Down Below by Leonora Carrington. NYRB Classics. 112pp, $14.00.
Before Leonora Carrington became a famed surrealist artist and writer, she went mad. In the late 1930s, the English debutante was living with her lover Max Ernst (more than 20 years her senior) in a farmhouse in Provence, when Ernst was imprisoned on a visit to Paris and sent to a concentration camp. As the German army advanced, Carrington fled across the Pyrenees into Spain, where, after exhibiting increasingly deranged behavior, she was interned in an insane asylum in Santander. Down Below is Carrington’s brief yet harrowing account of her journey to the other side of consciousness.
It was André Breton who encouraged Carrington to write down her experience. Liberation of the mind was the ultimate aim of surrealism, and Carrington, already consecrated as a surrealist femme-enfant, a conduit for her much older lover to the realms of youth and mystery, had now traveled further than any of them and lived to tell the tale. While she was predisposed to find artistic merit in her experience of madness, Carrington’s reasons for telling her story seem more personal and therapeutic: “How can I write this when I’m afraid to think about it? I am in terrible anguish, yet I cannot continue living alone with such a memory…I know that once I write it down, I shall be delivered.”
The text has a strange history, between English and French, oral and written. The original English version, written in 1942, was lost. Carrington then dictated the tale in French to Jeanne Megnen in 1943. An English translation by Victor Llona of the French dictation was published in 1944, while the French version was published by Editions Fontaine in 1946. The text of the New York Review Books edition, which was revised by Carrington for factual accuracy, attempts to get back to the definitive English original, somewhere between the French dictation and Llona translation.
As if all this weren’t confusing enough, Carrington’s conceit is that she is “telling” her story to an unnamed friend who turns out to be Pierre Mabille (Jeanne Megnen’s husband), a refugee with whom she was squatting, after escaping Europe, in the abandoned Russian embassy in Mexico City. She begins on the third anniversary of her internment, Monday, August 23, 1943, and finishes on Friday, August 27, 1943, so the dates are not diary entries in the tale of madness but present indications of the effort and length of time it takes Carrington to recall the ordeal. The narrative ends quite abruptly with Carrington regaining consciousness but still in the asylum. A postscript explains how Carrington finally escaped from Santander, as told in New York in 1987 to Marina Warner, the compiler and author of the introduction. So, in this reconstruction of the 1943 text, Carrington is remembering not only her experience of madness but an account she had already written down.
The horrors of war can drive a person to despair; the patriarchy can drive a woman mad. For the young Carrington, unaware at the time of “the absolute necessity of having a healthy body to avoid disaster in the liberation of the mind,” these powerful forces join with surrealist doctrine to create an intoxicating and destructive cocktail. The symptoms of Carrington’s illness are familiar: an identification with the natural world and violent, animalistic behavior; externalization of the self and belief that she directs the universe and she alone can right the world’s wrongs; paranoia; hallucinations.
But one manifestation of Carrington’s condition is particularly notable: she views both it and the treatments she is prescribed through a sexualized lens. At the Covadonga Sanatorium, Carrington is given a shot to induce an artificial abscess in her thigh, which is so painful that it prevents her from walking for two months. Then, she writes “they tore my clothes off brutally and strapped me naked to the bed . . . I don’t know how long I remained bound and naked. Several days and nights, lying in my own excrement, urine, and sweat, tortured by mosquitoes whose stings made my body hideous.” The description echoes a line about an earlier gang rape by a group of soldiers, shortly after Carrington’s arrival in Spain and before she is committed: “[They] threw me onto a bed, and after tearing off my clothes raped me one after the other.”
The worst is yet to come. Carrington is treated with Cardiazol, a drug used to induce seizures before the advent of electroconvulsive therapy. She describes the experience as “sinking down into a well . . . very far. . . . The bottom of that well was the stopping of my mind for all eternity in the essence of utter anguish” and “I grimaced and my grimaces were repeated all over my body.” The treatment achieves the seemingly desired effect of making Carrington submit to her captors, who condescend to her in French, saying “I am no longer seeing a tigress, but a young lady.” Tellingly, Carrington describes her reaction in the language of sexual submission:
I was dominated, ready to become the slave of the first comer, ready to die, it all mattered little to me. When Don Luis [her doctor] came to see me, later, I told him that I was the feeblest creature in the whole world, that I could meet his desires, whatever they were, and that I licked his shoes.
Carrington also turns to feminine rituals and trappings in an attempt to make sense of her reality, believing that once she solves the problem set before her, she will be sent to live “Down Below,” a pavilion on the premises that she equates with paradise in another cosmic realm. In this way, the book’s title describes both the space in which Carrington dwelled, untethered from reality, and a longed for realm within her mad universe. Carrington groups her face products together with the logic of a Joseph Cornell tableau, in order to “regulate the World”:
A box of Tabu powder with a lid, half grey and half black, meant eclipse, complex, vanity, taboo, love. Two jars of face cream: the one with a black lid was night, the left side, the moon, woman, destruction: the other, with a green lid, was man, the brother, green eyes, the Sun, construction. My nail buff, shaped like a boat, evoked for me a journey into the Unknown . . .
At the height of her madness, Carrington regards herself as a fascinatingly androgynous conflation of powerful personas and deities: “I felt that, through the agency of the Sun, I was an androgyne, the Moon, the Holy Ghost, a gypsy, an acrobat, Leonora Carrington, and a woman I was also destined to be, later, Elizabeth of England. . . . I knew that Christ was dead and done for, and that I had to take His place, because the Trinity, minus a woman and microscopic knowledge, had become dry and incomplete.” It is at points like these that Carrington’s inflated sense of self-importance—though a product of her derangement—grates on the reader. Perhaps it is easier to stomach a more socially disadvantaged, mentally ill person hallucinating godlike power than one for whom power and privilege are never out of arm’s reach. For her privilege, of course, is both what keeps Carrington imprisoned and what ultimately enables her to escape. As soon as she regains her faculties, she manages to foil her father’s plan to ship her to an asylum in South Africa. The nonchalance with which she accepts that the identity papers she had given away in her madness “seemed to turn up again” strikes a bitter note when one considers the fate of so many other European refugees.
The strength of Carrington’s narrative is her unabashed commitment to reporting her mad logic from inside. There is very little editorializing; instead, she offers herself up to the reader’s interpretation. The narrator’s present self-doubt makes her sympathetic: “I have been writing for three days, though I had expected to deliver myself in a few hours; this is painful, because I am living this period all over again and sleeping badly, troubled and anxious as I am about the usefulness of what I am doing.” Yet, the account strikes a strange balance between apparent objectivity and autofiction, aware of its literary precedents in such texts as Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. Carrington freely admits to this. On day two, she begins “I am afraid I am going to drift into fiction, truthful but incomplete, for lack of some details which I cannot conjure up today and which might have enlightened us.” In the end, the book is a tantalizing testament to the reality one’s own mind makes, as Carrington seems to accept her madness with a sense of agency, determined not to go around but through: “I had not yet known suffering ‘in its essence’; I wandered into the unknown with the abandon and courage of ignorance.” Carrington steps down from the pedestal as an independent artist, rewriting the surrealist fiction of madwoman as muse from the perspective of heroine.
Lucina Schell works in international rights for the University of Chicago Press and is founding editor of Reading in Translation. Her translations of poetry by Daiana Henderson are forthcoming in Cardboard House Press’ DRONE chapbook series, and her translations of Miguel Ángel Bustos appear in Tupelo Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, The Bitter Oleander, Drunken Boat, Ezra Translation Journal, and Seven Corners Poetry.
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