by peeing on people who pass under his window. The stories are pretty short and sweet, and for every yarn there are several vignettes that include a sketch and caption-like explanations for what the subject is doing. The rest is left up to the imagination. Milk of Dreams shows another dimension of Carrington’s inner world, one that was open only to her sons, and is now open to all of the weird children of the world.

Well, weirdies. That’s it. Thank you so much for joining me on reading through the Leonora Carrington read-along. I’ve learned a great deal as a reader and a writer with this project, especially how to excavate, evaluate, and evolve my own personal symbology. I hope you have found it as equally inspiring.

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