Leonora Carrington’s best dinner parties must have been the ones that lasted til morning and involved serving guests omelettes stuffed with their own hair—shorn off the night prior as they slept. In addition to her paintings, sculptures and written work, the artist is known for once smearing mustard on the soles of her feet in a swanky restaurant, for showing up to a party naked, and for declaring, “Painting is like making strawberry jam—really carefully and well.”
The very figure of Leonora Carrington—onetime girlfriend to Max Ernst, raised on a small castle called Crookhey Hall, the longest-living of all her Surrealist peers—is ripe for mythologizing, especially as a witchy “woman surrealist” with deep ties to the kitchen. But there is a tendency in criticism of Carrington’s visual and written work to collapse her life directly onto it. Granted, this is understandable considering her dinner party habits, which clearly have something of the cauldron to them, against the prominence in her work of the table, the cauldron, and the figural kitchen as sites of culinary-cum-alchemical transformation. But accounts of her Mexico City home tend to betray her visitors’ surprise at how commonplace her kitchen was: in reading between the lines of such descriptions of boxes of tea, cat food, oils and medications strewn about among imperfect crockery, decorative postcards and clippings of the English royal family, (Conley 1) a yearning for some real-life origin of Carrington’s artistic obsessions comes to the fore.
The general connection between food and Carrington’s artistic practice has been well articulated; some critics go so far as to claim that, “For Carrington, everything begins in the kitchen” (Chénieux-Gendron 85). Others emphasize the experimental mode of her interest in cooking: “Together, [Remedios Varo and Carrington] began to experiment with cooking and, with a penchant for experiment and a taste for the ludicrous, they conducted pseudoscientific investigations using the kitchen as their laboratory,” noting that she was particularly interested in food rituals and emphasizing the “correspondence between food preparation, magic and painting” (Aberth 60, 2). Carrington apparently saw cooking almost as an artistic practice: “The transit of food from the kitchen to the table to consumption was, in particular, likened to alchemical processes of distillation and transformation, which in turn led to associations involving art production.” (Aberth 64-5). Her understanding of food is tied up with fixations on transformation, a generative force rather than something merely consumed.
In her short stories, Carrington manipulates food as she might any other aesthetic obsession. Carrington’s unconventional, often grotesque representations of food in her paintings and writings can easily be glossed as a symbolic revolt against, or revision of, feminine domesticity as figured in the kitchen. But what to make of the less obtuse “subversions” of feminine or domestic food-relations in Carrington’s work, particularly in her stories? She figures food by turns as surface or accessory, or as indigestible, rotting, spoiled. While the prevalence of such transformations and permutations in Carrington’s work has been well traced, it is difficult to parse out her feelings on the symbolic resonance of food given her overall disdain toward categorical thinking. Further, the knee-jerk impulse to identify in Carrington’s life her life’s work is just the sort of thing she would likely have us avoid.
Hans-Ulrich Obrist indulged this very impulse in an interview with Carrington upon asking about the recurrence of equine imagery in her paintings, trying to “locate a subjective origin” (Eburne 1) of the motif. Carrington made the pithy reply: “I used to ride a lot. My mother was Irish and it is well known that the Irish have a tradition with horses. This is a logical reply and I don’t think it’s really true. I don’t think it is that simple, but I don’t really know” (Eburne 1). Obrist’s question implies an expectation that Carrington ought to be held accountable for the themes of her work and answer to their symbolic functions, hopefully aided by a biographical referent. In Jonathan P. Eburne’s words, Obrist “arrives at a dead end,” Carrington effectively “flouting the terms of the interview” with her final words on the subject—but I don’t really know. The artist revels in the realm of uncertainty, not rejecting the line of Obrist’s questioning entirely, but holding it in suspense.
This tendency toward logic that devolves into uncertainty is paradigmatic of the way Carrington’s work functions through a sort of willful non-knowledge—a quality found especially in her written work. Carrington is not one to shy from uncertainty, multiplicity or hybridity; she has a penchant for animating inanimate objects and making humans fall in love with animals who dress in fancy clothes. Her fictive spaces are populated by hybrid creatures, transformations spiraling toward both life and death, and countless edible and inedible objects that are earnestly though inappropriately wielded.
In this spirit of suspended certainty and an attempt to temper the impulse to constantly over-determine the significance of the artist’s biography, it seems only appropriate to consider Carrington’s food imagery as it asserts itself along the terms of each story. Sweeping analytical attempts to decode her associative, obsessive oeuvre, to locate either origin or superstructure, tend to flatten the work. That said, Carrington’s writing can roughly (if at all) be characterized by a tendency to linger in liminality. In hungrier words, her stories assert themselves neither through consumption nor rejection; they are caught up in a digestive mode.
Food, in many stories, does not do its “job”—that is, provide sustenance and perhaps familiar comforts to the eater, and by extension, to the reader. Turning to White Rabbits, we see how Carrington conflates rotting meat with the undead and dying, with leprosy. The narrator of this story (who lives on Pest Street) takes it upon herself to buy a piece of meat and wait for it to decompose before bringing it to Ethel, her neighbor across the way. At the story’s outset, Ethel calls over, “Do you happen to have any bad meat over there that you don’t need?” The narrator cannot believe her ears, and Ethel repeats, “Any stinking meat? Decomposed flesh meat?” (109). The narrator pays Ethel and her husband, Lazarus, a visit to deliver her aged victuals, and soon discovers that the bad meat is for their beloved though carnivorous white rabbits. Plus, the animal-lovers are stricken with leprosy, all but undead zombies at this point. Carrington’s tone, as usual, is decidedly matter-of-fact, as though the narrator and her readers should have seen this deathly revelation coming. As readers, we feel slightly chided—after all, the meat was intended to go bad from the beginning, but what was it meant to signify?
The flesh meat the narrator buys expressly in order to let spoil is far from the only site of decay in this story. Ethel and Lazarus and even their house on Pest Street break down just the same, devolving past conventions and utility. At the close of the story, poor Ethel’s fingers fall off, akin to how her doorbell breaks off when the narrator pulls it earlier in the story, before watching the door itself “[cave] inwards, admitting a ghastly smell of putrid meat” (110). By suspending conventional ideas of how doors, rabbits, and neighbors can and cannot transform, Carrington gestures in this story to a sort of progress that sets itself up against utility—the food is not good to eat, the people are more dead than alive, and the story’s ends corresponds exactly with the narrator extricating herself from the festering house. As such, we are not asked to meditate on the meaning of the events in the story; it all quite literally falls to pieces just as they converge.
Is there a moral to be had here? Maybe: Don’t Talk to Neighbors, or, Never Trust a White Rabbit, or, Refrigeration is Key. We can eke just about anything we want out of the story, but Carrington takes no definite stance. Accordingly, the demands on her readers are simultaneously low and high: while we are not expected to fully understand the workings of this world, to piece together some semblance of reason, we must stick with the story through this unfamiliar fictive space. To get through the story, we must suspend our expectations and check linear logic at the door.
For some, this is a tall order. Critic and poet Sue Hubbard posits that these fictive spaces are microcosmic. She complains that “Carrington’s whimsical dreamworld[s]” are too self-involved, and that “the imagery is often simply inaccessible or boring…Carrington’s microcosm, full of furry beasties and grey ghosties, is rather like entering Tolkien’s work of asexual woolly-footed Hobbits. You long for something a little less vapid, some real muscularity, some real sex” (33). Hubbard wants Carrington’s fiction to engage more with the world outside of her own head, as “the problem with dreams and the inside of other people’s heads is that they are not very interesting to others” (33). Carrington’s fiction, it seems, is just too plain fictive!
Granted, a degree of frustration is understandable. Carrington’s stories are perhaps an acquired taste. I take Hubbard’s point: there are no easy assumptions to be made regarding the logic of Carrington’s constructed worlds, which seems to differ from story to story, and any rules of such fictive spaces enact themselves only positively, known only by what is given the reader. In only a handful of stories, people readily converse and copulate with animals, food is lavishly prepared and rendered inedible, the idea of eating a gentleman’s mustaches is within the realm of possibility but dismissed as uncouth for reasons unrelated to plausibility, vegetables are whipped by fine ladies, brawling cabbages reduce their opponents to slaw, and three brothers who live alone in the woods are indefinitely dismayed because all their hunting trophies are cursed to transform into sausages. But if not all this, what exactly does Hubbard expect in terms of “some real muscularity?” It would be more direct perhaps to ask for “some real biography”—this seems to be what Hubbard is missing. In Carrington’s interview with Obrist, she reveals a wariness of the need to trace fiction back to its “roots” in the real world, but Hubbard goes so far as to explicitly conclude that Carrington’s life is “more interesting” (33) than her art.
But what does the distinction between art and life have to do with Carrington’s treatment of food? For one, Carrington handles food elaborately and experimentally in her fictive spaces as in her own life—food serves as a common denominator, an obsession of her artistic and everyday practice. For example, Carrington abstained from food during Max Ernst’s internment during WWII and took up vomiting as a symbolic practice, claiming that the ejections symbolized Max himself, “whom I had to eliminate if I wanted to live” (Walsh). Perhaps this tidbit possesses some of the muscularity Hubbard is after. Second, Carrington’s wavering treatment of food in her stories suggests that the very impulse to know is a masculinist fiction in itself, and can be interrogated as an extension of the problem of fiction versus biography or “realness” in her work and life.
“It is to our advantage to believe that we know,” Carrington once said, “But it is obvious that absolute truths like the ones that were accepted in the times of Newton and Euclid do not exist” (Cherem 27). Notions of certainty, origins and absolute truth are restrictive and wholly beside the point. The point, rather, seems to involve movement, generativity, the pursuit of indeterminate meaning. Carrington’s stories impart the condition of lingering in-between, leaving readers with a perpetual stomach ache, with food as a powerful site of liminality.
While Carrington is widely acknowledged as a surrealist, she neither accepted nor rejected the label. Although she kept a dream journal diligently, Carrington consistently attested that “she was not particularly interested in either Freud or Jung…she insists that her work is rarely inspired by her dreams” (Aberth 103). Further, she once told Joanna Moorhead, her cousin and biographer, that she had never written a story that she did not consider autobiographical (Moorhead). Given the otherworldly quality of her writing, this is telling. Carrington does not much care to separate her life from her work, but ascribing the dreamy quality of her work wholly to her unconscious is apparently inaccurate. Perhaps this speaks to Hubbard’s point—the muscularity of Carrington’s writing may be found in its circumstance as embodied surrealism embedded, bafflingly, in real-life; or perhaps this just makes Hubbard’s problems with the writing all the more “real.”
This is not to condemn Hubbard for privileging Carrington’s life over her artworks, but rather to suggest that it could be an oversimplification at the outset to assert stark divisions between her everyday interests and her artwork. While Carrington’s artistic and everyday obsessions inform each other, the idea that we can only truly know the work through her biography and handed-down anecdotes does a disservice to her vast body of work. Whether or not Carrington’s microcosms are accessible to Hubbard or anyone else, the real trouble here lies in the interpretation of fiction. Conventionally, the “job” of fiction is to subtly but surely unveil some deeper truth that cannot be conveyed in plain language or without a story. This interpretive mode demands that fiction produces truth. In interpreting this productive fiction, we consume the truth. Carrington’s stories, however, are difficult to swallow.
Insofar as Carrington’s collected stories lack a coherent stance on the way her imagery operates, they are “simply inaccessible,” possibly boring, and difficult to interpret from the outside. Hubbard’s complaint of the work’s vapidity is a plea not only for some real-world referents, but for an assertive, muscular logic to organize Carrington’s microcosm for the purpose of translating it for readers, some consistency never delivered.
Logical inconsistencies and the suspension of organized meaning come up continually in A Neutral Man, for example. A “high ecclesiastical dignitary” takes a pork chop out of his “crimson cummerbund” and bestows it upon our narrator, whose face is painted green. The dignitary presses the chop to her, saying, “Take it my daughter…Charity pours forth mercy equally on cats, the poor, and women with green faces” (131). Later in the story, the narrator encounters the neutral man himself, a certain Mr. MacFrolick, who, as she recounts, “offered me a china dish (quite fine) on which rested his own moustache. I hesitated to accept the moustache, thinking perhaps he wanted me to eat it. He’s an eccentric, I thought” (134). Our narrator makes a hasty excuse not to eat the moustache, saying she is full already from the “delicious chop,” which in fact, she did not eat but rather stowed, oozing, into her pocket, wanting to “make a good impression.” MacFrolick, clearly offended at this insinuation, replies, “This moustache is not in any way edible. It is meant as a souvenir of this summer evening…I must add that this moustache has no magical power, but that its considerable size sets it apart from common objects” (134). She accepts the man’s moustache and puts it too in her pocket, “where it immediately stuck to the disgusting pork chop” (134-5).
To accept raw pork chops spirited from cummerbunds as tokens of charity but still get flustered over the “faux pas” (134) of confusing a moustache as an after-dinner-snack is to emphatically disavow any semblance of consistency that might lend itself to the interpretive project of decoding. MacFrolick’s indignant assertion that his moustache is indeed inedible and, for that matter, not magical in the slightest but for its remarkable size, actually affirms the possibility that there are moustaches of more considerable magical property than his, though perhaps they are not in circulation on this occasion. At other points in the story, however, Carrington’s symbolism is so comically overt as to mock the search for meaning in literary imagery and naming. For instance, the narrator’s green face is almost too much at home with the story’s atmosphere of squeamishness; and she notes a smelly shrub while walking at night that the locals apparently call “it smells at night” (133). In keeping the laws of this fictive space open with respect to symbolism and social codes, Carrington holds definite meaning in suspense.
Further, Carrington refuses to end the story, flouting her own terms by declaring, “There is no proper ending to this story, which I recount here as an ordinary summer incident. There’s no ending because the episode is true, because all the people are still alive, and everyone is following his destiny” (136). This story lacks “real muscularity” in the sense that it repels symbolic interpretation and as an “ordinary summer incident” mocks the relationship between truth and fiction.
This speculative work about Carrington’s suspensive mode has affinities with Susan Suleiman’s discussion of indeterminacy and mimicry. Writing on Carrington’s position as a black-humorist and woman surrealist, Suleiman muses: “Assimilation [to characteristically masculine surrealist black humor] on the one hand, hostile parody on the other: is there an intermediate position between these two extremes? I think mimicry occupies that place…ambiguous effects so that interpretation wavers” (8). Just as non-knowledge and the blurring of “real muscularity” or “real biography” work to undo the problem of interpretation, mimicry in Carrington’s work operates in the sweet spot just between assimilation and total rejection.
In a story called The Three Hunters, a character named McBologan offers to show our narrator some of his hunting trophies, which are forever cursed to transform into sausages as soon as they are preserved. Carrington writes:
Walking through the long gallery, we arrived in a room well lit by some lamps. There was nothing but sausages. Sausages in aquariums, sausages in cages, sausages handing on the walls, sausages in sumptuous glass boxes. Nothing but sausages. I may have shown a certain surprise. McBologan looked at his sausages. ‘That,’ he said to me, ‘Is the hand of destiny.’ I stood beside him in deep thought. ‘One’s got to realize that nothing is eternal, that nothing’—he contemplated a landscape of sausages—‘nothing is finally stronger than goodness’ (75).
The trophies of this tragicomedy can be read as an obtuse critique of phallocentrism in representation and of the impulse to preserve trophies as symbolic proxies of masculine prowess, but the grander comedy comes with McBologan’s invocations of what he seems to understand as profound universal truths. (Indeed, “interpretation wavers.”) Carrington highlights and parodies the practice of interpretation: her narrator stands deep in thought, but the activity is distant, primarily identified with configurations of bodies in space, while McBologan contemplates the “landscape of sausages” and finds himself making only the largest possible statements about eternity and morality. The subject of derision here is the idea that poor misguided McBologan can derive from his impotent trophies the most grandiose and absolute truths of life, destiny, morality. Trophies are placeholders, proxies of meaning, and are supposed to function as tangible signifiers of something dominated—this is not the case here.
In mimicking McBologan and his sausages, Carrington plays in the field between rejecting and affirming the workings of symbolism and artistic interpretation. In doing so with food—a hall full of sausages—she further confounds the codes of her own fictive realm. Not only does food transform in Carrington’s stories and work beyond its conventional means, the internal interpretations of what food can signify transforms from story to story. So broadly, we understand that Carrington is toying with what food can and cannot be in her stories, but we are not privy to how these complications may or may not set up tenuous rules of Carrington’s fictive space writ large. Even her characters seem to be in disagreement as to whose mustaches can be eaten and how to tell whether they possess magical properties.
Carrington’s aesthetics verge toward non-knowledge through this confusion. Indeed, Carrington’s signature suspension of certainty operates not unlike that which Derrida identifies as the deconstructionist reading of a text. The deconstructionist reading, in Derrida’s formulation, “would mean respect for that which cannot be eaten—respect for that in a text which cannot be assimilated.”
In speculating “the relationship between understanding and eating,” Derrida considers “the very notion of comprehension as a kind of incorporation.” While Carrington’s work might just as soon be described as the churnings of a proverbial cauldron as pastiche, it is perhaps more entrenched in amalgamation than assimilation. In Derrida’s formulation, Carrington’s undertaking of hybridity and transformation would constitutes a sort of symbolic digestion, but stop just short of total assimilation. But if there is a relationship between understanding and eating in Carrington’s writing, it is not as clear-cut as Derrida might have it; for Carrington, consumption does not directly connote understanding.
It seems fitting then, that hardly any food in Carrington’s short stories is, at first blush, edible. If it is, it is also often highly aestheticized as a ritual object of preparation for a banquet or feast. he value of food in Carrington’s written work seems gestural, stylistic or a function of shock, not unlike the heady literalism of hair-omelettes and mustardy feet. Still, Carrington seems to pose real questions about meaning and certainty: What happens when food is not doing its proper job? How do we assign meaning to symbols that oscillate between functionality and aestheticism? Is eating a form of comprehension? Is digestion or indigestion a better one?
Carrington’s stories broaden what it means to consume. In so thoroughly divorcing food from the realm of fuel-to-energy conversion—eat to live—Carrington invites her readers not necessarily to live or read to eat, but rather to linger on the very materiality of the sticky pork chop clinging to the hairs of the questionably edible moustache and to smell the festering flesh meat on Pest Street. Carrington lavishes attention on her descriptions of food regardless of whether it is edible. In The Sisters, she describes:
Meat, wine, cakes, all half eaten, were heaped around them in extravagant abundance. Huge pots of jam spilled on the floor and made a sticky lake around their feet. The carcass of a peacock decorated Jumart’s head. His beard was full of sauces, fish heads, crushed fruit. His gown was torn and stained with all sorts of food (98)
These are the last lines of a story that follows Engadine, a maid, and Drusille and her sister, Juniper, who has to be locked away because she is slowly turning into a bird-woman, as preparations are made for a meal greeting Jumart, a bankrupt king and Drusille’s lover. At the end of the story, Juniper frees herself and attacks and sucks the lifeblood of Engadine, possibly because Drusille refused to bring her any red wine. The closing tableau is a mess of food and bodies, characterized by its halfway state. Something of the hybridity of the scene is apocalyptic: food is mingled with animals and people, people are turning into animals, a bird-woman makes a meal of a maid. There are no rules to this consumption, only that consumption is taking place on many levels. At one point in the story, Jumart tells Drusille to kiss him so that he might eat her migraine away (94). To say the least, this final table-scape is not calculated to pique one’s appetite, at least not for jam or cakes: whoever wanted to find a beard-hair among their fish heads? Consumption here works almost as a set of aimless flows. It is relational rather than utilitarian, a means perhaps without an end; indigestible, or perpetually digesting.
Carrington once said, “My stomach is society” (Walsh), directly connecting her personal consumption to the happenings of society at large, to all the inhabitants of Earth, obviating a symbolic hypersensitivity that entrenches eating or the abstention from eating in the way she relates to the world and understands her place within it. Derrida’s idea of assimilation, however, strains to align eating with homogeneity, whereas Carrington’s work privileges indigestion as the generative layover between total comprehension and utter rejection, between “subjective origins” and “grey ghosties.”
Still, the idea of keeping truth at a distance is tied to the idea that we must look carefully to the assumptions and systems that inform our understanding of the world and consider their falsity before attempting to posit anything new. This is a postmodern, anti-authoritarian and anti-masculinist idea—that false truth cannot be replaced with a “new” or better truth, but that truth and assimilative forms of knowledge are dismissed as both repressive and reductive.
In this spirit, Carrington’s writing is perhaps best taken with a side of ontological indigestion than swallowed whole. But then how can we approach comprehending Carrington’s seemingly moral-free, extra-logical parables? Is the suspense of assimilation, of comprehension admirable, or should we stand with Hubbard in demanding that Carrington just swallow her food already? Is there a difference, ultimately, in trying to collapse Carrington’s legendary food pranks and her fictional food imagery onto each other and urging ourselves to take Carrington completely at her word, trying to swallow the whole as an autobiographical-artistic arc?
Earlier, I glossed this gravitation in Carrington’s work toward non-knowledge as “paradigmatic.” Carrington, however, has dismissed the very notion of paradigms as “a transitory convention for man” (Cherem 27). Where does this leave us? What lies beyond the realm of paradigms?
Her short stories offer readers to go about reading in a new way not primarily concerned with whether we can consume and assimilate her work—to fully comprehend it—but in positing something more generative, to be had through the digestive confusion of art, truth and fiction. The artist once wrote that “It is quite possible that there are not answers which are profound and comprehensive at the same time” (Hubbard 33). If anything, her stories are profound and comprehensive introductions to her own sort of hybrid writing—by turns literal and allusive, at all times apparently autobiographical and unconcerned with straight realism or objective truths. Ultimately, Carrington’s stories are a window on her way of thinking, artifacts of artistic realism; rather than coming fully into being when read, or consumed, Carrington’s work is so fully fleshed-out, so fully in conversation with its own devices, that we are subjects of the work and not harbingers of interpretation. Like her hair-omelettes and pork chops and moustaches presented on fine china, Carrington’s stories are perhaps less for dinner-party guests or readers than for her own practice. Part and parcel of her artwork and her life’s work, neither needs to be eaten to become so.
Aberth, Susan. Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art. Aldershot, 2004
Carrington, Leonora. The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. Translated by Kathrine Talbot and Anthony Kerrigan, Dorothy, 2017.
Chénieux-Gendron, Jacqueline. “Leonora Carrington et la tunique de Nessus.” Obliques: La femme surréaliste, vol. 14-15, 1977.
Cherem, Sylvia. “Eternally Married to the Wind: Interview with Leonora Carrington” 2003. In Salomon Grimberg (ed.), Leonora Carrington: What She Might Be, Dallas Museum of Art, 2008.
Conley, Katherine. “Carrington’s Kitchen.” Papers of Surrealism, vol. 10, 2013, pp. 1-18.
Derrida, Jacques. Interview by Daniel Birnbaum and Anders Olsson. “An Interview with Jacques Derrida on the Limits of Digestion,” e-flux, January 2009.
Eburne, Jonathan P. and Catriona McAra. Leonora Carrington and the International Avant-Garde. “Introduction” Manchester University Press, 2017, pp. 1-15.
Hubbard, Sue. “Beasties and ghosties” New Statesman and Society, vol. 5, iss. 184, 1992, pp. 32-33.
Laity, Paul. “The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington by Joanna Moorhead – review.” The Guardian 5 April 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/05/the-surreal-life-of- leonora-carrington -joanna-moorhead-review
Strauss, Rachel Rickard and Ruth Maclean. “Nazis, nannies and hair omelettes” Independent, 22 August 2009. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/nazis-nannies- and-hair-omelettes-leonora-carrington-the-last-living-surrealist-looks-back-on-her-1774386.html
Suleiman, Susan Robin. “Surrealist Black Humor: Masculine/Feminine.” Papers of Surrealism, vol. 1, 2003, pp. 3-11.
Walsh, Joanna, “I have no delusions—I am playing’—Leonora Carrington’s Madness and Art.” Verso. Accessed 20 November 2017 https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2275-i-have-no -delusions-i-am-playing-leonora-carrington-s-madness-and-art
Lizzy Harding is a senior at Barnard College studying English with a concentration in Creative Writing. She has many passion projects.