The Lemon is the Antidote

Reason must know the heart’s reason and all other reasons which are felt from the tip of one’s hair to the extremity of one’s toes
—Leonora Carrington, Down Under (28)

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Portrait of Madame Dupin, 1947

Down Under is Leonora Carrington’s riveting account of being held in a Spanish institute for the incurably insane. How she got there is in itself a fascinating story. She was Max Ernst’s lover and at the outbreak of WWII he was arrested by the Gestapo, but then released. He escaped further arrest (or worse) when Peggy Guggenheim arranged for him to come to the United States. Peggy, I guess, did not arrange for Carrington’s escape and ended up marrying Ernst herself…. Carrington was left bereft, heartbroken. She escaped France by going to Spain, which was where the pressure on her heart and soul cracked her brain. I suppose in the face of the combination of heartbreak and the terror and insanity of WWII, a psychotic break must be a near inevitability. When her friend, who was driving the car to Spain, commented that the brakes had jammed Carrington internalized that word. She was “jammed” the world was “jammed.”

What caused the panic to rise within me was the thought of automatons, of thoughtless, fleshless beings (8)

But things got seriously worse at the institute to which she was taken. She was given a series of shots of Cardiazol which induce seizures (a sort of “shock therapy”). Down Under describes that harrowing experience.

When I came to I was lying naked on the floor. I shouted to Asegurada to bring me some lemons and I swallowed them with their rinds. […] then I went back to bed and, intimately, tasted despair (36).

The psychotic fantasies and delusions that ensue are disturbing and not uncoincidentally surreal in the extreme. After all, Carrington was a surrealist artist (English-born, Mexican/Irish descent). But there is something in the way she tells of the ordeal—the odd details that make it very real. I (perhaps strangely, but none the less) completely understood her random obsession for lemons—she comes to consider lemons as an antidote to the Cardiazol, and believes, in her delusion, that the lemons are the key to the story! Or when, at great effort, she gets ahold of a pencil and piece of paper, draws a triangle on it and passes it to José, one of the orderlies:

That triangle, to my way of thinking, explained everything (28).

You feel her mind trying to grip onto anything to prevent the free fall into an utter disconnect with herself. And she does strategize—she tries to organize her mind in interesting ways. She has a sort of mental visual map that helps her at least name the buildings and areas of the institute she is in (which, when she later gets away, she is able to match against what was actually there instead of what she thought in her confused altered state, i.e. “Down Under,” “Africa,” “Outside World Street,” “Garden Pavilion”). She uses objects in her room or dresser to represent the pieces in her mind:

My red and black refill pencil (leadless) was Intelligence. Two bottles of Eau de Cologne, one flat was the Jews, the other, cylindrical, the non-Jews. A box of “Tabu” powder, with a cap half of which was grey and the other black, meant eclipse, complex, vanity, Tabu, love (41).

In this way she gets them out of her head, outside of herself so that she can make some sort of sense. She also struggles to solve the problems of the world developing a full blown martyr complex on the way. Her sexual passions get wrapped up into her state of being and one gets a real sense of her as feeling, intelligent, sensual woman. It is a brief tale, but the complexity she brings to the story is fascinating.

An interesting aspect of this little book is that it was not actually written, rather, it was “told to Jeanne Megnen” which, I think, alters the telling. In many ways, the mind wanders more freely when it does not have to concern itself with organizing the words and sentences on the page. In the case of this particular book, that quality lends itself to the overall oneiric, nightmarish quality.

I sank, I sank down into a well…very far…The bottom of that well was the stopping of my mind for all eternity in the midst of utter anguish. But will you ever understand what I mean by the essence of utter anguish? (36)

*Published by Black Swan Press, translated from the French by Victor Llona

 

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15 responses to “The Lemon is the Antidote

  1. Small world. I recently saw “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict” — fascinating, of course — and the sad, bitter tale of Peggy’s marriage to Max Ernst is in there, of course. Had no idea of this part of the story, however. How fascinating.

  2. It takes great courage(which you posses) to dive as deeply into her story as she dove into being the witness for her soul. I imagine the telling of it relieving her heart of its burdens , if for only a moment. I imagine you sorting yours out by holding hers.

  3. Thank you for this – I’ll put it on my list of books to read.

    Brings to mind for whatever reason Stanislaw Lem’s Hospital of the Transfiguration.

  4. I only saw this now. I thought I knew this story but Peggy Guggenheim marrying Max Ernst is new to me. I’ll read up about it again to refresh my memory. First reaction was – what a bastard Max Ernst was! Love the painting you chose to go with this.

    • I highly recommend the new documentary film about Peggy Guggenheim. It touches on all of the stories, including some really unsettling material about Peggy’s sister (and, of course, the Max Ernst marriage).

  5. I consulted a book Voicing our Visions, edited by Mara R Witzling. It appears Leonora Carrington fled France to Spain, selling the farm she and Ernst lived on for a bottle of brandy. Searching for info on the internet last night, all the entries made it appear as if he abandoned her. Seems it was the other way around!

    • hmm, interesting. In this book she doesn’t go uno detail, only that she is obviously disturbed by the breakup and heartbroken. I’m sure it’s complex and out of anyone else’s reach to know what really happened.

      • It will take checking all the references Witzlinger quoted at the end of the chapter on Leonora Carrington. Wonder if there’s a definitive biography on her?

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