A stunning work of memoir and an unforgettable depiction of the brilliance and madness by one of Surrealism's most compelling figures
In 1937 Leonora Carrington—later to become one of the twentieth century’s great painters of the weird, the alarming, and the wild—was a nineteen-year-old art student in London, beautiful and unapologetically rebellious. At a dinner party, she met the artist Max Ernst. The two fell in love and soon departed to live and paint together in a farmhouse in Provence.
In 1940, the invading German army arrested Ernst and sent him to a concentration camp. Carrington suffered a psychotic break. She wept for hours. Her stomach became “the mirror of the earth”—of all worlds in a hostile universe—and she tried to purify the evil by compulsively vomiting. As the Germans neared the south of France, a friend persuaded Carrington to flee to Spain. Facing the approach “of robots, of thoughtless, fleshless beings,” she packed a suitcase that bore on a brass plate the word Revelation.
This was only the beginning of a journey into madness that was to end with Carrington confined in a mental institution, overwhelmed not only by her own terrible imaginings but by her doctor’s sadistic course of treatment. In Down Below she describes her ordeal—in which the agonizing and the marvelous were equally combined—with a startling, almost impersonal precision and without a trace of self-pity. Like Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, Down Below brings the hallucinatory logic of madness home.
First published in 1943, surrealist painter and novelist Carrington's brief and unflinchingly honest first-person account traces the author's descent into (and recovery from) clinical insanity. The narrative is set in motion in 1940 when Carrington's lover, artist Max Ernst (a married man, 26 years her senior), is sent to a concentration camp at Les Milles, France. Carrington experiences a period of hysteria and intense self-punishment, including frequent voluntary vomiting, and then, accompanied by two friends, she travels from France across the Spanish boarder, fleeing the Germans. All the while, Carrington's grip on reality slips away. Once in Madrid, she is clearly insane, convinced that Germany is winning the war because of secret Nazi agents who wield supernatural hypnotic powers. Placed in a sanitarium, her delusions continue; she acts like various animals, devises conspiracies, and believes herself to be the third person of the Holy Trinity. It's difficult to read such a candid, painful, and personal account of someone's darkest hours, and Carrington's detached, matter-of-fact recounting of her most undignified, wrenching moments is unnerving. In a very helpful introduction to the book, novelist Marina Warner (The Lost Father) writes that Carrington was persuaded to write the memoir by surrealism's literary founder, Andr Breton, who viewed her genuine, unaffected descent into true madness as surrealism at its most pure. As such, it seems a case can be made that this little book is indeed the gold standard of surrealist literature.