The Debutante

Leonora Carrington-Self Portrait (The Inn of the White Horse) 1937-1938
Leonora Carrington-Self Portrait (The Inn of the White Horse) 1937-1938

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.

The Debutante

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.”

Leonora Carrington-1939

Translation: Marina Warner & Katherine Talbot

Selene

Configuration-Max Ernst 1974
Configuration-Max Ernst 1974

I can’t believe this
I can’t
I can’t believe this feeling,
In control of my desolation,
Home in the alienation.
You said you’d take me higher,
And I’m higher,
Higher than ever before
I can’t believe that
I’m seeing the blue-green orb
Spinning frenetically
Ceaselessly ebbing, flowing, flooding,
Mutability the only constant
From this vantage-point
Of this Empire of Dust.
But I am tranquil in my isolation,
Calm in the knowledge,
Of this monthly death
And rebirth, the steady
Procession of waxing and waning,
Gibbous and crescent,
The fullness that must pass
Into invisibility before re-commencing
As two celestial bodies approach closer,
You take me still higher
The cycle and phases of lunacy,
Rays of translucent illumination
A ladder of fine silken threads
Leading upwards towards a point
Where I can glimpse some kind
Of knowledge, leading to communion
With the stellar inhuman intelligence,
The Alabaster Goddess
Whose light burns like ice
Through my veins to ignite in my mind
A deadly passion for her chill
Embrace over on the far dark side.

Curvature

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Max Ernst-The Garden of France

If you aren’t already aware, my collection of 69 inter-related poems and short fictions Motion No. 69 is available for purchase in both e-book and paperback. Below is a sample, (or a tease, if you prefer) read by yours truly.

Curvature

Just close your eyes,
and open your legs.

The curvature
of your soft, inner thigh,
leading to the downy, raw hollow
seems to me like a promise—
that the door to paradise will open up
wide enough to swallow whole
my entire being.
Do I dare to enter the void
into which I spent my life staring longingly?
Maybe if I bury myself deep enough inside you,
then a curvature will result
in the seemingly,
inexorable, forward flow of time.
And I can return again
to that place
I never wanted to leave anyway.
Floating in the protective bubble,
in the gloved darkness,
nurtured by your essence.
The curvature of my posture
recapitulates the evolution of every species
as they lose the innocence
of a blessed total symmetry—
the result of a fall of some fashion—
and all the time,
as I forget and remember,
remember and forget,
the curvature of your belly
mirrors the earth
and further still of worlds, galaxies and universes,
until you burst open with the creation
that can no longer be contained.
And I scream my discontent
at my expulsion from Eden,
until I find succour
at the curvature of your breast.

Recurrence

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Max Ernst

It’s a repetition of the recurrence
Don’t believe the hype
This ain’t no singularity
Nowt new beneath
The gaudy painted disk
That meanders monotonously
Against the banal backdrop
The Ingenue is always searching
In other people’s bathroom cabinets
And the Melancholy Lieutenant
Is eternally on the verge
Of nodding off, drifting away
To a place that only exists
Within the confines of his skull
While the Rebel is forever swerving
Just a fraction too late
On the rain slick Parisian street
The serpent eats it tails
So that whatever happens
Happens again just so
Everything returns
Exactly as it was
And there is no end in sight
Because there was never
A starting point to begin with
It’s the recurrence of a repetition

A Heresy for the 21st Century: The Gnosticism of Modernity

Pieta or Revolution by Night 1923 by Max Ernst 1891-1976
Pieta or Revolution by Night 1923 Max Ernst

Before progressing further with the study of Gnostic influences in the 20th and 21st Century, we must first consider what elements of a heresy formulated in the 1st Century AD hold relevance today, two millennia later, in an increasingly secular world with an unprecedentedly advanced technology. Obviously a Gnosticism divorced from its ancient and medieval religious milieu is going to be markedly different from the original, indeed on a number of occasions is it avowedly atheist and secular, however this adaptability is a sign of its continued power to haunt the imagination.

  • Paranoia-the worldview of Gnosticism is deliriously paranoid. The whole universe is a vast cosmic conspiracy concocted by a deluded and evil Demiurge, who employs archons to make sure we keep in line and don’t realise the horrific truth. Through gnosis you could achieve awareness that you were trapped inside an immense prison and begin the escape to our true home. Unfortunately the history of the Gnostics suggests that their paranoia was to a certain extent justified, as they were definitely persecuted and were frequently burned at the stake. One of the defining characteristics of the 20th Century onward has been the ever escalating paranoia, though it is the state and ever-encroaching technologies that are the main cause of the proliferating conspiracy theories. However who could seriously doubt that the power structures are out to get us? Paranoia makes sense, though the sense it makes is completely paranoid.
  • Pessimism-the idea that the material world and realm of the senses is corrupt, faulty and inherently, intrinsically evil is a rare case of religious and philosophical pessimism, as is the antinatalism adopted by the majority of Gnostic sects, both ascetic and libertine. It isn’t until Schopenhauer (though a case could be made for Marquis De Sade with his eternal, infernal universe ruled over by a malevolent Nature) that such views found a place within mainstream philosophy. Now such views can be found on a network TV series such as True Detective.
  • Subjectivitygnosis could only be found within, not from objective fact or through the mediation of an organisation such as the Church. It was personal, individual and subjective. Needless to say, ever since Kierkegaard posited his radical subjectivity, objective reality has retreated to such an extent that nobody has any clue as to whether anything actually exists outside of the confides of their own minds anymore.
  • Cosmic Vision-Gnosticism with its bewildering array of emanations, aeons, syzygies and archons is very cosmically trippy and great source of material for Science Fiction, with a few updates of course. Angels and Demiurges cast as advanced alien species or computer systems.
  • The Flight from Reason-The Roman Empire was the civilised world at the time. Outside of its borders lay only savages and barbarians who wanted to be Romans anyway. It was pragmatic, bureaucratic, reasonable and, one suspects, a little soul-destroying. People (on the whole) only paid lip service to the official state religion. The state may have ensured that you didn’t die of hunger, but for what purpose? Reason has only so many answers and even then we can stand only so much reason. Hence the flight from reason to embrace an exhilarating, total vision. A vision that dispels all doubt and means you just know. On this point I think the parallels are clear and apparent without any further elaboration on my part.

With all these factors in mind we can advance, with much fear and trembling, further into the Gnosticism of Modernity, which will form the second half of the series.