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

A Read Along Journey through the Leonora Carrington Century

The last ten stories in The Complete Works of Leonora Carrington were written from 1950 and through the 80s, according to The Dorothy Project version. To know where exactly the three previously unpublished tales fit in, you have to consult the Silver Press edition, which organized its Table of Contents chronologically.[1] Perhaps because Carrington had grown older and wiser, the stories are more grotesque and misanthropic, and seem less blatantly biographical than her younger stories. Despite their maturity, they are still something like fractured fairy tales and fables, but her newfound home of Mexico has definitely changed the landscape and palette of the tales, just as they did her painting and her heart.

After spending ten years running away from her childhood home and being shuffled from a few more by love and war, Carrington finally found her place in the world in 1942. Joanna Moorhead describes Carrington’s wonder the best in The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington:  “Everything, for Leonora, was new:  from the appearance and demeanor of the people, she said later, to the variety of foods, plants and animals, to the landscape and the contact with the dead….” (173). Even so, it wasn’t exactly a smooth transition. Her marriage to Leduc was nosediving pretty fast as he picked up his old social circle and left Carrington alone most of the time. While this dynamic was typical in New York City, she was able to distract herself with the French Surrealists living there in exile, including Max Ernst. Mexico held nothing but strangers.

Carrington wasn’t one to be thwarted, though, and soon located her own circle to revive. Surrealist poet Benjamin Péret had been in Mexico City since the end of 1941, and when Carrington reunited with him, she met his lover, Remedios Varo. Animal lover, mystic painter, and fiercely intellectual while intuitive, Varo and Carrington would become soul sisters, and Carrington found much strength in their burgeoning friendship, including leaving Leduc to go crash with Péret and Varo. There, Carrington met the other European expatriates, and also forged a lifelong important friendship with the Hungarian photographer Kati Horna.

The friendships with Varo and Horna were seminal to Carrington’s development during this period. For the first time, she had friends who supported her endeavors on equal grounding and without the competition and condescension of the Surrealist male gaze. As a result, the trio (both in their friendships and individualities) created a feminine artistic space built upon deconstructing religion and reconstructing alchemy, which has gone on to shape Feminism and the notions of the collective art sisterhood and mythos. These three women  would collaborate and synthesize their worlds together, and was the focus of Surreal Friends, exhibited in England during 2010, and also at the center of In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States during 2012.

Carrington would also meet her second husband and life-partner, Chiki Schwartz. Unlike Ernst and Leduc, this marriage would be one of understanding and support, and enhanced for Carrington by motherhood. The Schwartzes had two sons, and Carrington was as devoted to them as she was to her canvases. Family and friends finally found, Carrington lived out the rest of her days in Mexico, painting her best and most complex work, and outliving almost all the Surrealists until she died in 2011 at the age of 94. (Dorothea Tanning followed in 2012 at 102. There’s a really crass joke about the resource of longevity of Ernst’s lovers, but I like to think in their study of the mystic and arcane maybe, just maybe, the source of the Elixir Vitae that kept them alive for so long came from their devotion to their work.)

This is a pretty terse summation for the longest and most enriching part of Carrington’s life, but these key points all culminate in the reoccurring themes in the last ten stories. In this final batch, Carrington’s preoccupation with storytelling during this period seems to fall into a few categories: fables and farces in and around Mexico, dark and mystical conversations with aging and mortality, and some good ole time absurdities that read more like children’s stories akin to Roald Dahl, such as “The Sand Camel?” and “Mr. Gregory’s Fly,” written somewhere around the 1970s.

Bird Bath (Baño de pájaros) by Leonora Carrington, 1974

Only two of the ten stories here are blatantly set in Mexico: “A Mexican Fairy Tale” and “How to Start a Pharmaceuticals Business.” The latter is a satire about a far-future Mexico deprived of worldwide communication and the resulting society’s enjoyment of this new wave of silence. It is a typical Carrington story in that it features a female narrator (in this one, Carrington identifies herself by name in the dialogue) given a task from a higher-up, and just sort of waltzes into a bizarre chain of events while trying to complete her mission that includes grave-fitting and lottery winnings. However, the prize was not a cash pot, but a tiny coffin containing the shrunken and stinking embalmed corpse of Joseph Stalin, or possibly Rasputin. In either case, a rando pharmacist feeds her a strand of hair from the homunculus’s mustache, which acts as a powerful and instantaneous pain reliever. She distills its secrets and opens the largest pharmaceutical business in Mexico.

How to Start a Pharmaceuticals Business” is misanthropic, grotesque, and introduces a new theme that characterizes almost all of the stories from her later life: death, aging, and rejuvenation. These tropes weave in and out of the majority of stories like “The Neutral Man,” “Et in Bellicus Lunarum Medicalis,” “My Flannel Knickers” “The Happy Corpse,” and “My Mother Is a Cow.” “My Flannel Knickers,” and “My Mother is a Cow” stand out to me the most because of their ambiguous but axiomatic preoccupations with immortality such as: “Anybody over forty and toothless should be sensible enough to be quietly knitting an original new body, instead of wasting the cosmic wool.”

The most interesting and quintessential tale from this period is “A Mexican Fairy Tale.” She riffs on Quetzalcoatl, the MesoAmerican primordial feathered serpent God, and mythpunks it with the Western notion of the chemical marriage in 1940s Mexico. Quetzalcoatl is a hard god to pin down, but I believe the version that spoke most to Carrington has to be his form as a vegetation god. Her love of food expresses itself through this version, and the pages are scattered with mangos, melons, maguey, tortillas, chilies, and corn. In between the fruits and vegetables is a new bestiary filled with North American animals like pigs, jaguars, lizards, black moles, and tropical birds whose wings spin so fast you “could see through them.”

It’s one of the longer stories in the entire collection and diverges from her usual formula to depict the tale from two perspectives: pig-herder Juan, and Maria, the daughter of a surly man (Don Pedro), who loans Juan a ladder. Juan needs the ladder to investigate the mysterious crying he hears from the nearby ruins, but to gain Don Pedro’s trust, lies that it’ll be used to pick mangos. When Juan doesn’t return on time, Maria runs away from her father’s home to find Juan.

Two young people are lured by various circumstances to an ancient ruin, and there they find all sorts of anthropomorphic gods that ultimately capture them, bind them, and throw them into a flame together to transmogrify the couple into a conjunctio and unifies the narrative into one voice. Carrington calls these united souls Quetzalcoatl, and then transforms the entire, strange ritual into that of a chemical marriage in which to be truly in love two must become one. It’s a sagacious romance, and I think it is one of Carrington’s best tales.

Now that we’ve reached the end of this reading experiment, I have to admit that I wasn’t pulled in by each and every tale. At times, certain tropes like being invited into a house, or being summoned by a superior, or always just sort of stumbling into a bit of weirdness became redundant to me. Obviously, this method of manifestation must have been very important to Carrington, perhaps symbolizing how life is dealt by chance and favor. But it almost took on the same tedium as when a story begins with someone waking up from a dream. Sometimes the stories’ conclusions were unsatisfactory to me, and at other times I was indifferent to the zig-zag logic of the surrealistic visions, perhaps because the language was so clipped and dry. But maybe it’s just you aren’t meant to read Carrington’s work one after another in a marathon fashion, as I have done. In any case, what is charming, and made me ignore these personal pet peeves, is that these weaknesses are also her strengths.  When they are utilized to their full potential, as in “White Rabbits,” “A Mexican Fairy Tale,” “The Sisters,” and “As They Rode Along the Edge” to name a few, they are unforgettable and haunting masterpieces of the auto-imagination, and show just how far art can go towards reinventing and empowering the individual throughout her life.

So with the collected stories concluded, we have one more round in this read-along. Next up will be the novella Down Below and her children’s book Milk of Dreams, both published by NYRB classics, as well as a look at Joanna Moorhead’s seminal biography The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington, which has been a valuable resource throughout these past three readings.  We will even have an additional giveaway, so stay tuned for further surrealistic explorations.


[1] Just to be extra nerdy, I did consult Silver Press and have placed “The Sand Camel” and “Mr. Gregory’s Fly” as having been written somewhere around the 1970s. In contrast, “Jemima and the Wolf” was written around 1941, which explains why it seems to embody all of the characteristics and motifs of her earlier fiction.