“I had recourse to my heritage of British diplomacy and set aside the strength of my will, seeking through gentleness an understanding between the mountain, my body and my mind. One day I went to the mountain alone. At first I could not climb; I lay flat on my face on the slope with the sensation that I was being completely absorbed by the earth. When I took the first steps up the slope, I had the physical sensation of walking with tremendous effort in some matter thick as mud. Gradually, however, perceptibly and visibly, it all became easier, and in a few days I was able to negotiate jumps. I could climb vertical walls as easily as any goat.”
Reading Leonora Carrington’s Down Below, I thought: what an insightful metaphor explaining her mental state, climbing a mountain representing her struggles during a breakdown. It’s not a metaphor, I realised on rereading. She really is trying to climb a mountain. ‘Jams’ in her mind were beginning to manifest themselves in physical symptoms. To Carrington at least, she really did have to lie down on the mountain before she could learn to climb it, following which she really did develop an accord with the animals she met on her walks, to whom she could go closer than other humans and speak with them through touch.
This is the nature of Down Below, the remarkable and harrowing account of her breakdown, incarceration in a mental institution and eventual escape – she recounts precisely what happened without false imagery. This is how she remembered it, how she saw the world then, perhaps to an extent how she continued to see the world.
Despite being forced to leave Paris for the village of Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche to avoid Ernst’s understandably unhappy wife, Carrington apparently found something approaching paradise here, however briefly. No doubt, she was enjoying herself. Her father could no longer watch over her and she was deeply in love with Ernst, using the house as her canvas, cutting a sleeping guest’s hair and serving it in an omelette and other such exploits.
There is a darker side to her paradise, perhaps recognised by Carrington when she later referred to becoming ‘free’ from Ernst’s spell, finally; she was a twenty year old living with a forty-six year old man fulfilling the roles of wife, muse and medium. André Breton, the controlling father of surrealism, theorised about the femme-enfant, the girl on the cusp of womanhood whose youth brings her close to some mystery at the same time as to sexuality. Ernst’s (current and second) wife had also met him when she was young. After ten years, when she was too old to play this role, Carrington did instead. If she was blissfully happy with Ernst at the time, she did not maintain her view of him always and later distanced herself from him when both were in New York. Through her fiction and paintings, Carrington seems to evoke different, even incomprehensible, figures of Ernst – holding her trapped in a glass jar, a frightening vampire, a ‘Bird Superior’ who controls fear.
Whatever the nature of their relationship, and all we can really say is that it’s impossible for an outsider to comprehend though fascinating to explore, the forced end of this relationship broke her. When Ernst was arrested, first by the French as an enemy alien in 1939, then, after Carrington had achieved his release, by the Germans as a known undesirable, she was forced to leave France and the experiences described in Down Below were set in motion.
A Breton or a Rimbaud may have welcomed madness as a sort of pilgrimage for achieving true thought in the absence of the rational. Carrington may have seemed a heroine and authentic surrealist to men such as these. Indeed one can’t pretend that there aren’t moments of genuine wonder in the account of her journey. But the overwhelming feelings are of pain and fear, made all the more chilling by her collected, at times impersonal, retelling.
The NYRB released an edition of Down Below last year with an introduction by Marina Warner, a friend and admirer of Carrington’s. It contains a postscript told to Warner and checked by Carrington in 1987. Yet the main body of the work presents as a diary entry written over five days in 1943 recounting the events of three years before. (The centenary of Carrington’s birth also heralded a biography by her relative, Joanna Moorhead, a new collection of Carrington’s short stories and a ‘new’ edition of her novel The Hearing Trumpet: Penguin released it with a blue spine replacing the white...) Before this Carrington had written a version of the story in 1942, which she then lost (not, apparently, unusual for her). A year later, living with other fugitive surrealists in Mexico City, she attempted to tell her story once more. In her excellent introduction, Warner details the several forms and translations that the account went through to become this autobiographical record, which she says, “reflects surrealism’s cult of madness, especially female madness, as another conductor to the invisible world”. It seems fitting that Carrington’s own writing metamorphoses much like the characters in her stories.
Aware of the problem posed by that fickle companion, memory, not to mention the mental state of the narrator at the time of the events, the reader is sucked into a world below. Rational concerns like these quickly evaporate as Carrington’s extraordinary writing draws around you. She describes scenes in which she is a white colt, lying on its back dying, her hands are Adam and Eve, she is the moon, French coins represent the downfall of man and her nail file is a talisman protecting her journey into the Unknown.
The title refers to a place called ‘Abajo’ or ‘Down Below’, apparently a luxurious sanctuary in the institution’s grounds where people lived happily and treatment ceased. Carrington drew a map of her prison in which Down Below is a sort of temple with a burning sun branching off from it. If this is supposed to be a safe place, why is there a head on its spire? The map also includes a colt dying near the apple trees and a woman walking with a stick (Carrington said she sported a ‘philosophy stick’ at one stage) whose shadow forms the shape of a coffin. Of course ‘Down Below’ also sounds rather like a descent into hell.
Before being interned at Dr Morales’ sanatorium in Santander, Carrington writes that she was simply not aware of the importance of health, “of having a healthy body to avoid disaster in the liberation of the mind”. Indeed she had reacted physically to Ernst’s arrest, making herself sick in the hope of purifying herself of her sorrow. Later she would become imprisoned, as he was. At this time she saw her stomach as the seat of society as well as the mirror of the earth; it had to be cleansed of the former so as to fulfil its roles as the latter. She ate very little and believed that she became very strong. She was alone, devoid of any friends who might hope to understand her, company coming only in the form of Belgian soldiers who entered her home accusing her of being a spy.
When two friends do arrive, fleeing from Paris, she agrees to go with them to escape the Germans. Her friend Catherine insists they flee to avoid rape. Carrington was not afraid of that (“I attached no importance to it.”) but is panicked by the idea of thoughtless, fleshless robots instead. Such statements are made almost dully, without explanation and in the same breath as concerns such as going to secure a travelling permit. How she could deal with things like packing and collecting papers when she was also convinced that her own feeling of being jammed has caused her friend’s Fiat to jam is impenetrable; outwardly at this point she must have been capable still of necessary practical tasks. It’s unclear to me the extent to which she lost this ability or to which it was taken away by her treatment.
The three made it to Andorra and solicited ‘Papa Carrington’s’ help to enter Spain. Her father owned majority shares in Imperial Chemicals Industries and appears to have been able to call people and ‘make things happen’. Though she would never see him again after leaving England, he was an imposing figure, to put it mildly, in his daughter’s life and thus in her work – she once described him as a Mafioso. Now, having asked for his help, she was once again captive.
In Madrid, Carrington describes her increasing beliefs in the power of her own mind. In Andorra her mind had had power over her body and would come to exercise itself over other objects. Now she believes that the world’s suffering had collected in her; she alone could bear and solve this. It is in this state that she meets Van Ghent, a shadowy, almost magus like man who will come to represent her father, Ernst, dark magic, Hitler... At one point, he leaves her in a café while she is trying to give all her belongings away. The men with whom he leaves her take her to a house and rape her.
Van Ghent shows no interest when she tells him this and is merely annoyed that she has woken him up to do so. In an insomniac state, she becomes obsessed with his powers of hypnosis, perceiving that only she can vanquish him. The urge to destroy him and liberate Madrid from his mystical authority takes her to the British Embassy. She tries to convince the Consul that Van Ghent represents Hitler in Spain and that through him they could stop the war. The Consul phones a doctor and the two agree that Carrington is mad.
This was the shape that her beliefs took – that she alone had an essential connection to the metaphysical forces controlling everything and could liberate the world from disaster. At the same time she talks of seducing one of her doctors, contentedly washing her clothes and outsmarting the nuns in one sanatorium and escaping. Behind all this her father pulls the strings and his agents eventually secure his tearaway daughter in an institution in Santander.
It is telling that it is only once confined that her story disintegrates into distinctly more confusing, if poetic, assertions: “the task of the right eye is to peer into the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope”; “I rejoiced at seeing my eyes become miraculously solar systems, kindled by their own light”. She had been anaesthetised, heavily, and casually places the date at which she awoke as being anywhere between 19th and 25th August – she never found out how long she had been unconscious. The waking was painful. Her hands and feet were bound and she was force fed through a nasal tube.
This was not the last time she would be held hostage in this manner nor drugged; she was given several injections of Cardiazol. This was a drug that induced epileptic fits, administered with the belief that during such fits a patient became lucid and ultimately this could cure psychosis. The few readily available articles about the drug describe the fits as extremely painful – sometimes the convulsions were so intense that the patient’s spine fractured – and the intense fear caused. It appeared to cause some incredible improvements, frequently only lasting a few months before the patient ‘needed’ another injection. Carrington, whether the doctors saw her and other patients this way or not, was used for a science experiment.
It is in matter of fact tone that Carrington describes brutal fights with her physicians, an injection that causes an abscess in her thigh so that she can’t walk, her nurse revealing events to her of which she has no memory and waking dreams of barbed wire over which her hands have made plants grow. She writes that she was “not greatly inconvenienced” by being left for days in her own filth, though she did find the mosquitoes torturous. Against this background though, she does come to fear sleep, since she cannot remember what happens then and tries to force herself to remain conscious.
Writing three years after the events, she begins to recoil from the telling. Admitting that she is afraid to think about her ordeal, she also sees doing so as another kind of cleansing. She mentions briefly the effects of reliving those days before continuing to do so. One wonders if she ever really recovered from her terror, or if it just faded enough to be manageable.
Her attention turns to the other patients who appear to be under the influence of Van Ghent. (One is the Prince of Monaco, one has been tortured by the Archbishop of Santander, one carries a matchbox of excrement everywhere; it almost doesn’t matter which parts of this were true only for Carrington – they were still true.) The doctors too were powerful magicians. And most at some stage represent her father. After one Cardiazol injection and the subsequent symptoms, the doctor who runs the institution, Don Morales, comes to see her and addresses her as if she were a naughty girl who has thrown a tantrum about a dress, “so you feel better, Mademoiselle?... I am no longer seeing a tigress, but a young lady”. She is reduced to obedience and docility, the good girl the father figures expected.
Needing to aim for something, aside from bringing a cleansing understanding to the world, her mind settles on making it to ‘Abajo’ or ‘Down Below’, where she believes her torture will stop. The two aims were linked and achievable through divination of the Truth. At the same time, moving to Down Below became about appearing compliant through her tortures and solving problems put before her by the doctors. Her masters had driven her to a point where it seemed that their sadistic treatment was all part of gaining a sort of Platonic Knowledge.
Colour, shape and number fascinate her in either lucid or visionary state. After a conversation with her doctor in which she proclaims that she can teach him great Knowledge if he frees her, she sends him a picture of a triangle: ‘that triangle, to my way of thinking, explained everything.” When she enters Down Below she climbs a tower and observes “laboratory saucers of thick glass, some crescent shaped, others half-moon shaped, the remainder perfectly round… an oblong tin… three rectangular tanks of metal…”. She can still see these shapes distinctly as she relates the experience (the vision?) three years later. Arranging these objects or moving food around on her plate is her solving puzzles to show that she is cured. Other calculations similarly obsessed her and she writes that she would “set to work on the three figures which continually obsessed me: 6, 8 and 20… I would get the figure 1600, which called to mind Queen Elizabeth… I was her reincarnation.”
Myth has it that her nanny arrived to rescue her by submarine. Sadly, it was a warship and it’s not at all clear that she came to rescue her in any sense that I would understand rescue. Certainly the arrival of her nanny does not result in their leaving. Instead, she enters another of her more dreamy stretches of narrative, ever with the shadow of nurses and doctors over her. The doctor, Don Luis, in particular, is never far from her thoughts or her actual presence. He is a causer of pain and fear but sometimes almost a co-conspirator, calling on her at all hours of the night, admitting that he would like to accompany her to China and taking her on an outing to an undertaker’s.
I would like to write that Carrington’s visions were filled with images from the Bible, insights about the solar system, alignments of people with the heavenly bodies, bright colours and communication with animals. But these aren’t solely confined to her visions. Clear lines between what happened each day and what she believed she saw do not exist, resulting in this being both the surrealist narrative and the inversion of such an invention when she realises some truths about what is happening. Doubtless she needed help and was subjected to something horrific by her own hallucinations. But her doctors augmented this. Finally she learnt that, “Don Luis was a not a sorcerer but a scoundrel… and that I should get out as quickly as possible” and sums up the effect of the physicians when she describes, “the mystery which had enveloped me and which they all seemed to take pleasure in deepening around me”.
There were more controlling and powerful men to come as her father tried to have her moved to a sanatorium in South Africa. A man offers to make her his mistress to save her from that fate – she turns him down – and men from Imperial Chemicals act as her guards on the journey. Not for long though; she escapes them in Lisbon where her friend Renato Leduc worked in the Mexican Embassy. Leduc helped her to escape for good, ultimately to Mexico. In Mexico, she married a photographer named Imre Weisz and had two children. If this sounds like a rather traditional end to the surrealist dream, have a look at her ‘children’s stories’, The Milk of Dreams. She developed a flair for the macabre fairytale of which the Brothers Grimm or Roald Dahl could hardly dream.
Once free from the sanatorium, from her father, from Max Ernst’s spell, she began to paint again. Here she found that she did not need to escape from herself (or selves, as Warner suggests). Her paintings, fiction and even this account show that she found the creativity, the wonder and the wit in her changing views of the world and in the darker recesses of her ever active, if once destructive, mind.