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Among Other Horrors: Leonora Carrington’s “Down Below”

Leonora Carrington’s “Down Below”
Leonora Carrington’s “Down Below”

Two books were released recently in celebration of the centenary of Leonora Carrington’s birth: her “Complete Stories,” published by Dorothy, a publishing project; and the NYRB Press publication of “Down Below,” a harrowing essay detailing her brutal institutionalization in 1938.

Carrington was subjected to sadistic treatments for an apparent mental breakdown after her lover, Max Ernst, also a celebrated Surrealist artist, was captured by the Gestapo and taken to a concentration camp. In contrast to her short stories—irreverent, absurdist, darkly playful—“Down Below” is delivered flatly and without emotion. Carrington’s straightforward delivery of scenes detailing gang rape, convulsive treatments, and induced vomiting, among other horrors, serve to highlight the extreme trauma of her experience.

“Down Below” speaks to the misogynistic history of psychiatry, but it is all the more tragic when one considers that Carrington’s voice was snatched away at the very moment it was emerging.

She was just 20 when she attended the party where she met Max Ernst, two years before his capture and hers. He was nearly 30 years her senior and by that time had already achieved fame—Carrington knew who he was because she had seen his work at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London the year before. She was an art student at the time, and she and Ernst fell madly in love. A year later, he separated from his wife and Carrington moved with him to a cottage in the south of France. Their intense creative partnership flourished, in painting, sculpture, writing, and collage. Within a year, she had published her first two story collections, which he had illustrated.

This is to say that Carrington was not only a young woman at the time of her imprisonment, but also a young lover and artist. “Down Below” speaks to the misogynistic history of psychiatry, but it is all the more tragic when one considers that Carrington’s voice was snatched away at the very moment it was emerging. “Don Luis’s eyes were tearing my brain apart and I was sinking down into a well,” she says of the doctor treating her with Cardiazol, a drug that induces shock treatment-like effects. “The bottom of that well was the stopping of my mind for all eternity in the essence of utter anguish.” It is chilling to think that it could have stopped her inimitable mind altogether.

A doctor cousin finally intervened, and Carrington was released into the care of a nurse who brought her to Madrid. From there she fled to Mexico, where she lived out the rest of her life as an artist.

As a work of memoir, “Down Below” demonstrates that art is the conduit between madness and sanity, the insane and polite society. It is powerful in its marriage of emotional restraint with scientifically rendered detail, as if Carrington is holding a magnifying glass to her psyche and directly translating its bizarre logic. “To me Van Ghent was my father, my enemy, and the enemy of mankind,” she says of a man who she perceived to be an enemy. “I was the only one who could vanquish him; to vanquish him it was necessary for me to understand him.” Her refusal to rationalize or dramatize forces us as readers to accept events as they occurred. Although we sense her anguish in relating them, we witness her resilience, as well.

Additional Book Information
Series: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 9781681370606
Pages: 112
Publication Date: April 18, 2017

This review originally appeared in the Madness issue. Find more inspiring stories from the Madness issue here.