Leonora Carrington’s Surrealist Revolution

Leonora Carrington's painting, Are you really Sirius?The Hearing Trumpet, by painter and author Leonora Carrington, is frequently described as a “surrealist” novel, and it’s not difficult to see why. The novel, which tells the tale of a 92-year-old named Marian who is banished to a sinister institution for elderly women, reads like an updated Alice in Wonderland, involving houses shaped like birthday cakes, poisoned brownies, a pseudo-apocalypse, and the Holy Grail. Carrington’s novel also seeks, however, to upend retrograde Surrealist tropes about women, such as the quite literally infantilizing “femme enfant.” Rather than portraying a more typical feminist utopia in which women reign supreme, the novel aims to create a gender-neutral world that embodies a very different Surrealist ideal: pneuma.

Pneuma, the neuter Greek word for “spirit,” is an concept used in alchemical imagery to represent the transformation of metal into gold, as well as the ideal totality of a God that is both masculine and feminine. In Surrealist painting, as Helen Byatt puts it in her introduction to The Hearing Trumpet, it represents “the sweet means of reconciliation of opposites and the unveiling of the marvelous.”

In Surrealist paintings by the male “greats,” female muses often serve as wild and magical, yet beautiful and subservient child-women that unveil the mystical with their pure, animalistic spirits. This trope is often referred to as the “femme enfant,” which, incidentally, Leonora Carrington herself embodied in several paintings by her former partner, Max Ernst. Carrington’s choice of protagonist, however, immediately subverts this trope. Marian is an elderly woman who is described as physically repulsive. She is toothless and decrepit, and describes her own body as a “terrible old carcass.” Right before relegating Marian to an old folks’ home, her grandson calls her the “monster of Glamis” and says, “Grandmother can hardly be classified as a human being. She’s a drooling sack of decomposing flesh.”

At first blush, all of the women at the Santa Brigida institute share qualities with the now-archetypal “dangerous woman” of feminist literature. They are often compared to animals—especially slinky cats and Biblical snakes. They are all rebellious and taunted as monsters at some point or another—particularly standout character Georgina, who is called a “vipress” and a “sex maniac” when she reports potential sexual misconduct at the home.

But Carrington is not simply portraying the uprising of typical unruly, animalistic women of modern feminist literature. While Marian and her friends possess all of these qualities, they are also curiously androgynous. Marian has a “short grey beard” that she sees as “rather gallant,” her best friend Carmella is bald, fellow resident Anna Wertz wears a “gentleman’s dinner jacket,” Claude la Checherelle has her hair “cropped like a man.” As a result of their androgyny, the antagonist of the story is not only maleness, but the gender binary.

This feminist framework is demonstrated in the portrayal of the two villains: Dr. and Mrs. Gambit. Dr. Gambit is a relatively standard oppressive man: a psychiatrist who runs the Santa Brigida institute like a New Age cult, he is determined to control the women’s thought processes and even eradicate their personalities in a quest for “Inner Christianity.” (As he tells Marian, “Personality is Vampire and True Self can never emerge as long as Personality is dominant.”) But Mrs. Gambit, who embodies the prototypical “feminine” woman under the patriarchy, emerges as the real villain of the piece. She is constantly smiling, she is usually “lying down with a sick headache,” and she has a “despotic rule of the kitchen,” which foreshadows her eventual murder of a resident with a poisoned brownie. At one point, Georgina even refers to her as “the beastly Gambit Female.” Together, the Gambits represent the violence that hegemonic roles seem to foster.

Marian at one point imagines herself as a conventionally beautiful, feminine woman in an extended fantasy sequence. But even in her fantasy she would rather shed her beauty in favor of reading Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. She recalls the fairy tale, in which the Snow Queen kidnaps a small boy named Kai and forces him to complete a complex, virtually unsolvable puzzle.

“Now I can see that I also was given a mathematical problem which I cannot solve although I seem to have been trying for many many years… something horrible is about to happen and I must find the solution quickly. All the things I love are going to disintegrate and there is nothing I can do about it unless I solve the Snow Queen’s problem.”

This passage demonstrates how Marian’s androgyny renders her uniquely qualified to lead a feminist revolution. Marian’s premonition that “something horrible is about to happen” and that only she can stop it reflects her dawning realization that she will serve as some sort of savior figure, that she will solve an unsolvable problem. Marian is also expressing her identification with the Snow Queen, who serves as a stand-in for the Goddess of pagan religions. Direct and indirect references to the Goddess are peppered throughout the novel, directly rebutting the Gambit’s patriarchal vision of spirituality. Finally, as the fantasy continues, she imagines a misogynistic man contrasting the beautiful version of her with hermaphroditic “witches”:

Darling stop being philosophical it doesn’t suit you, it makes your nose red.

Since I discovered that I am really beautiful I don’t care about having a red nose it is such a beautiful shape…

You are a depressive maniac and I would be bored stiff if you were not so pretty… They say witches make magic with ferm seeds, they are hermaphrodites.

The witches?

No, the ferns.

The conventionally feminine version of Marian is accepted by others, but is also confused, vain, and unfulfilled. The real, androgynous version of Marian, however, may be able to start a revolution by embodying another surrealist ideal: pneuma.

Throughout the novel, Marian identifies with two other androgynous female figures: the Winking Abbess and the Queen Bee. The Winking Abbess is a figure in a painting in the Santa Brigida institute (a further reference to Surrealist art) who is first described as a “bawdy old bag,” and who Marian later discovers was a witch who disguised herself as a “bearded nobleman” and had an encounter with a homosexual prince. The Queen Bee is an all-powerful female figure, closely resembling the Winking Abbess, whom the women see in a shared hallucination during their uprising. Like real-life queen bees, she represents the possibility of a matriarchy that is both productive and cooperative.

Together, these three women come to represent the alchemy process. When the apocalypse begins, Marian has a vision of a “three-faced woman.” “One of the faces was black, one red, one white, and they belonged to the Abbess, the Queen Bee, and myself.” In alchemical imagery, black represents the original metal, white represents the intermediate silver, and red represents gold. So according to Carrington, the historical Abbess represents the beginning of the alchemy process, Marian is the modernized update, and the Queen Bee is a visionary figure that may or may not be able to exist.

The climax of the novel, in which Marian and the other women are tasked with delivering the Holy Grail to the Goddess, makes explicit the connection between religion, androgyny, and utopian revolution. If they are successful, they will thwart the efforts of the worshipers of the “Revengeful Father God,” and instead institute a regime that will allow “goodwill and love to prevail in the world.” When they accept the mission, one of the Goddess’s acolytes says, “May the Queen Bee fill the Cup with Pneuma.”

The women’s quest, and the novel itself, ends on an abstract and ambiguous note, but the overall meaning is clear. The Hearing Trumpet claims that, whether this is actually possible or not, the ideal world will be ushered in when we explode the gender binary.

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