(Leonora Carrington, Down Below, 1941, oil on canvas; found here)
Three days perhaps after my second Cardiazol injection, I was given back the objects which had been confiscated on my entering the sanatorium, and a few others besides. I realised that with the aid of these objects I had to set to work, combining solar systems to regulate the conduct of the World. I had a few French coins, which represented the downfall of men through their passion for money; those coins were supposed to enter into the planetary system as units and not as particular elements; should they join with other objects, wealth would no longer beget misfortune. My red-and-black refill pencil (leadless) was Intelligence. I had two bottles of eau de cologne: the flat one was the José, the other, cylindrical one, the non-José. 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, and also the talisman protecting that journey: the song ‘El barco velero’. My little mirror was to win over the Whole. As for my Tangee lipstick, I have but a vague memory of its significance; it probably was the meeting with colour and speech, painting and literature: Art.
Happy with my discovery, I would group these objects around each other; they wandered together on the celestial path, helping each other along and forming a complete rhythm. I gave an alchemical life t the objects according to their position and their contents. (My face cream Night, in the black-lidded jar, contained the lemon, which was an antidote to the seizure induced by Cardiazol.)
Lucid and gay, I waited impatiently for Don Luis. I said to myself: ‘I have solved the problems he set before me. I shall certainly be led Down Below.’ So I was horrified when, far from appreciating my labour, he gave me a second injection of Cardiazol.
So Leonora Carrington, incarcerated against her will in an asylum in Santandar, tries to reassert some control over her life and fate through ritual. She had been abducted from Madrid, drugged and anaesthetised, by doctors acting it seems on the instruction of her father. In the asylum she was subjected to Cardiazol, a convulsive drug therapy which induced terrifying fits; after she recovered, an escort was sent by her family to collect her and take her to a sanatorium in South Africa. When the party reached Lisbon, Carrington escaped them and took refuge in the Mexican consulate before ultimately travelling on to New York.
This dramatic episode in Carrington’s life began in May 1940. She was living in the south of France with Max Ernst, her much older lover, and he was arrested by the invading German army and sent to a concentration camp. Her loss and grief precipitated a psychotic break. She was taken by her friends over the border to Spain:
I was quite overwhelmed by my entry into Spain: I thought it was my kingdom; that the red earth was the dried blood of the Civil War. I was choked by the dead, by their thick presence in that lacerated countryside. I was in a great state of exaltation when we arrived in Barcelona that evening, convinced that we had to reach Madrid as speedily as possible. [...]
Once in Madrid, convinced that the city was the ‘world’s stomach and that I had been chosen for the task of restoring this digestive organ to health’, Leonora’s state of mind deteriorated further until she was forcibly sent to the institution in Santander.
Down Under was written and told (see below) shortly after the events recounted in it had taken place. Carrington retells her experiences in a way that makes no difference between what ‘really’ happened and what she ‘thought’ happened, and with no attempts to explain what might be going on or rationalise things. We are plunged into her disordered consciousness, we see only what she saw and understand only what she understood. People, like the sinister Van Ghent or Don Mariano, behave like figures in a dream; they do things but we don’t know why. We have no sense of them as human beings, only of what they represent to Carrington at that time. There is no external world, only the world of her mind.
And that world is full of fear: rightly so, for most of the male figures and administrations in Down Under seek to control or harm her. Even at her most confused or vulnerable, Carrington is acutely aware of power and who may have it (although she is not always entirely correct about this, ascribing more influence to Moro the dog than he does in fact possess). Those in power only abuse their privilege and show little compassion for Carrington. There is a sense that her recovery and certainly her subsequent escape are despite rather than thanks to those who should be caring for her.
Many of Carrington’s experiences and hallucinations heighten her sense of connexion to the natural world. She dreams she is a white colt; she is convinced that animals find her sympathetic; at one point she acts like various animals. Furthermore, she grows or the world shrinks so that her body becomes not just a symbol but literally everything. It’s as if she’s skinless. Her dysentery is a symptom of her struggle to restore the city of Madrid to health and Van Ghent’s power over her a power that extends to the whole of Spain. Weeping, she begs her friend Catherine to look at her face: ‘Don’t you see that it is the exact representation of the world?’ In the asylum, her interest in objects symbolising a greater whole continues, and her sense of the universe expands to include the entire institution. She becomes obsessed by the largest pavilion, which is called Down Below. Convinced that this is paradise, Carrington believes she can only gain entry through meditation and realisation of the Whole Truth.
(Leonora Carrington, AB EO QUOD, 1956, oil on canvas; found here)
In an interview quoted here, Carrington said:
My love for the soil, nature, the gods given to me by my mother’s mother who was Irish from Westmeath, where there is a myth about men who lived underground inside the mountains, called the ‘little people’ who belong to the race of the ‘Sidhe.’ My grandmother used to tell me we were descendents of that ancient race that magically started to live underground when their land was taken by invaders with different political religious ideas. They preferred to retire underground where they are dedicated to magic and alchemy, knowing how to change gold. (in Susan L. Aberth, Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy & Art, Lund Humphries 2010)
These stories seem to feed in both to the fantasy of Down Below as a protective haven and to Carrington’s association of a personal alchemy as a means to counter hostile forces.
The book has a convoluted history. It was first written in English in New York, 1942, and subsequently lost. Carrington then dictated it in French and it was translated into English and published in 1943 in the journal VVV. The French dictation was published in Paris in 1946. The version in the NYRB series, which is the one I read, took both the French and the English texts as its basis and was reviewed and revised by Carrington herself in 1987. This history may be responsible for the particular style of the book. As Marina Warner points out in her excellent introduction, the oral/written, bilingual (and Carrington was apparently not terribly fluent in French) ancestry contributes to the very direct, almost clinical tone of the book, so very different from her other writings. Yet the ‘memories’ she describes are fresh and vivid, shocking. Perhaps Carrington was able to effectively maintain the contrast of tone and content because while she first recorded and wrote about the experiences, she was still very close to them and could recall them with great clarity; yet the repeated re-tellings and then the final editorial input forty years later gave her useful distance. The lack of bitterness, self-justification or self-pity, even when relating a gang rape, is extraordinary.
(Leonora Carrington, Crookhey Hall, 1947, casein on masonite; Crookhey Hall was Carrington’s childhood home and its gloomy neo-Gothic architecture had a profound influence on her; found here)