Being Leonora

Having finished 'Leonora', a novel based on the life of the artist and writer, Leonora Carrington, by Elena Poniatowska, I came away ever more deeply both captivated by the beauty and complexity of her work (that I have been looking at, in parallel, to the unfolding narrative) and by her story.

I had known that she had found herself incarcerated in an asylum in Spain during the Second World War but I had never caught both the intensity of her descent into derangement nor the horrors of her treatment. It was an inferno of suffering where the relative brevity of the timeframe is wholly irrelevant. Its waves flowed on in her life, always threatening to upset its hard won stability. That it did not is testimony to her sheer resilience, key friendships, motherhood and her persistent, necessary vocation.

Reading it I was reminded of James Hillman's 'The Soul's Code' his re-telling, in contemporary guise, of Plato's myth of Ur, where the soul, having seen its chosen future life, drinks of forgetfulness yet carries with it, into incarnation, traces of memory of what can unfold, of the soul's calling. For some that memory overwhelms establishing the certainty of their future course, and it emerges at an early age. Julie Garland was feted to dance at a child's talent contest yet froze and in compensation burst into song. Elias Canetti, novelist and autobiographer of genius, chased his elder sister around the family garden with an axe because she refused him a story. Leonora drew the images of her inner life from the earliest moment she could to her last days, a span of over eighty years, of a haunted imagination.

The Juggler by Remedios Varo

It was also a delight to read of her restoring friendship with Remedios Varo. Having met her briefly in France at the edges of Surrealism, she sees Remedios in the street in Mexico City just at the point when she is feeling that this city is too strange a place of exile. Varo's friendship and love returns her to a group of friends, all similarly exiles, that grant her an intellectual and felt home. They become, until Varo's untimely early death, inseparable and Varo offers not only a wry sense of humour but also a spiritual seriousness that aids Carrington in shaping her own views of the world.

Views rather than view because Carrington remained ever an explorer, enterpriser after truth rather than the disciple of any particular tradition; and, though her visions were shaped by her thought, they were never put at the service of an over-arching system of myth or intellect. She could always see not only the hopes but also the flaws in any pattern. The world remained mysterious but always wondrous. 


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