House of Fear by Leonora Carrington
Review by S. D. Stewart
Adults are terrible people. And nearly everyone over the age of ten becomes petrified. Yet children can be very objectionable. One must ignore birthdays entirely, to be acceptable at all.
Reality is malleable. One can call a piece of writing fiction or not. The significance of that label remains wavery. There are many ways to write, many ways to tear apart the strands of a woven life and weave them once again into new cloth. The question remains for the reader how important it is to single out the threads and examine them, to restore them in one’s mind to their original fabric. Throughout the history of literature, it has certainly been important to a great many people. Leonora Carrington likely remained unconcerned. Her journey was a strange and at times horrifying one. It’s worth taking some time to read about her life. Her writing overflows with rich imagery, convoluted plots (if any), absurd humor, the number seven, and a lot of talking horses. Reading her is both wondrously fun and sometimes upsetting. And if one chooses to puzzle over decoding the imagery, unlocking the various interpretations, then that can also be rewarding in its own way. It adds another vibrant layer to stories already rippling with a full spectrum of unexpected colors.
There are four parts to this book: The House of Fear, The Oval Lady, Little Francis, and Down Below. The first two were originally written in French and translated to English for this volume; they both include original artwork by Max Ernst (the Surrealist artist, and Carrington’s lover early in her life), and The House of Fear also includes his original preface. Little Francis was written in English, originally published in French, and published here in the original English for the first time. Down Below has a much more complex translation history, worth noting for its possible effect on the tone of the piece, which is Carrington’s account of an episode that resulted in her forcible containment in a Spanish mental hospital. The original shorter version was written in English and then lost. Carrington then dictated it in French, and it was subsequently published both in English translation, and later in the original French dictated form. The English text in this book was based on both the French dictation and the original translation back into English. Carrington reviewed and revised the translation, as well as providing a postscript during an interview with the editor of the book, Marina Warner. Confusing, yes, but also a factor to keep in mind when comparing the feel of this account with her other writing in this book.
The first two parts of the book contain stories reminiscent of those published in The Seventh Horse and Other Tales, and were mostly written at the same time as the Seventh Horse tales, when Carrington first started living with Ernst, following his separation from his wife. Animals talk and offer invitations to parties, vegetables tear each other apart in rage, and the narrator wanders through these fantastical situations with a nonplussed air. In fact, it is precisely the narrator’s matter-of-fact responses to all manner of highly absurd situations that provide much of the humor in the stories. The endings are often vague, though not necessarily unsatisfactory given what precedes them.
Little Francis is a novella ostensibly about a boy who takes off with his uncle on an adventure. However, it can also be read as a roman à clef describing a period of time in Carrington’s life when as a young woman she first ran off with Ernst, who was married at the time. There is a lot going on in this novella, too much for me to adequately address here. While I found it interesting and inventively told, the most powerful section of the book for me is the last one, Down Below.
In Down Below, Carrington relates her experience of being held against her will in a Spanish mental hospital. Her dispassionate tone in this account is curious and is one factor that sets it apart from the other pieces in the collection. While it’s possible that the difference in tone is at least in part due to the translation issues described above, there is also the assertion made by Marina Warner in the introduction to consider, that Leonora “does not adhere to a classical Western notion of the fixed self and considers the person of Down Below another member of her disparate inner population.” Considering that Warner had met with Leonora, during which time Leonora reviewed the translation and added to it, I’m assuming this revelation came out of that discussion. That Leonora believed she had in effect been operating during this time within a different part of herself, so to speak, it would make sense that how she wrote, her voice, might sound different.
John Weir Perry, a psychiatrist known for his “radical” views on so-called schizophrenia, speaks of the “schizophrenic episode” as a “self-healing process,” which people sometimes enter into following a time of extreme difficulty in their lives. He says “the renewal process occurring in the acute psychotic episode may be considered nature’s way of setting things right.” In order to help people through this experience in a safe and supportive environment, Perry founded his own residential center called Diabasis during the 1970s. Unlike the horror of forced medication, restraints, and other abuses they would face in mental hospitals, people entering Diabasis were permitted to live through these events in their lives in a natural way, on their own terms, thus facilitating the necessary reorganization of their selves.
When one reads Carrington’s account through the lens of Perry’s descriptions, it seems likely that an episode of this type is what she was experiencing. Her lover, Max Ernst, had once again been interned in a camp for illegal aliens and this time she’d been unable to secure his freedom. The Germans were advancing through France and she and her friends were compelled to flee to Spain. In exacting terms, Carrington describes her retreat from her surroundings into a dream world. She had the following to say of this period later on:
It was very clear, I was possessed. I’d suffered so much when Max was taken away to the camp. I entered a catatonic state, and I was no longer suffering in an ordinary human dimension. I was in another place, it was something quite different. Quite different.
However, instead of finding the kind of solace offered by a facility such as Perry’s Diabasis, Carrington woke up in a mental hospital, having been drugged and “handed over like a cadaver” by two physicians who’d supposedly been caring for her. It is here that, under the control of a sadistic doctor known as Don Luis, she was systematically drugged, stripped naked, restrained with leather straps, and otherwise tortured and humiliated in an effort to break her spirit. She struggled against it and constantly sought to escape, though she grew increasingly disheartened over time: “It seemed impossible to communicate with the outside world; I wondered who would help someone, dressed in a bed sheet and pencil, to get to Madrid.”
Twice she received injections of Cardiazol, a drug used on “schizophrenic” people prior to the development of electroconvulsive therapy. Cardiazol induces violent seizures beginning with such force that a person’s mouth can yawn wide open to the point of jaw dislocation. The seizures are followed by a lapse into comatose sleep. Those who have experienced it describe a feeling of terrible dread post-injection, a feeling “worse than death”¹ as the drug moves through their bodies prior to convulsion.
It was the impending threat of a third Cardiazol injection that finally shattered Carrington’s will, following her most defiant challenge to Don Luis:
Don Luis showed up in my room immediately upon my return. I yelled at him: “I don’t accept your force, the power of any of you, against me; I want my freedom to act and think; I hate and reject your hypnotic forces.” He took me by the arm and led me to a pavilion which was not in use.
“I am the master here.”
“I am not the public property of your house. I, too, have private thoughts and a private value. I don’t belong to you.”
And suddenly, I burst into tears. He took me by the arm, then, and I realised with horror that he was going to give me my third dose of Cardiazol. I promised him all that it was within my power to give if only he would desist from giving me the injection. On the way, I picked up a small eucalyptus fruit, in the belief that it would help me. He took me, vanquished, to the radiography pavilion.
It was then that she relived her first Cardiazol dose, the experience of which she described in part this way:
Don Luis’s eyes tearing my brain apart and I was sinking down into a well…very far…The bottom of that well was the stopping of my mind for all eternity in the essence of utter anguish.
Carrington obviously did finally make it out of the hospital, though narrowly avoiding shipment by her family to another hospital in South Africa, and not without having suffered lasting damage. She said years later that the experience she described in Down Below changed her dramatically. “It was very much like having been dead,” she reported. This is reflective of Perry’s description of what it feels like to go through a so-called “schizophrenic break”:
The overall experience is described as falling into a kind of abyss of isolation. [T]he symbolic expression of this is […] a death – not only a death state, but also a death space – the ‘afterlife,’ the ‘realm of the ancestors,’ the ‘land of the dead,’ the ‘spirit world.’ […] While in this condition, it’s very hard for one to tell if one is really alive or not.
Nothing like this ever happened to Leonora again, which just serves to underline the haunting absurdity of how people who experience episodes like this are often drugged for life because of it. It is in fact, though, what Perry describes as “society’s negative response to what is actually a perfectly natural and healthy process” that is more likely the cause of chronic episodes.
In addition to the horrific descriptions of forced drugging and restraint present in this account, there is also evidence of other highly flawed attitudes still widespread today, such as what is suggested in this encounter between Leonora and Don Luis:
One day, on the path along the back of the garden, I met Don Luis and I asked him if he wanted to go to China with me. He answered: “I do; but you mustn’t say so to anybody, you talk too much. Learn to keep inside you things that occupy your mind.” [This was the signal for my first inhibition, my entry into hermetism.]
This is yet another rampant attitude, whereby society, even including a person’s family, pushes silence on the person in crisis, often to devastating effect. As Carrington implies here, this discouragement from speaking, from expressing oneself, teaches people to recede into isolation, sealed off from contact with others, when what they need most is to tell their own stories in a supportive environment.
Down Below is Leonora rejecting Don Luis; it is her telling her own story of suppression. Of all the pieces in this collection, it spoke the loudest to me. But there is so much more to be taken from this book. The writing in it spans the length of an eventful period in Carrington’s life, even though measured in standard time it was but a few short years. And while the book’s short length (and fairly large type) might first appear to belie the depth of content, in reality it operates like a pop-up book full of labyrinthine puzzles, surreal imagery, and droll humor, all of which rise to meet you as you turn the pages.
All quotes from John Weir Perry taken from this interview.
¹RMPA = Royal Medico-Psychological Association (1938) [Discussion at annual meeting]. Journal of Mental Science, 84, 685–92.