On finding Leonora Carrington in her home in Mexico City and asking her to be a death guide.
What did we have on that day? We must have looked like maniacs. Striped long skirts and bracelets made from silver duct tape, dragging a leather suitcase that looked like the underbelly of a snake. We stood in front of a thick wooden door in the leafy Mexico City neighborhood of Roma, across from an enormous earthquake-collapsed building, overrun with cats and scorpions. I had come with two friends full of purpose—to make art, to find a death guide—and in the almost hallucinatory Mexican sun, we knocked on the door. After a good amount of time, the door swung open, and a moonfaced housekeeper named Yolanda told us in Spanish to come back in two days. Leonora, last of the living surrealists, wasn’t well.
Four years earlier and six weeks too soon, I’d given birth to a baby. You might say my death drive, as Freud calls it, had made itself known. The baby’s lungs weren’t working properly, so he was hooked up to an incubator, and I was told to go home without him. It was a full moon. There were no beds, they said. I remember lying in our bedroom with my husband, a basket beside us but no baby in it. We would take a taxi to the hospital so that I could breastfeed, only to find that they’d just fed the baby through a tube in his nose. Because they kept bank hours, my husband and I were stuck waiting it out near the hospital between feedings. I remember sitting in a generic jazz bar thinking, My baby is in a plastic box in neonatal intensive care, and I am listening to a woman in a pantsuit belting out “My Way.” I’d kept it in, the whole shock of the rapid premature birth, the worry for the baby, the separation, but this was the final blow. Everything was wrong. Tears streamed down. I couldn’t stop crying.
And then, a week later, miraculously, he was in the basket. This simple arithmetic lodged in my brain. The cosmic joke: in birth, we appear; in death, we disappear. I became fixated on this, struck in particular by the metaphysical absurdity of death.
“He still has angels around him,” a woman on a park bench told me, referring to the new baby. I wondered if I was hallucinating. She was wearing a belted wool coat, though we were in a heat wave. Mavis Gallant had wrecked angels for me when she said, “All angels are stupid,” but I understood what the woman meant. He still had something of nowhere, of elsewhere, about him.
I began writing what Margaret Laurence called an “old lady” novel. I say “writing,” but because of the intensity of early motherhood, it was more like a weird, hyperactive enterprise performed in stolen moments. That winter, I trudged through snow to the library, baby strapped to me, and ended up leaving with a slender purple novel by Leonora Carrington called The Hearing Trumpet. Darkly comic and apocalyptic, it has what we would now call an ecofeminist heroine who refuses to consider death. The book was written in the fifties and, among other things, tackles gender identity, terrestrial reorder, and psychic freedom. Oddly, like Carrington’s novel, my draft had a ninety-two-year-old at its center too. When I looked up Carrington and saw that she was then ninety-two, it seemed too strange a coincidence to ignore.
It’s easy to write off surrealism, with its puns, pipes, and bowler hats, but its strange, uncanny nature was born of deep traumatic shock post–World War I. After the violence of birth, I felt joltingly alive, the distressing kind of alive that has a bit of death in it. I was in the unsettling place between human and nonhuman, being and nonbeing—that dark, debilitating nothingness that causes our last and final disappearance. This is the place from which I came to Leonora, who referred to herself as a “female human animal,” who made paintings that look like medieval pageant plays from another planet and gave them titles like Aardvark Groomed by Widows and Who Art Thou, White Face? I thought, through her deep-diving journeys inward, she might help lead me out. Her mind-blowing space-alien mix of the occult with old-world European esoterica and Mayan, Celtic, and Buddhist myth formed her own sharply focused vision. She had called forth the underworld, and I wanted, like Baudelaire, to call to her, Yo, necromancer.
Armed only with a telephone number copied down from the páginas blancas, I had flown to Mexico with two friends to hunt her down. We called and called, and eventually, someone answered. It was a hair salon. With only a few more days left to make contact, we started to accept that we might never find her. Drinking tequila on the rooftop, we admitted to the French filmmaker we were staying with that we had no formal interview set up, no address. He seemed a bit horrified. But then, the next morning, he called us. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said, “but my ex-girlfriend lives on her street.” So like a kind of lucid dream, in a city of twenty million people, we found her address.
Two days after Yolanda turned us away, Leonora herself answered the door. She stood ramrod straight, piled with sweaters, her blazing black eyes full of electricity. She was wraith thin and chain-smoking, and she carried a kind of unplaceable old-world aristocratic bearing, hair swept up, dressed for English weather. She let us into her house, where a tree grew through the center, in an inner garden. First we sat in her dark, chilly kitchen. She smoked Marlboros continuously, so we did too. It felt a bit like purgatory. “What do you want?” she kept asking, without ironic undertow, refusing to playact any artificiality. I wanted to know about death but thought better of beginning there, so I told her I was writing a novel about a ninety-two-year-old. She laughed, blowing out a stream of smoke. “It took me twenty years to find a publisher willing to touch a book about an elderly woman being shipped off to a home for senile females.” I pointed out that her book was now a Penguin Classic, to which she countered: “One that has been out of print since the 1970s.”
Death guides aren’t born; they make themselves. Leonora Carrington was born into extreme wealth in England in 1917. She was expected to marry into the aristocracy, though it was clear, even from a young age, that she would outwit her destiny. She was deeply miserable at convent school, where she drew incessantly and smuggled in cigarettes, and she was kicked out for things such as writing backward and trying to levitate. She endured her own coming-out ball and then wrote about it. Where someone else might have simply satirized the experience, she shot it out of a cannon. Her short story “The Debutante” tells of a hyena she dresses up and sends in her place wearing the “very neatly nibbled all around” face of her recently murdered maid as a mask. At the end of the story, the hyena removes the human face and, to the horror of the dinner guests, eats it.
We are living in monstrous times. Leonora and the women of surrealism—such as Meret Oppenheim, Dora Maar, Toyen, and Maruja Mallo—had to outsmart male authority by engaging on different terms, creating their own female archetypes and their own freedoms. Now we have finally begun to see them as the contemporary feminist heroes they were. With her distinctly female vision of dark futures and wildly feminist weirdness, Carrington couldn’t be more uncomfortably relevant. While we’ve just begun to talk about gender fluidity, she was already onto species fluidity. She advocated and rendered for us an androgynous, radical inclusivity that strikes the distinct tone of now. She saw us all on the same plane—humans, plants, animals, minerals. “Despise nothing, ignore nothing,” she instructed, instructs us still.
On our second afternoon in her house, we walked up the stairs, past the tree, and into another dimension. Her sunny living room was filled with tapestries, sculptures, photographs by her friend Lee Miller, and drawings by Max Ernst, whom she’d met at a dinner party in London when she was barely twenty. He was forty-six and married to his second wife at the time, but the meeting struck them both with such force that she left everything she knew and ran away with him to Paris, where surrealism was in full cry. “You became a surrealist,” I ventured. “I was a surrealist,” Leonora corrected, saying it was the first time she ever felt, in her entire life, that she belonged.
With war at their heels, they fled south, and when Ernst was taken to an internment camp, she stopped eating, started drinking, and began to hallucinate. She felt like an animal; she felt like the universe (a combination that both describes her descent into madness and sounds an awful lot like childbirth). On the way to the coast, she ended up in an asylum in Spain. Newly released, Ernst arrived on their doorstep only to find she had vanished. He gathered up their paintings and fled to Lisbon, where by chance they found each other. She had escaped from the asylum and, in order to travel to America, married a Mexican poet friend of Picasso’s. Ernst had become engaged to Peggy Guggenheim. In New York, Ernst—who, according to Guggenheim, was “still obsessed with the beautiful painter”—tried to win her back. But by this point, Carrington had transformed herself into something else. She had worked out an important truth about being a female artist: to be with a more famous man meant she would never get to be herself. They exchanged portraits of each other and never saw each other again. Decades later, she looks straight into a camera in Pamela Robertson-Pearce’s documentary Gifted Beauty and says: “The soul is very important. You have to own your soul, as far as it’s possible to own your soul—or for it to own you. But to give it over to some half-assed male? I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Her small white dog, Yeti, sat by her chair while she smoked the Marlboros we’d brought for her. She told us about the alchemical experiments she’d learned from female healers in the market and concocted in her kitchen with her close friend, the painter Remedios Varo. She’d lived in this house fifty years, with her two sons and second husband, a Hungarian photojournalist—whose ghost she said she occasionally saw smoking at the end of their table. In the top-floor studio, she had painted for almost seventy years, including posters in the seventies for Mexican women’s liberation, pairing the saints and their miraculous actions with a feminist consciousness.
“We know nothing about death,” she’d once said. “We’ve been brainwashed into the idea of death as horrible, disgusting, and shameful—and also the end. But the end of what? What is it the end of?”
When I finally told her I’d been thinking a lot about death, she cut me off in her droll upper-crust English, saying, “All the thinking you do, I doubt you’ll figure out much.”
She spoke of a lot of things—including her friend the surrealist Leonor Fini, who in Paris used to arrive at parties at midnight, cross-dressed or wearing nothing but white boots and a feather cape—but not death. Perhaps at ninety-two, she was too close to it now to philosophize. Or ever the rebel, she rejected the wise mentor role I wanted her to take.
Leonora refused the reality she was given and dream-lived her own, arrowing into hallucinations, darkness, and death. I was a new mother and a fledgling writer, between states, and something pulled me toward her frequency. But it was like looking for a guide on a trip where you’re not allowed to take anything with you. In her presence, I saw that understanding death is like understanding life—a process that cannot be summed up. Its very definition is the disintegration of meaning.
I went home and immediately tore up my draft. I hadn’t just met the last surrealist or someone of interest to me and my book. It felt more like discovering a lost planet, a once-in-a-millennium heavy hitter of rare, wild talent (even Picasso, after all, was a failed poet, whereas Carrington wrote and painted, literally, with both hands).
And now, a decade and a novel later, I see what a ridiculous question I had posed. Who can possibly tell you about death? She had no need to talk of it, especially when her painting and writing dragged it squarely into life. By refusing to answer me, she made me more present to myself. The revelation is within, to what you, as female human animal, are capable of. In the end, the book I wrote, The Dictionary of Animal Languages, is about an old woman. There is a lost child, a lost painting, a troubled affair, but at the heart of it, it is none of those things. It is a book about a woman working. Leonora took everything she knew and everything she couldn’t and shaped it—into layers of egg tempera and hand-ground pigments, words, and political posters—and it became something else, something truthful and unsettlingly alive. Something immortal. She showed us what making art can do. It is the work itself that beats death, nothing else.
Heidi Sopinka is the author of The Dictionary of Animal Languages, out this week from Scribe.