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Differential Diagnosis and Surrealism in Leonora Carrington’s Down Below

Marie Allitt, University of York

In 1940, Leonora Carrington suffered a mental breakdown and was committed to a treatment facility in Spain, where she underwent convulsive shock treatment. In Down Below (1943), Carrington offers an account of her experience, from the retrospective point of 1943, where narrative, memory, and mental health are interwoven in significant, yet complex ways. A significant surrealist artist and writer throughout her life, Carrington was born in Lancashire, England in 1917, but spent the majority of her life living in Mexico City. From early on, Carrington rejected the authority, Catholicism, and upper-class values of her family, and this rebellion, alongside her fascination with Surrealism, dictated the subject matter of much her work. By 1937, she was fully estranged from her family, moving to Paris and living with Max Ernst. With rising tensions across Europe and hostilities within France, in 1940, Ernst was arrested as an enemy alien, and interned in a labour camp, leaving Carrington alone. She was persuaded by friends to leave France and travel to Madrid, Spain, where the events of Down Below took place.[1] The beginning of the novel explains the journey from France across Spain, the onset of her breakdown and political paranoia, before being committed into the asylum against her will. The rest of the (short) novel depicts the experience inside the asylum; convulsive treatment; cruelty and abuse; her delusions and hallucinations, all of which are framed by her retrospective narration three years later.

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