I have chosen for the third in the series of Surrealist short stories a deliciously macabre tale by the wonderful English artist, writer and eccentric Leonora Carrington, who was also the subject of Max Ernst’s masterpiece, The Robing of the Bride.
In a reversal of a classic fairy tale theme, The Debutante tells of the lengths our heroine is prepared to go to in order to not attend a ball.
WHEN I was a debutante I often went to the zoo. I went so often that I knew the animals better than I knew girls of my own age. Indeed, it was in order to get away from people that I found myself each day at the zoo. The animal I got to know best was a young hyena. She knew me too. She was extremely intelligent, I taught her French and she, in return, taught me her language. In this way we passed many pleasant hours.
My mother was arranging a ball in my honour on the first of May. During this time I was in great distress for whole nights. I’ve always detested balls, especially when they are given in my honour.
On the morning of the first of May, 1934, very early, I went to visit the hyena.
“What a bloody nuisance,” I told her. “I’ve got to go to my ball tonight.”
“You’re very lucky,” she said. “I would love to go. I do not know how to dance, but at least I could make small talk.”
“There’ll be a great many different things to eat,” I told her. “I’ve seen truckloads of food delivered to our house.”
“And you complain!” replied the hyena, disgusted. “Just think of me, I eat once a day, and you can’t imagine what a heap of bloody rubbish I’m given!”
I had a audacious idea, and I almost laughed. “All you have to do is to go instead of me!”
“We do not resemble each other enough, otherwise I’d gladly go,” said the hyena, rather sadly.
“Listen,” I said. “No one sees too well in the evening light. If you disguise yourself, no one will notice you in the crowd. Besides, we are practically the same size. You are my only friend, I beg you to do this for me.”
She thought this over, and I knew that she really wanted to accept.
“Done,” she said all of a sudden.
There weren’t many keepers about, it was so early in the morning. Quickly I opened the cage and in a moment we were in the street. I hailed a taxi; at home, everyone was still in bed. In my room, I brought out the dress I was to wear that evening. It was a little long, and the hyena found it difficult to walk in my high-heeled shoes. I found some gloves to hide her hands which were too hairy to look like mine. By the time the sun was shining into my room, she was able to make her way around the room several times—walking more or less upright. We were so busy that my mother almost opened the door to say good morning before the hyena had hidden under my bed.
“There’s a bad smell in your room,” said my mother, opening the window. “You must have a scented bath before tonight, with my new bath salts.”
“Certainly,” I said.
She did not stay long. I believe the smell was too strong for her.
“Don’t be late for breakfast,” she said and left the room.
The greatest difficulty was to find a way of disguising the hyena’s face. We spent hours and hours looking for a way, but she always rejected my suggestions. At last she said, “I think I’ve found a solution. Have you got a maid?”
“Yes,” I said, puzzled.
“There you are then. Ring for your maid, and when she comes in we’ll pounce upon her and tear off her face. I’ll wear her face this evening instead of mine.”
“That’s not practical,” I said to her. “She will probably die if she hasn’t got a face. Someone will surely find the corpse and we’ll go to prison.”
“I am hungry enough to eat her,” the hyena replied.
“And the bones?”
“As well,” she said. “So, its on?”
“Only if you promise to kill her before tearing off her face. It’ll hurt her too much otherwise.”
“All right. It’s all the same to me.”
Not without a certain amount of nervousness I rang for Mary, my maid. I certainly wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t hate having to go to a ball so much. When Mary came in I turned to the wall so as not to see. I must admit that it didn’t take long. A brief cry, and it was over. While the hyena was eating, I looked out the window. A few minutes later, she said, “I can’t eat anymore. Her two feet are left over still, but if you have a little bag, I’ll eat them later in the day.”
“You’ll find in the wardrobe a bag embroidered with fleurs de lys in the cupboard. Empty out the handkerchiefs you’ll find inside, and take it.” She did as I suggested. Then she said: “Turn around now and look how beautiful I am.”
In front of the mirror, the hyena was admiring herself in Mary’s face. She had nibbled very neatly all around the face so that what was left was exactly what was needed.
“You’ve certainly done that very well,” I said.
Toward evening, when the hyena was all dressed up, she declared: “I really feel in tip-top form. I have the feeling that I shall be a great success this evening.”
When we had heard the music from downstairs for quite some time, I said to her, “Go on down now, and remember, don’t stand next to my mother. She’s bound to realise that it isn’t me. Apart from her I don’t know anybody. Best of luck.” I kissed her as I left her, but she did smell very strong.
Night fell. Tired by the day’s emotions, I took a book and sat down by the open window, giving myself up to peace and quiet. I remember that I was reading Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. About an hour later, I noticed the first signs of trouble. A bat flew in at the window, uttering little cries. I am terribly afraid of bats, I hid behind a chair, my teeth chattering. I had hardly gone down on my knees when the sound of beating wings was overcome by a great noise at my door. My mother entered, pale with rage.
“We’d just sat down at table,” she said, “when that thing sitting in your place got up and shouted, ‘So I smell a bit strong, what? Well, I don’t eat cakes.’ Whereupon it tore off its face and ate it. And with one great bound, disappeared through the window.”
The Tyger which was first published in 1794 in William Blake’s Songs of Experience was later merged with Blake’s previous collection of 1789 Songs of Innocence as Songs of Innocence and of Experience, showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. As with all of Blake’s work it was illuminated and printed by himself.
The Tyger is probably the most famous of Blake’s poems and justifiably so. It is a magical distillation of Blake’s major themes and metaphysics in a short poem of six, four line stanzas with a miraculous melding of form and content. It is in my opinion, the one poem in English literature that comes closest to achieving absolute perfection.
At the time of writing tigers would still have possessed a near mythical status. It is possible that Blake may have seen a tiger cub that was exhibited in a travelling rarity show, hence the childlike and rather cuddly tiger depicted in the plate. The poem is a different matter altogether though. The beauty and the ferocity of the Tyger prompt Blake to question the idea of a benevolent God and leads to a vision of the sublime.
Blake’s Tyger is a Platonic Ideal Form which explains the idiosyncratic spelling. The poem opens with a reiteration, pointing towards the symmetry which plays such an important part in the poem. The rest of the line and the next highlights the duality of the Tyger, who shines with the intensity of the sun (blazing bright) and its nocturnal nature (in the forest of the night). The following couplet that completes the stanza asks what kind of creator could fashion such a violently amoral animal, a question that is reiterated with greater force in the fifth stanza when Blake wonders, Did he who made the Lamb make thee? . The Tyger companion piece in Songs of Innocence is The Lamb, an animal that has obvious connotations to Christ. The sixth and final stanza repeats the opening stanza with one important difference, dare replaces could in frame thy fearful symmetry.
Blake developed his own personal mythology and his view of God the Creator was idiosyncratic and complicated to say the least. He equated the Old Testament Jehovah with the Gnostic demiurge whom he called variously Urizen and Nobodaddy in his writing. The Ancients of Days is his most famous artistic representation of the Divine Architect of the material universe.
Although ostensibly a children’s nonsense tale, Edward Lear’sThe History of the Seven Families of Lake Pipple-popple manages to convey in its fourteen very brief chapters humour, bathos, absurdity, pathos and ultimately the dizzying pull of destiny and the tragic inevitability of fate, all with extravagant wordplay and dazzling inventiveness.
The History of the
Seven Families of the
In former days — that is to say, once upon a time, there lived in the Land of Gramblamble, Seven Families. They lived by the side of the great Lake Pipple-popple (one of the Seven Families, indeed, lived in the Lake), and on the outskirts of the City of Tosh, which, excepting when it was quite dark, they could see plainly. The names of all these places you have probably heard of, and you have only not to look in your Geography books to find out all about them.
Now the Seven Families who lived on the borders of the great Lake Pipple-popple, were as follows in the next Chapter.
THE SEVEN FAMILIES
There was a Family of Two old Parrots and Seven young Parrots.
There was a Family of Two old Storks and Seven young Storks.
There was a Family of Two old Geese, and Seven young Geese.
There was a Family of Two old Owls, and Seven young Owls.
There was a Family of Two Old Guinea Pigs and Seven young Guinea Pigs.
There was a Family of Two old Cats and Seven young Cats,
And there was a Family of Two old Fishes and Seven young Fishes.
THE HABITS OF THE SEVEN FAMILIES
The Parrots lived upon the Soffsky-Poffsky trees, — which were beautiful to behold, and covered with blue leaves, — and they fed uponfruit, artichokes, and striped beetles.
The Storks walked in and out of the Lake Pipple-popple, and ate frogs for breakfast and buttered toast for tea, but on account of the extreme length of their legs, they could not sit down, and so they walked about continually.
The Geese, having webs to their feet, caught quantities of flies, which they ate for dinner.
The Owls anxiously looked after mice, which they caught and made into sago puddings.
The Guinea Pigs toddled about the gardens, and ate lettuces and Cheshire cheese.
The Cats sate still in the sunshine, and fed upon sponge biscuits.
The Fishes lived in the Lake, and fed chiefly on boiled periwinkles.
And all these Seven Families lived together in the utmost fun and felicity.
THE CHILDREN OF THE SEVEN FAMILIES ARE SENT AWAY
One day all the Seven Fathers and the Seven Mothers of the Seven Families agreed that they would send their children out to see the world.
So they called them all together, and gave them each eight shillings and some good advice, some chocolate drops, and a small green morocco pocket-book to set down their expenses in.
They then particularly entreated them not to quarrel, and all the parents sent off their children with a parting injunction.
‘If,’ said the old Parrots, ‘you find a Cherry, do not fight about who should have it.’
‘And,’ said the old Storks, ‘if you find a Frog, divide it carefully into seven bits, but on no account quarrel about it.’
And the old Geese said to the Seven young Geese, ‘Whatever you do, be sure you do not touch a Plum-pudding Flea.’
And the old Owls said, ‘If you find a Mouse, tear him up into seven slices, and eat him cheerfully, but without quarrelling.’
And the old Guinea Pigs said, ‘Have a care that you eat your Lettuces, should you find any, not greedily but calmly.’
And the old Cats said, ‘Be particularly careful not to meddle with a Clangle-Wangle, if you should see one.’
And the old Fishes said, ‘Above all things avoid eating a blue Boss-woss, for they do not agree with Fishes, and give them pain in their toes.’
So all the Children of each Family thanked their parents, and making in all forty-nine polite bows, they went into the wide world.
THE HISTORY OF THE SEVEN YOUNG PARROTS
The Seven young Parrots had not gone far, when they saw a tree with a single Cherry on it, which the oldest Parrot picked instantly, but the other six, being extremely hungry, tried to get it also. On which all the Seven began to fight, and they scuffled,
and guffled, and bruffled,
and screamed, and shrieked, and squealed, and squeaked, and clawed, and snapped, and bit, and bumped, and thumped, and dumped, and flumped each other, till they were all torn into little bits, and at last there was nothing left to record this painful incident, except the Cherry and seven small green feathers.
And that was the vicious and voluble end of the Seven young Parrots.
THE HISTORY OF THE SEVEN YOUNG STORKS
When the Seven young Storks set out, they walked or flew fo fourteen weeks in a straight line, and for six weeks more in a crooked one; and after that they ran as hard as they could for one hundred and eight miles: and after that they stood still and made a himmeltanious chatter-clatter-blattery noise with their bills.
About the same time they perceived a large Frog, spotted with green, and with a sky-blue stripe under each ear.
So being hungry, they immediately flew at him, and were going to divide him into seven pieces, when they began to quarrel as to which of his legs should be taken off first. one said this, and another said that, and while they were all quarrelling the Frog hopped away. And when they saw that he was gone, they began to chatter-clatter:
more violently than ever. And after they had fought for a week they pecked each each other all to little pieces, so that at last nothing was left of any of them except their bills,
And that was the end of the Seven young Storks.
THE HISTORY OF THE SEVEN YOUNG GEESE
When the Seven young Geese began to travel, they went over a large plain, on which there was but one tree, and that was a very bad one.
So four of them went up to the top of it, and looked about them, while the other three waddled up and down, and repeated poetry, and their last six lessons in Arithmetic, Geography, and Cookery.
Presently they perceived, a long way off, an object of the most interesting and obese appearance, having a perfectly round body, exactly resembling a boiled plum-pudding, with two little wings, and a beak, and three feathers growing out of his head, and only one leg.
So after a time all the Seven young Geese said to each other, ‘Beyond all doubt this beast must be a Plum-pudding Flea!’
On which they uncautiously began to sing aloud,
‘Wherever you be,
‘O come to our tree,
‘And listen, O listen, O listen to me!’
And no sooner had they sung this verse then the Plum-pudding Flea began to hop and skip on his one leg with the most dreadful velocity, and came straight to the tree, where he stopped and looked about him in a vacant and voluminous manner.
On which the Seven young Geese were greatly alrmed, and all of a tremble-bemble: so one of them put out his great neck, and just touched him with the tip of his bill, — but no sooner had he done this than the Plum-pudding Flea skipped and hopped about more and more and higher and higher, after which he opened his mouth, and, to the great surprise and indignation of the Seven Geese, began to bark so loudly and furiously and terribly that they were totally unable to bear the noise, and by degrees every one of them suddenly tumbled down quite dead.
So that was the end of the Seven young Geese.
THE HISTORY OF THE SEVEN YOUNG OWLS
When the Seven young Owls set out, they sate every now and then on the branches of old trees, and never went far at one time.
And one night when it was quite dark, they thought they heard a Mouse, but as the gas lights were not lighted, they could not see him.
So they called out, ‘Is that a Mouse?’
On which a Mouse answered, ‘Squeaky-peeky-weeky, yes it is.’
And immediately all the young Owls threw themselves off the tree, meaning to alight on the ground; but they did not perceive that there was a large well below them, into which they all fell superficially, and were every one of them drowned in less than half a minute.
So that was the end of the Seven young Owls.
THE HISTORY OF THE SEVEN YOUNG GUINEA PIGS
The Seven young Guinea Pigs went into a garden full of Gooseberry-bushes and Tiggory-trees, under one of which they fell asleep. When they awoke, they saw a large Lettuce which had grown out of the ground while they had been sleeping, and which had an immense number of green leaves. At which they all exclaimed:
‘Lettuce! O Lettuce!
‘Let us, O let us,
‘O Lettuce leaves,
‘O let us leave this tree and eat
‘Lettuce, O let us, Lettuce leaves!’
And instantly the Seven young Guinea Pigs rushed with such extreme force against the Lettuce-plant, and hit their heads so vividly against its stalk, that the concussion brought on directly an incipient transitional inflammation of their noses, which grew worse and worse and worse and worse till it incidentally killed them all Seven.
And that was the end of the Seven young Guinea Pigs.
THE HISTORY OF THE SEVEN YOUNG CATS
The Seven young Cats set off on their travels with great delight and rapacity. But, on coming to the top of a high hill, they perceived at a long distance off a Clangle-Wangle (or, as it is more properly written, Clangel-Wangel), and in spite of the warning they had had, they ran straight up to it.
(Now the Clangle-Wangle is a most dangerous and delusive beast, and by no means commonly to be met with. They live in the water as well as on land, using their long tail as a sail when in the former element. Their speed is extreme, but their habits of life are domestic and superfluous, and their general demeanour pensive and pellucid. On summer evenings they may sometimes be observed near the Lake Pipple-popple, standing on their heads and humming their national melodies: they subsist entirely on vegetables, excepting when they eat veal, or mutton, or pork, or beef, or fish, or saltpetre.)
The moment the Clangle-Wangle saw the Seven young Cats approach, he ran away; and as he ran straight on for four months, and the Cats, though they continued to run, could never overtake him, — they all gradually died of fatigue and of exhaustion, and never afterwards recovered.
And this was the end of the Seven young Cats.
THE HISTORY OF THE SEVEN YOUNG FISHES
The Seven young Fishes swam across the Lake Pipple-popple, and into the river, and into the Ocean, where most unhappily for them, they saw on the 15th day of their travels, a bright blue Boss-Woss, and instantly swam after him. But the Blue Boss-Woss plunged into a perpendicular,
circular depth of soft mud,
where in fact his house was.
And the Seven young Fishes, swimming with great uncomfortable velocity, plunged also into the mud quite against their will, and not being accustomed to it, were all suffocated in a very short period.
And that was the end of the Seven young Fishes.
OF WHAT OCCURRED SUBSEQUENTLY
After it was known that the
Seven young Parrots,
and the Seven young Storks,
and the Seven young Geese,
and the Seven young Owls,
and the Seven young Guinea Pigs,
and the Seven young Cats,
and the Seven young Fishes,
were all dead, then the Frog, and the Plum-pudding Flea, and the Mouse, and the Clangel Wangel, and the Blue Boss Woss, all met together to rejoice over their good fortune.
And they collected the Seven Feathers of the Seven young Parrots, and the Seven Bills of the Seven young Storks, and the Lettuce, and the other objects in a circular arrangement at their base, they danced a hornpipe round all these memorials until they were quite tired: after which they gave a tea-party, and a garden-party, and a ball, and a concert, and then returned to their respective homes full of joy and respect, sympathy, satisfaction, and disgust.
OF WHAT BECAME OF THE PARENTS OF THE FORTY-NINE CHILDREN
But when the two old Parrots,
and the two old Storks,
and the two old Geese,
and the two old Owls,
and the two old Guinea Pigs,
and the two old Cats,
and the two old Fishes,
became aware by reading in the newspapers, of the calamitous extinction of the whole of their families, they refused all further sustenance; and sending out to various shops, they purchased great quantities of Cayenne Pepper, and Brandy, and Vinegar, and blue Sealing-wax, besides Seven immense glass Bottles with air-tight stoppers. And having dome this, they ate a light supper of brown bread and Jerusalem Artichokes, and took an affecting and formal leave of the whole of their acquaintance, which was very numerous and distinguished, and select, and responsible, and ridiculous.
And after this, they filled the bottles with the ingredients for pickling, and each couple jumped into a separate bottle, by which effort of course they all died immediately, and become thoroughly pickled in a feew minutes; having previously made their wills (by the assistance of the most eminent Lawyers of the District), in which they left strict orders that the Stoppers of the Seven Bottles should be carefully sealed up with the blue Sealing-wax they had purchased; and that they themselves in the Bottles should be presented to the principal museum of the city of Tosh, to be labelled with Parchment or any other anticongenial succedaneum, and to be placed on a marble table with silver-gilt legs, for the daily inspection and contemplation, and for the perpetual benefit of the pusillanimous public.
And if ever you happen to go to Gramble-Blamble, and visit that museum in the city of Tosh, look for them on the Ninety-eighth table in the Four handred and twenty-seventh room of the right-hand corridor of the left wing of the Central Quadrangle of that magnificent building; for if you do not, you certainly will not see them.
The only extant work of Looking-Glass World literature, Jabberwocky is undoubtedly the masterpiece of nonsense.
After stepping through the mirror and encountering the White King and Queen, Alice discovers a book. While initially mystified by its contents, Alice realises that it is a Looking-Glass Book and to be able to read it she must hold it up to the mirror. Alice’s reaction to the poem is an excellent summation of its abstract power; “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas-only I don’t exactly know what they are!”
Later Alice encounters the semantician Humpty Dumpty (see my post Glory for further details on their meeting), who deciphers the more unusual coinages of the first stanza. However, considering Humpty’s cavalier attitude to the exact meaning of words and Alice’s subsequent dismissal of Humpty as most unsatisfactory, combined with the markedly different interpretations that Carroll had previously stated leaves the poem eluding traditional, concrete definition.
Nonsense as a form would be used frequently by various Modernist movements, notably Dada and the Italian Futurists, yet they tend to lack the deftness of touch of either Carroll or Lear.
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun The frumious Bandersnatch!”
He took his vorpal sword in hand; Long time the manxome foe he sought— So rested he by the Tumtum tree, And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood, The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, And burbled as it came!
One, two! One, two! And through and through The vorpal blade went snicker-snack! He left it dead, and with its head He went galumphing back.
“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? Come to my arms, my beamish boy! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” He chortled in his joy.
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.