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The Uncivil Servant: Leonora Carrington’s Madness

Mitchell Abidor
August 4, 2017

Books discussed in this essay: Down Below by Leonora Carrington. NYRB Classics, 69 pages, 2017; The Milk of Dreams by Leonora Carrington. New York Review Children’s Collection, 54 pages, 2013 [first publication in English, 2017].

THERE ARE FEW more harrowing, more unromantic accounts of that too-often-romanticized experience that is madness than Leonora Carrington’s Down Below. Carrington (1917-2011), an artist and writer, whose centennial we are celebrating this year, led a turbulent life. Born in England, after being expelled from two convent schools she studied art in Florence. She discovered Surrealism thanks to a book given her by her mother, yet there is nothing aestheticized about Carrington’s account in Down Below of her time in a lunatic asylum in Spain in 1943, following the incarceration in France, as an enemy alien, of her lover, the Surrealist Max Ernst.

Down Below is written in a spare language, the delusions produced by her madness presented matter-of-factly, nothing leading the reader to think they were unreal. Seldom does the phrase “I believed…” or “I thought…” precede her retailing of the ideas and systems that grew from her illness. Down Below reveals how entirely logical the ideas of the mad can be, how well everything fits into a perfectly defined, natural-seeming system once the first premise is accepted, which the madman has no choice but to do. That Carrington, as an artist, began in the Surrealist milieu, which prized madness as a higher form of reality, perhaps plays a part in how simply she writes of her hermetic system, whose elements shifted and changed with the days.

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“Map of Down Below,” 1941[/caption]

Grandiosity played no small part in her insanity: “I was she who revealed religions and bore on her shoulders the freedom and the sins of the earth changed into Knowledge, the union of Man and Woman with God and Cosmos, all equal between them.” And further on: “Later, with full lucidity, I would go Down below, as the third person of the Trinity. I felt that, through the agency of the sun, I was an Adrogyne, the Moon, the Holy Ghost, a gypsy, an acrobat, Leonora Carrington, and a woman.” The mixing of the hallucinatory and the real, described seamlessly.

Even physical illness assumes a wider significance: “The dysentery I suffered from later was nothing but the illness of Madrid taking shape in my intestinal tract.” No longer menstruating while in the hospital, this, too, had wider significance: “I was transforming my blood into comprehensive energy -- masculine and feminine, microcosmic and macrocosmic -- and into a wine that was drunk by the moon and the sun.”

Being in a country whose language she barely spoke actually expanded her expressive powers: “I was not hindered by a preconceived idea of the words, and I but half understood their modern meaning. This made it possible for me to invest the most ordinary phrases with hermetic significance.”

As real as these visions produced by madness is the reality of the anti-psychotic injection she receives, which is presented as far more horrific than her visions: “I relived my first injection, and felt again the atrocious experience of the original dose of Cardaizol: absence of motion, fixation, horrible reality.”

ONE COULD ATTEMPT to place Carrington’s madness within a feminist context, a cry of revolt against her domineering father, against her demanding and much older lover, against the omniscient and omnipotent physicians -- but doing so assumes insanity is a willed ailment.

Carrington eventually was released from the sanatorium, escaped the agents of her wealthy father who want to have her settle in South Africa, and fled to Mexico, which at this time had a significant exile community, which included French Surrealists.

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Carrington and Ernst[/caption]

Victor Serge would meet her at a soiree at the home of Surrealist Pierre Mabille in Mexico City. He would describe her as “clearly schizophrenic,” and go on to describe her art: “She creates madwoman’s drawings in gouache with bits of landscape floating over islands, women’s clothing suspended in the air or the void, flayed animals, hands scattered here and there, nightmare or dream silhouettes outlined with a fine brush amid vegetal greens and delicate yellows and greens. All of this covered with lengthy minuscule texts in which I read only that the universe is the result of the couplings of nothingness. Besides, one of the drawings is hanging upside down on the wall, and it’s been agreed that it should be flipped around every two weeks.”

If there is a genre in which the odd, unexplained, and inexplicable are allowed, it is children’s literature -- and Carrington would brilliantly combine word and image in The Milk of Dreams. These brief stories combine the absurd and the wicked, with much ado about neither. There’s Headless John, who loves to wiggle his outsized ears, which flap so hard they force his head to take off from his shoulders, and who ends the story with his head put on backwards, since his mother stuck it on with chewing gum in the dark. Or Child George, who so loved eating the walls of his room that, when given a pill to cure him of his malady, “George ate them all and his head grew into a house.”

Headless John’s decapitated stage is not unique in Milk of Dreams. In “The Horrible Story of the Little Meats,” three children who lie to an “ugly old woman” about having eaten little meats are told, “’All right, you’re ungrateful. I’m going to cut you up in little pieces.’ The children cried a lot. She took them away and she cut off their heads.” Like Headless John, when their heads are restored to their bodies, it’s done all wrong: “Tomasina had her head stuck to her hand. The little one had it stuck under his foot, and Vincent had his stuck on his behind.”

Carrington’s world is one of cruelness, in which the oddest is accepted as normal -- all of it written, as in Down Below, in a simple direct language, belied by the illustrations, which vary from line drawings to surrealism. Children are certain to be excited by a book whose tales bear titles like “The Nasty Story of the Camomile Tea,” which features sick little Angel, who drinks his tea “so he could make some more pipi” on passersby; or “The Gelatin and the Vulture,” in which a vulture falls into the jello as it’s being prepared and gets eaten, the diners having been told -- and believing -- it’s fruit.

Children will love hearing these stories and will laugh at the illustrations, while parents will enjoy every second of the reading.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.