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Surrealism’s Beating Heart

On Leonora Carrington, Unica Zürn, and leaving musehood behind

About halfway into Thomas Pynchon’s 1966 novella The Crying of Lot 49, unhappy housewife and accidental private eye Oedipa Maas begins seeing horns. She spends a sleepless night stumbling through San Francisco in the feverish grip of some mad combination of revelation and nightmare, horns everywhere, drawn on the sidewalk in chalk, gracing a man’s jacket in the form of a lapel pin, traced with a finger in the fog of a nighttime bus window, tattooed on a man’s hand. The more horns she sees, the more she becomes convinced of the existence of a vast conspiracy related to the postal system, and the more aggressively she questions her sanity.

But in a quest for truth, isn’t the horn an ideal guide? With its tapered shape, one end wide, one end narrow, the horn manages to unlock an entire universe of transmission, to allow for the pronouncement of the most glorious truths and the reception of the tiniest whispers. This most neglected of simple machines, this magnificent prosthetic can magnify the meager sonic and acoustic capabilities of our bodies and render us ur-cyborgs.

Paranoia, too, can serve as method. Like Oedipa Maas, the artist Salvador Dalí was frequently gripped by bouts of paranoia, but for him they were both a choice and a mode of production. For Dalí, what was important was not reaching paranoid conclusions but the process of paranoid thinking itself. If the frenzied meaning-production of paranoid thinking is, as famously theorized by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, problematic in the way that it produces knowledge, Dalí’s paranoid thinking aimed not to produce knowledge but to produce art—art that drew from the subconscious and operated entirely on the basis of intuition. When painting or writing, he would work himself up into a paranoid state and then set loose his powers of association, aiming to circumvent the realm of sense entirely. Down with Western logic, cried the Surrealists, and long live paranoia!

In 1936, Dalí showed up at the London International Surrealist Exhibition in a diving suit to give a lecture called “Some Authentic Paranoiac Phantoms.” As the diving suit was hermetically sealed, no one could hear a word of what he was saying. For the very same reason, his oxygen ran out relatively quickly, and soon Dalí was writhing on the floor, suffocating, which was great, surreal fun for the audience until they realized that it was not part of the act.

It was due to this very exhibition, at which Dalí did not manage to convey a paranoid story to his audience and almost died doing it, that Leonora Carrington first fell in love with the art of Max Ernst—and later, the man. In June of 1937, Ernst returned to London for his first solo show in England. During his stay, Carrington and Ernst were invited to dinner at the apartment of a mutual friend, a fellow student at the painting school where Carrington was studying. Ernst was married and twenty-six years Carrington’s senior, but this was, of course, irrelevant. Carrington was a young and beautiful painter, voraciously hungry for a world of art and culture that had been denied to her by her conservative parents; Ernst was an older, worldly painter, hungry for the attention of young and beautiful women. They moved in together almost immediately, and he introduced her to the gods of her new world: Dalí, Picasso, Breton, Éluard—a pantheon of powerful men whom Carrington would come to know quite personally in the coming years. If what she wanted was access to a world of art and culture, Ernst held the keys to its innermost chambers.

Down with Western logic, cried the Surrealists, and long live paranoia!

When word got back to Carrington’s father, a wealthy industrialist with significant social standing, about their cohabitation, he was infuriated. He accused Ernst’s art of being pornographic and managed to get the police to issue a warrant for his arrest. As a result, Ernst and Carrington—along with a group of artists that included Man Ray, Lee Miller, Paul Éluard, and Eileen Agar—fled to a country house in Cornwall, at Lambe Creek. Their summer there was an avant-garde fever dream: automatic writing, bubble baths, painting, ménages à trois (if not quint or sept), rolling around in the sand. At summer’s end, the couple moved to Paris, and a year later to the French countryside, where Carrington managed to buy a small house with funds begged from her mother. For nearly a year, they lived there in relative tranquility and extreme entanglement, painting incessantly, eating luxuriously, representing one another in fantastic forms, on canvases, in sculpture, on the walls of the house. But it was 1939, and the nightmare of fascism was spreading to the furthest corners of Europe. France declared war on September 3, and mere days later, Ernst, a German national, was arrested and taken first to a prison in Largentiére, then an internment camp at Les Milles near Aix. After months of lobbying, Carrington was finally able to get him out, but five months later he was imprisoned again—and this time there was nothing she could do.

Carrington was twenty-three, alone, and distraught. She drank orange blossom water to somatize her anguish and spent the next twenty-four hours vomiting. For three weeks, she gardened frantically, eating almost nothing, saved only by the arrival of her friend Catherine Yarrow, who insisted that she abandon Ernst and leave France. Carrington was confronted with a dilemma: the Nazis were advancing, and there was no guarantee that she would have another chance to escape. She decided to leave. In the course of twenty-four hours she sold the house, filled with paintings she could not take with her, to a local innkeeper for a small fraction of what it was worth and fled France with Yarrow and Yarrow’s lover Michel in a tiny Fiat, carrying nothing but a small suitcase embossed with the word REVELATION. Unlike Orpheus, she did not look back.

In the first camp, at Les Milles near Aix, Max Ernst found himself sharing a cell with a familiar roommate: Hans Bellmer. Bellmer had been building and photographing grotesque female dolls since the early 1930s and had run in the same circles as Ernst in Paris. He managed to survive the war, and later, in 1953, met a young writer named Unica Zürn at an exhibition opening on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin. At Bellmer’s encouragement, Zürn began to produce minutely detailed drawings of fantastical creatures, developing her skills as an artist very quickly. Concurrently, she started writing poems, each line a perfect anagram of a single starting sentence. Her first book of drawings and poems, Hexentexte, or witches’ texts, was published in 1954.

Zürn became publicly associated with the Surrealists after she appeared on the cover of a magazine called Surrealisme, même in 1958, curled into a ball and photographed from the back, her abdomen and legs bound tightly with string. With the knobs of her spine recalling uncut teeth, her body in the image resembles a creature from the furthest depths of the sea, some alien, half-sentient lump of flesh fated to spend its days inching across the ocean floor, pale to the point of luminescence. The title of the photograph shows that Bellmer is more than aware of the image’s dehumanizing implications: it’s called “Tenir au frais” or “Keep cool,” an instruction for keeping fresh a woman who’s been rendered meat.

It was around this time that Zürn began experimenting with mescaline with the poet Henri Michaux. She would later point to these experiments as the catalyst for the psychotic episodes that plagued her until her suicide in 1970. Zürn recounts the first set of these episodes in The Man of Jasmine, a novella-length memoir reissued last December by Atlas Press for the first time in nearly thirty years. The Man of Jasmine is a strange memoir, written in the third person and rarely referring to any figures in the narrative by name. To allow yourself to be absorbed into it is to feel a creeping detachment from the outside world, and to be unsure, at times, what is meant to represent lucidity and what psychosis. Over the course of the book, Zürn is committed to three separate psychiatric institutions in two countries. Desperate to communicate with a world from which she suddenly feels isolated, she sends off reams of letters, throws her passport into a mailbox in the belief that this will summon help, and once committed to the first institution, scribbles a message on a napkin and “mails” it by dropping it into a storage container with a metal flap. She sees the numbers nine and six everywhere, and everywhere she is haunted by Henri Michaux himself, whom she calls the Man of Jasmine and claims to recognize from a childhood vision.

The same year that Zürn appeared on the cover of Surrealisme, même, German psychiatrist Klaus Conrad coined the term apophenia to designate a symptom of the early stages of a descent into psychosis, and, in its extreme forms, a symptom of full-blown paranoid schizophrenia. Put simply, apophenia is the tendency to make excessive connections between unrelated things—in other words, an overproduction of meaningfulness. Apophenia was precisely the state Dalí meant to induce with his paranoid-critical method, but for Zürn it was neither artistic method nor choice. Rather, it was the enemy of both.

Both Carrington and Zürn represented the apotheosis of male Surrealist desire.

This was also the case for Leonora Carrington. When Carrington and Catherine Yarrow stopped in Madrid in the course of their flight from France, Carrington’s revelations began to multiply. She met a Dutch man, Van Ghent, whose son had business connections with her father, and became convinced that he was Hitler’s representative in Spain, waging war by means of hypnosis—and, moreover, that only she had the power to defeat him. She was sent to a clinic in Santander, on the northern coast of Spain, where she was locked in a tiny cell and forced to endure injections of a chemical meant to induce epileptic seizures, operating on the same logic as electroshock therapy. Carrington recounts this nightmarish period in a short memoir called Down Below, reissued in 2017 by NYRB Classics. Down Below is harrowing, but the end of the story is a relief: her psychotic episode had a definitive end, and she would never again fall into psychosis.

It is important that both Down Below and The Man of Jasmine are understood as memoirs. As accounts of what Carrington and Zürn experienced, they also serve as attestations that for a short while this was their reality. Zürn says, writing about herself in the third person: “She is unaware that she is having hallucinations. In her present state, the most incredible things, hitherto unseen, become reality, so that when these images appear to her in the night sky, they are really there.” But as truly real as the images in the sky might have been for Zürn, they were, at the same time, not real for anyone else. As such, both books are also accounts of radical isolation, isolation that congeals again and again into what Zürn calls the “exceedingly pleasurable feeling of megalomania, the delightful feeling of being at the exact center of events, the state of being elect.” Carrington has her struggles with Van Ghent; Zürn jumps in front of a car, convinced that it represents the coming war and that only she can stop it, and later finds herself experiencing contractions, a sign that she and only she is destined to give physical birth to a united Berlin.

For Dalí, the paranoid-critical method was only a stand-in for true, clinical psychosis, which was fetishized by the Surrealists as representing unfettered access to the subconscious. Coming in a close second in the hierarchy of their fetish-objects was the young female muse, which they called the femme-enfant. Both Carrington and Zürn, then, represented the apotheosis of male Surrealist desire. And while both had willingly served as muses at various points in their lives, their psychosis was, importantly, only theirs to turn into art.

That art in general, was muse-less; rather than parasitically feeding off the energies of another person, it arose from a direct negotiation between themselves and the world in its entirety. While Hans Bellmer made a career out of turning women into corpses, Zürn turned animals and numbers into people. Her drawings teem with eyes. Zürn’s work hinged on an almost indiscriminate granting of souls. But the overproduction of meaningfulness in her art was nothing like the overproduction of meaningfulness occasioned by psychosis. Rather than megalomanic meaning that only she could perceive and which experienced as a source of distress, the former created meaning that everyone could share, a gift to a world that extended far beyond the confines of her mind.

Marian Leatherby, the ninety-two-year-old heroine of Leonora Carrington’s novella The Hearing Trumpet, reissued by NYRB Classics last month after decades out of print, is well aware of the benefits of connection. When her friend Carmella gifts her a hearing trumpet, it grants her access to an entire world of heretofore-inaccessible sound. However, one of the first missives from this world is quite unpleasant: Marian soon discovers that her son and his wife are planning on sending her away to a nursing home for elderly women.

The nursing home, which Marian calls the Institution, is an absurd place. The women who board there live in a series of houses ranging in shape from an enormous shoe to a lighthouse decorated inside with trompe l’oeil furniture, the latter of which becomes Marian’s home. And its residents are a wild lot: there is Georgina Sykes, a fabulous dresser who awakens fierce admiration in the other women; Natacha Gonzalez, who claims to be a prophet; Anna Wertz, who is constantly attesting to a degree of overworked exhaustion inexplicable by any means.

What is so marvelous and so fitting about the world of The Hearing Trumpet is that it is a world of women, for it was women who would nurture Carrington’s creative output for the rest of her life. After being released from the clinic in Santander, Carrington ended up in neutral Lisbon, where she ran into Max Ernst at an outdoor market. He was still in love with her, but Carrington stuck steadfastly to her decision: she would never again be a muse. While Ernst settled in New York, Carrington fled to Mexico City, where she quickly fell into a close friendship with the Spanish painter Remedios Varo, lover of Surrealist poet Benjamin Péret. (She is also the clear model for The Hearing Trumpet’s Carmella.) Varo’s home soon became the center of cultural life for the European refugee artist community, and she and Carrington entered into a two-decade-long period of intense, mutually inspired creative output that would end only with Varo’s untimely death in 1963.

Faces are everywhere in Varo’s art, emerging from fabric, moons, boxes, and walls, and in Carrington’s, animals and people merge to create menageries of sentient beings. Dalí and Ernst’s paintings, by contrast, feature myriad faceless women, their heads replaced by clouds of feathers or flowers, but Varo and Carrington were not stingy in granting souls to the non-human. If the two men were masters at conveying the form of the dream, Carrington was a master at conveying its felt content. What you do not seem to see, she might have said, is that there is a heart beating at its center. 

Unica Zürn’s oeuvre also revolves around bodies, but they are not readable bodies. There is no language at whose touch these bodies fall open and reveal their past lives, no appealing or all-encompassing Freudian answers. For Zürn, the talking is never a cure. In other words, despite her especially intimate relationship with paranoia, Zürn refuses to subject herself to a paranoid reading.

The House of Illnesses, a book of drawings and vignettes that Zürn produced during a bout of jaundice, consists of a series of maps that distort into the shape of hands, eyes, and mouths. What The House of Illnesses does visually, her novella The Trumpets of Jericho does by pulling the reader into a world where the connection between the body and the world is both fluid and terrifying. A neat summation of the premise of The Trumpets of Jericho can be found by following the horn back to The Crying of Lot 49, to a flashback that Oedipa Maas has to a trip to Mexico she took many years before with her deceased ex-lover, Pierce Inverarity—a flashback that, incidentally, centers around a painting by Remedios Varo:

In Mexico City they somehow wandered into an exhibition of paintings by the beautiful Spanish exile Remedios Varo: in the central painting of a triptych, titled “Bordando el Manto Terrestre,” were a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry, and the tapestry was the world. Oedipa, perverse, had stood in front of the painting and cried.

In The Trumpets of Jericho, the frail girls of “Bordando el Manto Terrestre” become a single desperate girl, pregnant, with a bat in her hair, who instead of literally weaving the world from her tower, dreams it. In so doing, she produces an order of things decidedly darker than anything that Varo ever did. The novella’s narrator is about to give birth, and in the process proves herself capable of something often accomplished, instead, by the Pinard horn, an instrument pressed against a pregnant belly in order to locate the fetus: the narrator can trace her unborn child making its way through her body. The child is unruly. Instead of inching toward the birth canal, it tries to climb out her throat and nearly suffocates her in the process. She is finally able to give birth out the right end, after which she falls into a feverish dream featuring a man with tuberculosis, a cake made of “hornets’ dough,” and a child growing up in Berlin-Grünewald who would seem to be Zürn herself.

Some worlds are populated not by fundamentally virtuous and redeemable subjects, but by monsters.

Throughout her body of work, Zürn returns again and again to the motif of childbirth. And what could be more surreal? To know that your body is gradually growing an extra brain, an extra set of teeth, an extra anus; to watch your stomach distend until your body is radically misshapen; to ultimately expel a screaming creature covered in slime from an enormously expanded set of genitals—as Rosemary’s Baby, Alien, The Brood, and countless other cinematic nightmares remind us, childbirth is a horror show. Only it’s usually men (Polanski, Scott, Cronenberg) doing the reminding, and the horror with which they greet the bodies of women does not begin or end with childbirth.

The Trumpets of Jericho is, in part, so uniquely unsettling because it allows the woman in question to narrate her own horror. She is eager to give birth not to meet her child but so that she can go ahead and kill it. The trumpets of Jericho—which, in the Old Testament, cause the fall of Jericho’s city walls and signal the impending slaughter of its inhabitants—sound nine times to announce the arrival of the child. The birth, in other words, is also the end of the world.

One of liberalism’s key investments has always been in the recognition and respect—and, as a result, codification—of the other. Liberal feminism has long allowed for the idea that putting more women in power will result in more compassionate governance, just as liberal humanists have long held court with the argument that the value of literature lies in its ability to make people more empathetic. The work of Carrington and Zürn would seem to disrupt both theses. It is impossible to emerge from The Hearing Trumpet believing that women form some compassionate, homogeneous mass, or from The Trumpets of Jericho believing that the novel’s value lies in an empathy-expanding depiction of alterity. Some worlds are populated not by fundamentally virtuous and redeemable subjects, but by monsters, and in such a case the ask is not that the reader find herself moved to greater compassion but simply that she bear witness.

For the memoirs and fictions of Carrington and Zürn serve as testimony. They document truths that only their authors were in a position to attest to, and they do so in a context where their authors had at one point been spoken for, their truths distorted and commodified, by powerful men bent on forcing the world to disclose its definitive answers. But life will never yield to a singular, sweeping, paranoid explanation, its arrival announced by trumpets. Carrington and Zürn’s delightful and disturbing kaleidoscopic worlds are testaments to the singularity of every person’s mind and reality—and to the fact that, given the right author, Surrealist dreams may not only have bodies but souls.