Down Below by Leonora Carrington
Monday, 23 August 1943
Exactly three years ago, I was interned in Dr. Morales’s sanatorium in Santander, Spain, Dr. Pardo, of Madrid, and the British Consul having pronounced me incurably insane. Since I fortuitously met you, whom I consider the most clear-sighted of all, I began gathering a week ago the threads which might have led me across the initial border of Knowledge. I must live through that experience all over again, because, by doing so, I believe that I may be of use to you, just as I believe that you will be of help in my journey beyond that frontier by keeping me lucid and by enabling me to put on and to take off at will the mask which will be my shield against the hostility of Conformism.
Before taking up the actual facts of my experience, I want to say that the sentence passed on me by society at that particular time was probably, surely even, a god-send, for I was not aware of the importance of health, I mean of the absolute necessity of having a healthy body to avoid disaster in the liberation of the mind. More important yet, the necessity that others be with me that we may feed each other with our knowledge and thus constitute the Whole. I was not sufficiently conscious at the time of your philosophy to understand. The time had not come for me to understand. What I am going to endeavor to express here with the utmost fidelity was but an embryo of knowledge.
I begin therefore with the moment when Max was taken away to a concentration camp for the second time, under the escort of a gendarme who carried a rifle (May 1940). I was living in Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche. I wept for several hours, down in the village; then I went up again to my house where, for twenty-four hours, I indulged in voluntary vomitings induced by drinking orange blossom water and interrupted by a short nap. I hoped that my sorrow would be diminished by these spasms, which tore at my stomach like earthquakes. I know now that this was but one of the aspects of those vomitings: I had realised the injustice of society, I wanted first of all to cleanse myself, then go beyond its brutal ineptitude. My stomach was the seat of that society, but also the place in which I was united with all the elements of the earth. It was the mirror of the earth, the reflection of which is just as real as the person reflected. That mirror—my stomach—had to be rid of the thick layers of filth (the accepted formulas) in order properly, clearly, and faithfully to reflect the earth; and when I say “the earth,” I mean of course all the earths, stars, suns in the sky and on the earth, as well as all the stars, suns, and earths of the microbes’ solar system.
For three weeks I ate very sparingly, carefully chewing meat, and drank wine and alcohol, feeding on potatoes and salad, at the rate perhaps of two potatoes a day. My impression is that I slept pretty well. I worked at my vines, astonishing the peasants by my strength. Saint John’s Day was near at hand, the vines were beginning to blossom, they had to be sprayed often with sulphur. I also worked at my potatoes, and the more I sweated, the better I liked it, because this meant that I was getting purified. I took sunbaths, and my physical strength was such as I have never known before or afterwards.
Various events were taking place in the outside world: the collapse of Belgium, the entry of the Germans in France. All of this interested me very little and I had no fear whatsoever within me. The village was thronged with Belgians, and some soldiers who had entered my home accused me of being a spy and threatened to shoot me on the spot because someone had been looking for snails at night, with a lantern, near my house. Their threats impressed me very little indeed, for I knew that I was not destined to die.
After three solitary weeks, Catherine, an English woman, a very old friend of mine, arrived, fleeing from Paris with Michel Lucas, a Hungarian. A week went by and I believe they noticed nothing abnormal in me. One day, however, Catherine, who had been for a long time under the care of psychoanalysts, persuaded me that my attitude betrayed an unconscious desire to get rid for the second time of my father: Max, whom I had to eliminate if I wanted to live. She begged me to cease punishing myself and to look for another lover. I think she was mistaken when she said I was torturing myself. I think that she interpreted me fragmentarily, which is worse than not to interpret at all. However, by doing so she restored me to sexual desire. I tried frantically to seduce two young men, but without success. They would have none of me. And I had to remain sadly chaste.
The Germans were approaching rapidly; Catherine frightened me and begged me to leave with her, saying that if I refused to do so, she too would remain. I accepted. I accepted above all because, in my evolution, Spain represented for me Discovery. I accepted because I expected to get a visa put in Max’s passport in Madrid. I still felt bound to Max. This document, which bore his image, became an entity, as if I was taking Max with me. I accepted, somewhat touched by Catherine’s arguments, which were distilling into me, hour after hour, a growing fear. For Catherine, the Germans meant rape. I was not afraid of that, I attached no importance to it. What caused panic to rise within me was the thought of robots, of thoughtless, fleshless beings.
Michel and I decided to go to Bourg-Saint-Andéol to secure a travelling permit. The gendarmes, totally indifferent and uninterested, kept on smoking cigarettes and refused to give us the bit of paper, barricading themselves behind phrases like “we can’t do anything about it.” We were unable to leave, yet I knew that we would leave the following day. We went to the notary, where I made over to the proprietor of the Motel des Touristes of Saint-Martin my house and all my goods. I returned home and spent the whole night carefully sorting the things I intended taking along with me. All of them got into a suitcase which bore, beneath my name, a small brass plate set into the leather, on which was written the word REVELATION.
In Saint-Martin next morning, the schoolmistress gave me papers stamped by the town hall, which made it possible for us to depart. Catherine got the car ready. All my willpower strained towards that departure. I hurried my friends. I pushed Catherine toward the car; she took the wheel; I sat between her and Michel. The car started. I was confident in the success of the journey, but terribly anguished, fearing difficulties which I thought inevitable. We were riding normally when, twenty kilometres beyond Saint-Martin, the car stopped; the brakes had jammed. I heard Catherine say: “The brakes have jammed.” “Jammed!” I, too, was jammed within, by forces foreign to my conscious will, which were also paralyzing the mechanism of the car. This was the first stage of my identification with the external world. I was the car. The car had jammed on account of me, because I, too, was jammed between Saint-Martin and Spain. I was horrified by my own power. At that time, I was still limited to my own solar system, and was not aware of other people’s systems, the importance of which I realise now.
We had driven all night long. I would see before me, on the road, trucks with legs and arms dangling behind them, but being unsure of myself, I would say shyly: “There are trucks ahead of us,” just to find out what the answer would be. When they said: “The road is wide, we’ll manage to bypass them,” I felt reassured; but I did not know whether or not they saw what was carried in those trucks, greatly fearing I would arouse their suspicions and becoming prey to shame, which paralysed me. The road was lined with rows of coffins, but I could find no pretext to draw their attention to this embarrassing subject. They obviously were people who had been killed by the Germans. I was very frightened: it all stank of death. I learned later that there was a huge military cemetery in Perpignan.
In Perpignan, at seven in the morning, there were no rooms in the hotels. My friends had left me in a cafe; from then on, I had no rest: I was convinced I was responsible for my friends. I believed that it was useless to call on the higher authorities if we wanted to cross the border, and I sought instead the advice of boot-blacks, cafe waiters, and passersby who I thought were vested with tremendous power.
We were to meet, at a point two kilometres distant from Andorra, with two Andorrans who were supposed to get us across the border in exchange for the gift of our car. Catherine and Michel told me very seriously that I had better refrain from talking. I agreed and dived into a voluntary coma.
When we reached Andorra, I could not walk straight. I walked like a crab; I had lost control over my motions: an attempt at climbing stairs would again bring about a “jam.”
In Andorra—a deserted and godforsaken country—we were the first refugees to be received in the Hôtel de France by a little maidservant who bore the entire responsibility for that strangely empty establishment.
My first steps in Andorra meant to me what the first steps on a tightrope must mean to an acrobat. At night, my exasperated nerves imitated the noise of the river, which flowed tirelessly over some rocks: hypnotizing, monotonous.
By day, we tried to walk about on the mountainside, but no sooner would I attempt to ascend the slightest slope than I would jam like Catherine’s Fiat, and be compelled to climb down again. My anguish jammed me completely.
I realized that my anguish—my mind, if you prefer—was painfully trying to unite itself with my body; my mind could no longer manifest itself without producing an immediate effect on my body—on matter. Later it would exercise itself upon other objects. I was trying to understand this vertigo of mine: that my body no longer obeyed the formulas established in my mind, the formulas of old, limited Reason; that my will no longer meshed with my faculties of movement, and since my will no longer possessed any power, it was necessary first to liquidate my paralyzing anguish, then to seek an accord between the mountain, my mind, and my body. In order to be able to move around in this new world, 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 as 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. I very seldom got hurt, and I realised the possibility of a very subtle understanding which I had not perceived before. Finally, I managed to take no false steps and to wander around quite easily among the rocks.
It is obvious that, for the ordinary citizen, this must have taken on a strange and crazy aspect: a well brought-up young Englishwoman jumping from one rock to another, amusing herself in so irrational a manner: this was wont to raise immediate suspicions as to my mental balance. I gave little thought to the effect my experiments might have on the humans by whom I was surrounded, and, in the end, they won.
Following my pact with the mountain—once I could move easily in the most forbidding places—I proposed to myself an agreement with the animals: horses, goats, birds. This was accomplished through the skin, by means of a sort of “touch” language, which I find difficult to describe now that my senses have lost the acuity of perception they possessed at the time. The fact remains that I could draw near animals where other human beings put them to precipitate flight. During a walk with Michel and Catherine, for instance, I ran forward to join a herd of horses. I was exchanging caresses with them when the arrival of Catherine and Michel caused them to scamper away.
All of this was taking place in June and July, and the refugees were piling up. Michel sent wire upon wiry to my father in an effort to secure visas for Spain. Finally a cure brought a mysterious and very dirty piece of paper, coming from I know not what agent of my father’s business connection, ICI (Imperial Chemicals, which should have allowed us to resume our journey. Twice already we had attempted to cross the Spanish border: the third attempt proved successful, thanks to the cure’s bit of paper. Catherine and I reached Seo de Urgel. Unfortunately, Michel was unable to come over. The two of us then drove in the Fiat to Barcelona.
I was quite overwhelmed by my entry into Spain: I thought it was my kingdom; that the red earth was the dried blood of the Civil War. I was choked by the dead, by their thick presence in that lacerated countryside. I was in a great state of exaltation when we arrived in Barcelona that evening, convinced that we had to reach Madrid as speedily as possible. I therefore prevailed upon Catherine to leave the Fiat in Barcelona; the next day we boarded a train for Madrid.
The fact that I had to speak a language I was not acquainted with was crucial: I was not hindered by a preconceived idea of the words, and I but half understood their modern meaning. This made it possible for me to invest the most ordinary phrases with a hermetic significance.
In Madrid, we put up at the Hotel Internacional, near the railway station, leaving it later for the Hotel Roma. At the Internacional we dined that first night on the roof; to be on a roof answered for me a profound need, for there I found myself in a euphoric state. In the political confusion and the torrid heat, I convinced myself that Madrid was the world’s stomach and that I had been chosen for the task of restoring this digestive organ to health. I believed that all anguish had accumulated in me and would dissolve in the end, and this explained to me the force of my emotions. I believed that I was capable of bearing this dreadful weight and of drawing from it a solution for the world. The dysentery I suffered from later was nothing but the illness of Madrid taking shape in my intestinal tract.
A few days later, in the Hotel Roma, I met a Dutch man, Van Ghent, who was Jewish and somehow connected with the Nazi government, who had a son working for Imperial Chemicals, the English company. He showed me his passport, infested with Swastikas. More than ever I aspired to ridding myself of all social constraints; to that end, I made a present of my papers to an unknown person and tried to give Max’s passport to Van Ghent, but he refused to take it.
This scene took place in my room; the man’s gaze was as painful to me as if he had thrust pins into my eyes. When he refused to take Max’s passport, I remember that I replied: “Ah! I understand, I must kill him myself,” i.e., disconnect myself from Max.
Not content with giving my papers away, I felt obliged to strip myself of everything. One evening, as I sat by Van Ghent on a cafe terrace watching the people of Madrid passing by, I felt that they were being manipulated by his eyes. At that moment, he pointed out to me that I was no longer wearing a small brooch I had purchased a few moments before as a badge of the sorrows of Madrid. Then he added: “Look in your handbag and you will find it there.” True enough, the badge was there. To me this was a further proof of Van Ghent’s nefarious power. Disgusted, I rose to my feet and entered the cafe, with the firm intention of distributing everything I carried in my bag to the officers who were there. Not one of them would accept. It seems to me that this whole scene took place in a very short time; however I suddenly found myself alone with a group of Requeté officers. Van Ghent had disappeared. Some of the men rose and pushed me into a car. Later, I was in front of a house, the windows of which were adorned with wrought-iron balconies, in the Spanish style. They showed me into a room decorated in Chinese style, threw me onto a bed, and after tearing off my clothes raped me one after the other.
I put up such a fight that they finally grew tired and let me get up. While I was trying to adjust my clothes in front of a mirror, I saw one of them open my bag and remove all of its contents. This action seemed absolutely normal to me, as did his sousing my head with a bottleful of eau de cologne.
This done, they took me somewhere near El Retiro, the big park, where I wandered about, lost, my clothes torn. Finally I was picked up by a policeman, who took me back to the hotel, where I telephoned Van Ghent, who was asleep—it was perhaps three o’clock in the morning. I thought that my story would change his attitude towards the people of the earth, but he became furious, insulted me, and hung up. I went up to my room and found on my bed some nightgowns belonging to Catherine, which the laundress had deposited there by mistake. I imagined that Van Ghent, acknowledging my power, had made amends and sent them to me as a present. It seemed indispensable to me to try on these night-gowns immediately. I spent the rest of the night taking cold baths and putting on nightgowns, one after the other. One was of pale green silk, another pink.
I was still convinced that it was Van Ghent who had hypnotized Madrid, its men and its traffic, he who turned the people into zombies and scattered anguish like pieces of poisoned candy in order to make slaves of all. One night, having torn up and scattered in the streets a vast quantity of newspapers which I believed to be a hypnotic device resorted to by Van Ghent, I stood at the door of the hotel, horrified to see people in the Alameda go by who seemed to be made of wood. I rushed to the roof of the hotel and wept, looking at the chained city below my feet, the city it was my duty to liberate. Coming down to Catherine’s room, I begged her to look at my face; I said to her: “Don’t you see that it is the exact representation of the world?” She refused to listen to me and put me out of her room.
Coming down into the lobby of the hotel, I found there, among other people, Van Ghent and his son, who accused me of madness, obscenity, etc.; no doubt they were frightened by my afternoon exploit with the newspapers. Thereupon I ran to the public garden and played there for a few moments in the grass, to the amazement of all passersby. An officer of the Falange brought me back to the hotel, where I spent the night bathing over and over again in cold water.
To me Van Ghent was my father, my enemy, and the enemy of mankind; I was the only one who could vanquish him; to vanquish him it was necessary for me to understand him. He gave me cigarettes—they were pretty scarce in Madrid—and one morning when I was particularly excited, it dawned on me that my condition was not solely due to natural causes and that his cigarettes were doped. The logical conclusion of this idea was to report Van Ghent’s horrible power to the authorities and then proceed to liberate Madrid. An accord between Spain and England seemed to me the best solution. I therefore called at the British Embassy and saw the Consul there. I endeavoured to convince him that the World War was being waged hypnotically by a group of people—Hitler and Co.— who were represented in Spain by Van Ghent; that to vanquish him it would suffice to understand his hypnotic power; we would then stop the war and liberate the world, which was “jammed,” like me and Catherine’s Fiat; that instead of wandering aimlessly in political and economic labyrinths, it was essential to believe in our metaphysical force and divide it among all human beings, who would thus be liberated. This good British citizen perceived at once that I was mad, and phoned a physician, Martinez Alonzo by name, who, once he had been informed of my political theories, agreed with him.
That day, my freedom came to an end. I was locked up in a hotel room, in the Ritz. I felt perfectly content; I washed my clothes and manufactured various ceremonial garments out of bath towels in preparation for my visit to Franco, the first person to be liberated from his hypnotic somnambulism. As soon as he was liberated, Franco would come to an understanding with England, then England with Germany, etc. Meanwhile, Martinez Alonzo, thoroughly puzzled by my condition, fed me bromide by the quart and begged me repeatedly not to remain naked when waiters brought me my food. He was panic-stricken and stultified by my political theories, and after a fifteen-day calvary, he withdrew to a seaside resort in Portugal, leaving me in the care of a physician-friend of his, Alberto N.
Alberto was handsome; I hastened to seduce him, for I said to myself: “Here is my brother, who has come to liberate me from the fathers.” I had not enjoyed love since Max’s departure and I wanted to very badly. Unfortunately Alberto, too, was a perfect fool and probably a scoundrel besides. In truth, I believe he was attracted to me, all the more so as he was aware of the power of Papa Carrington and his millions, as represented in Madrid by the ICI. Alberto would take me out, and once more I enjoyed some sort of temporary freedom. But not for long.
I called every day on the head of the ICI in Madrid; he soon got tired of my visits, most of all because I came to enlighten him on politics and denounced him, pell-mell with Papa Carrington and Van Ghent, as being petty, very petty, and pretty ignoble; and this to himself, his wife, his maids, the hotel servants, and anyone who would listen to me. He summoned a certain Dr. Pardo and encouraged me to enlighten him on the affairs of the world. I soon found myself a prisoner in a sanatorium full of nuns. This did not last long either; the nuns proved unable to cope with me. It was impossible to lock me up, keys and windows were no obstacles for me; I wandered all over the place, looking for the roof, which I believed my proper dwelling place.
After two or three days, the head of the ICI told me that Pardo and Alberto would take me to a beach at San Sebastian, where I would be absolutely free. I came out of the nursing home and got into a car bound for Santander… On the way, I was given Luminal three times and an injection in the spine: systemic anaesthesia. And I was handed over like a cadaver to Dr. Morales, in Santander.
Leonora Carrington (1917–2011) was born in England and spent most of her adult life in Mexico City, where she participated in the surrealist movement as an artist, painter, and novelist.
This excerpt from Down Below is published by permission of NYRB Classics. Copyright © 1988 Leonora Carrington.
Photo: Leonora Carrington, Lee Miller
Published on January 5, 2017.