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Sara Potter
Washington University in Saint Louis
UC-Irvine, April 29, 2011

Breaking On Through and Telling It Slant: Autobiography and Fantasy in the Writings of
Leonora Carrington

You know the day destroys the night
Night divides the day
Tried to run / Tried to hide
Break on through to the other side
--The Doors

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
…The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
--Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson‟s famous poem advises: “tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” It was not
until Leonora Carrington arrived in Mexico as a refugee from the Second World War that she
was finally afforded the space to tell her truth—which she then told, not only slant, but also
upside down and as if infused with hallucinogens. On its surface, her 1944 memoir Down Below
is a Surrealist‟s dream: a journey to the other side of sanity and back again as recounted by a
woman who had already captured the attention and admiration of Max Ernst, André Breton, and
other founders of European Surrealism. Carrington, however, refused to present her time in a
mental hospital in Spain as a dreamy elevation of consciousness but rather a brutal encounter
filled with pain and violence that she describes with images drawn from her studies of alchemy.
In her novel The Hearing Trumpet, written two decades later, Carrington crosses over “to the
other side” again, but this time to a region of her own making. In this paper, I argue that both
trips and texts are informed by and constructed upon varying degrees of autobiography and
fantasy, allowing her to redefine Breton‟s Surrealism to her own ends or leave it behind entirely.
My last piece of analysis is also the one I‟ve struggled with the most; initially, I hypothesized
that Carrington‟s texts can be read productively alongside Mexican historical discourse and
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explorations of identity, both implicitly (in Down Below) and explicitly (in The Hearing
Trumpet). While I don‟t wish to draw overly forced connections between the two (though I may
well have), I do maintain that there is a unique and not fully explored relationship between
Mexico, surrealism, and the creative and commercial success that European female surrealist
artists found there. In other words, why Mexico? What was going on in a predominantly macho
society that would nonetheless grant such artistic autonomy to these women who participated in
an artistic movement that famously otherized them? For the purposes of this paper, I am limiting
myself to Leonora Carrington, but I could just as well have written about Remedios Varo, Alice
Rahon, Bridget Tichenor, or Kati Horna, all of whom came with their partners or spouses and
stayed—some of whom did so even after the men in their lives had departed.
In his 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism, André Breton celebrates madness as a “sacred
fever,” calling it the purest form of freedom and consciousness that one can hope to achieve. As
he notes, “their profound indifference to the way in which we judge them, and even to the
various punishments meted out to them, allows us to suppose that they derive a great deal of
comfort and consolation from their imagination, that they enjoy their madness” (5). Following
the general wisdom of the era, he and the other (male) Surrealists believed that “regressed”
individuals—women, children, and the insane—are not as restrained by reason, logic, bourgeois
morality, and so on, which allowed them to experience this state of unfettered imagination that
was at the heart of surrealism. If all three were combined in a single body, so much the better;
Natalya Lusty explains that, for Breton, “it was specifically female madness that came to define
surrealism‟s revolt against the Cartesian subject of bourgeois, liberal ideology” (335).
Furthermore, Breton particularly celebrated “that special kind of child-woman who has
always enthralled poets, because time has no hold over her” (157). This might explain why the
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Surrealist‟s female lovers or wives were generally much younger, and why they were part of an
ever-rotating roster, to be traded in for newer, younger models. His 1928 (novel?
autobiography?) Nadja is one extended episode of a discarded femme-enfant, abandoned when
her insanity goes too far and she is institutionalized. He does not give up on her because she is
mad, but rather because she is now at the mercy of psychiatry, for which he has only contempt
(141). It is, he says, her own fault; to paraphrase Breton‟s winding prose, Nadja should have
retained some common sense about her to know when to „indulge herself in eccentricities‟ and
when not, or she wouldn‟t be in this mess. Also, her institutionalization was proof that they—and
most particularly, she—had not achieved the “mysterious, improbable, unique, bewildering, and
certain love that can only be foolproof” that would have allowed “the fulfillment of a miracle”
(Breton 136). Whether that miracle was their happiness, his fulfillment, her mastery of a
Surrealist-approved level of insanity or something else entirely is left to us to ponder.
It is no surprise, then, that Nadja and Leonora Carrington‟s 1944 Down Below have been
read side by side before. Natalya Lusty suggests that “the figure of Nadja [occupies] a ghostly
presence within both Breton‟s and Carrington‟s texts” in that Carrington writes “against Breton‟s
problematic reification of the madwoman‟s experience” (337, 336). While I agree that
Carrington is writing against Breton in several ways (writing style, focus, etc.), I would like to
suggest that Carrington is not so much haunted by Nadja as solidifying her, making this ghostly
sorceress-child-woman real by describing, explicitly and in unsparing detail, what is happening
to her own body and her own mind as she crosses over “to the other side.” Carrington agrees to
Breton‟s request to write about her experience, but in doing so she drags him into the sanatorium,
into the very place that he so carefully avoided in Nadja, forcing him—and us—to experience
her journey from an uncomfortably close viewpoint. She rarely takes any narrative distance from
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the tale or from her delusions. As she explains at one point, “I was being put through purifying
tortures (being bound hand and foot, given seizure-inducing Cardiazol injections) so that I might
attain Absolute Knowledge, when I could live „Down Below.‟ That pavilion was for me the
Earth, the Real World, Paradise, Eden—and also Jerusalem. … I was an androgyne, the Moon,
the Holy Ghost, a gypsy, an acrobat, Leonora Carrington and a woman” (40). This offers us a
combination of the truth and the slant—that is, her delusions are appropriately surreal and full of
imagery drawn from alchemy, Christianity, and (apparently) her own unconscious, but she brings
her physical, “leaking” body into it as well, so we also know about periods of vomiting,
defecation, and convulsions that caused “grimaces” that “were repeated all over [her] body” (36).
When she leaves in the end, it is with the tears of José (one of the workers at the asylum) as a
backdrop. Leonora walks out, lucid and (as she said in a later interview), “determined never to be
insane again.” In this sense, Breton‟s Nadja is turned completely on its head: the desired male
object is left in the asylum, sobbing, while the desiring female subject walks out, free.
By 1942, Leonora had married Renato Leduc and came with him to Mexico, which
Breton has famously (and notoriously) called “the Surrealist place par excellence.” Since
President Cárdenas had allowed refugees from Europe to enter without papers, a number of
Surrealist artists and their partners chose Mexico as a place of refuge. Leonora, married to
ambassador Renato Leduc (and later to Hungarian photographer Chiqui Weisz) lived near
Spanish painter Remedios Varo and her husband Benjamin Péret. The friendship between the
two women was a potent and productive one, as each experimented on her own with different
techniques and styles and collaborated on plays and other pieces. It was in 1944 that Down
Below was published; Leonora had waited three years before narrating her story to surrealist
surgeon and psychoanalyst Pierre Mabille, and it was published early the next year.
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The next decade in Mexico was a fairly happy one; Leonora divorced Leduc, married
Weisz, and had her two children, Pablo and Gabriel. In the 1950s, Carrington seized the pen
herself this time—she had written dark and mischevious short stories in Europe, but not more
than a few pages—and proceeded to cross over to the other side again. “The Hearing Trumpet,”
written in English but published in French in 1974 (it would emerge in English in 1976) tells of
Marion Weatherby, a 92 year old grandmother whose family intends to put her into an
institution: she is deaf, toothless, and apparently senile, defying nearly any and all conventions
for the idealized Surreal femme-enfant. Using a magical hearing trumpet given her by Carmella
(a fictionalized version of Remedios Varo), she discovers her family‟s plan. While she does not
avoid institutionalization, she does keep aware of events in such a way that allows her to save
herself and her friends at the institute as the story twists, turns, and eventually becomes a
powerful re-writing and reclamation of the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail.

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