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The Wildly Surrealist Stories of Leonora Carrington

by Carol Cooper

The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington
By Leonora Carrington
Dorothy Project, 232 pp., $16
Down Below
By Leonora Carrington
New York Review of Books, 112 pp., $14
The Milk of Dreams
By Leonora Carrington
New York Review of Books, 56 pp., $15.95

April 6, 2017, marked the centennial of artist and writer Leonora Carrington's birth. A British-born textile heiress who ran away from her parents, her inheritance, and bourgeois conformity to join the Surrealist carnival in Paris at the age of twenty, Carrington proceeded, like many iconoclastic Surrealist women, to build a legendary life around her own imagination. Although American biographers, art galleries, and museum curators have been raising Carrington's public profile since the mid-1980s, she only continues to attract curiosity and admiration in the 21st century.

Carrington, who died in 2011 at the age of 94, can be a problematic figure for those who would claim her as a feminist; the freedoms and gender equality she demanded revolved more around individual than collective needs. If I were to choose one word to describe Carrington, it might be untamed. Her wild willfulness -- as expressed in her own behavior but also by the animal-identified characters populating her short stories and paintings -- does not always align with second-wave feminism's idea of sisterhood über alles. Did Carrington buy in to the Surrealist notion that any superior man required a precocious "woman-child" as spiritual muse? Perhaps she did when she initially fell in love and ran away to Paris with Max Ernst -- then still married to his second wife. But by the time she'd recovered from a nervous breakdown -- precipitated by events in Nazi-occupied France and vividly described in her 1941 memoir, Down Below -- Carrington could navigate Freud's personal and Jung's collective unconscious well enough to transcend stereotypical gender roles. Freed of indecision and blind emotional dependencies, Carrington fled war-torn Europe to establish a more matriarchal Surrealist circle in Mexico. There, surrounded by diverse artists, poets, filmmakers, and photographers (including Luis Buñuel, Remedios Varo, Kati Horna, Benjamin Péret, Manuel and Lola Álvarez Bravo, even a young Alejandro Jodorowsky), her painting became more powerful, symbolic, and thematically witchy than ever.

This month, two small publishers have joined forces to celebrate the literary side of Carrington's talent. The Dorothy Project, a feminist press dedicated to publishing important distaff authors, is releasing The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, in which her animal soul invests cautionary/autobiographical tales like "The Debutante" and alchemical parables like "My Mother Is a Cow" with a perverse humor. Her protagonists speak to gods, monsters, parents, and strangers in the same fearlessly ironic voice. Irrational or horrible things happen to people in these stories just as they do in fairy tales, dreams, the Bible, and real life. Intending to destroy dualistic viewpoints, Carrington offers no glib moral judgments. Hoping to transmit this attitude to the next generation, she made for her two sons an illustrated book of similar tales, called The Milk of Dreams, that the New York Review of Books will sell in its children's section. Each story centers its sentences on the page like a poem or an incantation. They also contain tremendously visual ideas: In "The Lawyer's Son" little Jeremy brings the family couch to life by cutting tiny mouth-holes in the fabric and feeding them. In "The Black Story of the White Woman," a lady dressed in black cries iridescent blue and green tears while she plays the flute. But before you buy this strange codex for your own innocent babes, it might be wise to examine a portrait Carrington painted in 1953 of herself and her boys. It was revealingly titled: And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur.

Besides the hermetic children's book, NYRB has decided to reprint Down Below, first published by the New York-based Surrealist journal VVV in 1944. NYRB also secured a new introduction from Marina Warner, who helped Carrington compile a 1988 anthology with E.P. Dutton. That book appended Down Below to a selection of short stories illustrated by Ernst in 1938 and '39. Now separated from short fiction and feverish Ernst collages, this centennial edition of the wartime memoir strikes me as a cleaner, more muscular read. It recounts Carrington's incarceration in a Spanish asylum and her daring escape in a tone so cool that even the most harrowing details have a delayed effect on the reader, like the timed release of a potent drug. Her use of language is as precise as an artist's choice of line or color, which helps her express the inexpressible. "It was no longer necessary to translate noises, physical contacts, or sensations into rational terms or words," she writes of the telepathic fugue that beset her in Madrid.

"Here in the Sun Room I felt I was manipulating the firmament: I had found what was essential to solving the problem of Myself in relation to the Sun. I believed that I was being put through purifying tortures so that I might attain Absolute Knowledge, at which point I could live Down Below. The pavilion with this name was for me the Earth, the Real World, Paradise, Eden, Jerusalem. . . . 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."

When her parents sent her an escort to visit or guide her, she calls them "my keeper," as if she is a wild animal kept in a zoo. Indeed, whether in writing or painting, any allusion to disobedience is always framed as the logical expression of her natural state of wildness. Any perceived obstacle to her physical freedom, her moral autonomy, or her instinctive pursuit of hidden cosmic laws must be prevented at all costs. In this context, all her rumored experiments with alchemical cooking, witchcraft, seduction, Tibetan Buddhism, and Jungian psychotherapy become believable apocrypha . . . the more domestic, human side of a truly remarkable woman. Leonora's writing as contained in these three slender tomes only reinforces her reputation as sibyl, sorceress, and the ultimate femme-enfant.

Published in: Village Voice, April 12, 2017