Leonora Carrington, Surrealism, and Initiation

Symbolic Death and Rebirth in Little Francis and Down Below

Kristoffer Noheden

In 1940, the surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington (1917–2011) was incarcerated in a Spanish mental asylum, having been pronounced “incurably insane.” Down Below, an account of the incident first published in the surrealist journal VVV in 1944, acted as an important part in her recovery from mental illness. In it, she works through her experience in the light of her reading of Pierre Mabille’s (1908–1952) book Mirror of the Marvelous (1940). This work let Carrington interpret the intricate correspondences she perceived during her illness through the imagery of alchemy, and allowed her to find a similarity between her experience and the trials depicted in many myths, thus infusing her harrowing experiences with symbolic meaning. This article discusses the significance of Mabille and his work for Carrington’s sense of regained health. This is further emphasised through a comparison of the motif of symbolic death in Down Below with its depiction in Carrington’s earlier, partly autobiographical, novella “Little Francis” (1937–38). The depiction of a loss of self in this work prefigures the ordeals in Down Below, but it is only in the latter text that Carrington also effects a form of rebirth. The article proposes that the enactment of a symbolic rebirth means that Down Below can be considered a form of initiation into the surrealist marvellous, and that Carrington’s experiences both parallel and prefigure surrealism’s concerns with esotericism, myth, and initiation, during and after the Second World War.

Pierre Mabille; alchemy; myth; André Breton; esotericism; psychosis